Having grown up on a small farm on the remote Scottish island of Sanday (an island with a population of around 400 people), where she spent her childhood riding horses, playing in ancient burial sites and walking on unspoilt sandy beaches, it’s easy to see where the inspiration for Selina Wagner’s animations comes from. With films centring around myths and wildlife, her upbringing surrounded “by the natural forces of the weather and sea” have obviously played a large role in moulding her creative output.
I was always very creative growing up and was obsessed with drawing animals and people in dramatic poses. For my final year at school, in CSYS Art ( I don’t think it’s called that anymore) I spent a whole year studying animals in movement, but nobody suggested I actually try animation or even film-making as we just didn’t have the resources at my school up in the Orkney Islands back then.
“When I tried a 5 day animation block, I knew instantly that it was what I wanted to do”
I moved to Edinburgh to study Visual Communications at the Edinburgh College of Art, with the idea that I would do illustration, but when I tried a 5 day animation block, I knew instantly that it was what I wanted to do. It seemed like a dream come true to find an outlet that combined acting, storytelling, drawing and problem solving.
It was during her studies that Selina really started to develop her distinct style:
My early animation which was created at the Edinburgh College of Art, was all about experimenting which is why it was such a fantastic course. It really was about allowing students to let loose with moving image and make the most of the equipment there. In my third year, I started experimenting with under-the-camera work which involved drawing pictures into black block ink and lighting it underneath to create the lines. It was great to work fluidly like this and allow the animation to evolve itself. I do remember realising half way through a little film, that my character had shrunk to half the size I had started with! That’s the challenge of working frame to frame as opposed to using keyframes!
I’ve always loved dramatic shapes and silhouette images, but when I started studying native art for my degree film, Takuskanskan that’s when I managed to incorporate all that into my own style. I don’t continue that style consciously at all, it’s just something that happens. I’ve always liked the idea of strong character animation through body language rather than speech and a real sense of drama in backgrounds and movement.
For Takuskanskan I used a combination of drawn characters on cell and paper with backgrounds created directly under-the-camera. So for the forest scenes, I had several layers of glass of varying distances from the camera and the trees were drawn and moved along with each image captured. It was all very hand-made as each shot was set up individually until I was happy with how it looked. Rather than a purpose built multi-plane to hold the glass, I made do with inner tubes of paper rolls, cut to the correct heights and the panes of glass were attached with masking tape! It was a hugely time consuming process with a 20 second shot taking around 12 hours to film. These long shots were always done in one go as other students needed to use the equipment – nothing could be left set up. So I would come in early evening and work through the night when I wouldn’t be disturbed.
Even the sound for Takuskanskan was done simplistically with me recording the sounds of stabbing potatos and swirling buckets of water around in the basement of the animation dept. I was lucky with the music in that I knew a group of guys who lived around the corner from me who played folky-style instrumental music. I literally handed them a copy of my film with two weeks to go until the deadline and they created a piece of music to go with it! Just like that!
Whilst Selina obviously loved the traditional techniques she developed in her early career, she quickly recognised that these probably weren’t the skills potential employers would be looking for. With clients obviously commissioning work created with time and money in mind, she soon decided that to make a living in the field she loved, analogue techniques would need to be pushed to one side in favour of a focus on digital animation methods.
When I left college, I started looking into working digitally with Flash, After Effects and TVP Paint, simply so that I would be more employable. It was a huge learning curve but a very exciting one! My freelance career kicked off and I was plunged into the world of proper planning, animatics and working within a team. I am now able to create commercial animations for clients and have a huge amount of technical and business expertise to know exactly what I’m doing!
An example of this was Corryvreckan which was done in a crazy 7 weeks from designs to final delivery. It was all created digitally, drawn in Flash, then exported in layers and put together with backgrounds in After Effects. This was a great experience as it allowed me to see what I could achieve using such techniques and is something I still want to experiment with more.
Determined not to fully abandon her roots though, Selina was quickly back to employing the techniques she’d used in Takuskanskan to create her next personal project Crow Moon – the first of her animations to really catch my eye and introduce me to her style. Brought to life with funding from BBC Scotland and the National Lottery and screened at numerous festivals worldwide, Crow Moon is the tale of a flock of ravens and their desperate fight to escape the grips of a spreading darkness.
My last personal piece of work was Crow Moon which was created using similar techniques to Takuskanskan built in my spare room at home over 9 months. The whole film had to be painted onto cell with black acrylic – a job I had a huge number of wonderful volunteers for, but it made me realise what a laborious process it was and how unrealistic it was to attempt to do such productions commercially without huge budgets and timescales!
I am strangely drawn to myths and stories that explain why things are. Especially stories that are related to the natural world. I have spent a lot of time reading myths from around the world and found it fascinating how much overlap there was with certain creatures in different cultures. The raven, for example, is an important character in myths from Inhuit, Native American Indian and Celtic cultures.
Whilst we discovered Selina’s work on Vimeo, it’s clear that festivals have played a large part in her animation career to date. As with all DN’s guests, we were interested to hear Selina’s feelings on distribution and the audience exposure gains she feels come from the different channels available to filmmakers:
I think these online distribution channels are massively important. For me, there’s nothing more valuable than getting my work out there. There’s no point in spending months on a film and pouring my heart and soul into it, to then let it sit in a film canister somewhere gathering dust. Because few of these personal films ever get broadcast on television, the online channels make up for it by providing access to a huge number of films which would never be seen otherwise. It is also how a lot of people watch entertainment now. It literally is on demand and people can search for exactly what they want, when they want.
“I adore visiting festivals when I can, for the atmosphere and inspiration factor”
Festivals allow for a different kind of audience. They are already interested and are either filmmakers themselves or are passionate about animation generally. Festivals act as a kind of introduction – hopefully it means your name gets out there a little bit and people start looking out for your work. I adore visiting festivals when I can, for the atmosphere and inspiration factor.
I’m continuously busy as a freelance animation director – working on all manner of things from technically challenging flash animation for games and apps to creative short films for the BBC. It varies hugely and that’s why I love it. I never have time to get bored. I do also have some personal projects in the pipeline, but with a baby due in 4 months, they might have to wait a while!
As you can probably tell, we’re big fans of Selina’s work here on DN and look forward to seeing whatever it is she puts her creative touch to next…