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Animated Imagination with Jeff Chiba Stearns
Jeff Chiba Stearns is a Vancouver based, multi award-winning animation and documentary filmmaker. His love of pen, paper, and story is the driving force behind his creative pursuits as he continually strives to inspire others to create. Known for his award-winning animated short Yellow Sticky Notes, Jeff pushed his creative boundaries as an animator when he took upon the task of animating the whole film on Post-It notes.
After the wide success of the film, Jeff knew he wanted to return to this idea of animating on Post-It notes. So he brought together 15 of Canada’s most acclaimed and recognized animators and got each of them to create a 20 second animated piece on sticky notes. The result is the myriad of styles and points of view that encompasses his newest film, Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam, which set to be released this year.
We sat down with Jeff to discuss his films, what drives him to create, and how important it is for artists to stay motivated. Watch Animated Imagination above for a look inside Jeff’s world or read the full exclusive interview below.
Opus: Do you have formal education in animation?
Jeff Chiba Stearns: I went to the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and took the animation program, so I have a Bachelor of Media Arts with a Degree in Film Animation. Emily Carr was great because they approach animation as an art form. There was heavy focus on using animation in creative ways, like filmmaking. It was a great experience for me and it encouraged me to carry my art on post-graduation.
O: How has fine art training impacted your professional career?
JCS: The idea that the animator is the artist is my philosophy. I paint, I draw, I have my hands in all sorts of artistic mediums. So staying creative by using various mediums is something I am able to incorporate into animation, especially the animation I am doing because it is very old school. It’s all hand drawn and stop motion, I very rarely will use a computer. I just strictly want to work with my hands and I love using paper. I love the idea that my hand controls what I am doing. This hand isn’t always reliable but I can use it to create and it's tactile, it's organic, and there is something very magical about that.
Jeff’s Creative Approach
O: Describe your creative process.
JCS: I call it animation meditation, which is the idea that as an animator you go into a meditative state when you animate. I like animation when it can be a stream of consciousness. Where I can sit down and just let my mind come through my hand and into the paper. Your usually drawing the same image over and over again and it becomes a very meditative process. To me that is just a great way to bring it to a spiritual realm. I’d much rather be meditating as I am drawing then sitting infront of a computer. There is this disconnect for me when it comes to technology cause I want to keep everything really old school. Keeping things tactile is a big part of my creative thought process.
O: How would you describe your animation style?
JCS: My style is kind of sketchy and really loose. I realized really early on that I don’t draw like Walt Disney and I would never fit in to that because it's not my style. There is something about the freeness of sketching and doodling that makes sense for my style. I usually tell students, “ Don’t get caught up in having to draw in a certain way. Find that style that works for you and stick to it.” Luckily for me I have been able to build a career around my style because it has become that unique look. It's a combination of the sketchy doodling with cross hatching and just drawing with pen and ink. I really don’t like pencils, I'd rather just make those mistakes and have those mistakes inherent in the work. I think that gives the hand of the artist and is the look that I’m going for.
O: Is working in multiple mediums important to you as an artist?
JCS: Incorporating other elements of visual art is very important. I love to paint and I think for me that that is my secondary art practice. I may not be selling my paintings but I am doing it for my own sort of well-being. It's just another creative outlet on top of the fact that I am drawing a lot, doing videography work, and documentary work. I also play guitar and the banjo. So having all of these provides a great escape because sometimes I can’t always be drawing the same thing over and over again.
O: What does painting do for you that animation does not?
JCS: Painting for me is in a way a very opposite experience to animation where I'm creating hundreds of images. With a painting you're focusing on creating one work of art for a very extended amount of time, sometimes hours, sometimes days. For me it is very zen to sit and focus on only one image. It's calming and a soul soothing experience for me as well as way to shift focus from animation which can sometimes be linked to a work project. Painting is something I only do for myself and it is always a personal artistic expression since I don't sell my paintings. I actually can't sell my paintings because like my animation it is a meditative process and very self reflective which is why it is very hard to give away or sell my drawings because those pieces of art have become extensions of me.
O: What medium do you use when you paint?
JCS: When I paint I usually paint with a mix of acrylics and sharpie paint pens for outlining. Sometimes I use oils but I like the ease of cleaning up acrylics. Sometimes I use watercolours if I'm doing particular illustration work that needs colour. I'm not privy to any particular brand of oils, acrylics, or watercolour paints. Basically whatever does the best job!
Life As A Filmmaker
O: How did the idea for Yellow Sticky Notes come to be?
JCS: This whole idea of drawing on sticky notes came from the post-it notes in my office. As a tactile kind of guy who likes old school animation, I need to be able to write my ideas down on paper. So these little notes become what I use to organize my thoughts. Basically I was just drowning in these to do lists so I wanted to find a way to self reflect and almost get revenge back on these little post-its that run my life. So I decided that I was just going to animate back onto them. The idea was to animate my self reflection of how I was ignoring the world around me. I was trying so hard to move forward in my filmmaking and my career that I was ignoring the bigger picture. That sparked the idea for the film Yellow Sticky Notes and I remember saying to people that this is either going to be the biggest mistake of my life cause I have just spent 9 months drawing on these post-it notes or this could be the biggest thing I have ever made. Luckily for me it was the ladder.
