Icelandic Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir’s new animation My Year of Dicks is an adaptation of a chapter from Pamela Ribon’s memoir Notes To Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share In Public). It’s about a fifteen year old version of Ribon going through a burgeoning sexual awakening and the desire to lose her virginity despite the slim pickings on offer in her neighbourhood on the outskirts of Houston in the early 90s. Taking a multi-faceted style, Gunnarsdóttir enlisted the talent of a cadre of animators to bring her vision to life and paint Ribon in the varied, all-encompassing light that is reflected in the memoir. DN spoke with Gunnarsdóttir as My Year of Dicks arrives online, in the wake of it being shortlisted for this year’s Oscars, to discuss the method she took to select her animators, the perks of collaborating with everyone remotely, and the freedom her approach to reference footage afforded her to establish a natural grounding to the lucid and dynamic animation.
What’s the origin story behind your involvement with My Year of Dicks as a project?
My Year of Dicks is an adaptation of a chapter of Pamela Ribon’s Memoirs Notes To Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share In Public), that Pam adapted for animation originally for FX Networks. I was then invited to join the project as a director.
This is my first time tackling an animated project on this scale. For the past ten years I’ve done a lot of animation within live action filmmaking (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Cases Against Adnan Syed and so on). There I developed this way of working where I tend to shoot reference footage of myself and my husband (Ethan Clarke) for characters. I found this to be a good way to tackle character design that represents real people or actors that we are also seeing photographically. It also helps marry the animation to the live action medium without being too crass or loud by ensuring natural tone and movement. What I love about this approach is that in those moments where you break away from the references and allow the animation to take flight, the impact of that poetry really hits home.
I think that this film allows us to throw away that shame and acknowledge that we’ve all been there and to accept the crazy ride that is teenagehood.
So when being faced with My Year of Dicks, a 25 minutes of animation film with recurring characters that tells a deep and meaningful story, the only way I knew how to attack this was the way I’ve been doing it so far through references, and by using the voice actors for character design. The only exception there is for Pam herself who is voiced by Brie Tilton, but where the character still looks like Pamela Ribon at age 15.
Did you have conversations with Pam in order to extrapolate more about her and that time in her life in addition to what she had written on the page?
Pam shared with me a lot of photographs and home videos from this time in her life. I’m really touched by the amount of trust she gave me and how she opened herself up to being totally vulnerable about her adolescence. This is a time in our life we tend to look back on while rolling our eyes and judge ourselves for who we used to be. In some way I think that this film allows us to throw away that shame and acknowledge that we’ve all been there and to accept the crazy ride that is teenagehood.
How did you go about assembling your team for production? One of the aspects I love about the film is how it incorporates different styles of animation, was that something you had to think about when approaching the animators?
Assembling the team to animate this with me was incredibly easy. As I read the script and saw how each chapter played with different movie genres I immediately recognised which animator would lend a perfect style to each one. These are all animators I already knew and respected as artists and filmmakers in their own right. (Josh Shaffner, Amanda Bonaiuto, Grace Nayoon Rhee, Kevin Eskew, Cassie Shao, Brian Smee & Isabella Aspin).
I had worked with most of them before and it gave me a sense of security to have a small team that I knew and trusted. So I asked them to join me for ten months to animate the whole thing with me and then the fun part was being able to give each of them artistic ownership over some part of Pam. That way we got away with allowing Pam’s look to be very fluid and almost abstract at times, and each artist got to put their personal mark on her as a character. It scared me at first to dive into this production with such loose character design but I’m delighted with the outcome. I believe it helps us as viewers to connect with her as a real and complicated character that’s on cusp of change and growth.
Were you able to discuss ideas with each other in the same room or was it a case of collaborating remotely?
This film was made during COVID and all of us were sitting in our living rooms or home offices. It worked really well for me as that is the way I’m used to working anyways. I think the team was still small enough for this not to be problematic. And perhaps this is the future of how we make animated productions anyway. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to use talent from anywhere in the world. Your team is so important and really is the sum of the outcome.
And did everyone approach animating using the same software to allow for a coherence in editing?
Everyone but myself was working in TvPaint, but I’m still most comfortable with working on paper so I stuck to it. Kevin Eskew had made a really nice pencil tool that they were all using and gave us a beautiful line. Kyle Brooks who colored the whole thing for us was also doing so in TvPaint.
Given your unique style of capturing animation, did that allow you to play a lot with how the backgrounds would look?
I was working with three background painters. I really wanted the backgrounds to feel somewhat realistic but also painterly and tactile. I wanted to build an inviting, painterly world that reflects the feeling of looking back at our teenage years, while still staying very present with young Pam in the moment.
The fun part was being able to give each of them artistic ownership over some part of Pam.
Isabelle Aspin, who also had a hand in the genre animation for The Vampire, set the tone for us with her rich, painterly style. She did the backgrounds for The Horror Show and The Vampire, the first two chapters we worked on. Then we got CJ Walker to add their playful aesthetic to the carnival world in The Sweet One. And the versatile Simon Estrada took us home in Un Gross Penis and The Sex Talk.
For post production I got my husband, (Ethan who also acted out a lot of this film with me), to do the comping in After Effects. The most important thing for me at that stage was the lighting. He also did some wonderful things with camera, for example the roller coaster at the beginning of The Sweet One, which is all made with 2d drawings. From there I edited in Premiere, where I started the process with the animatics and slowly replaced the boards with the animation.
From those initial conversations with Pam through to finalising the edit, how long were you working on the film for?
Me and Pam and our Producer Jeanette Jeanenne worked on this for about a year and a half. We spent four months in pre-production, putting together boards, setting a tone for the project and finding and recording the actors. That all happened incredibly fast and I learned how important this stage in a production is, next time I will be sure not to underestimate it.
From there we got ten months with the visual artists and got to pull in our sound designer, Trevor Gates, and composer, Adam Blau, intermittently during that time to build the soundscape. It then took about another four months once animation was done to finish the film.
At the end I just want to mention how incredible each and every person that worked on this production is. I’m so grateful for them all. They made this into not just a beautiful film that we, and especially I, can be so proud of. But also made the process of it fun and incredibly rewarding.
And lastly, what will you be working on next?
Right now I’m teaming up with Amy Berg again for her documentary on Jeff Buckley. Me, Pam and Jeanette are still looking into some possibilities of making MYOD into a TV series. I would love to make that.