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Emma De Swaef impresses with short animated documentaries

29 december 2008
It has been quite a year for Emma De Swaef. In June she graduated at the University College of Art and Design Sint-Lukas Brussels, with Woollen Dogs she won 2nd prize in the student film competition at the Holland Animation Film Festival (HAFF) and with Soft Plants she was nominated at the International Short Film Festival in Leuven (IKL). Emma is only 23 but she seems to have already found her voice as a documentary film maker, inspired by her talent for doll making.
Having just returned from a three month animation course at the Bristol School of Animation, Emma is delighted about her progress as an animation film maker. 'I learned a lot about character animation, about how to give soul to a character. Every week we started another exercise, varying from rather easy to extremely difficult, for example making a character think. For three months, we were really immersed in animation, I would advise this course to everybody.' Before entering the course in Bristol, Emma was rather self taught when it came to animation. At Sint-Lukas in Brussels she had chosen to study documentary film. In her second year, wondering what to do with an open assignment about portraying a street, she came up with the idea of using puppets. 'I have been making puppets and dolls since I was a kid, so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to make a documentary with them. The reactions were overwhelming'. Since then, in her film making Emma started out with research as for any other documentary and used animation to tell her story. 'At Sint-Lukas, teachers have been very supportive. They encouraged me to experiment because they felt that I was genuinely drawn to the world of animation and they realized that the combination of documentary and animation worked really well. And yes, coincidentally there was an overall trend... but that could only encourage me to pursue this path.' Earlier Emma made the (non animated) documentary Milk Teeth, Wolves Teeth. 'People liked this film too, but to me it felt far less personal as opposed to the films I made using animation. Because with animated films you are so much more in control of things'. In Woollen Dogs Emma combines two extremes in a very conscious way: a soft, pinky and woolly animation setting with a hard documentary topic. 'I wanted to find out how these two elements would interact. The film is about a delicate subject so in a way it was an exercise in respect. Working on a documentary about a tricky subject I sometimes found it difficult to film people's faces. But when I use animation, the people I portray know that they will remain anonymous and that their story will be set in a beautiful world.' The jury of the HAFF praised Emma's maturity and courage. 'But some people consider Woollen Dogs as unsufficiently narrative and therefore they cannot get into it, while others think this distant approach works wonderfully well'. Apparently, not the least: at the Syracuse Festival (New York), Woollen Dogs was nominated for best animation. For her graduation movie Soft Plants Emma drew inspiration from her own life. In order to finance her studies she did all kinds of jobs, mostly tedious and boring ones. 'I wanted to make a movie about working in an office, including all these small feelings of boredom and triviality. When I do job like that myself, I tend to get rather melancholic, but I like to see some poetry in it as well. And then I found a very interesting book from a Dutch professor called Remco Ensel about escapism in an office environment. When people see this film, they do not realize how much research is put into it. For some, it is just an animation. So in a way, it was all or nothing for me when I was confronted with a graduation jury expecting a documentary. But they loved it and I received excellent grades.' On January 1st, Emma starts working as a museum attendant. 'Yes, I have a strange fascination for this kind of work. It feeds my imagination and it also helps to keep both feet on the ground. In the meantime, I will be working on my next short, but it is too early to talk about that...'