Ottawa 76: The Street by Caroline Leaf
Essay by Madi Piller
Winning the very first Grand
Prize at OIAF in 1976, The Street generated
tremendous recognition for Caroline Leaf for her creative achievements.
Consequently, as an animator, she was inscribed into the annals of film history
as an Oscar nominee, and achieved other high distinctions around the world. She
became known as one of best animators anywhere.
is a National Film Board production based on one of the stories included in
Montréal author Mordecai Richler’s 1969 short story collection of the same
name. The film adaptation follows the story closely, but leaves out certain
details that were considered sensitive or controversial by the NFB. As Leaf
recalled in an interview with John Canemaker, “they’re very sensitive not to provoke any public outrage, or outcry, so they
take a middle road. Nothing should be too controversial.” As a
result, there are no ethnic jokes in the film, and no children smoking
cigarettes (even though there is some playful childish sexual commentary).
Apart from this, however, the film is true to the mordant humour and spirit of
the story. The social spaces of the street and the house are beautifully
rendered in continuously shifting paint by Caroline Leaf, who also uses the
soundtrack to profoundly enrich its sense of a vibrant, intimate community.
The Street tells
the story of a family caring for an elderly, bed-ridden grandmother who has
moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law. The film revolves around the effects of the grandmother’s
prolonged death on the family, particularly on the two young grandchildren who
endure various forms of displacement and discomfort as a result. The opening
line, “The summer my Grandma was supposed to die…,” draws the viewer into the
perspective of a young boy coming of age. He has finally been offered his own
bedroom, only to have to give it up to his grandmother who lies in bed, taking
too long to die. The few months until her death, as predicted by the family
doctor, extend to several years.
Shot on 35mm film, The Street is an example of Leaf’s
characteristic paint-on-glass animation technique. She uses a modest palette of
black and white, along with some red, some pale blue, and just touches of green
and yellow. Black frames form the lines of the story on the white background,
delineating the characters and their environments.
Much has been said about
Caroline Leaf’s pioneering techniques, such as sand animation and paint on
glass, but I would like to stress the notion of the persona of the animator as
a unique tool on its own, entwined in the resulting animation. The artist
engages in the animation process - a process that, as any animator knows, is lengthy
and painstaking and full of emotion.
The work of an animation
artist encompasses not only the creation, but also the economy and technique of
a film, which should elevate its aesthetic. In Leaf’s case, she has traced the
development of her main techniques to her limits as a filmmaker: “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.” The performative emotions generated by the actions of the artist as she
creates her work are reflected in the concreteness of its form. Even traces of
her fingerprints are left in the work.
Caroline Leaf’s artwork plays
in the realm of visual artists as much as of media artists. Just as a painter
works on a canvas, she paints on her light box, creating not just on it, but
within it, by means of choreographed movements. Her artistry manages to take us
into a moving painting, executing shifts of points of view through the
paintings, rather than with sophisticated camera movements.
There is much to be said for the formative ways of
a liberal arts education that prepares people to creatively resolve their own
paths. Leaf is the product of such an educational process: in addition to the
fruitful environment of open discussion and exchange of information at Harvard,
she says, “I credit my originality to the animation class where we were left
alone for the most part and found our own solutions.”
Leaf was fortunate to be able
to have employment and support at the NFB, which was tremendously helpful in
advancing her artistic creations during this time of her career. Thank you,
Caroline, for your inspiration.
Madi Piller is a filmmaker, animator, programmer
and independent curator currently living and working in Toronto, Canada.
 www.Michaelspornanimation.com/blog/ The following
is from the book, Storytelling in Animation, The Art of the Animated Image Vol 2.
This anthology was edited by John Canemaker in conjunction with the Second
Annual Walter Lantz Conference on Animation. Walter Lantz Conference – 1988 A Conversation with
Caroline Leaf. http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012octdec/leaf.html
(Don't miss our ONE-ON-ONE WITH CAROLINE LEAF, Thursday September 22, 5:00pm - 6:00 pm at Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts! Details HERE )