Meet the illustrator who makes the GIF into an art form
Interview Amy Willing
Images Nancy Liang
Hi Nancy! What is it that you do?
I create dreamlike images of urban landscapes and sleepy scenes of Australian suburbia. These images are illustrated by hand, crafted with assorted papers, arranged like a diorama, and brought to life as GIFs.
They reveal the hidden wonder of our everyday suburbs, but also celebrates the histories of a past Australia. Flickering street lights, twinkling of the stars and wispy smoke billowing from the chimney against a night urban backdrop are some elements that are iconic to my GIFs.
When did you first start making GIFs?
I’ve always been interested in moving images, but did not start making GIFs until my later years of university. Back then, I was a student who favoured traditional mediums over digital. I fiercely held onto the belief that hand crafts were better than the digital – it had more heart.
Now, after much progress I do believe there’s a room for digital experimentation in my practice. I feel I’ve found a good harmony of both. My thinking changed not too long ago, when technology became more accessible. AR, VR, 3D Printing began to emerge more commercially, and the Internet taught you everything you needed to know. You can do anything from the comfort of your own home. Equipped with Photoshop I had installed onto my desktop, I took the first step by searching on the Internet: How-to-Make-a-GIF.
Can you describe your process?
My process usually begins with thumbnails; rough sketches will follow to define concept and composition. With clients, sometimes sketches will need to be refined a couple of times until they are happy. If I know the piece needs to be animated, a storyboard with detailed notes will be accompanied.
After this stage, I will move on to the ‘making’ part. To briefly describe my making process, I tend to draw or cut elements by hand, scan them into Photoshop and arrange them into the composition desired. At this point I am not animating, but I need to separate the layers that I will need animate from the non-moving elements. My work is composed of hundreds of groups of layers; within those groups there could be another group of layers within another group. It had become an obsession to organise and describe my files systematically in the case I need to share with clients.
Much like the making process, animating is also meticulous. It is quite similar to traditional stop motion where subjects are moved frame by frame but I do it in Photoshop.
Are your GIFs inspired by real places or events?
Mostly yes! My work is heavily influenced by Sydney and it’s past histories, it’s present and future. I explore forgotten urban spaces and mundane streets and unearth the stories and the layers of history attached to them. My ongoing GIF project, Old Spaces, is an example of this. It visualises spaces in Sydney, sometimes other parts of Australia during the 1960’s – 1990’s. The aim is to re-animate the forgotten stories attached to these sites. Some include the Federation Arches during 1901, the iconic neon signs on William Street in the 60’s, and the construction of Kings Cross tunnel, the first major tunnel in Sydney.
When are you at your most creative?
I work best at really odd hours during the night. The night is still and quiet. Suburban landscapes become uncluttered, much like my thoughts, and I am left with very limited colours and simpler ideas. I find something very exciting about being awake while most people are asleep. It almost seems as though the night becomes my domain. The simplicity of it inspires the mysterious and romantic, allowing you to question what there isn’t and explore the fantastic urban stories there could be.
What does your work space look like?
I work from home, far west from the city in a sleepy suburbia nestled on a hill. The views are lovely, and it’s slow and quiet so making art is peaceful. At night you’ll see an occasional plane twinkling in the sky and smell woodfire during Winter.
Since I work from home, it’s cosy. So it requires a lot of self discipline to get up in the mornings and work toward a schedule. At the same time, I am very flexible with where I am working. There has been cases where I had to work overseas or with my creative partner at an ad-hoc studio. As such, I believe it’s also important to be able to get out of your comfort zone and adapt to different situations as an artist.
What do you like to listen to when you’re working?
I love to listen to moody often instrumental music – especially the likes of Takagi Masakatsu. He is a Japanese visual artist that combines mixed media into his work. His music is experimental and raw, and he has a fantastical way of evoking a sense of place.
Your work reminds us of picture books from our childhood. Do you have a favourite book or movie from when you were a kid?
The Mystery of the Blue Arrow by Chuck and David McKee. An all-time favourite book of mine! I am also just as fond of the ‘Mr Benn’ series. McKee’s drawings are always filled generous urban details of London. As a kid, I will use my finger and pretend it was a little character to wander the streets, talk to other characters in the book and explore alleyways.
Where can we find you on your days off?
You can find me far away from hustle and bustle of life, either hiking in the mountains, or in my backyard looking for caterpillars and moths.
Favourite winter beverage?
Rich hot chocolate with a side of marshmallow! Wait… a mountain of marshmallows!
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I am in the process of creating two music videos for two talented Australian musicians, and I’ll be announcing this in the next couple of months! In my own time, I am focusing on personal ventures. I am planning my first solo exhibition for sometime next year. It will incorporate large installations of hand-made houses and interactive media. I want it to be a visceral experience for those who do visit – so do look forward to that!
Where can people see more of your work?
I’ve recently finished a moving artwork with my creative partner Baron Chau, commissioned by Transport for New South Wales for Wynscreen 2017. Titled “Past Journeys of the Near Future”, the animation piece explores slow travel within our fast-paced culture. The emphasis is on the experience of journeys rather than arriving at your destination. As such, we rekindle appreciation by taking the traveller across enchanted but familiar worlds where they are confronted with fantastical situations starting from Wynyard Station.
“Past journeys of the near future” is now shown to the public during the month of July across a unique 22 metre wide screen, every second day from 3pm at mezzanine level of Wynyard Station’s Clarence Street entrance, Sydney.
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