originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/674566...
Hey friends, exciting occasion this week, and it’s not just the increment to a multiple of 10, which is sacred to us. No, this is the week of the public release of a new feature-length film by one of my favourite independent animators, Jonni Phillips! Here let me just steal her website banner:
I’ve talked about her work before, e.g. on Animation Night 48, and since then I’ve had the chance to get much more familiar with her work. Let’s start with her own little author bio:
Jonni Phillips is a 24 year old filmmaker and animator.
Jonni grew up all over Southern California, moving from place to place and up and down all over. She was homeschooled and spent most of her time making lego movies and not paying attention to anything important. Eventually she got into traditional animation and ended up going to “Calarts”, where she got her brain poisoned, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Now she’s dug a hole too deep to get out of so she’s going to keep on digging until she dies.
When Jonni isn’t doing this stuff, she’s probably just keeping it freaky as per the usual. Cheers to that!
Which is kind of vague but sure, OK! Cheers to that indeed.
So let’s talk about her animation instead! Jonni’s style is distinctive: disarmingly crude at a glance but with a lot of specificity in the details. It’s all about shape design, see. I can’t find the post right now, but it was fascinating seeing the model sheets for the other animators who worked on Barber Westchester where it specifies the precise way that the lines should cross over and how to draw the right kind of distorted expression.
Much like her friend and frequent collaborator Victoria Vincent aka Vewn, Jonni’s work tends to lean into a sense of disquieting alienation. We’ll begin with her compilation film Wasteland, which she made during her time at CalArts.
Wasteland consists of five short films:
- The Earth is Flat, a ‘surrealist non-linear narrative’ about the subjective experience of a flat-Earther
- Goodbye Forever Party, at first inspired by the actors who play the teletubbies, but became what Jonni describes as a very personal project about the different personas she inhabits
- Dr. Sam Mulaney’s Burden, inspired by a ‘weird fiction’ story of a man who has a hotdog removed from his eyeball, in which Jonni found a compelling metaphor for depression
- We Are All Dying in the Wasteland, about the psychological experience of SoCal - ‘claustrophobic spaciousness and aggressive emotional energy.’ is her phrase which strikes me as very apt
- and then, Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia, which is the only one of these I’ve seen right now, so let’s say a little more!
The major part of Wasteland is a 45-minute film called The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia. Ascensia is a fascinating film; it takes as its premise that the belief of a UFO cult is entirely true, something it reveals in the first few seconds but then spends much of the subsequent period suggesting that this may have been a POV hallucination. Rather than use digital compositing, the film is - unique among her films - almost entirely created using cutout animation, with the exception of a brief segment by Vewn. It follows an isolated teenager who becomes drawn into the comforting structure of the cult, her low-key struggles with the authoritarian rules laid down by Ascensia, and eventually her attempt to escape when it seems the cult will stage a mass suicide…
Like many of Jonni’s films, the dialogue is very naturalistic, and there’s a great sense of… kind of understated wistful comedy, I guess you might say, sympathetic but appreciative of the awkwardness of the situations it depicts. There’s a great sense of when to cut, and very thoughtful use of music, and the simple character models allow a lot of compelling exaggeration.
Ascensia manages to strike a very delicate balance of thoroughly sympathising with its protagonist against the disdain she receives from her estranged family members, without saying ‘please go and join a UFO cult right now’. It understands the impulse towards escape, which makes the ending - where the cult leader, finally brought back to her alien objects of devotion, discover that the aliens too worship a god of their own: none of the answers are there to be found. All of this is very conscious, as she describes on her website:
In Summer of 2017, I recently finished a 20 minute animated piece, called Goodbye Forever Party, a very personal film about my struggle with depression & gender identity, filtered through the story of someone who worked as an actor on a kids’ show. When I finished the film, I got really interested in the UFO cult, Heaven’s Gate, an infamous cult that committed mass suicide in a San Diego mansion in 1997. I found their initiation tapes online, and got really drawn in to the leader, Do, and what he believed. I watched another video of the cult members talking about how excited they were to “go to the next level”. Because of my religious background, I found myself really drawn in, almost as if I couldn’t help myself from believing in what Do was saying. It led me to start thinking about how I may have been susceptible to joining, if I had been alive back then. I empathized with their mindset, and felt like I loved and supported them, even though the whole situation was extremely tragic. I wanted to make a film about empathizing with cult members. My idea was that I would invent my own fictional cult, and portray what the cult believed in, in the film, as the absolute truth, and that they actually did ascend and leave earth.
From there, I outlined a story in which I felt I could explain the appeal of joining a cult like the ones I was influenced by, as well as a meditation on the aftermath, still taking the side of the cult members, rather than the people left behind. This was something, which, at the time in 2017, I found severely lacking in most articles and documentaries I could find. There wasn’t much empathy for the people who actually left us, and moreso demonized them and made them seem to be crazy.
