"I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me."
If you haven't seen one of John Akre's films you've been missing out. Luckily, I am here to introduce you to him. John's one of my favorite local artists. I admire how he combines community and history in his art. He has a traveling animation studio where he creates spontaneous cartoons with the public. He also makes books, comics, and draws daily (making a monthly video featuring those drawings). On top of this he also organizes MinnAnimate, a festival creating a place for animation in Minnesota.
John is an animator and videomaker who has been playing around with movies since he was nine. He is always trying to figure out different ways to combine documentary and animation, and also how to make a living while doing the things he loves (I can relate to that!). He is a teaching artist who works with all ages of people through COMPAS, Film North, and other organizations. He teaches animation at Hamline University and is married to Beth Peloff (another artist I admire), an animator and videomaker, and they work together as Green Jeans Media (how cool is that?!).
Enjoy learning more about John. There's a lot of great videos of John's to watch too. Admire on!
Jes: Hi John! I am so excited I can ask you some questions. First off, can you tell readers about your films and how you first started making animation?
John: Hi Jes, thank you so much for asking me! When I was nine I started collecting and projecting 8mm films, and on my 10th birthday the father of a friend of mine gave me his wind-up 8mm camera. I immediately set to work with paper cut-outs on my bedroom floor spending weeks making a stop motion film. This film came back from the lab completely black because I wasn’t using any light other than the one on my bedroom ceiling, which was pretty dim. But I tried again, with more light, and had more success. At the same time I also started making goofy movies with my family and friends, stopping the camera to make one person change into another and making them move without moving their legs - animating people.
When I went to film school in Bozeman, MT I fell in love with documentary and, aside from drawing and scratching directly on film, I left animation behind. In my late thirties, because of some heart issues I was born with, I had a heart attack, and that made me think about whether I was really doing what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up starting to draw again, and trying to figure out how to do animation in this age of computers.
In my movies I combine stop motion animation with computer animation and usually try to bring in some humor. The influence of Walt Disney and the Disney studio is so overwhelming in the field and art of animation, and that is okay, but I am always trying to imagine what animation would be like if that studio wasn’t so influential, so I look to the work of pre-Disney animators for guidance. I also have a portable stop motion set-up that I carry around on my bicycle to create stop motion animation with whoever might come by at public events. I am really interested in cities, what they look like, how they change, and particularly what happens when people really get out in the streets and together in buildings and share this special kind of city life.
I am interested in how you first started combining documentary and animation. When did this approach first start? Do you remember your first project where this intersection occurred? How has it grown since?
When I was in college in Montana, in 1986, I took a one-day workshop with camcorder documentarian Skip Blumberg, and after that all I wanted to do was make one-on-one video documentaries. I found a home in public access television, teaching video production and creating video documentaries, and completely stopped drawing and making any kind of animation.
When I returned to animation in my early 40’s, I tried to think about ways to combine frame by frame work with my documentary work. Some of the first animation projects that I did digitally were these “face films” in which I would ask people questions and take a series of photos of them and then I would synchronize those photos with their response to my question. I also made a long movie of a train trip I did of the U.S. and Canada by drawing animated loops about the trip on post it notes and photographing them on the train windows. I was doing this all about 15 years ago.
The animation station idea came about when I heard that one of the first Open Streets in Minneapolis was looking for artists to do interactive art activities on the street. I thought I might try to take my stop motion equipment onto the street and see what might come out of it, and then I combined the animation with interview responses, like I did in those earlier face movies. Now I’m making some documentaries about artists who I know that are mostly filmed with the camera but might have some animated elements. I’ve also started exploring some of the family things I have collected, particularly scrapbooks and photo albums, and trying to make animated collage films with them.
Can you explain how you prepare for events like this and what it looks like for someone passing by? How do you get people to participate?
I am a very introverted person, so it first takes me trying to mentally prepare to engage with other people, which is difficult for me, but also so rewarding when it happens. Although we build the movie frame by frame, I use software that allows me to repeatedly play the movie that we are working on, and it grows as we add more to it. So, people walking by can see what has already been done, and that helps them to see how it works. I think that just getting a chance to see how that slow animation process works and builds, and that it all looks a little goofy, can make it enticing for people to participate in. I give lots of people my spiel about how it works and not everyone wants to participate, but everyone pretty much leaves smiling. Plus, I just get so hyped up because as an introvert I kind of need to do that to be out in public and I think people either get scared away or as hyped as I am. I often have art supplies like paper and scissors, or chalk if I am outside on the street, and all those art supplies can be very enticing too, at least I think so.
MinnAnimate is a great festival that you started. What kind of advice do you have for individuals who are looking to start their own screening programs?
