Q. You say North of Blue began in the far north. What does that mean?

North of Blue began in February 2012 when I was invited to be filmmaker-in-residence for a month at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson, City, Yukon, 173 miles (278 km) from the Arctic Circle. Dawson was the site of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896. The first thing I learned was that my parka was completely inadequate, so my host lent me a fire engine red, Canada Goose parka that was crazy warm, comfortable and filthy. Everyday I would walk around Dawson, along the frozen Klondike and Yukon Rivers and into the woods. Locals knew the parka and often I would be greeted with “How’s the parka?”

Frozen lake on the Dempster
Frozen lake on the Dempster Highway, Yukon. ©2017 J. Priestley

I photographed the environment and began animating snow, ice, braided rivers, spindly trees and crows. I layered images and experimented with using photos as long, horizontal backgrounds that I could pan under the animation. One day my hosts took me on a drive up the Dempster Highway. This is the most northern road in the world and no highways intersect it. The views of this vast wilderness dotted with jagged white peaks, tiny black trees and lakes of turquoise ice were completely mesmerizing and I fell under the spell of the far north.

After a month in the Yukon, I returned to my studio in Portland, Oregon and struggled for six months to make sense of what I had created. I kept adding new scenes and moving scenes around but nothing worked and nothing coalesced. Finally, I abandoned the project. I came back to it months later and began by removing all the browns and greens and reducing the palette to blue, white and black. I experimented and deconstructed the animation by extracting small elements from semi-realistic scenes and combining them into new compositions. Suddenly it became an abstract film and I continued to pare down each scene to only lines and shapes, like simple blue balls and abstract totemic aggregations.

Q. Why did you make an abstract feature?

I have made six abstract short films and an abstract iOS app (Clam Bake). Discarding representation in my work has definitely increased the joy level of my animation. When we see objects, we often subconsciously label them and that creates a familiarity that can shut down further visual and intellectual exploration. Abstract animation cannot be labelled and categorized by the brain. This puts off some people and they are not willing to look at it. We must keep looking and stay open, observing the broad view and examine the details. If you are willing to relax into North of Blue and just look, I think you will be surprised.

Childhood, The Ten Largest, No.1, Group IV, 1 by Hilma af Klint (1907)

Q. What were your design influences on North of Blue?

During animation on North of Blue, I was lucky to see a lecture at a local college about Hilma af Klint, the Swedish abstract painter who lived from 1862 to 1944. She was a new discovery for me as she had been excluded from art history. Af Klint made over 1400 paintings and 26,000 drawings and she is the first abstract painter, although abstraction in Chinese painting goes back to the 12th century. I was profoundly inspired by af Klint’s huge, colorful paintings and the mathematical and mystical elements of her compositions

This scene in North of Blue was influenced by Delft tiles and the paintings of Piet Mondrian.

I was also influenced by pioneer abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute (1906 –1983, USA). She directed and animated 14 films and developed an oscilloscope to use for drawing. I am a big fan of the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger and Jules Engel, two friends who both worked on Disney’s Fanastia. Abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944, Holland), was a major influence on the palette and the compositional structure of several scenes, especially his work with black grids and primary colors, as was studying  the blue and white hues of classical Delftware.

Q. How did you choose the color palette, with only blue, red, white and black?

The palette of North of Blue reflects the bright white snow and ice of the Yukon and the vivid blue and turquoise of the sky, frozen lakes and rivers. When I was animating with only blue, white and black, I realized I had made 27 films but had never used blue, white and red together. My most vivid experiences as a college undergraduate were nine months of protesting the Vietnam War at UC Berkeley, so perhaps this was an aversion to flag waving nationalism. Eventually I decided it would be an interesting personal challenge to work with the colors of the American flag and 24 other national flags. 

Blue, red and white are a popular combination for national flags.

This decision was supported by my life long appreciation of the spare and elegant paintings of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who often used only blue, red, white, black and yellow.

These colors were deeply enjoyable to work with. When you juxtapose primary hues, you get strong vibrancy and lots of visual tension. Blue and red encompass a wide range of shades, tones and variations, particularly blue, which ranges from pale aqua, sky blue and steel gray blue to deep, nearly black ultramarine blue. The rule of thumb is to always remain within a selected palette on a project, but three years into animation I broke that rule and added a botanically influenced scene exploring shades of green, accented with fuchsia elements. I am a medicinal herbalist and plant lover and I wanted to create a new layer of botanically inspired abstract shapes to increase visual tension and attraction.

Q. How many drawings did you do for North of Blue?

The film contains about 43,250 drawings. I used Adobe Animate for the animation and drew everything by hand with a digital stylus on a medium sized Wacom tablet.

Q. What about your collaboration with the composer of North of Blue?

Jamie Haggerty in his studio, working on North of Blue. Photo by J. Priestley.

I was thrilled when Jamie Haggerty threw himself into this project. We had worked together on three of my films: Dew Line in 2005, Relative Orbits (documentary) in 2004 and Utopia Parkway in 1997. Jamie is a true Renaissance man: composer, sound designer, animator and editor. It took him a 11 months to compose the music and complete the sound design for North of Blue, using Ableton Live and Pro Tools. I really loved everything he composed and fragments of his music would become ear worms that played in my head for days. That’s always a good sign. We collaborated during the mix, but I had only minor input, occasionally asking Jamie if we could simplify an area to match the starkness of a scene. I like dubstep and I begged him to add major bass drops, which he wisely limited to two.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 4.33.05 PMQ. Where did the title come from?

The title was initially Blue Balls, because seven short scenes address the transformation of three blue balls. I liked the humor and irreverence of that title but as the score was developing, the film became much more contemplative and a emphasized aspects of trance. The film needed a poetic title and I chose North of Blue because I liked the enigmatic juxtaposition of words and the painterly aspect of setting direction from a hue. Blue is the foundation color of the film, this project began in the far north and I like having one of the four directions in the title. Plus my wise, elder neighbors hated the Blue Balls title.

Q. Did you ever get discouraged, animating a feature film almost by yourself?

Klondike River
Klondike River near Dawson City, Yukon. ©2017 J. Priestley

North of Blue was a deeply joyful project. Every morning, as I arrived at my studio, I had this delicious, expansive feeling of being in a vast, wild landscape, like the Yukon, with all the time in the world to explore new territory and experiment with unfamiliar imagery. Intriguing challenges in design, composition and content emerged organically and continually and that regenerated my focus and began new strands of inquiry. Four interns worked with me on North of Blue for nob_balltwo months each and I was very much inspired by their energy and creativity and collaborating with digital effects artist Brian Kinkley was thrilling. He generated a new look for the film. The entire process of making North of Blue felt like an extension of being under the spell of the far north.