Several months ago I reached out to Milan-based animator and visual artist Gaia Alari, whose work I’d seen on her Instagram channel, about collaborating on a short film inspired by one of the poems from my new book canvas. We quickly agreed that my poem “tethered” was best suited for the art form of traditional animation. 750 drawings later, “tethered” has been brought to life through the magic of hand drawn, frame-by-frame, traditional animation. My brother (Ian Morehead, an editor and visual effects artist) helped edit the short film into both vertical (9:16) and horizontal (16:9) formats.
James Morehead: How did you approach animating my tethered?
Gaia Alari: “I found it very easy, in the first place because you understood what you wanted. I have to thank you because you briefed me, and when you work with someone, sometimes it can happen that they don’t brief you correctly. With you, it was very clear, and the poem set the mood for me in a very immediate way.
“And that’s probably the quality of the poem. It made me immediately understand that I had to go towards something American, the cinema of the United States. I love so many films from the United States made by wonderful directors.
“I was reminded of the American writers that I read. I am a lover of contemporary American novelists like Don DeLillo. I found the same feeling I had when reading these writers. I knew what direction I wanted to take to tell the story of a buoy, tied to a place, that can’t break free.
“I thought of trees, trees are rooted. They have to stay in the same place, they’re subject to whatever environmental events happen around them, and they can’t do anything to change the situation. That’s quite like the situation that we had during the pandemic. I put the feeling that I had during the pandemic of being tethered, in one place, watching everything passing me by, to what you wrote in the poem. I blended it with an aesthetic that could remind you of American writers and films of the 1970s. I thought of John Cassavetes, for example, as a director, and put that inside the process.
“I love the grainy effect of traditional animation, and that you proposed to make it in 9/16 aspect ratio, because it creates a very nice contrast and is the aspect ratio that’s typical of the young generation and social media. The whole poem was inspiring.”
James Morehead: How did you discover a passion for animation?
Gaia Alari: “I didn’t plan to become an artist or an animator. I am completely self-taught. In the beginning, I studied medicine. I love to study art books, and go to museums, and I always had a knack for drawing. I remember as a teenager I used to draw portraits of my teachers and my classmates.
“While I was in university I felt a little bit caged. I missed being able to explore, and create. I started developing almost unconsciously at first, and not believing in it that much, but steadily became more confident in what I could do.
“I started as a basic illustrator, then I decided that I would step up and try to make something more artistic. I remember going to a contemporary art museum here in Italy and saw an exhibition by a Swedish artist, Nathalie Djurberg, who uses clay animation as a tool for making contemporary art. I thought, she can do it, why can’t I?
“I tried stop motion and clay animation to tell some stories. At the same time, by chance, I was contacted by a band that asked me to make a music video in clay animation for them. My first clay animation video came out in 2018, so not that long ago, and I started making more music videos and short films. And since I’ve always drawn, it just seemed natural to tackle traditional animation.
“I loved to give the still images that I kept producing a narrative quality that I couldn’t find in one single drawing. When I was working as a visual artist, I would make a series of drawings, so the next step was to tell a story through animated drawings.
“I was influenced by Nathalie Djurberg and another artist who works in 2D in charcoal, William Kentridge. They showed me you can come up with something on your own if you’re honest, you work hard, and you have something to say.”
James Morehead: Hand drawn animation is so beautiful and meticulous. Describe the work you do behind the scenes to create 90 seconds of animation.
Gaia Alari: “I’m a one woman crew, so I work alone (even though I am about to work with a team of people on a short film, which is something I’ve always wanted to do).
“It entails a lot of time researching. I watch a lot of movies for inspiration on creating the atmosphere. When I work with musicians, I start by getting to know the musician, their aesthetic, and how they want to be represented. The beginning of the process is research.
“When my ideas are clear, I started drawing… drawing… and drawing. I have to thank medical school for my ability to be laser-focused. I draw from 8am in the morning to 8pm at night. That’s why I love podcasts, TV series and films, because I need something to listen to while drawing.
“My mind needs to be in close contact with my hand, so while I’m drawing I need to think of the scene that I’m going to draw next. I want to maintain the freedom and ability to make mistakes and then correct those mistakes and come up with something different during the process. It prevents me from getting bored, because boredom is one of my biggest fears.
“While drawing my mind works. The mechanical work helps my mind to move on, and think of the subsequent scene, and think of other projects.
“Sometimes I think I’ll never be able to draw a scene, that it’s too complicated, and that’s when I say, I have to draw that! That’s the challenge that keeps me going.
“I’d like to explore more classic narratives. I’m still a little bit artsy. So I’d like to develop something that still has the artsy quality, but also has a beginning and an end.”
James Morehead: Any advice for people who are interested in getting into animation?
Gaia Alari: “Don’t be afraid. Just try, and don’t get upset. If you don’t succeed in your first attempt, be stubborn and hard working. Keep your mind open to the most diverse parts of the creative world that you can, because you have to develop your own style, and be recognizable and different, because there are many animators.
“If you want to be an animator who gets hired by an animation studio, then my advice would be to attend an animation school. But if you want to freelance and not just be an animator, but also be a director, a visual artist, and an animator, then take influences from everything. I’m always keeping my mind open. I wanted to take Polaroids and bought a Polaroid camera. This helped me develop something new in my drawing.
“Don’t try to absorb things too rationally. I always say that learning looks more like an unlearning process, because it’s not really rational. You don’t have to focus, or try and concentrate too much on what you are supposed to be learning, just let it sing. Your brain is going to do the work for you. Be curious!”