O: Why do you think Yellow Sticky Notes resonated with audiences?
JCS: I think at some point everyone’s drawn on a post-it note. Those list's become pretty descriptive of their lives that it’s almost like a glimpse into their history. What was this person doing then? What was this guy doing when the tsunamis happened? What was this guy doing during 9/11? Well what I was doing was handing out tissues on the streets of Vancouver as a marketing job, trying to pay off student loans. A lot of people can relate to that and say, "Well I have had to struggle too." You start to realize the power and the engagement of what you were doing on any particular day and how that day affects other people. How everyone has that connection to these events through their own experiences.
O: Tell us about your upcoming film Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam.
JCS: After Yellow Sticky Notes went viral I always said I have to come back to the idea of using post-it notes to animate. The idea was spurred from a local animator by the name of Marv Newland. In 1984 he created a film called Anijam and essentially brought together animators from around the world to create one film. It was like a jam session where all these animators created little sections and together they all made one big film. I liked that idea and luckily I had been in touch with Marv and when I asked for his blessing to do my own Anijam he not only gave me his blessing but he agreed to do his own animation for the film. So the fact that Marv Newland, who to me is someone I look up too, all of a sudden says I'll work on your film, was an amazing feeling. We got some funding from Bravo and we were able to hire on animators to create 15-20 seconds worth of animation on post-it notes and basically created this 7 minute film. We are hoping to release it in 2013 and I think it's going to be pretty big because we have some huge names on it.
O: What was it like working with animators that you admire and look up to?
JCS: At first I couldn’t believe all the animators that were getting involved. Everyone was really cool about working on the project as long as we all knew that this film needed to have a secondary kind of life where we could inspire people to go out and create animation. To create a bit of a foundation where we could set up workshops for kids or inspire kids by doing some Anijams with them as a community building process. I think that’s kind of the maximum joy with a project like this. Seeing it all come together and hopefully now taking it to students to inspire the next generation of animators.
O: Why did you choose a 9x12 Artograph LightPad and Lumocolor Pens to animate the film?
JCS: It was the New Years sale at Opus when I saw the light pad. I was using this big fat light box and it was really bulky and hard to use. The light pad is great because there so portable, I take this thing everywhere. I also like that they give an even distribution of light. A lot of the other light tables that I've used wouldn’t be consistent. I think for any animator your always looking for ways to create light out of certain things. When we did Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam I knew these would be a perfect size for a sticky note and the fact that Opus provided the animators with light pads and pens helped us out a lot. When I offered them to the animators they were like, "Wow this thing is fun, this is a really awesome tool!" The reason I chose the pens was because the pen bled a bit. It wasn’t forgiving, so if you drew a line it would bleed through the page and would squirt out a bit. I like that because then you can tell it was not done digitally. I think every artist finds their tools and after a lot of research these just sort of worked.
You Have To Be Motivated
O: How do you keep yourself motivated when having numerous projects on the go?
JCS: What I do is not for everybody cause I do work hard, but a lot of times I don’t feel it's work. I am really lucky that I don’t mind working 80hrs a week cause I essentially found my bliss. Doing what I am doing now is what I love doing. Waking up everyday I am happy. The idea that you have to be motivated is true because I am motivated. I am motivated because I like what I am doing. Some day's it’s overwhelming but at the same time I stay motivated because I have a heavy work ethic. The other thing is I work for myself, so I dictate when I go to bed and when I wake up. For me that is perfect cause I hate mornings, so I will work till 4 or 5 in the morning if I feel like it. The idea of being my own boss is freeing to me and that pushes me cause I want that life for the rest of my life.
O: Seeing as you are your own boss, how do you manage the commercial aspects of being an artist while staying true to who you are?
JCS: Any creative person that wants to work for themselves needs to know that they are building a brand out of themselves. I think a lot of people don’t get that as an artist you are building a brand. You have to realize that and the earlier on you do the more successful your going to be. Essentially I still have to sell my work. I need to monetize off my work to make a living or else I'll have to work somewhere else and I don’t want to work for someone else.
O: What motivates you to create?
JCS: The idea of making art is to inspire others to be creative. The greatest compliment I get is when somebody watches the film on YouTube and they send me a message to say, "I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in 30 years. After watching your films I was inspired to paint again." That to me is the ultimate response to my work because now I've just inspired someone else to go out and create his or her own art. I think for any artist that’s key. So if I can inspire that or influence them to go out and do something creative, that’s my job, that’s why I create these films.
See more of Jeff’s work at meditatingbunny.com