An Interview with Daniel Sousa

Posted by | George William Price | Posted on | May 5, 2015

Daniel Sousa

Daniel Sousa

During his visit to SAIC in April Daniel Sousa sat down with graduate student Elizabeth Metcalfe for a revealing interview about his background in painting and illustration, his relationship to animation and upcoming projects he is currently working on.

Elizabeth Metcalfe: I know you have a background as a painter and illustrator. Your films have a very painterly quality. How did you first come to animation? What relationship do you see between your films and your painting practice?

Daniel Sousa: I went to Rhode Island School of Design. At the beginning, I was going into illustration. I liked illustration as a major because it allowed you the most number of electives. As a child, I was never really into animation. Of course I was familiar with Disney and Bugs Bunny, but that’s about it. So I didn’t have a burning desire to become an animator until I was in school. But, while I was there, through different screenings around campus, I was exposed to non-traditional animation: European work, especially Eastern European work, as well as independent American animation. I realized it wasn’t just a medium for children’s entertainment. Animation wasn’t just cartoons, but could be used as a fine art, used to express dream or internal states in a much more specific and universal way than live action films could. So I found that fascinating. I took an Introduction to Animation Class as an elective. It was a lot of fun to experiment with different materials. This was before computers, so it was a lot of hands-on work: playing with celluloids, scratching directly into film, playing with paints and charcoal, and different cut-out techniques. So I realized that this was a medium that encompassed a lot of other mediums and you could try sculpture and use stop-motion animation or do painting and use hand-drawn animation. It incorporated literature, storytelling, theatre, and I thought it was a good size of filmmaking for me because I didn’t have a lot of money to afford a film major lackey. With animations, I could do stuff on my own and I didn’t need a team. I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be, but that’s when you realize that animation is either for you or it isn’t. You have to enjoy the time that it takes and the trance that you almost get into by doing really repetitive work. It takes a very specific type of personality. At the same time, I was also taking electives in painting, especially figurative painting. What I was trying to do with the films was to make paintings come to life. So I wasn’t necessarily interested in storytelling but more in just capturing moments like a painting would. I wanted my films to be living paintings.

EM: So it that how your process works now? Do you start with an image or do you have some sort of narrative concept in mind before you begin a film?

DS: It really depends. I go back and forth a lot. I do find that images are usually more helpful for me; they are a way into the film. I can sit back and interpret the images I’ve created and see if there’s a story there or not. By connecting two images, I can see if there’s a third image that is suggested and then start to build a story from the inside out like a puzzle, rearranging the pieces. In many ways, it’s a lot more frustrating than writing a script first. I do that a lot more for my commercial and freelance work; when you work in the industry, you sort of have to do that. But the problem with that process is that all of the creative energy gets spent on writing and conceiving of the work so that when you’re actually producing the film, it becomes an assembly line. I lose interest in it by that point. By assembling a film like a puzzle, the process is interesting the whole way through. There’s always room for possibility and discovery, even down to the editing and sound design processes.

EM: Where do you find inspiration for the films that you are creating?

DS: Everywhere, really. Other artists, of course. I find inspiration not so much from the external world (meaning nature) but more so from memories or certain feelings I am trying to evoke, certain states that are hard to explain through words. Movement itself inspires me. I find certain movements, like branches rustling in a tree, fascinating. I could stare at that for hours, observing the intricacies of that movement. I’m inspired by the choreography of nature…not so much the look of nature but the movement of nature.

EM: So you’re more interested in the ephemeral?

DS: Yes, sure. The great thing about animation is that it doesn’t have to be one thing. I don’t feel like I have a specific focus, necessarily. I don’t only make films about trees. If there’s something I’m fascinated by in my life, I’ll just begin to explore that idea. Sometimes I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel. If you find something interesting, you really have to begin to research it and find out what makes it tick in order to develop a new technique or language through which to explore it in film. I love that you have to keep teaching yourself. I don’t start out trying to explore mythology or fairytales but it sort of ends up that way. It’s almost like I tap into some sort of archetype and go with it. It’s only after the film is complete that I begin to reflect on it and uncover what it is really about. Looking back at my work, I can see a definite lifeline going through my films that explores not only myths and fairytales but also dualities like the conscious mind and the physical self and the struggle between those two worlds. It’s almost like I’m trying to make the same film over and over again, or at least try to capture that friction better through a different skin or story.

