Breaking Boundaries in Animation – Interview with Thomas Renoldner

Thomas Renoldner has tried himself in many different kinds of art forms: drawing, painting, fotography, object art, installation, performance, music. Besides, he is also a master teacher and he is leading a studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Animated film is used by him as a medium to combine the art disciplines he has experimented with. On the 10th of Primanima we were privileged to host his photo exhibition. He was a jury member of the Young Director’s Competition programme, we had the chance to listen to his masterclass and he was also asked to be one of the tutors of the first Primanima Jumpstart programme.

Mixing different genres and breaking the boundaries between them has been a constant theme in your films. For example “Don't Know What” which combines elements of silly entertainment with the more serious art approach of avant-garde film. Can you elaborate on your intentions behind it?

I think I've been in a "hate-love" relationship with avante-garde film since I was very young. There was always this wish for freedom in my life and in my artistic work to wish for breaking the borders. Very early I discovered that there are also rules even in avant-garde film or experimental film. I remember a film theorist talking about "the avant-garde film police" as an ironic statement, but in fact it is something which really exists. I'm interested in mixing things which don't really belong together. Not in all of my films, but in some.

Thomas is opening the exhibition of the Primanima Jumpstart workshop

You have described the film "Don't know what" as a simple demonstration of how a joke is constructed. With humour being an important part of your work, do you involve it deliberately from the start or does it happen naturally in the process?

In “Don't know what” I was interested to find out the essence of humour. I think especially in film, if you want to make people laugh then dramaturgy and timing is very important. It can be a few seconds too long and people don't laugh. In “Don't know what” I experimented along this point of how long can you have a static situation before it breaks. What are the reasons why people are laughing. One is a surprise, so that there is something unexpected happening, like a twist. “Sunny afternoon” has sexual content, which is also something that people like to laugh about. The hurt gag is something very pop, especially in commercial films and cartoon movies, where the characters might beat each other. Also in “Don't know what” there is this hurt gag and suffering that people feel connected to, as an element of humor. 

I saw a video on YouTube of some of your works that were shown in a gallery somewhere, and the people who were watching it were laughing as if they were watching a comedy movie.

Yeah, You're talking about the installation “My Self Portrait Trilogy”. This was very interesting because I combined this film about my cancer experience with the other films which are more funny, while the cancer film is very serious.

Interview at Primanima

The audience could play with the sound, they could switch between the sounds of the three films. Some funny combinations came out from this very serious cancer film and the other films. It's  about being relieved about the fact that I'm healed and being happy that we can laugh about something like cancer.

Music and sound are closely intertwined with the visual in your films. During your creative process, which of the two comes first for you?

This is very different. In “Don't know what” it was a constant dialogue between both. I worked on the whole film with headphones, and I started to edit the sound because I wanted to find out the effects of micro editing, like e.g. using for one second of sound 24, 12 or 8 identical small pieces. I experimented only with the sound at the beginning of the work process, but the picture was connected to the sound so it had to follow. Then I saw something in the picture as a result of the sound edits so I started to focus more strongly on the picture.

I could have been a musician if some things in my life would've happened differently. I have been interested in music since I was a child and I think I'm a musical person. So in all of my films the sound is very important.

I think what we hear and see in cinema is equally important and I'm especially interested in this dialogue.

I love the work of other artists who concentrate on this. I don't really like films with language, to be honest. I prefer films with music and image.

Before animation you studied psychology and educational theory. How has this affected your artistic practice now?

I think the artistic work is quite independent, I don't see a strong relationship between my psychology studies and my filmmaking. I've been teaching for a couple of years in several schools and I'm leading a studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. And for that my psychology and educational studies are very helpful and important, but not for my filmmaking. But if I think about “Don't know what” it is about psychology, you're right. It is about studying how people react to something. I'm always very interested in sitting in the cinema and watching the reactions of the people. Let's say between Europe and Canada where the film was shown, reactions were very different.

It's always interesting to see the moment when people laugh and it's not the same moment in every screening. So, yes, it's the psychology of the audience which interests me as well.

