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Animator Q&A: Sheryl Jenkins

30 Apr 2020

Animator and filmmaker Sheryl has worked with us for a number of years delivering workshops for families and young people, primarily experimenting with animation. In this Q&A we talk to her about her creative process and find out some of her favourite animations.

What was your path to becoming an animator and what was it about this medium that attracted you?

The moving image and animation has always been fascinating to me. I used to use my Dad’s camcorder and Super 8 camera. My brother and I used to make our own animated films using our toys and modelling clay. I watched a lot of cartoons and animated films when I was young. For me it wasn’t just about the entertainment, I was amazed by how an object can be brought to life. It’s like magic. I love how everything moves, and how character, personality and traits come across in how something moves.

I sometimes think that I became an animator so I could become other people or take on other roles. I used to watch a cartoon called Mr. Benn. Mr. Benn, who looked like he worked in a bank, used to visit a fancy dress shop. He would put on a costume and be magically transported to another location for an adventure. I’m kind of like Mr. Benn with a pencil; my pictures, cut outs, and collage are my costumes and I visit another time, dimension or world. Some animators might describe themselves as shy actors.

I studied Graphic Design and Art & Design at college, then I went to the Surrey Institute of Art & Design (now known as the University for the Creative Arts) in Farnham to study animation. After graduating I worked as a Graphic Designer, comic artist, set designer and community artist before becoming self-employed.

I used to be interested in creating traditional narrative work, but over time my style became more experimental. Working with different artists, children, young people and members of the community challenged my approach and I started to adapt techniques to different situations – community projects, school workshops, theatre projection and independent film. I wanted to examine how my artistic practice changed since my animation degree so I retuned to university to study a Masters Degree in Media Practice.

I’m always reflecting on my development as an animator. I never get bored of the medium. Animation is an intensive process so some days it can be frustrating but, ultimately, I like the challenge and problem-solving. I like the idea of playing with the medium, experimenting with my styles and techniques, and using animation to tell stories and explore challenging issues. Technology is changing all of the time, so there are always opportunities to try new ways of working.

What is the creative process you go through when planning an animation?  

Drawing is an important part of my process as I often work with traditional hand drawn or cut out animation.

I adopt various approaches depending on the project. Some work might be best suited to a more traditional production process that includes storyboarding, designing characters and backgrounds, creating a script, filming an animatic, and using a dope sheet (detailed sheet of action, audio, timing, camera movement). If I want to embrace spontaneity and leave things open to happy accidents, my process has less structure and more uncertainty, but it’s exciting!

An animation might take me anywhere from a couple of days to a few years to make. I have a lot of ideas, all of the time, so I make notes. I often have thoughts and ideas where I think, I don’t know what to do with this right now but I’ll hang on to it and see what develops.

Youve created animations for everything from TV to theatre to festivals and used a huge variety of mediums to animate. Do you have a preferred medium to use?

Whatever medium I work with, it’s important for me to feel connected to the creative process. If you’re spending long hours focusing on minute details it’s inevitable to feel like your heart and soul has gone into it. I enjoy working with 2D techniques that involve drawing, cut out, collage or archive images, but those techniques could be interpreted into further techniques, for example, you could be drawing on film or drawing with sand on glass. One of the things I like about animation is that you, as the maker, have the freedom to work in whatever medium you want. You can use natural materials, junk objects, cross stitch, soil and rocks … endless possibilities.

I love this film by Lynn Tomlinson that uses clay painting.

What or who inspires you?

Jill McGreal, a teacher and great supporter of film and animation, was one of my lecturers at university.  She was very supportive of my work and helped me see the value in my individual style, encouraging me to develop my ideas. Jill helped me build a better understanding of film and animation theory and history. It’s important to have an awareness of the world of animation and an understanding of where your work sits within that.

I’ve collaborated with a lot of artists, writers, sculptors, dancers, photographers and performers. I find a lot of inspiration from working with other people. I work with an arts education website and often have the opportunity to visit artists’ studios and film them working. It gives me the chance to observe their process and consider how the materials that they use could be adapted for animation.

I like to see the work of other animators. There are so many fantastic animated short films. I particularly like the film and animation work of Norman McLaren, Michel Gondry and Bob Godfrey. I especially like when I see someone’s work and I think “How did they do that?” and I have to work it out.

The film Clothes by Osbert Parker is a great one to watch. I love the pace and timing.

Damaged Goods by Barnaby Barford is another film to check out. Barford is a ceramic artist and animated with porcelain figures in this film.

Is there anything you are particularly trying to address or explore through the animations you create?

I have a few recurring themes that I return to every so often. I was interested in being an archaeologist when I was younger and a lot of my work explores historical themes. One subject that I’m interested in is bricks – I think people sometimes find this one a bit entertaining, but bricks are fascinating and you can interpret them in many ways from historical record to archaeological evidence to building blocks to computer games.

I’m also interested in developing animated work inspired by motorsport, racing circuits and spectators … that’s an on-going personal project.

Are there any particular apps or other technology you would recommend to someone trying animation for the first time?

One thing that’s been important for me has been finding ways to be able to create animated work on location. Tablets and mobile technology have given me the opportunity to draw, animate, record sound, edit and share work anywhere. The apps that I work with include Procreate, a drawing app which I use to create animation sequences and backgrounds. It’s also good for rotoscoping which is an animation technique where you draw over live action film. I also use iMotion and iStopMotion if I’m working with objects, materials or models.

I’d recommend iMotion or Stop Motion Studio for anyone wanting to have a go. They’re both free and you can develop an understanding of the process.

Where can we see your work?

I use Instagram to play with animation, illustration and photographic ideas on the go, and Twitter as a platform for sharing progress and developing online collaborations. I have a collection of work on video sharing platform Vimeo.

I’ve worked with a huge number of people teaching animation and collaborating on community projects. Here are a few of my highlights:

A compilation of work by participants in workshops at The Hepworth Wakefield

An amazing bit of clay animation by a participant at The Hepworth Wakefield.

I like pattern in things. This is an experiment using patterns created by tyre tracks.

A process that I’m enjoying working with at the moment involves taking artwork and designs from project participants and transferring or translating them into animation. Here’s a recent example from a project with Year 5 pupils who created a song and drawings based on who we become when we’re online.

This is The Lost Crocodile, made by children in Weardale, County Durham. It’s a great example of how it’s important to research a subject before making your film, and the importance of writing a good and engaging characters. It uses a lovely mix of textiles and cut out animation.