Sarah Legault: “To be clear, I really didn’t know what I was doing…”
Sometimes it seems as if the industry and AI are transforming our world into a bland blend of smooth slickness and that our society is sinking into an endless well of shallowness. This is because the industry cherishes profit more than art. Sometimes I wonder if experimental, unusual art and music could prevent this growing soullessness because here there are people that ceaselessly transform life into something individual and magical. Everything they touch, do or plan is part of a story they have imagined, and every moment is spent in painting more details of this universe. These personalities stick out in a crowd because they do not adhere to anybody else’s rules or visions. They are not interested in advertising products or being part of an endless stream of passing trends. They have and love their own personal dream and work on making it come true. Because of being removed from the bubble of neo-liberalism they recognize the threat and wrangle with it in their art.
I have always enjoyed being part of this community because life is so much more fascinating and plentiful if it is original, and I have never stopped hoping that it could help open our societies eyes to the beauty of uniqueness which is not generated by money but instead by creativity.
Sarah Legault is such an artist. I met her on an experimental festival in Canada, the Electric Eclectics Festival about fifteen years ago and although this event, hosted by the artists Laura Kikauka and Gordon Monahan, attracts a very eccentric mixture of musicians, artists and audiences, Sarah stood out in the crowd. She was very beautiful but with an otherworldly quality and I was not surprised to hear that she was an art doll maker because she looked and dressed similarly to her slightly Victorian art pieces. I have always appreciated this form of creativity and was curious to see her work, so after the festival when the opportunity came up, I visited her studio in London, Ontario and was mesmerized. Her studio (a workshop filled with doll heads, scraps of ornate fabric and buttons), her house (beautiful ancient Victorian), her friends (slightly gothic musicians, designers, and artists), her dog (a large, black, long-haired apparition), her neighbors (Art Pratten of the Nihilist Spasm Band) all made up a fascinating, fairytale setting which reminded me of a Tim Burton movie. Sarah was managing an art doll gallery and gave me a tour of the current exhibition which fit into the delightful picture perfectly. We stayed in touch and after discovering that Sarah was also extremely talented in stop motion animation, I commissioned her to help animate a couple of my drawings for music videos. This collaboration was so much fun that in 2012 when I was commissioned to create a visual world for the new formation of Crime & The City Solution, I asked her to help animate my drawings for the live visuals and music videos. This collaboration was done mainly trans-continentally and was very rewarding. Sarah was quick and efficient. She was very apt in understanding what I was looking for and the work seemed effortless in comparison to some of the other stop motion artists I was hiring for the huge number of videos I was creating.
Looking back it was only a matter of time that at one point Sarah would start making stop motion films with her art dolls. The intricate amount of dedication she puts into her figures and sets is really one of a kind and she very quickly began winning awards for her short films. Her first stop-motion animation “Dear Love” earned the Best Animated Short Film award at the 2014 Toronto Independent Film Festival and in 2020 she won the Juno Award for Music Video of the Year with her clip for “Little Star” by iskwē.
Besides being a successful and acknowledged music video director, filmmaker, producer, stop-motion animator, builder and writer, Sarah continues supporting other doll makers and curates’ extensive exhibitions at the Tap Center for Creativity in London Ontario in regular intervals.
It is always a huge pleasure experiencing Sarah and being able to immerse oneself into her universe, which has remained as enchanting and breath-taking as two decades ago and I am delighted she could take the time to answer a few questions here. We are lucky to have artists that manifest such beautiful universes and hopefully they will manage to remind us to cherish the miraculous planet we live on.
Danielle de Picciotto: How did you start making dolls – what inspired you to move in that direction?
Sarah Legault: I started using polymer clay in high school for a project called “The Star Wars project”. For that particular project, I made a winged demon, chained down to a giant hand. A few years later I moved to London, Ontario (Canada). After being asked to take part in my first art show, I decided to return to polymer clay and I made my first art doll which was a scary clown with razor sharp teeth. I loved the reactions that I got from my friends when its head would swing back and forth with it’s toothy grin. I just had to continue making more strange dolls.
Eventually I met Jacqui Gallant, who was an art dollmaker living in the same city as myself. Jacqui opened my eyes to artists from around the world who were also creating these strange figures. Jacqui opened up Dollirium Art Doll Emporium, which was a specialized gallery that showcased likeminded art dollmakers from around the world. I managed the gallery and participated as an artist.
Did you teach yourself stop motion or did you study this craft/art form?
I taught myself stop-motion animation. While taking part in many art doll exhibitions, I knew that one day that I’d love to attempt to make a stop-motion animated film with my dolls. Overtime I would start to put wire armatures into my figures so they could become posable. Attempting to bring some sort of life into them. To be honest, I was very intimidated to attempt a stop-motion film. I had no idea how professionals made their sets, or the materials needed.
Eventually I traveled down to New York City, USA to the MoMA to see the Quay Brothers exhibition. Seeing their sets in person was a big game changer for me. I learned how some of their sets were made using forced perspective. I was surprised to see only the camera facing side of the set needed to look polished, while the backside could be glue/Popsicle sticks and so on (no one would see that side anyway). I went home and started to build my first forced perspective set and I filmed my first ever stop-motion animation titled Dear Love. To be clear, I really didn’t know what I was doing, but the important part was, hat I was enjoying all parts of the process. From writing a script, to building a set, making a puppet, animating and seeing the whole thing come to life. I feel like years after working in this craft, I’m still learning new techniques and skills everyday.”
