A Chain of Animators Created an Exquisite Corpse Movie About L.A.

Art from Amy Lee Ketchum's segment of Dreaming Los Angeles. The short will be screened at the 10th annual Focus on Female Directors at the Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 14.EXPAND
Art from Amy Lee Ketchum's segment of Dreaming Los Angeles. The short will be screened at the 10th annual Focus on Female Directors at the Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 14.
Amy Lee Ketchum

"I kind of found animation by accident," says Amy Lee Ketchum. The South Pasadena native had studied fine art and architecture at UC Berkeley. When it came time to apply for graduate school, she was looking for an MFA in painting or sculpture. Then she applied to USC's animation department "on a whim." Ketchum's career at an artist took a completely different turn.

Ketchum finished the USC program in 2013 with an award winning thesis under her belt. Now she works at ShadowMachine, where she is a background designer for the Comedy Central show TripTank. (Previously, she worked at the same studio on BoJack Horseman.)

She also recently completed a residency at Echo Park Film Center. The resulting short Dreaming Los Angeles will screen at American Cinematheque's Focus on Female Directors event this Wednesday at the Egyptian Theatre.

Back in 2010, when Ketchum started grad school, cartoons were a new medium for her to explore. "I didn't know how to animate at all," she says. "I sort of had to dive in there." The learning curve was steep, but, for Ketchum, animation was a great way to combine her interests, ranging from painting to sculpture to dance.

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She also saw animation as "more accessible" than fine art. "I feel like it's a lot less pretentious in many ways" she adds.

Not long before she started work on her thesis film, Two Ghosts, Ketchum's mother died of cancer. "It was this experience that sort of permeated every perspective in my life," she says, "and, it was, inevitably, in my work."

Inspired in part by Jean Cocteau's Orpheus trilogy, the film explores the complicated emotions that come with grief in a setting filled with felt, stop-animation creatures. Ketchum imagined that Two Ghosts would exist in a "soft world," so she learned needle felting to create the puppets. It took about a year of production, half a year of post-production, to complete. "I didn't realize how intense the post-production would be," she says. "Everything you do, you have to clean it up." The film went on to win Best International Student Animation at Animasivo in Mexico City. It was also a finalist for the Student Academy Awards (a competition judged by a jury of Academy members), in addition earning other honors at various film festivals across the U.S.

Ketchum's more recent effort, Dreaming Los Angeles, features the work of 13 animators, herself included. After reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (the source material for the recent Union Station opera), Ketchum wanted to make a film that "captured the more surreal elements of living in the city in a metaphorical way." She shot footage on Super 8 and 16 mm, did a lot of research into Native American folklore and made some field recordings. Then she had an epiphany of sorts. "Living in L.A., for me, is being part of a community and that community is what makes home for me more so than some of these other things." Ketchum's project would then be a collaboration with her creative friends.

Dreaming Los Angeles is an exquisite corpse project. The contributors sent her one image that summed up Los Angeles for them. She passed along those images to other participants, who would create an animation that linked to the image. "It was this chain," she says, "a continuous chain of morphing or transitioning into another piece."

The end result is less than two minutes, but it captures city life beautifully with its mishmash of cute pets, cockroaches, a frustrated worker at the computer and more frustrated people stuck in traffic.

Next up, Ketchum plans on collaborating with a friend and fellow Shadow Machine employee on a film inspired by reports of a "blessing scam" that has affected older members of Chinese communities in major cities. Ketchum looks forward to incorporating dance into the upcoming piece. "I've always been sort of a living room dancer," she says, "but I just feel like dance is this explosive energy that is akin to a sort of ecstasy that I want to get across in my work."

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