TSKC interviews animator Erma Fiend!
What attracted you to making GIFs? How did you get started making them?
I have so many unfinished animated shorts from over the years, so when I started making GIFs it was a much easier way to explore a single nugget of an idea and just get it out there right away. A looping GIF twists and isolates a moment in time, like a cinematic Mobius strip, with no start or end. I’m interested in exploring the oscillation, evolution, and shifting dynamics of forms and environments in an endless narrative. I love the visceral feeling of watching things morph or destruct and come back together. It’s very meditative to get lost watching a loop. You can slow down time by shifting your attention to different elements and feeling the rhythm of the loop change.
You’ve self-labeled your work as “horror from the fourth dimension,” what surprises do the fourth dimension hold?
Since we live in the third dimension, we perceive the fourth dimension as time (or, more accurately, as change happening over time). But in the fourth dimension, that changing thing is actually a constant shape, we just can’t see it that way. It’s the same logic of trying to draw something rotating in 3D on paper. If you made a little flip book of a cube spinning, to someone living inside the flip book a cube would mean two squares morphing and intersecting themselves over time, even though we know a rotating cube is a contained and unchanging object in 3D. So to me the horror of the 4D comes from ideas like the object permanence of shapeshifters, or that these schisms in our limited perception of time and space are actually very logical. Any kind of rift in our expectation of how things are meant to be fixed or unchanging starts to suggest seemingly supernatural forces that have a logic beyond our own comprehension.
Your mise-en-scène and special effects, remind me a bit of Dario Argento’s films. Are there any filmmakers that influence your work?
Ooh, that’s a great compliment! I’m definitely inspired by filmmakers who use aggressively-saturated aesthetics in disorienting and horrific ways. I love all kinds of transformative illusions - scrolling LED signs, pre-film animation devices like zoetropes, puppeteers, drag queens, contortionists. Some films I’m inspired by in particular are Stephen Sayadian’s Dr. Caligari (1989), Vince Collins animations like Malice in Wonderland (1982), Cecelia Condit’s Possibly In Michigan, early silent film slapstick, Gumby, Jim Henson, Jan Švankmajer, Missy Elliot's music videos, universe-creating directors like Guy Maddin, David Lynch, John Waters. And what campy technicolor lesbian would I be without Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader.
Most of the GIFs you create seem so wonderfully intricate and involved, what methods do you use in your process?
I like to give myself flexibility to improvise and come up with new techniques and effects as I’m going along, but that usually means doing everything the longest way possible. Sometimes I end up photoshopping multiple layers of images for a single frame, then exporting each of those frames to then time out all the interweaving action on a timeline. I usually use some combination of still photography stop motion, Photoshop, and Flash (Adobe Animate). A GIF could be somewhere between 5 and 100 frames.
How long can it take for you to finish a piece?
If something is strictly stop motion with no added effects or retiming, I could be done in 20 minutes. Usually I spend about 4 or 5 hours on average. I think I worked on one for a few days straight without sleeping because I was on a roll. Sometimes it’s hard to see where all the work went because I had to scrap a certain technique that didn’t turn out how I’d wanted. If it ends up being kind of off or boring I’ll just add more effects until it’s exciting enough to want to watch on repeat.
Are there any big perks to being based in New York?
New York really has some energy like no other. Lights, smells, subway showtime. Everyone’s in their own zone and coordinates their paths into a single flow of energy without even trying. There are so many intense people here. Great nightlife.
Expensive to live and finding sustainable work is very competitive. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. When a packed train stalls your face is in someone’s armpit for a while.
This issue is about natural instinct, does instinct come into play for you when making art?
My process always begins with ideas that I feel, that pop into my head from my gut. I tend to get caught up overthinking and my brain betrays me running in circles. I get closer to real insight when I shut that off and let my intuition just sort of barf out an emotion in the form of something visual and tactile. To me an animation is successful if you can really feel the tension and the weight of the action. It has to be very visceral.
Thoughts on nature versus nurture?
I’m less interested in this hypothetical debate because so often it leads to an excuse to justify not being intentional in the ways that we have agency over our own evolution. I think about evolution a lot, even on a smaller scale of evolving ideas and cultural norms. So much of the way we live is because of the structure inherited from the world before us, which slowly and eventually becomes part of our DNA. Trauma is passed on through DNA, but also directly through our environment and the way we are raised. The future environment is something that we have some ability to tangibly disrupt, even in small ways, every time we interact with it. So nature versus nurture seems like more of a chicken and egg conversation trying to explain why things are the way they are without asking how to be a catalyst for change.
What aspects of life do you derive inspiration from?
I love looking for patterns and paths in laws of physics that can be applied in different ways and at different scales, especially to break down the cruelty of individualism and human exceptionalism that we're so entrenched in that it's almost impossible to see. I’m endlessly fascinated by anthropomorphism and our perception of faces as unique from the way we perceive everything else - what makes up our visual sense of humanity, the semiotics of identity, in particular the aesthetics of femininity. I'm drawn to anything that can elicit discomfort, disgust, and delight simultaneously. This is probably obvious but I'm loving this internet slime renaissance we're in right now. And I love bugs.
Are there any new and upcoming projects coming up that you are excited about working on?
In the longer longterm I’m writing a claymation math show about systems, abstracted value, and economics, and a horror movie about technology evolution, corporate feminism, and AI sex dolls. I’m hoping to keep finding work as an animator in the short term. Lately I’ve been doing some live shows as a drag king named Sweaty Eddie.
Where can we find your work?
Follow me on Instagram @Erma.Fiend, or on Giphy.