Daniel Sousa, film still from Feral, 2012. Courtesy of the artist

Daniel Sousa, film still from Feral, 2012. Courtesy of the artist

EM: Yes, I can definitely see a connection in your films in the way that they all seem to address liminality. For example, your film Feral really explores this liminal space between being beast and being human.

DS: Exactly. I was trying to sort of explore that idea in Minotaur too. It’s a beastly creature, violent and terrifying, but on the inside it’s just a tiny baby that doesn’t know the damage he causes when he lashes out in aggression without knowing what the repercussions are. So there’s always sort of this tension between the outside and the inside. But like I said, it’s not something I really set out to do. It just works out that way. I guess this idea is really a universal one. We can all relate to having two sides.

EM: True, but to what extent are these universal ideas made personal?

DS: Films are always personal to me because that’s the most natural viewpoint I have. I work by myself. I make films that I find interesting and then trust that they possess some sort of universality through which human beings can all feel the same way and gain something meaningful from my films. The more personal I make my films, I think the more universal they can be.

EM: Your films do have a really personal, authored feeling but I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your collaboration with Dan Golden, the sound designer for your films.

DS: Absolutely. I think the sound in my films is almost more important than the visual elements because the sound sets the atmosphere that prepares you to watch the film. Dan is a school friend of mine. He is a painter too. He’s a multi-talented, Renaissance man. I started working with him when I made Minotaur in 1998. I just needed someone to design the soundtrack for it since I don’t really work with music. I feel like I have a certain sense of what the music should sound like but I don’t have the vocabulary to express how I would like the music in my films to sound. Because Dan is a painter, he can really understand what I am saying and translate it into sound. We’ve known each other for so long that the conversations do not always have to be detailed. I can just ask him to make something sound brighter or warmer and he can find a solution for that. As far as collaboration is concerned, any collaboration between us happens after the rest of the film is done. I bring a silent film to him and then trust him to make decisions about sound that sync up to what I have already created. I am always pestering him when I’m making a film to create some sort of atmospheric track or theme that I can listen to while I’m working so that it can already begin to inhabit that world and he’ll do that from time to time. However, these samples usually don’t end up being in the films; they’re temporary.

The process of making a film is so damn long that you go through many life experiences while you are making just one film. That’s actually one of the challenges and frustrations that I have with filmmaking, because you are a different person by the time you are done. Your world view might even be completely different at the end, but you still have to remain faithful to your initial idea or else the film falls apart. That can be difficult for me.

When I’m working, I might be listening to classical music or death metal. The music I listen to changes depending on the day I’m in and what kind of day I’ve had. When I’m really focusing and concentrating, I won’t listen to any music at all because I feel that it interferes. I need the silence to really work. A lot of the animation process is grunt work and connecting dots.

EM: How long does it take to produce one entire film?

DS: I have to pay the bills so I teach and do a lot of freelance work, meaning that I may only have a couple of months in the year to really devote to making personal films. It can be very sporadic. Feral took almost five years to make because of that. In a solid chunk of time, it would have probably been one year’s work.

EM: What are you working on right now?

DS: I have a nine-month old daughter so there’s a lot of feeding and diaper changing going on at home. It keeps me busy. I’m trying to collaborate with a friend on a new film but it’s still very nebulous. I’m trying to get him to write something for me and then I will produce images and illustrations to accompany the writing. The ideas are still changing and I’m not sure where it’s going to end up. Once we have a concrete idea that we can pitch, I can take that idea to a distributor or producer or find a grant to fund the film. Once the funding is there, I can take some time off work to really focus on developing the film. Currently, it’s still research and development.

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