The films of Caroline Leaf (b. 1946) dramatically expand a tradition of artistic and artisanal animation that flourished in Canada and, to a lesser extent, the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Although she has made few films, Leaf pioneered important new aesthetic and technical approaches to narrative animation which have remained deeply influential over later artists such as William Kentridge. Made while she was an undergraduate at Harvard, Leaf’s very first film Sand, or Peter and the Wolf immediately revealed her talent in “direct animation,” working without any kind of image background or structural armature but here instead “drawing” live by manipulating and sculpting sand on glass, a painstaking and elusive technique with truly magical results. Movement, character and environment are fused in a truly unique fashion in Leaf’s films, rendered with a startling immediate and intimate poetry. Made by painting directly on a pane of glass, The Street, for example, powerfully evokes a post-WWII tenement neighborhood from the point of view of a young boy coming of age, with Leaf’s swirling, ever shifting figures delicately intertwining his actual and imagined point of views. Leaf’s skills in adapting literature reached a further high point in her poignant Kafka adaptation, The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa where the shape-shifting logic of her animation found an ideal and arresting subject. One of her darkest and most moving films, Leaf’s most recent work Two Sisters was a notable departure – her first time working with an original story of her own and her first to embrace the technique of scratching directly onto the emulsion of 70mm film stock. Leaf’s career has special meaning for the Harvard Film Archive and the Carpenter Center which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and within which Leaf made her initial steps as an animator, studying under the visionary head of the Harvard’s vibrant animation sector Derek Lamb. — Haden Guest
The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Caroline Leaf for a retrospective of her animated films, screened on new prints and including the HFA’s own preservation of Sand, or Peter and the Wolf.
In the 1960’s, filmmaking was undergoing a democratization process similar to the one that happened later with digital technology: the popularization of cheaper 16 and 8mm film stock meant that film making was almost affordable for everyone. It began to be taught in liberal arts colleges. Harvard offered a single animation class taught by Derek Lamb who came from London via Montreal and the National Film Board of Canada, where there was a culture of purposeful short animation films. Animation at Harvard in 1968, when I took the course, was taught not as a professional training to become an animator, which would have involved laborious cel painting, team work, and industry standard drawing skills. Rather, it was taught as a form of artistic self-expression, perhaps like writing poetry, and the class was open to all. We came from all parts of the university as well as MIT. Drawing abilities and film knowledge were not prerequisites. And so we animated keychains and quarters, breathing life into inanimate objects. We did stop motion and pixilation and worked with cutouts. I discovered I could draw with beach sand and make the drawings move. The animation class in the basement of the Carpenter Center had none of the upstairs obsession with Bauhaus abstraction and design. We drew however we could, and we told stories. The main goal was to make it move, and we believed Norman McLaren’s observation that what happens between the frames is more important than what happens on each frame. I remember very little formal teaching. I don’t think we were taught film language or editing. Though for economy, we all learned to hot splice our original film shots together and make our own A and B rolls. These were days of film and film frames and laboratory processing, when you waited on pins and needles for the driver to return from the lab with rushes, and saw what you had shot a week earlier. All my animating life I did not know how to make an edited cut, and found my way around the problem by making morphed scene changes. Some would say my animation is noteworthy for its moving camera and morphing scene changes. I credit my originality to the animation class where we were left alone for the most part and found our own solutions. More structured teaching can also be an eye opener. I loved the hours I spent hunched over a lightbox. There wasn’t structure or schedule but there was enthusiasm, and sharing, and energy in that basement room and we were carried away by the animated life we were creating.
Sand, or Peter and the WolfDirected by Caroline Leaf.
US, 1968, 16mm, black & white, 10 min.
The Owl Who Married a GooseDirected by Caroline Leaf.
Canada, 1974, 35mm, black & white, 7 min.
The StreetDirected by Caroline Leaf.
Canada, 1976, 35mm, color, 10 min.
The Metamorphosis of Mr. SamsaDirected by Caroline Leaf.
Canada, 1977, 16mm, black & white, 9 min.
InterviewDirected by Caroline Leaf and Veronika Soul.
Canada, 1979, 35mm, color, 13 min.
I Met a ManDirected by Caroline Leaf.
United States, 1991, digital video, color, 1 min.