13 Questions with "Consuming Spirits" Experimental Animator Chris Sullivan

13 Questions with "Consuming Spirits" Experimental Animator Chris Sullivan
Chris Sullivan creating "Consuming Spirits"
(Photo by Taylor Glascock)

Name: Chris Sullivan

Age: 52


Occupation: Filmmaker / Teacher

City/Neighborhood:  Chicago, Illinois / Portage Park and Andersonville

Upcoming Screening: “Consuming Spirits” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota as part of the “Filmmakers in Conversation” series, February 8 to 9, 2013. 

You spent 15 years on “Consuming Spirits,” a two-hour animated film created with drawings, dioramas, and cutouts. How did you manage to remain engaged with the project for so long?

Fifteen years is a long spell, and I am very grateful that I ended up being engaged in ideas and questions that were bigger than me, and that I could not devour quickly. As I worked on the film it changed also and parts that were tangential became major, and things I thought the film was about faded. It is interesting that there are concepts and images in the film that were there from the beginning, and other aspects that arose late in its production.

The three characters in “Consuming Spirits” — Gentian Violet, Earl Gray, and Victor Blue (whom you voice) — live in a small town full of secrets and are all involved in the local news media. Since the film premiered last year, how have audiences responded to their stories? Did any of the responses surprise you?

I think that what surprised me the most was that the characters came to life in ways I had hoped for, but was not really sure if they would. Also, I was surprised that people felt the kind of empathy that I did for the characters, and I thought that might be my little secret world. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes. It is from RD Lange, “That which I think to be the most universal truths are what ends up being my most personal fantasies and that which I thought to be my most personal fantasies is really what I have in common with others.”

Your work defies trends in contemporary animation, which favor the sleek, the digital, and the peppy over your film’s raw, handmade, and melancholic style. What visual influences did you draw from?

There are some folks working without hiding materials, “ParaNorman” for instance, and Igor Kovalyov and Priit Pärn, but yes, the film is obviously a physical thing. I actually like to see the line, and the pencil, but there are times when I feel that I indulge that too much. My feeling is that if you make something with conviction, you can use sock puppets, audiences are actually very generous with what animations are made of. My influences from art and film are James Whale, Dennis Potter, John Cassavetes, Pieter Bruegel, Jane Campion, Ji?í Barta, Ellis Peters, Mike Kelley, the Brothers Quay, Caspar David Friedrich, and Yuri Norstein. I love old radio a lot, too. Jeff Regan is a favorite.

Which animators working today do you most admire? What challenges does the profession face?

Animators and comic artists who I am enjoying now are Alison Bechdel, William Kentridge, Igor Kovalyov, Piotr Duma?a, Erin Cosgrove, Jeremy Clapin, Paul Fierlinger, Jim Trainor, Mikey Please, Emma De Swaef, Marc James Roels, Zach Margolis, Daniel Sousa, Suzie Templeton, and Cartoon Saloon. The challenge is for a studio to take a chance and let these people make a feature. The folks that made “Oh Willy,” Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, should win the Academy Award, and get a budget for a feature. I hope someone takes a chance on me, too. Technically, there are no problems. Animation is more affordable than ever.

Considering the film is being screened in a museum, it seems relevant to ask whether you consider “Consuming Spirits” an experimental film or a work of video art. What does that distinction mean to you, if anything? 

I consider it a film that is trying to break out of such separations and distinctions; at times it seems very arty, but at other times it seems surprisingly accessible. I hope that at some point the United States embraces alternative cinema the way it is embraced in Europe and Asia. We will see. I am just very happy that it is not just artists who respond to this film. I like what “Consuming Spirits” actually ended up becoming — I think it is a good film, I am excited to share it with people, and then move on to another film, and yes, I hope a better film.

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

The documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.” Why? Because it is crazy, and he is both awful and wonderful. And I like to feel that pull in art: love, hate.

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

A bunch of people acting moved and impressed by something that in singular confidence, none of them actually like or are moved by at all.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Are You my Mother?” by Alison Bechdel.

What work of art do you wish you owned?

“The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel. (Presently at the Prado.)

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

Would like to give London a crack again with “Consuming Spirits.”

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

“Batman,” with Adam West, broke all the rules and was way smarter than should have been possible for network television.

Who’s your favorite living artist?

For visual, until his death last year, Mike Kelley; for film, animator Piotr Duma?a; for film live action, Jane Campion; for writing, Jeanette Winterson and Alison Bechdel; for music, Mark Knopfler and Tanita Tikaram are my choices of the moment.

What are your hobbies?

I play music and sing.