However, this is just one part of Wasteland - unfortunately I can’t write much about the other four, since, well, I haven’t watched them yet. Something I’m looking forward to doing tonight. Let me pull out another quote from Jonni, on the project as a whole:
Wasteland was an experiment in telling a cohesive emotional arc through 5 separate films. Individually, each film has its own message and themes, but together, all the themes come together and act as stepping stones to the next theme. In the final film, The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia, every emotion and thematic element comes together and is given an emotional conclusion.
The presentation of Wasteland, in it’s consistently inconsistent fashion, is intentional and meant to contrast with how popular animation and the way we typically consume it. I’m very interested in creating captivating work that breaks popular rules that are taught in animation school and beyond. I’m not interested in engaging with some arbitrary perimeters of what is acceptable, and would rather create my films intuitively and in reflection of how I see the world. The presentation of the film is meant to further the point about the subjectivity and fragility of reality.
Now, this film is, honestly, a pretty high-effort style - cutout animation is no joke, but often Jonni is doing even more than that, doing traditional animation then cutting out the drawings (while keeping pegbar registration) to composit them on the multiplane instead of using cels, a process she describes as ‘very time consuming’. However, by and large she’s very critical of the ‘hard work and realism above all’ view of animation. Her tweets express it all very well, e.g.
Animation is a bunch of nonsense and that’s why I’ve dedicated my entire waking life to it. Because I was born with a deep love of nonsense and bullshit
IMO animation isnt that hard and can actually be super fun and mentally stimulating. It doesnt have to be a nightmare to do. U can just have fun w it. For real. Motion is super interesting to study and theres so many ways to work with it and think about it.
My general feeling about the state of modern animation is that cartoons should look more fucked up than they do right now and then secondly I think they should be animated more fucked up and as if a baby did it
In an interview with Animation Obsessive, which also provides the above incredible smear, she describes her approach more explicitly:
My taste in art already is centered on wonky, funny-looking stuff. My favorite animation artists are Richard Condie and Sally Cruikshank, who are majorly inspirational to me in regards to my work in general, but especially for Barber. I’ve been obsessed with independent animation since I was a kid, and even before I knew about that world my favorite shows were always stuff like Chowder and Ed, Edd n Eddy, so I just gravitate to that kind of stuff to begin with.
But going to animation school made me realize that a lot of people get super bogged down with perfectionism, or shooting for some standard that I personally find to be irritating and missing the point of making art. There’s only so much you can do with the limited amount of time we have, and not everyone is going to be Da Vinki. Especially not me!
My goals are firmly rooted in just trying to take advantage of whatever situation I’m in, and to make something that feels as honest and true to how I feel about the world as I can. Since I’m always in a situation where I have to work very fast, that means whatever I make needs to be of the moment, so I try to make every drawing as emotionally expressive as I can.
And her work makes a case for that: she has a really great sense of where effort is most fulfillingly spent, something I could really do with lmao even if my own aesthetic preferences are different.
Her next major project after Final Exit was a series of ten shorts called Secrets and Lies in a Town of Sinners, which introduced the character of space-obsessed child of UFO cultists (again!) Barber Westchester, and their surrounding cast of weirdos including some very low-key angels and aliens. It’s a series that’s compelling in a way that’s hard to describe: although it’s got plenty of surreal humour, there’s an emotional honesty and empathy at the centre of it that builds that into something seriously moving.
Compelling as it is in its own right, this was in fact a prelude to her big film project of the last couple of years, Barber Westchester. She describes it such:
It literally shouldn’t exist but it does anyway. Literally it’s crazy that it’s even watchable. It’s just a movie of my subconscious mind talking to my conscious mind trying to tell it something important and I did my best to try and make it into a movie
The result is, by all accounts, phenomenal. Here’s what Animation Obsessive had to say:
Barber’s placement here isn’t a consolation prize. Even compared to the heavy hitters of 2021, this no-fi film holds up as one of the year’s most creative and exciting works of animation. A 90-minute comedy-horror-drama, it’s a project that Phillips animated largely solo in her free and expressive style. It’s about growing up, cults, parrots eating clay, mental illness, friendship and, above all, hope.
If that sounds overwhelming, it doesn’t feel that way. We’ve watched Barber twice, and the thing we talked about after finishing the second watch was watching it a third time.
They have a much more substantial interview from during the production of the film. In addition to a lot of Jonni’s own animation, the film apparently has segments from a number of other great independent animators, among them faves like Vewn and Ian Worthington (aka Worthikids).
And now it’s out on Youtube and not Patreon-locked, so I can show it to all of you without guilt!
The plan tonight is thus to watch Wasteland, Secrets and Lies, and then Barber, which should be an absolutely harrowing emotional rollercoaster. Just the ticket. We’ll be starting quite shortly (once I’ve gotten upstairs) at twitch.tv/canmom - hope to see you there, I think this is gonna be one of those memorable ones.