'I Love Visual Ideas': Interview with Paulina Ziółkowska

Paulina Ziółkowska

Polish 2D animation director Paulina Ziółkowska has been one of the distinguishing forces of her generation, with films that bring back comedy and uneasy social situations together. Films like 'Oh Mother!' (2017), 'Bless You!'(2018), and '3 geNARRATIONS' have been showcased (and won awards) in various festivals - including a mention in our Emerging Women Animation Directors showcases.

Paulina Ziółkowska is a jury member at the 2023 Etiuda & Anima Festival (21-26 November, Krakow), and talked about her work at Zippy Frames.

ZF: Your style seems assured even from your first film. Was the question of animation studies a conscious decision you took, a happy accident, or a gradual continuation of your graphic design studies?

PZ: I'm very happy that someone thinks I have a style. With every film, it feels like I'm jumping into the void and that I have to invent the visual part from scratch. I have to understand how the narrative relates to the visual layer and how the chosen technique will affect the perception of the film's content. It's quite a long process. Now knowing that I have my style and it always comes out similar, maybe I can save myself some work. Animation has always attracted me, it seemed like pure magic, something so complicated and incomprehensible, how it works at all and why it moves, that I always wanted to go in that direction. However, I was a bit like that shy child who really wants to eat a cookie, but walks around the table and pretends that he doesn't want to eat it at all. That's why I first studied graphic design, and after being pushed quite brutally by life, I said ok ok, I'm already going to pack up and finally go to this city of Lodz to study animation.

ZF: Being a Polish animation director, you have a rich tradition of forerunners and established auteurs. Did that inspire you, scare you or was it simply another thing to take into account?

PZ: I think it was a blessing. As a teenager, I didn't realize that animation auteur cinema existed. This type of animation is quite difficult to access. Polish animations were played on TVP Kultura, the cultural station of state television, but around midnight or 3 in the morning. I remember hunting for them as a teenager but without much sleepless success. Then my parents told me about Dumała and Wilczyński and showed me their films. And I was lost, I really wanted to do animation.

ZF: First professional films are usually self-autobiographical. But you made 'Oh, Mother!' (2017), and I cannot see how the relationship between a boy and his mother is autobiographical. What were your inspirations for this?

PZ: To answer the question simply: yes, of course, my mother is overprotective. But the film was more inspired by my peers, who were trying to enter adulthood with quite a bit of momentum, and I didn't quite see this wonderful transformation from child to full-fledged adult overnight. And I guess out of this blurred child/teenager/adult line and a lot of emotional immaturities that can be seen around was born this film. I recently found the first version of the script for this film and it was about two sisters who raced to see which one would marry first, also the paths that films follow are unexplored and I guess they live their own lives.

ZF: You made a prophetic film 'Bless You!' that traveled the world (and Berlinale) before no one of us could travel anymore. If they asked you today to do a 'covid film' like this, would you have done it? Or would you have made a different film?

PZ: I don't know if I would even take up such a topic! 'Bless you!' was more a consideration of how one can become infected with someone else in a more metaphorical/ existential sense. Now the topic of germs and epidemics has been studied a lot and everyone has their own thoughts on the subject. I don't know if I would be able to add something to these reflections with my animation.

ZF: '3 geNARRATIONS' looks like a dance film between three women, and it features an actual dance as well. How important was it for you to show their movements in such a way, and did anything trouble you in the making of the film? Or was it smooth sailing from development to execution?

PZ: I really like dancing, so that was the easy part that I enjoyed. I like the fluidity, and the theme of swapping places, swapping behaviors, even personalities; a certain human flexibility seems to be recurrent in my films. The problem was that one night I woke up at 3 a.m. with this absolutely fantastic idea to use plasticine stamps, which can be bent and animated, to make a monotype coloring and at the same time animate the film. It didn't speed up the work, in fact, it delayed it for a year. The stamps are not noticeable. I didn't use them in a way that makes the 3 women appear to be copies of each other. And everyone asks if I made the film on the computer. Maybe this technique is waiting for better times and to be used in a way that has a visible impact and is part of the narrative. Maybe one day I'll make a movie like that.

ZF: Your films burst with visual ideas. Is it something that you spend much time in development/pre-production or do you make it along in animating? Are you a person who wants to have control of everything in your work, or is it easy for you to share ideas with other creative minds?

PZ: I love visual ideas, that's my favorite part. That's actually all I would like to do, to invent things all day long. But it seems like an actual issue, because I try to put too much stuff in my films and then try to squeeze even more with my knee, and I guess, the narrative part is suffering a bit. I hope to find balance one day. I really hate animatics and I believe them to be cemeteries of creativity. I always have one, but it is a guide that I like to change while making the film when new, better ideas are popping. While making the film I am understanding better the topic I am dealing with, so I can give better answers and better visual solutions. I always animate, edit, then animate a bit more, and edit. So I guess even when I think, I like to have control and to touch every frame in my film, I leave films to be what they are. I think about films as rivers, that you can shape a bit, but you cannot transform into what they are not.

ZF: You work mostly in 2D animation. What is it that you find liberating here? The way you can transfer graphic design to movement, the play with proportions, bodies, and space, or what?

PZ: I love to draw and paint. I hate spending all day moving an object one millimeter at a time. I guess I simply don't have patience.

ZF: Etiuda & Anima is the host of many Polish animation authors during its editions, and also the initiator of the Polish School of Animation project. How do you feel about the new generation of Polish animation directors? And how do you feel that a large proportion of them are women?

PZ: We have great animators, there are some really great animations. This is very inspiring! In addition, they are brilliant people, very supportive and helping each other in creating films. I really enjoyed it and it was a fantastic time. A great number of animation students and fresh graduates are women. I really hope they will stay in the medium, because this is the challenging part, that they can find jobs and support themselves financially from animation filmmaking. There is a change happening, which is great. I hope the situation of women in the industry keeps improving.

ZF: You have a new film in development, 'Tears'. Can you tell us more about this new animation effort?

PZ: 'Tears' is about tears, indecision, and powerlessness in making decisions. Probably because the film was in development for so long and I had to change the script three times, it began to speak about this topic. I will animate a lot of tearing paper and tearing the main character and will also animate a hole. I am excited.


Paulina Ziółkowska is a jury member at the 2023 Etiuda & Anima Festival (21-26 November, Krakow).

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