Interview with Justine Vuylsteker

Justine Vuylsteker’s short animated film Paris combines several unconventional animation techniques, carefully weaving together the use of cut-paper, sand, and plant matter to create unique fluid frame animation. The film is from the perspective of a blind Parisian man and his morning walk is narrated by Jacques Gamblin reading Robert Desnos’ poem Paris. The film was produced as part of a TV collection titled “En sortant de l’école” (roughly translated to “leaving/after school”) dedicated to the French poets’ body of work.

The Parisian landscape is created from layers of cut back-lit paper, and the city’s inhabitants are animated with sand on a layer of glass above the scenery. The blind protagonist navigates his world through a myriad of familiar sounds including footsteps, trains, and the flapping of birds’ wings. The animation is timed carefully with the city-noises, and the clean, crisp sounds guide the man as well as the viewer.

The sound design helps lead the viewer into the second part of the short film. When the blind man sits to rest on a park bench, the visuals shift from the physical scenery of the Parisian streets to fluid, sand-animated shapes, moving and morphing along with the city-sounds, translating the auditory experience into an abstract visual representation.

This rhythmic visualization of sounds is reminiscent of much of Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animated musical accompaniment, such as An Optical Poem (1938). The film was made entirely through stop-motion animated cut paper. Justine sites Fischinger, as well as several other early experimental animators, as a large part of her inspiration for her own animated films in response to one of the questions I asked her for the following interview regarding her creative process, techniques, and future projects.


Q: How did you approach creating an animated film, a very visual form of communication, from the perspective of a blind character. Was there anything particularly challenging or unexpected?

A: Well, the film is divided into two parts. In the first one, we see the blind character walking through Paris. In that part, my idea was to install the character of the blind man as well as the character of the city. Because we were going to enter the point of man, and it would be his perception of the sounds of the city, it was very important not to lose the audience during the second part.

The sound design bridges the two parts. I think that was the major challenge.

I based the animation representing his point of view off the principle of “synthesia”. Even if it is not necessarily related to blindness, I thought it could be very poetic to literally see the sounds that he hears during his walk and invite the audience to focus on them, because the animation was going to be synced to them.

Paris - Justine Vuylsteker - 2015

Q: In your interview on Director’s Notes, you said you have worked with sand before for school exercises, and your previous short film, Fish Don’t Need Sex, was animated using backlit paper cut-outs. Do you plan on pursuing these mediums further as well as continuing exploring combinations of techniques in this way? Are there any particular materials that you’ve been wanting to experiment with?

A: Completely!

I am absolutely going to continue exploring combinations of techniques. I’m currently working on a project for the website “TEDed”, and for my backgrounds, I am using paper once again, but I’m mixing it with new materials. Actually, I changed my process a little, because I’m no longer “under the camera”, but I built my backgrounds like a miniature theatre stage, which allows me to work with gravity and have a “ground”.

That’s something I missed a lot while working under the camera, a ground, because each layer of glass is independent from one another, and there is no link between them. It’s a great strength, but I missed a ground. And I can work with so many new materials now that I build a set, such as flour, ash, rocks…

In terms of materials I want to experiment with, there’s fire. And water. And there are materials that I really found beautiful, like all the different varieties of teas or pigments, but I don’t know how I could work with that. So I’m just waiting for the right time and the right project!

I’m also working on a project with a technique called “pinscreen”. For years, the only pinscreen usable was in Montreal, but the CNC (France) just acquired one and restored it, and I was one of the 8 directors that had the opportunity to work with it for just one month. But it was just incredible. And I definitely want to work with that technique in the future.


Q: How did you decide what elements would elements would be animated with which material? Were there ever any difficulties in balancing the rigidity of paper with the delicacy of sand?

A: I think that the decision came quite naturally. The sand is voluble, can easily change its shapes, its intensity. It’s so easy to make it move. So, all the elements that move logically made in sand, and the papers were so great to build the buildings.

But there were some difficulties to make the two of them feel “right” together. And in order to do that, I added a bit of sand in the backgrounds. It was better, but not enough. So I added more, little plants, pieces of leaves, and it worked! The paper and the sand were no longer two different worlds that didn’t fit together.


Q: Have you always been interested in what might be called experimental animation, or was there a certain point where you would say you “discovered” it?

A: Ahah, no, experimental animation wasn’t the first thing I wanted to do when I started my studies in animation. Actually, I wanted to make colourful digital backgrounds.

And, well, now I’m making all hand-made sepia backgrounds. Not what I planned. But I’m really really glad of that change of heart and direction.

I think the turning point was an exposition I saw approximately 3 years ago, about the pioneers of animation. It opened so many doors in such a short time that I haven’t been had time to explore all of them. There was, side by side on the wall The Idea of Bertold Bartosh, A Night on Bald Mountain of Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker, and the excerpts of the abstract work of Oskar Fischinger.

I stood in front of that wall for at least 20 minutes. I discovered the cinema I’m interested in at that moment, but I needed a few months to accept it and dare think that I wanted to direct that kind of film. That I wanted to direct film even. 
After that, there were the works of Jerzy Kucia and Theodore Ushev and Arthur Lipsett (that I discovered before I saw the film directed by Theodore Ushev on him) that confirms and builds on my interest for what we call “experimental” animation.

But I think, being drawn to experimental animation doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve completely cut off the narrative aspect. At one point, what you do is cinema. Live action, frame by frame, narrative, experimental, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but what I like the term experimental, is that it implies to experiment, to try things. As long I’m going to try things in my films, try to go further in my cinema, graphically or narratively speaking, well, yes, I’ll consider myself an experimental director.