I almost think it might be necessary to make your own screening program if you make your own films. The truth I’ve found is that there are a lot of screenings and film festivals out there, but almost all of them are not going to want to show my movie. I submit my movies to dozens of film festivals and screenings every year and get in way less than 10% I started MinnAnimate partly because I wanted to show my own films, so I include one of my movies in with all the others I collect every year, which is great in itself, because it’s like making a little family or community of movies. I particularly enjoy the process of sequencing or ordering the films, so that the collection of them has a narrative arc about it. And these days, you just need to figure out a space to do some kind of screening, and a way to let other people know about it. I’m never exactly sure how it all seems to come together every year, but it does, and getting a chance to meet all those other animators and the people who come to watch makes the work and the stress way more than worth it. The only advice I have is just to think that you can do it.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
You can feel free to cut this one if it doesn’t fit in, but it’s more a challenge I face as a human being, which I am much more than I am an artist. But when I was around 13 years old I saw a car run over a dog while I was standing on a busy street waiting for a bus. I decided at that moment that I was never going to drive, and I still respect that decision - I have never had a driver’s license. I think that if you have a city where the majority of trips are taken by car, which is almost every city in the U.S., you have a city that is all about cars. If the majority of trips in your city are not taken by cars, by walking, by transit, by biking, by skateboarding, and so on, you have a city that’s all about people, which is thankfully what the majority of the cities in the world are like. I think it’s a real challenge to live in a city that’s all about cars, just a challenge to maintain sanity. I would just like to go on a podium for a second and ask everyone before they take a trip by car if they really need to do that, or if there might be other options. And with climate change, it seems like reducing that fossil fuel burning is also a pretty good idea too.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on driving, John. I totally share some of your opinions. I do drive a lot and I would love to change that. Next question: What do you love about being an artist?
I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me. It’s a way to get things out and release the things that might be bringing me down. That act of creation is really euphoric for me.
I think that creating beautiful things out of the stuff of our life is innate in us, and that if we don’t have creative outlets we’re lacking something profound. I’m glad I am able to access those things in myself.
Are you working on anything new?
Of course - I’m always working on ideas or making things. I do at least one silly drawing a day and am working on a few movie projects. Late last year I shot a few hours of video of an artist friend who has since passed away, so I have been grieving him by editing that video and creating animation inspired by him. I have an animated feature project (my fourth) that I hope to have finished some day, but I’m not sure in what year that day will be. I’m also starting to work on another animated short in a series I have been making called, “Hats of the New American Cinema,” which is kind of a set of silly tributes to these experimental filmmakers of post-WWII U.S. I also am getting ready to do a big participatory animation installation at Art-A-Whirl this year with support I received from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
What artists do you admire?
My parents told me that one of the first words I could say was “Louis.” I was born in late 1962, and in 1963 one of the biggest hits on the radio was Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly.” There was something about that voice and song that still calms me and makes me happy, and my parents said that whenever that song came on the radio I would get so excited and just say “Louis” over and over. So of course, they got me that record, and I would always play it when I was feeling sick or sad and I’d immediately feel better. Armstrong and other jazz artists, particularly John Coltrane and Sun Ra, have inspired me my whole life, giving me a sense of the spiritual and struggle and hope and improvisation.
I wasn’t much older when I saw the oddest and most amazing thing on TV and when I asked my mom what it was she said, “Charlie Chaplin.” I still remember that moment, and I still am so moved by the work of the silent comedians Chaplin and Buster Keaton, filmmakers who improvised their movies, making them without written scripts. Later I discovered the German Lotte Reiniger and the Argentinian Quirino Cristiano, pre-Disney animators who showed me how to make animated films with paper cut-outs and daring and little else. I also love to read, and among the many many writers I love is Raymond Queneau, who experimented in what text can do but also had a pretty strong sense of humor about it. Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Stan Brakhage were experimental filmmakers who embraced the fact that they were amateurs, that they made movies because of love, and that idea always guides me. My eyes were opened up to the community building possibilities of animation by the independent animator Helen Hill.
When they were at the Walker Art Center I got a chance to say hello both to Agnes Varda, one of my guides to the world of handheld documentary, and Joanna Priestly, who inspired me to take animation into the outdoors. And there are so many local and contemporary animators and filmmakers who I learn something from all the time that I would be hesitant to name, because there are so many and I would hate to leave someone out. And every time I work with young people, whether kindergartners or college students or any age in between, I learn new things about what we can do and how we can live, I just plain get inspired. And my favorite artist of all is my wife, Beth Peloff, who not only makes amazing movies herself but is always willing to give me useful notes to make my own work better.
Lately I’ve been trying to make about one film a year or so about an artist I know, generally people in their fifties and sixties, like me, who are just keeping on keeping on. I just like to hang out with my camcorder while they do what they do, because it is all so inspiring.
First, I am jealous that you were able to meet Agnes. Second, I really love Beth’s work. I am definitely going to ask her if I can feature her on this blog! John, where can we find you online?
My website is www.johnakre.com. There are literally hundreds of short movies there you can watch. I also post a picture once a day on instagram under johnmakre. And you can find out about the Sloppy Films Animation Station on Facebook at SFAnimationStation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you so much for doing this, Jes. I really appreciate it when people watch one of my movies and then have questions about it, or just have questions about what I do. Having to write or speak about it makes me think about it, and thinking about it gives me a chance to figure out what I really am doing. And I really appreciate you creating these illuminating and inspiring profiles!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.