Joanna Priestley
Joanna Priestley – Photo by Dan Sokolowski.

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’s population is 1319, but during the three years of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896 to 1899) it ballooned to 40,000.

I arrived without expectations or plans, other than working hard on a new project and presenting films at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival, run by my wonderful host, Dan Sokolowski. The first thing I learned was that my parka was completely inadequate, so Dan lent me a bright red Canada Goose parka that was extremely cozy and warm. It had survived a decade of visiting artists with no dry cleaner for 330 miles (531 km in Whitehorse).

Frost in Sarah’s underground greenhouse. © 2017 Joanna Priestley

Everyday I would walk around Dawson, along the frozen Klondike and Yukon Rivers and short distances (everyone warned me about Grizzly bears) into the woods and hills.

North of Blue - crows
Frame from North of Blue. © 2018 Joanna Priestley

People knew who I was because of the familiar parka and often I would be greeted with “How’s the parka?!” This was puzzling at first. Often they would greet each other with “How was your winter?” On each walk I photographed the environment and I 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 (see frost image above).

Dempster Highway splendor. © 2017 Joanna Priestley

During the film festival, Dan and his wife, Laurie, took a group of us on a splendid drive north, up the Dempster Highway. It was a gorgeous, sunny,  bitter cold day. The views of the wild, vast mountain wilderness and turquoise ice were completely mesmerizing. I fell further under the spell of the far north. 

cropped-logo_nob.jpgAfter that magical month, I returned to my studio in Portland, Oregon and struggled for six months to make sense of what I had animated. I kept massaging the animation and adding new scenes but nothing worked. It did not coalesce into a film and I stopped working on it for six months. When I revisited the artwork, I started pulling apart the animation, extracting elements from semi-realistic scenes and combining them into new abstract compositions. I pared down scenes to lines and shapes, like simple blue balls and abstract totemic shapes (above left). I reduced the palette to blue and white and added tiled compositions inspired by Delft ceramics.

Mary Ellen Bute
Still from Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1937-38) by Mary Ellen Bute © Estate of Mary Ellen Bute

I examined the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944, Sweden) and stills from the films of pioneer abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute (1906 – 1983, USA). Af Klint, the first abstract painter, was excluded from art history, so she was a new discovery for me. I also revisited the abstract paintings of a life long favorite artist, Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944, Holland), whose work influenced the compositional structure and palette of North of Blue.

Working on a feature was very different from making a short animated film. 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. I looked for challenges and  restrictions on palette, composition and content emerged organically. These created fresh focus, cinematic continuity and new strands of inquiry. Interns (click here for info) asked to work on the film for a month or two and they inspired me with their fresh ideas, creativity and innovation. The process felt very much like an extension of the spell of the far north. 

Work on North of Blue ended with three wonderful collaborations. Compositor and paint effects artist Brian Kinkley made the gorgeous title sequence and created beautiful shadows and multiple layers of texture to give the imagery depth and resonance.  Chris Barber contributed terrific sound effects that he made himself, without using store bought sound effects libraries. I have always felt that sound is extraordinarily important part of an animated film and it contributes a 50% or more to the viewing experience.  Jamie Haggerty’s splendid score and elegant sound design completely transformed North of Blue. Jamie made this feature film work by creating a satisfying journey into the abstract multiverse. It took him eight months. I was thrilled but not surprised when Jamie’s soundtrack won the Best Sound Design Award and the Best Composer Award at the Local Sightings Film Festival in Seattle.

-Joanna Priestley 4-18-17  Click here to see the Yukon Animator blog.

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis over the Yukon River and Dawson City, Yukon by Les Picker.

PS  I looked for the Northern Lights nearly every night for a month. I finally saw them on my final night, thanks to a 3 AM phone alert from talented Dawson filmmaker Veronica Verkley. They were right above my house, shimmering and rippling across the sky like a gigantic, transparent shower curtain made of sparklers.

Film still from Getting Around the Yukon by Veronika Verkeley. She won the Audience Favorite award and second prize in the Yukon Filmmakers category at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.