TRENDER: Academy Award Nominated Animator Daniel Sousa
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Daniel Sousa is a Providence resident and a 1994 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who has been teaching at this renowned New England arts college since 2001. He has also been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, The Museum School, and The Art Institute of Boston.
Since 1994, Sousa has created and produced six animated shorts including Minotaur (1999), Fable (2005), and Feral (2012). He has been featured at a number of festivals such as The Sundance International Film Festival and The Hollywood Film Festival. Sousa’s films have also earned him a multitude of impressive distinctions including a Moving Image Fund production grant by the LEF Foundation in 2005 for Fable, and another production grant from the Creative Capital Foundation in 2008 for Feral. Most recently, he received one of the three MacColl Johnson Fellowships which are granted yearly to local artists by the Rhode Island Foundation.
Along with his personal projects, Sousa has also worked as a director and an animator for Cartoon Network, Duck, Global Mechanic, and Oliver Jar Studios. On top of all this, he is also a founding member of Handcranked Film, which acts as a filmmakers’ collective. Sousa’s various animated short films can be viewed on his Vimeo page, and he can also be seen at the 2014 Academy Awards which will take place on March 2nd at 7 pm on ABC.
A conversation with Daniel Sousa
What inspired your original passion for art?
I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. It was always a primary mode of communication for me, sometimes even more so than language. It's the only way I have found to externalize my thoughts and feelings about my place in the universe, the complexity of human existence, and a way to connect with others who have done the same, whether through the visual arts, poetry, music, or dance.
What motivated you to pursue a career in animation rather than another field?
I majored in Illustration at RISD, but during my sophomore year I took an Animation elective with Yvonne Anderson. That class made me realize that animation wasn't just a vehicle for children's entertainment, but a legitimate art form in its own right that harnessed several disciplines into one. It was like alchemy, adding all these disparate elements into something that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And the true subject of animation is the motion itself, which only exists in the viewer's mind as they experience it in real time. There was no turning back after that.
How have your experiences in the state of Rhode Island and at RISD influenced your work?
RISD is an amazing crucible for creativity in that it challenges you to think differently about everything and follow your instincts. It also teaches you how to be resourceful and find ways to keep learning even after you graduate. Art-making is a life-long pursuit, and you have to stay flexible and allow yourself to change while keeping a strong core and work ethic. I will always be grateful to RISD for giving me the opportunity to take advantage of what it has to offer. Rhode Island has been incredibly supportive in helping to fund my films, not only through The MacColl Johnson Fellowship, but also through several RISCA grants in the past.
How do you plan to use the stipend awarded to you by the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual MacColl Johnson Fellowship?
Mostly the stipend will allow me to take time away from commercial work and teaching, so that I can devote my full attention to starting a new film. It will also help pay for studio rental and the hiring of assistants.
How have you developed and perfected your craft over the last twenty years from Minotaur to Feral?
I feel like I am always reinventing the wheel every time I start a new film, since every project requires its own visual language. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing because it keeps the creative process alive. Unless there's a sense of discovery, I don't really get much enjoyment out of making things. So I like to give myself challenges that test my skills and hopefully make me learn something new in the process. At the same time, I have done a lot of commissioned and commercial work. Although this work is not as creatively stimulating, it does offer me the opportunity to hone skills that I already know and perfect certain techniques that I can later apply to my personal work.
The word “feral” means a wild beast that was originally descended from domesticated beings. Your most recent animated short which bears this title deals with a human boy who grew up in the woods, is discovered by a hunter, and is returned to civilization. The contrast between the film’s title and the content of the production seems to take the aforementioned definition and turn it on its head. What is behind the creation of Feral? What served as your inspiration for the plotline and the images in this film? Is it based on anything historical? What commentary does this animated short make on society? What is the main idea that you would like your viewers to take away from watching this film?
Feral started out as a retelling of the Kaspar Hauser story. Kaspar had spent his entire childhood devoid of human contact, chained in a basement. He was found—already a teenager—in Nuremberg, Germany in 1828. He could barely walk and spoke only these words: “I want to be a rider like my father.” He was taken in by villagers and was gradually taught to communicate. He never fully adjusted to society, and he was treated as a sort of curiosity by others.
As I started developing the story, I came across many other accounts of feral or abandoned children throughout history.
In a parallel story, a young child of about thirteen was found in post-revolutionary France, in the town of Aveyron. He had been abandoned in early childhood and had since been living alone in the woods. He was naked and his hair was long. In every sense, he was like an animal: he avoided eye contact and often bit other people when provoked. He came under the care of Jean Marc Itard, a young doctor, who saw in him an opportunity to test out Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts concerning the ideal innocence of childhood and Etienne Condillac’s theories, which viewed language as a prerequisite for conscious thought and memory.
These stories give us glimpses of what a human being might be in a vacuum, without the influence of society or language. I decided to create an amalgam of true accounts, as well as myths and fairy tales. But at the core, I wanted to explore a few fundamental questions: Is the wild child an angel or a demon? Or is he neither, a blank slate waiting to be programmed? How did these children conceptualize their world? How did they react when they were finally introduced into human society? And how did we react to finding them? I wanted to examine the wild child’s experiences and memories, and to reflect on our culture’s views of this phenomenon.
What are you most looking forward to about the Academy Awards?
I'm trying to not have any expectations, but just enjoy the ride. It's all a little surreal, and very different than what I'm used to. But it's fun to play dress up.
What is your biggest fear about your Oscar nomination and walking the Red Carpet?
Being tongue-tied. I prefer to communicate through images.
Would you ever consider adding dialogue to your films or do you believe that the animation speaks for itself?
It would depend on the project. So far I haven't found a need for it, and it's been much more challenging and fun to use body language and other visual cues to get ideas across. But I might try dialogue in the next project, just to try something new.
After March 2nd has passed, what are your plans for future projects?
I'm hoping to keep doing what I'm already doing. It's been pretty great so far. My wife and I are also expecting our first child, so I can't really predict how being a father will affect my work. But I can't wait!
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