Portland has long been a Mecca for animators, and one of the most prolific and gifted is Joanna Priestley, whose work is now collected on two DVDs: Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits.
Both the newest and oldest of Priestley's films are featured on Fighting Gravity. Her first effort, 1983's The Rubber Stamp Film, is a captivating succession of images made with just rubber stamps and index cards, set to a collage of voices and music. The Dancing Bulrushes (1985) presents a traditional Native American myth about a thrill-seeking coyote, using backlit sand animation to vividly render nighttime revelry.
The disc also includes two of Priestley's newer works, and watching them back-to-back with her films of some 20 years ago gives a sense of her career's movement from a narrative focus to the unapologetically abstract. Surface Dive (2001) was inspired by a diving trip and combines drawings, sculpture and glass fragments to render a surreal lake-bottom world of constantly morphing starfish and a host of other plants and creatures. Utopia Parkway, made in 1997, compartmentalizes an imaginative array of sculpted creepy-crawlies in a collection of cigar boxes. A bonus DVD feature is an insightful if amateurish behind-the-scenes documentary about how Priestley crafts her films in a Pearl District studio. She talks of enjoying the solitary process of animating cells, constantly tinkering before each single frame is shot.
The other DVD, Relative Orbits, focuses on older works, although, sadly, her enjoyable video to Tears For Fears' song "Sowing the Seeds of Love" is missing. The hand-drawn Voices (1985) is a surprisingly personal account of the filmmaker's phobias. Candyjam (1988) was co-directed with another Portland animation legend, Joan Gratz, and is a collaborative affair featuring the work of 10 filmmakers from four countries portraying various sugary confections. Priestley and Gratz also collaborated on Pro and Con, a rare animated work with a social conscience that explores people on both sides of the bars in America's prison system. Another more personal effort, All My Relations from 1990, takes the viewer through the peaks and valleys of Priestley's romantic life.
Watching the nearly 20 different films assembled on these two DVDs is a testament to the breadth of Priestley's talents, for she has employed virtually every type of animation, be it primitive or state-of-the-art. She is a comic storyteller and a conceptual painter, her work full of optimism but unafraid to confront the darkness. Because short films never make it to the multiplex, Priestley may never be a household name to most mainstream moviegoers. But as she enters her third decade of animated filmmaking, one can't help but look forward to seeing her work continue to evolve.