Independent animator discusses career

Filmmaker Dennis Tupicoff discussed trends and financial challenges in the contemporary film world.
Filmmaker Dennis Tupicoff discussed trends and financial challenges in the contemporary film world. Photo by Joyce Xi.

At a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Monday, filmmaker Dennis Tupicoff said his first project took little more than a book and some “craziness.”

In front of an audience of about 15, Tupicoff discussed the trend toward realism in animation and the financial constraints of independent filmmaking. Co-hosted by Pierson College and the Film Studies Department, the event was organized by Miheala Mihailova ’10 GRD ’16, a doctoral student in the Film Studies and the Slavic Languages and Literature departments, who met Tupicoff last year at the Animated Realities conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Tupicoff noted that while there are often financial constraints to independent filmmaking, these same restrictions can help a filmmaker discover different creative approaches toward a traditional medium.

“When you say animation, people usually think cartoons such as ‘Looney Tunes,’” Mihailova said. “[Tupicoff] is working in a whole different vein.”

Best known for his animated shorts and animated autobiographies, Tupicoff deals with loss, trauma and memories in his films, Mihailova said, adding that films such as “His Mother’s Voice” and “The Darra Dogs” transform Tupicoff’s personal experiences into visual narratives.

In addition to describing his creative process, Tupicoff spoke candidly about the harsher realities of working independently as opposed to operating under a large production company. Tupicoff said he had envisioned creating a film with technology that transforms photographs into motion images — the project, however, would have cost him $500,000 for every four minutes of animated film. While he ultimately produced the work as a less expensive live-action short, Tupicoff cited the piece as an example of an endeavor that was “technically possible, but financially impossible.”

In 1975, after graduating from Australia’s Queensland University with degrees in history and government, the Melbourne native created his first cartoon after teaching himself animation techniques from a book. The cartoon was a four-minute project that Tupicoff described as one of his most ambitious undertakings, as he had no prior experience in the field. Tupicoff’s knowledge was so limited, he said, that he had not known how to use a camera’s zoom function. Even today, he claims to know little about the technical mechanics of drawing.

“I don’t try to understand it, but I do like to exploit it,” Tupicoff said. “Essentially great works are made out of sketches and scribbles — unbelievable amounts of thrashing things through.”

With the numerous resources now available to aspiring filmmakers, all that is really needed is a little persistence, Tupicoff said. However, a far greater challenge is that of making adult animation relevant in the age of Disney and Pixar. To accomplish that goal, Tupicoff said, it is necessary to make “films that are strange and adult, that aren’t just cute.”

He added that in his experience there are no rules in creative expression — and if there are, they are best broken or ignored.

Jason Douglass ’13, a film studies major who attended the talk and is undertaking an independent study of Japanese anime, said he was interested in how Tupicoff viewed animation’s function within the film world as a whole, noting that there seems to be a universality in animation not found in live-action genres.

Beau Gabriel ’14, who also attended the talk, said that he appreciated Tupicoff’s advice on how to succeed as an animator with little to no former training in drawing and art.

A screening of some of Tupicoff’s films in William L. Harkness Hall followed the Master’s Tea.

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