What stop motion movies/directors do you think are especially interesting?
Off the top of my head, I really admire the Quay Brothers “Street of Crocodiles”, “The Calligrapher”, Jan Švankmajer’s “Meat Love, Alice”, Carlie Kaufman’s “Anomalis”a, Craig Fison’s “Mary and Max”, West Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, Isle of Dogs”, Travis Knight’s “Kubo and the Two Strings”, and finally Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pinocchio”. There are just too many wonderful films to choose from.
You have done short stop motion movies and won prizes with them.
I have been fortunate to have been rewarded prizes for my work. The first film that I ever made “Dear Love” (2013) won the best animated short film prize at the Toronto Independent Film festival in 2014. In 2019 I directed, built and animated a music video for an indigenous musician named iskwē for her song “Little Star”. The video premiered on Billboard.com, won the best animated short film prize at the Forest City Film Festival in London, Ontario Canada in 2019, it also won a Juno Award in 2020 for Music Video of the Year (which is the Canadian version of a Grammy), and Stingray Music rewarded me with their Rising Star Prize.
“Little Star” is about two separate murder trials of indigenous youth, Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, and how the Canadian media published victim blaming headlines during their murder trials. These trials publicly showed the struggle that Canada faces with systemic racism. Both of the accused were acquitted during their trials. Many protests followed nationwide.
The topic of this video was extremely sensitive. I wanted to make sure that my team and I were as respectful as possible to the subject matter. I had many meetings with iswkē discussing the song and stories of her culture. And spent a lot of time at the library in their archive sections looking up as much information as I could about the murder trials and what the media was publishing during their individual trials. I really felt like I went down a rabbit hole. If we were unsure about something, iskwē would reach out to people within the indigenous community for answers. This project was emotionally difficult, but it was also a very important educational experience for me to learn some of the struggles that indigenous people face in Canada.
iskwē’s wishes were to have an army of children be included in the video. It was important for me to hire a diverse team. Together we built 41 diverse stop-motion puppets to make the army of children. We built all of the sets with the newspaper articles that were published during the murder trials. And in the video, the children (from many cultural backgrounds) come together to stand with the victims in the story. The news articles then crumble to the ground and disappear, restoring the buildings to brick, and the fields and forests to nature.
Does music play an important role in your life?
Music has always played a huge role in my life. I simply can’t remember an early age when I wasn’t listening to music. When I was a child I took piano lessons. My first cassette tape that I remember being gifted was Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, which was a gift from my aunt and uncle for one of my birthdays. By the time I was 13 years old, I was addicted to collecting cassette tapes, LP’s, and CD’s. I would part from my friends on weekends to come home and record music videos onto VHS from a late night program called “LOUD”, which was a program that played alternative/industrial/gothic music, that was aired on a popular Canadian channel called “MuchMusic”. I listen to different genres of music according to the moods that I’m in/events around me. I’ve spent many nights cycling around neighbourhoods in the early hours of the morning when not a soul is in sight; listening to albums on repeat for many hours. My headphones always sooth any anxiety I feel when leaving my house solo. Music helps me think, it helps me feel and be inspired. And sometimes I like to dance… Music video work is by far, my favourite line of work. I get to help bring songs to life.
Is this creative area large ?Are there a lot of women making stop motion films? Is it more underground or are there also commercial stop motion doll movies?
Stop-motion animation can be an expensive art form and one that takes a ton of time, patience, and multidisciplinary skillsets. I feel because of this, the community is small worldwide. In Canada, we don’t have a lot of schools that teach this art form, nor are there many dedicated large scale stop-motion studios around. I do feel fortunate that I’ve had the chance to work on a large scale production, that employed a crew of 100 people and had 35 stop-motion stages running at all times. This particular production was pulling talent across multiple countries (due to the lack of talent in one concentrated location).
There are quite a few female stop-motion animators working on Ultra City Smiths (Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, AMC Elephant Pictures). They were some of the most talented animators I’ve ever seen and were a total joy to work with; Ghazal Tahernia & Lynn Dana Wilton (to name a few). Amanda Strong is another talented stop-motion director based in Canada, and Anu-Laura Tuttleberg based in Estonia.
There are quite a few underground stop-motion creators (LEGO animators have become really popular in recent years). Prior to the pandemic, I used to do workshops with kids in grades 7-8 as part of a program at an arts centre. Many of the children had already used stop-motion animated apps on their tablets and phones at some point in their life for personal use.
There are definitely large scale commercial production houses that are doing well, who’s focus is on block buster stop-motion animated feature films, television shows and commercials such as; Laika (“Coraline”, “Boxtrolls”, “Kubo”, “ParaNorman”), ShadowMachine (Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio”), Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit”), Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (“Robot Chicken”, “Ultra City Smiths”) to name a few. I actually worked for Stoopid Buddy Stoodios in 2021 as a practical lighting technician on 35 stages for their show “Ultra City Smiths” (AMC AMC+, Elephant Pictures, Created by Steve Conrad), and then again as a Motion Control Operator for an Air Canada Holiday Commercial.
What are you working on momentarily?
I just started to work on a stop-motion music video in collaboration with a well-known Canadian musician. I’m quite excited about this project.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue to expand my skills as a technician, animator, director, builder, designer. Learn as much as I can, get inspired, and share any knowledge that I have learned along the way to others. My hopes are to continue making music videos for various musicians.