Q. Why did you make an abstract feature?

I began experimenting with abstract animation in 1984 and between 1985 and 2018, I released six abstract short films and an abstract iOS app (Clam Bake). I loved working in abstraction and found that discarding representation was liberating and it increased the joy level of my process.

North of Blue - red kiss
Frame from North of Blue

My original intention with this project was to make a short film inspired by my experiences in the far north and all of the original animation experiments were based in realism. As the film grew longer, it became completely abstract. At first I though it was impossible to make an abstract feature but it became a intriguing, fascinating challenge.

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 well worn, red, Canada Goose parka. 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. It is the northern most 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. 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 six 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 do some people dislike abstract animation?

I connected with a new audience when I began showing my abstract short films. All over the world, a great many people love abstraction. I also found that some people will not look at abstract cinema. When humans see objects, we subconsciously label them. This creates a static familiarity that can limit further visual and intellectual exploration. Abstract animation is difficult to categorized or label and some people are resistant to viewing it. I ask audiences to sit back and relax into North of Blue. Watching it is an opportunity to allow a new experience to stretch your head. A beginner’s mind is an open mind.

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

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

In 2014 I went to a lecture at Reed College about Hilma af Klint, the Swedish abstract painter who lived from 1862 to 1944. She was an exciting new discovery for me. Af Klint made over 1400 paintings and 26,000 drawings and she is the first western abstract painter, 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 Fantasia. Jules Engel was my teacher and mentor at Cal Arts and I was his teaching assistant for two years. He is a major influence in my career. Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944, The Netherlands), a life long favorite abstract painter, influenced the palette and compositional structure of several scenes, especially his exquisite work with black grids and primary colors. I also studied the blue and white hues of classical Delftware from the Netherlands.

Q. Why did you choose to work in 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 of the far north. I began animating in 2012 with only black, blue and white. In the second year of working on North of Blue, I realized I had made 27 films but had never used blue, white and red together. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, I spent nine months protesting the Vietnam War and produced thousands of anti-war posters. I have always opposed flag waving nationalism and the divisions it causes. So I decided it would be a very interesting personal challenge to work with this trio of colors of that have been used for 25 national flags. 

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

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

Red, white, blue and black 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 wonderfully wide range of shades, tones and variations. Blue ranges from pale aqua, sky blue and steel blue-gray to deep, nearly black ultramarine blue. Three years into animation on North of Blue, I inserted a botanically influenced scene with shades of green, accented with fuchsia. My intention was add surprise by breaking the rule that I had created and to increase the visual tension. This was especially fun to do because I am a major plant lover and medicinal herbalist. I spend as much time in the forest as possible.

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. How did your collaboration with the composer of North of Blue work?

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

Jamie Haggerty and I had collaborated on three of my films: Dew Line (2005), Relative Orbits (doc, 2004) and Utopia Parkway (1997). He is an incredibly talented polymath: composer, sound designer, animator and editor.

Jamie started composing after the animation on the film was complete. He would create a section of the score and then share it with me. I loved everything he composed and snippets of his music became delightful “ear worms” that played in my head for days. We worked together during the mix, but I had only minor input. I like dubstep and I begged him to add bass drops, which he wisely limited to two. It took Jamie 11 months to compose the music and complete the sound design for North of Blue, using Ableton Live and Pro Tools. 


Q. What was your post production process?

North of Blue title
Title designed and animated by Brian Kinkley.

I have collaborated with talented digital effects artist Brian Kinkley on six films. Once animation was complete, he generated a new look for the solid color imagery in North of Blue by adding a great variety of textures, shadows and reflections. This gave North of Blue a much more depth and  added volume to shapes and liveliness to blocks of color. Brian is an excellent designer and animator and he created the wonderful title sequence.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 4.33.05 PMQ. What is the meaning of the title?

The title was initially Blue Balls, because seven scenes explore 21 different transformations of blue balls. I liked the humor and irreverence of that title but as the film became more contemplative with aspects of trance, I realized the film needed a poetic title. Also, my wise, elder neighbors, calligrapher Inga Dubay and her husband Joe, hated the Blue Balls title. North of Blue is enigmatic and I like the mysterious aspect of setting direction from a hue. The title works because this project began in the far north and blue is the foundation color of the film.

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

North of Blue intern Neisje Morrell
Neisje Morrell – intern from the Art Institute of Portland.

I was alone for most of the six year process but every morning, as I arrived at my studio, I had this delicious, expansive feeling of being in a vast, wild landscape, like the Yukon. I was lucky to have four interns, Jesse Bray, Gabe Mangold, Neisje Morrell and Dui Oray, who worked with me on North of Blue for two months. I was much inspired by their energy and creativity. (Click here for information about the internship program.)

The great thing about making a feature was that I felt like I could take all the time in the world to explore new territory and experiment with unfamiliar imagery. Intriguing design, composition and content challenges emerged constantly and this refreshed my energy for the film, sharpened my focus and engendered new strands of inquiry. North of Blue was a rare, deeply joyful project and the process felt like an extension of being under the spell of the far north.