‘Animated Films By Karen Aqua’: Animated In Every Sense of the Word

Animator Karen Aqua began making films as a student in the mid-’70s, embarking on a career that would span more than three decades and establishing herself as one of the country’s most talented and respected independent animators. Eventually, her films would be shown at festivals around the world in countries as far-flung as Iran and New Zealand, and she would go on to produce over 20 animated shorts for Sesame Street, in addition to her own independent work.

Before her untimely death at 57 from ovarian cancer in 2011, Aqua had become one of the most popular and beloved filmmakers in her medium, thanks to her uniquely playful and rhythmic style of animation. Often combining mythology and tribal imagery, her films explored a vibrant world where nature itself was the main character, where plants and animals, rivers and oceans, rocks and cave paintings all twisted together in an impressionistic dance of life.

Independent animation is a solitary pursuit, not only in the making but also in the showing, as there are few outlets for short-form artistic animation outside of universities, art galleries, and esoteric film festivals. With the new career-spanning DVD collection, Animated Films By Karen Aqua, distributor Microcinema International is seeking to give this talented and unsung master her due by hopefully bringing her work to a wider audience. Collecting 13 films from her lengthy career, Microcinema’s DVD features work ranging from 1976 up to a film completed in 2011, just three weeks before her death.

With the broad overview of Aqua’s work provided here, we can see how she returned to several similar themes. Her early works, Yours For the Taking (a charming fantasy about a teacup that travels the world collecting beautiful images) and the stunning Vis a Vis (wherein the isolated animator fantasizes about a doppelganger that can explore the outside world on her behalf), both deal with the tension between the solitary nature of creative work and the need to accumulate the vivid experiences and impressions to fuel that creativity.

She later broke that idea down even further into a more fundamental exploration — the tension between intellectual reasoning and the sensual, material world of nature. One of her better examples of this is the rowdy 1989 short Kakania, where she uses tribal motifs to express a stylized sense of urban alienation and decay. In it, men in business suits morph into fractured hieroglyphs and wild dancers kick and bang on the walls of oppressive skyscrapers that confine them. It’s all done in Aqua’s preferred style, with spiky, undifferentiated figures that resemble the totemic carvings of a primitive tribe (sometimes reminiscent of Keith Haring’s iconic style.) Set to a score of pounding drums and squealing saxophones, it’s a thoroughly enchanting fantasia that combines everything that Aqua did best.

Aqua’s style was always deeply musical, and she seemed to take a special care in imbuing her films with a unique sense of rhythm. Nowhere in this collection is that better represented than in 2007’s Sensorium, an experiment in using abstract visual forms and motion to represent sound, music, and rhythm, where thin lines and multicolored patters twist and interact in synch with the sounds of a classical violin score. It’s a gorgeous and elegant exploration of animated the form for its own sake, and a refreshing take on an idea that has fascinated animators going all the way back to Canadian master Norman McLaren in the ’40s.

The best and most startling film of Aqua’s included here is also one of her most personal — 2009’s Twist of Fate. It tells an impressionistic story about the experience of her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and it uses a full range of different animation techniques and styles — drawing, stop-motion, paper cutouts, photographs — all of which she displays an easy mastery of. In Twist of Fate the human silhouettes of her earlier work are present, but they have a darker and more sinister cast. Where previously they had been used to playfully express the unity and continuity of the human family, the anonymous figure shown in Twist of Fate is a faceless shadow-person, alienated and frightened, sometimes prodded by gloved hands attached to unseen doctors, other times literally smothered in pills.

Here the tension between intellect and instinct, between science and nature, is no laughing matter, with stakes that are deadly high. The surreal flood of medical imagery and dissonant ambient soundtrack by Aqua’s husband, Ken Field, make for a remarkably affecting, sometimes deeply frightening viewing experience, despite the relatively happy ending. Even though its dark tone is fairly uncharacteristic of the rest of her work, Twist of Fate represents the best of what artistic short-form animation can do in the hands of a master like Aqua, and is one of the pinnacles of a breathtaking career that ended far too soon. Anyone with any interest in the art of animation would be well-advised to seek out Animated Films By Karen Aqua and educate themselves on the work of this unique and much-missed talent.

RATING 8 / 10