You definitely enjoy surprising the audience, generating new unexpected meanings and using different editing techniques. As a viewer, is the surprise element something you value in other artists' works also or is there anything else you expect from a good animation?

Yes, I'm always very interested in new visual experiences and in the work of artists who expand the possibilities of the image. I'm not very interested in classical animation or in traditional style because there are so many cliches repeating all the time. But as I said, also in experimental film we have cliches and repetition. To be surprised is a nice thing. Discovering something which I haven't seen before in terms of enlarging the possibilities of the medium is more important.

The multimedia installation, made at the Primanima Jumpstart workshop

Primanima Festival is dedicated to up-and-coming film directors and many of them fresh university graduates. What do you think are the changes in the animation programmes in universities compared to when you first started as a teacher?

In my own teaching I'm a little bit old fashioned, as in I want to give importance to the basics. My classes are open for people from all directions. There are people coming from film, performance, installation, painting and so on. I make them draw with a pencil on paper first and then we go through all analog techniques. I think it's very important not to lose the analog and students can learn a lot from the basic things. But I see there is less interest in it, sometimes people don't like to draw on paper and new technology is taking over. I'm very interested to see what's going on in new technologies. Students from architecture or students who work with new technology sometimes deliver very interesting work. I'm also interested to see work in the context of virtual reality, interactive performance or interactive installation. 

Thomas and Marzieh Emadi during consultation at the Primanima Jumpstart workshop

I think animation has expanded to many regions and many art practices even outside the cinema. And that's something I'm really curious to discover, even though my own teaching is based on the basics of analog animation.

When starting a new film, do you start with continuing the ideas of your previous projects, or do you sometimes have a need to work on topics that are entirely different?

I think it's both. "Don't know what" was kind of a continuation of "Sunday Afternoon". But after these films I will not continue using the technique of single frame editing of life action or simple movement anymore which are kind of related to avant-garde and structural film. In this case “Don't know what” was kind of a continuation of “Sunday Afternoon”. Now I'm working on a completely different project, in which there might be some parts kind of related but in a very different way. I rather try to do something new in every film. I'm a little bit bored by artists who have the same kind of style in all of their life work. I call myself a half-time artist because I'm also teaching, organising festivals and so on. This takes a lot of time, so I'm not doing that many films. Maybe a new film every two or three years, and then it's time to try something else compared to the film before.

You have been known to use yourself as a subject visual, creating autobiographical content. In "Sunny Afternoon" you had your daughters helping you with the creation of the film. How does the involvement of your family affect the work process of films with such personal and private themes?

I think the impression is a little bit wrong that I'm always in the focus of my films. It's true for the last three films, but there are many films which are different. Both in "Sunny Afternoon" and "Don't know what", I was doing these films alone on my laptop during holidays and at home in private. I was experimenting a lot for a long time on
both films and there were many sequences which I didn't use at the end, because I thought they were not strong enough. Very often I would get feedback from my family, from my wife and daughters. I like to show them excerpts of the work process and see their reactions – when they are entertained then I understand that it's good and I can continue.

Your daughters are also interested in art. Do you think you have influenced them a bit?

To be an artist is not easy. I'm lucky that I'm teaching now and have a regular income. So of course it seems my thoughts have influenced their decisions. I hope they don't regret it.

You are coming to this year's Primanima Festival where you will also give a masterclass. Can you tell a bit about what you're planning to do?

I will give something like an overview of the films which I've done in the last 40 years. I want to talk a bit also about what sense does it make to make art? What is the intention behind wanting to be an artist? What do we reach with our art?

Masterclass at the event of Primanima Academy

It'll be a screening of my films, but I want it to be about self-reflection. Why did I start? What were my influences in my childhood? Also, what is the use of being an artist and what is the use of art in our society or in our world? Especially now I'm asking these questions, with the war in Ukraine, climate change and so on. There are so many topics and crises around us. I'm asking myself – how can art contribute to betterment? I also want to have it as a dialogue with the audience. I'm very interested in questions. So if people want to understand something, I think they should interrupt me and ask a question.

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