House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill

The Animated Films of Helen Hill
Introduced by Leslie Supnet
Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 7:00PM
Winnipeg Cinematheque

In an essay for the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-operative, writer and filmmaker Amanda Dawn Christie cites several filmmakers who made a significant impact on the Halifax film community. The name that stands out strongest is the late animator Helen Hill. Nobody who worked with or encountered Hill in Halifax has ever forgotten her. Christie says Hill “disrupted the flow of linear filmmaking” through her projects and filmmaking. Recently profiled on CBC’s The Fifth Estate, Hill died tragically at a relatively young age in New Orleans in January of 2007, murdered by a stranger in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the impact of her influence was too strong to remove – she left a significant mark on the aesthetic of Nova Scotia filmmaking. A force of nature, Hill first moved to Halifax in 1995 from the United States and immediately started to shake things up. She helped organize the Reel Vision Festival for Women Filmmakers and taught many workshops on experimental animation at the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-operative, helping to influence a new generation of filmmakers. These included Halifax animators Heather Harkins and Lisa Morse, both of whom went on to create award winning films of their own.

Hill won the Linda Joy Award twice and in 1996 she was voted Nova Scotia’s Best Director in Halifax’s weekly The Coast. In 1999 and 2000, she attended Phil Hoffman’s Independent Imaging Retreat, to develop her hand-processing technical skills. She utilized these handmade techniques in her filmmaking, including Mouseholes (1999) and Madame Winger Makes a Film (2001). She worked with many different styles including cell, hand drawn and stop motion animation. From her experiences, she also created a reference book of hand-crafted film techniques (Recipes for Disaster: a Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet 2001) for independent animators.

In 2007, the Harvard Film Archive established the Helen Hill Collection, a repository of films, drawings, photographs, art works, writings, music, and ephemera. Hill’s work was noted for its free spirit and strong sense of invention. Her spirit, egalitarianism and teachings were important in influencing a new generation of east coast animators. This retrospective of Helen Hill’s work from the Harvard Film Archive will introduce her work to a new generation.

– Dave Barber


From The Manitoban December 2, 2009:
Not over the Hill
Filmmakers celebrate Helen Hill’s legacy

On Jan. 4, 2007, at the age of 36, animator Helen Hill was murdered, for no known reason, in her home in the midst of hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. This tragic end exists in stark contrast to the rest of her life, which was spent creating vibrant, whimsical, short animations and, moreover, inspiring countless others to delve headlong into the craft.

This week, Winnipeg’s Cinematheque will celebrate Hill’s legacy with The House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill, a retrospective of her work introduced by Leslie Supnet, a local illustrator and animator. Supnet, who has screened her own short films across the world — most recently at Toronto’s Images Festival — shares similar lo-fi animation techniques with Hill, and cites her stridently DIY approach as an inspiration.

“She was a true DIY artist, she did everything herself,” said Supnet. “She processed her own film, shot her own work, made characters and sets and involved all of her friends and members of her community.”

Hill began by making small-scale, crafty animations on Super 8 in grade school and continued the practice for the rest of her life. Although her artistic technique was rough to say the least, her work has universally been described as incredibly heartfelt and charming. After receiving a BA from Harvard and Masters from The California Institute of the Arts she eventually relocated to Halifax to teach filmmaking at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design. She also became involved with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and, through this, left a major impression upon a great deal of Canadian independent filmmakers.

Moreover, it was Hill’s gung-ho, spirit to the wind creative sensibility that Supnet believes also “inspired many Canadian filmmakers, like Mike Maryniuk [whose animated documentary Cattle Call screened at Sundance last year], who [she] looks up to. This sort of progression of influence amongst filmmakers is a great legacy.”

Supnet says this influence extended to at least one other big name in Canadian experimental filmmaking.

“Philip Hoffman actually brought up the idea when he was in town for WNDX, as Hill was a student of his at his Film Farm [an experimental filmmaking retreat in southern Ontario] years ago,” she related.

The House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill is set to feature 10 of Hill’s acclaimed short works, the sum of which reveal an artist unconstrained by genre or formal considerations.

“She used every animation technique out there,” Supnet notes. “Most animators use one form, perfect it, and then stick with it for their entire careers. By contrast, Helen did it all: structural work, puppets, claymation, traditional flat animation under cameras with paper and pixilation.” But as interesting as her technique was, Supnet believes that Hill’s enduring legacy is engendered by a much deeper appeal. Indeed, “Beyond the process, Helen’s films are just full of love. It’s cheesy but you can really tell she was in love with animation and storytelling [ . . . ] and happy about life.”

– Ryan Simmons


Tragically cut short at just 37 years old in the prime of her filmmaking career, Helen Hill’s most exemplary work can be characterized as having a distinct sense of social awareness, a playful approach to vibrant colours, and a keen stylization in the mobility of her cardboard cut-out figures and puppets.

Born in South Carolina, Harvard-educated and a long-time associate of AFCOOP (Nova Scotia’s filmmaking collective), Hill increasingly became more experimental with the use of hand-crafted techniques as her career wore on, all of which were incited by her participation in director Philip Hoffman’s Film Farm Retreat in Mount Forest, Ontario.

Both modes are well-represented in this 10-film retrospective, running the gamut from a recently-restored early work made while enrolled at Harvard (Rain Dance) to Bohemian Town, 2004’s appraisal and tribute to her idyllic time spent in the havens of Halifax, N.S.

Even the arguably inaccessible can be made accessible by Hill. Consider Madame Winger Makes a Film, a tongue-in-cheek reel about the more advanced and niche techniques like hand-processing and hand-tinting that she began to use in the late 1990s, all addressed in a conversationalist tone in an almost Southern drawl by Hill’s husband, Paul Gailiunas.

Two more, Tunnel of Love and Vessel, with songs by Piggy and Beat Happening playing out over the course of four minutes, could almost be considered conceptual music videos. They’re but two of several lighthearted fare.

1999’s Mouseholes may be the most poignant, as it does away with the frivolity to deal head-on with mortality, using audio snippets of Hill’s grandfather at advanced age and declining health. In it, Hill can be heard expressing her hope of figuring out a plan to bring back him back, the implication being that she’s doing just that in the construction of her film. Today it takes on an unexpected double-meaning, far greater and more heartbreaking than Hill ever could have intended.

On-hand to introduce the program will be accomplished Winnipeg animator Leslie Supnet, who’ll no doubt be able to pinpoint exactly how Hill achieved what she did, and the methods involved.

– Aaron Graham


Film Program:
Rain Dance 1990, 3:45
Vessel 1992, 6:15
The World’s Smallest Fair, 1995, 4:26
Scratch and Crow 1995, 4:23
Tunnel of Love 1996, 4:00
Your New Pig Is Down the Road 1999, 5:00
Film for Rosie 2000, 3:13
Mouseholes 1999, 7:40
Madame Winger Makes A Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century 2001, 9:29
Bohemian Town 2004, 2:42


~ by cineflyer on November 19, 2009.

One Response to “House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill”

  1. Excellent article! We are linking to this great article on our
    site. Keep up the good writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: