Interview: Award-winning Animator & Atlanta Film Society Filmmaker-in-Residence Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong

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By Cameron McAllister

I first met Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong while working for the Atlanta Film Society in 2014. She was a Programming Associate at the time and I was Marketing Manager. By the time the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival took place, Ginger had completed and submitted an animated short film (along with Tamarind King, Shir Wen Sun and Yu Ueda), “Starlight,” that went on to win the ATLFF Animated Jury Prize. Winning that prize—just one of several that the film picked up—allowed the team to be longlisted for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film.

Ginger has gone on to be a force in Atlanta’s animation community. She is currently both Executive Director of ASIFA-SOUTH and an ATLFS Filmmaker-in-Residence, while also working with several organizations and on several independent projects. Though she certainly has many, many things to keep her busy, Ginger was gracious enough to answer a few questions!

Tell me about where you grew up and your education.
I grew up in Bangkok,Thailand where street food was cheap and plentiful and and definitely a top tourist destination where you can find anything from temples, nightlife, shopping, culture, etc. I studied at Ruamrudee International School where I took IB Art Higher Level and ran an anime club… geek culture. When I took a multimedia class where we were working in Macromedia Director, I was hooked on animating things and then started searching out for additional resources for multimedia and took extra courses and did a lot of Googling. Then I completed my B.Tech in Computer Graphics and Multimedia at Bangkok University on a 3-year full scholarship and graduated top of my faculty. Currently, I am completing my MFA in Animation at Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta.
What first drew you into animation?
What got me into animation was actually my love for comic books, especially Japanese manga. Originally I took up reading manga to improve my Thai as I was studying in an international school where English was the norm of communications so my cousin got me some comic books that were translated into Thai to help me improve my Thai diction. The stories and the heroes going through all sorts of adventure and hardship brought me into another world and so I wanted to become a comic artist. But as I have a bit of ADHD, I was having a bit of a hard time focusing on sequential art and once I tried out animation in Flash program, I was hooked. I grew up with cartoons and comics and just never grew out of it and instead started to grow more passionate about storytelling and animation.
Do you have interests within the film world outside of animation?
Definitely. I think all types of storytelling is engaging and actually important to the aggregation of information for better storytelling. I love watching documentaries, sci-fi films, comedy stand up, and the diverse shows on Netflix. I also like outdoor activities such as rock climbing, all kinds of dancing especially swing and Bachata, reading business books, and trying out new things. My other passion is in experimenting with technology and tools to see how I can make a pipeline more efficient or unique. I have all sorts of interest that don’t match with each other. I love stopmotion, fabrications, and especially using the laser cutter. There’s just something so satisfying about the tactile qualities of stop motion and a sense of accomplishment. I also like researching about e-commerce and because I have background in web and interactive, I like reading articles on SEO, UI, design and other very very geeky articles. I inhale blogs such as Laughing Squid, Web Design Ledger, and books by Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin. I’m a ‘learnaholic.’ It’s also interesting because when people ask me ‘what do you do?’ it’s a bit hard because by specialty I am an ‘animator’ but I have also engaged in a variety of odd jobs and activities that I have a pretty decent skill set for. I also love cooking a lot and like experimenting with ingredients, researching storage of food, how to cultivate them, and the art of plating. I am a huge food network fan. I also love animals and watching cute animal clips to de-stress.

What style(s) of animation do you prefer to make and what style(s) do you prefer to watch?

My favorite style is actually stop motion because I always feel like I’m playing and don’t need to be in front of the computer for a prolonged period of time. A majority of my work is digital and in AfterEffects due to client demand but stop motion has a special place in my heart because I love miniatures and small sized things. Because they are so cute, it’s almost therapeutic to me the same way I feel about cute puppy clips online. It makes me feel like a giant playing with teeny weeny toys when there are a certain scale.

Tell me about your experience making STARLIGHT and going on to win the ATLFF Jury Prize and be Oscar long-listed.

Making “Starlight” was interesting as it was a 10-week class project from a class at SCAD called Short Short supervised by Matt Maloney. In this class, we were a group of 4 that worked on one animated short for 10 weeks from preproduction to completion. The assignment was to search out a location in Atlanta and to use it as inspiration of how it ‘felt’ to create an animation. Me and three other co-directors Tamarind King, Yu Ueda, and Shir Wen Sun went out to various places in Atlanta and the place we agreed on that caught our attention the most was Starlight Drive-in movie theater because being mostly from different countries, none of us had ever been to a drive through before. We also happened to meet a feral cat there that became the star of our animation leading us through the journey from the pov of the cat. Luckily, our situation may be a bit different to others as we were all are very tight knit friends as Sun and I were roommates and Tam was living right across our room in the same apartment and Yu came to sleepover regularly so we basically spent a majority of our time together working in the same room on this project. We went to Starlight twice with a sound recorder to catch the ambience, do research on the surrounding and people, and absorb the feel of the theater and then got a  team of additional 10+ animators together to work on this film. It was quite intense as we did have some conflict on the pre-production storyboarding as we spent a good amount of time working out the vision and direction of the narrative but in the end we were able to work out elements of what we all wanted into the animation and that made us a stronger team even today as we all are still working together.

When we won the ATLFF Jury Prize, it was quite a surprise and a good shock. After receiving the award, we went outside the venue and started screaming. “Starlight” also did really well in the film festival circuit, won a couple more awards, screening internationally with festivals such as Pictoplasma and found distribution with New European Film Sales and was also screened on broadcasting for CANAL+ Poland.
What are you working on now?

Currently I’m working on closing an animated segment with my team for the “Little Mermaid” feature live action directed by Blake Harris featuring featuring Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine, William Moseley & Poppy Drayton that will be on Netflix by the end of the year, an animated lyric music video for actor and country singer Brad Carter, and finishing up my stop-motion animated short for my thesis (which I’ve been very slow and neglectful of due to other projects). I’ve also working on an unannounced animated short where I’m working on Adobe Character Animator to integrate motion capture by webcam into the process and experimenting with the pipeline of real time animation. By the end of next year I am looking to incorporate Unreal engine, use of photogrammetry, and other tools to work towards small production pipeline as close to real time as possible.

As the executive director of ASIFA-SOUTH, we’ve also recently had our first 3-day Animation Conference and Festival that I’ve worked across board with all the different teams from business, marketing, to programming and that was a lot of work. We’re also having our International Animation Day screening coming up October 28th that we are preparing for with a free public screening at the Landmark Midtown Cinema Theater thanks to our sponsors and new full-service agency and production house in Atlanta, Black Rainbow. Today I also just got home from organizing the ASIFA-SOUTH monthly mixer, which featured our guest Cody Hernandez, a very talented and insightful previs artist at the Third Floor Studio with credits on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Spider-man: Homecoming,” who came over to give some young artists some industry tips and mingle with the creative crowd in Atlanta.

What is ASIFA-SOUTH and what do you hope to accomplish during your time as Executive Director?
ASIFA-SOUTH in the South US Chapter of Association Internationale du Film (International Animation Society) affliated with UNESCO, which hosts over 30 other chapters around the world including ASIFA Hollywood, famous for the ANNIES AWARD. We are a non-profit 501c3 headquartered in Atlanta and run a year round program of workshops, panel, mixer and host the ASIFA-SOUTH animation festival and conference. We also work with the Atlanta Film Society to help jury and review animation selection for their Oscar-eligible animated shorts category.

Our four main mission is to increase artist visibility and exposure in the South, support of STEAM education, increase of entrepreneurship for artist, and promotion of diversity and inclusion. Our juried Southern block program consisting of the best animation in South US is shipped off to a trade program with other ASIFA chapters around the world. Last year, we had an extended screening of our International Animation Day (IAD) program in various locations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, China, and more. This year, we are also extending our IAD screening block to our partner at our North Carolina location. We also offer free animation workshops to schools and libraries such as the Oakcliff Elementary school and Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy. We also have a signature annual Business Basics for Creative workshop trademarked by our partner and Entertainment lawyer Lee Morin that focuses on low cost masterclass for educating creatives looking to start their own business and branding.

Short term wise, we have just gone into partnership with Listen Up audio studio to work on an ASIFA-SOUTH podcast and are in the midst of discussion further collaborations. We want to get to a place where we can get the volunteers in our committee paid so it is more fair and sustainable. Currently, we are a volunteer-run organization with people sacrificing their own time and money for the same vision. We also want to get our yearly calendar up to par for our members to gain more benefits, make sure our festival keeps getting better in quality, and create a good solid scaling plan for those that interested in joining us and involving more of the community.

Long term wise, the vision that we have for ASIFA-SOUTH is the same as those in my committee as we work to try and build a community for creatives to leverage the power back to the content creators and encourage artist to own their IP property and maximize it so they can make more than a living but to thrive. We are looking in further phrases to add an animation market to our festival and give creatives a platform to adapt to the fast changing world of today to raise industry standards and also look beyond the format of animation today to understand that media is no longer a passive format limited to a screen and to brace themselves for multi linear storytelling as well as real time pipelines. We also want to expand to cover more of the South and enable artists and creatives to have their own voices and reach their audience base more efficiently through crowdfunding platforms such as Paetron. We also want to make sure most of all that creatives are compensated fairly for their work and change the view of how “art should be free” because exposure does not pay rent. Most of all, we would like to make sure this is a global effort and the main reason we chose to affiliate ourselves with ASIFA International in hopes that this movement of raising industry standard and erasing the epidemic idea of being a “poor starving artist” globally. We also want animation to become a medium of storytelling that shines a light on stories that matter addressing current day issues and sharing different perspectives.

Aside from your film projects and ASIFA-SOUTH, how else are you connected within the Atlanta film community?
Other than with ASIFA-SOUTH, I am also currently a Filmmaker-in-Residence with the Atlanta Film Society, helping out with animation related panels for the Creative Conference and workshops. ASIFA-SOUTH does not work alone but with partners such the Georgia Productions Partnership, Georgia Game Developer Association, Art is King 501c3, My Animation Life, and more. I help jury for a lot of events and panels in and out of Atlanta. I’ve juried for the Women in Film and Television, Atlanta (WIFTA) showcase, Best of Global Game Jam at the Georgia State University site, done panels for Momocon, Dragoncon, Terminus Conference + Festival, SCAD Animationfest, Google Developer Group Atlanta, Adobe User Group Atlanta and involve myself with events such as judging for the upcoming Supernova South Sharpie Slam competition. I attend a variety of meetup when available and regularly promote events to others such as Film Bar Monday.

The industry in Atlanta is small and those that in one organization usually overlap or are involved with other organizations as well. I make it my business to get to know new studios in Atlanta, including animation, post production, ad agencies, and just what entities are around because I’m a very curious person and also like connecting people. I’ve also produced a stop motion short with the SCAD Stopmotion club with a grant from the Puppetry Center for their XPT showcase, interned at Floyd County Studio, Moxie USA, and did some felting for Primal Screen for their Nicktoon seasonal promo. I’ve also helped refer animators to different studios by request as well as some filmmakers and recruiting agencies.

What do you think is the best thing about Atlanta’s animation industry currently?
I would have to say the community and how the organizations (not just animation) are willing to help and support each other. The other thing is how we are beginning to see more animated content being produced in Atlanta such as from Floyd County.

What is needed most (in the current Atlanta animation industry)?
Stability but that might be a stretch although it seems to be getting better. Also, a standardized way to help animators understand contracts and their rights. We don’t have a union in Atlanta and that is understandable but I would say some kind of ombudsman or an organization to help look after the well being on behalf of the animators (haha… I guess kind of like a union). Better support of business foundation in schools for creatives and on how to capitalize on social media as well as how to market original content. But mostly stability for animators when they have to go into hiatus. Also a way to support animation original content such as distributors and broadcasting seeking animated contents. There is also less support for the animation field when it comes to governmental policies. Luckily the post production incentive is hitting soon beginning of next year so we’ll have to see how that will be in the long run but there is still much needed support for the smaller content creators that won’t be able to utilize the incentive. I’ve emailed the Atlanta Mayor’s office before asking for support for the animation industry and ASIFA and while they commended the effort, they never responded back after.

Is Atlanta a good city for independent animators?
Currently yes, but in the future we’ll have to see how gentrification might affect this if the pay does not reflect the workload. Atlanta itself is great in the fact that it is still maturing with room for growth to dictate how the industry can be but we need to see about growing more of the community support and also having grants for organizations that are trying to exactly that. As long as we remember what our mission is and looking to really help out the creatives over just merely focusing on business growth regardless.

Whose animation work do you most admire?
This is a hard question as I have a lot of favorites but the one that really captured my attention as a kid was “The Nightmare Before Christmas” because it was such a weird and dark cartoon that I did not understand. As I grew older I started to understand more of the content but as a kid, it was just crazy. Presently, the animation that clench my heart the most is “Grave of the Fireflies” by Isao Takahata from Studio Ghibli. The experience was so real and I often hear stories from my own family about how they were running away during the war and immigrated to Thailand so it made a huge impact. It was also easier to watch as an animation but it did not try to coddle anyone and I felt like it was so relevant to storytelling from different pov that can cause empathy. It wasn’t exactly black and white or had a happy ending. For current series I am watching, “Bo Jack Horseman” really deserves some kind of award for its narrative. The stories it tell is not pandering and has an element of real to it.

Whose film work do you most admire?
Michaela Coel for her series “Chewing Gum” because it was ridiculously funny and her performance was outrageous. I felt that the entire series was so raw and with such a great comedic energy. It’s really refreshing and the pacing was really good.

Wes Anderson for his style because it is so distinct. You can tell a Wes Anderson film a mile away but also because I love the composition, the way the characters are so dry, and the overall picturesque look and feel that is sometimes so detached from emotions but has such a lovely overall feel to it that feel very British humor to me somehow.

Who would you most like to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Wes Anderson. Have you seen the trailer for his animated film “Isle of Dogs?” The level of polish, the story, the timing, and most of all the fact that it is stop motion really draws me in. I already love Wes Anderson’s color palette choices and his style and since “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I feel like he fits into the animation world so seamlessly.

Whose talent would you steal if you could?
Talent is sometimes hard earned practice and effort combined. I wouldn’t want to steal but if I could have someone’s talent, it would be Robert Lang’s ability as a physicist and an origami artist to incorporate more intricate techniques of mechanical movements into my animation. I’ve always been fascinated by origami and the process of turning a sheet of paper into a completely different structure through nondestructive transformation. It’s amazing how you can use it to create and engineer bridge and real world structures.

All time favorite animation?
I can’t really answer this one. It would be like choosing rice or noodles.  But “The Land before Time” probably.

All time favorite film?
Really hard question but I would say “Jurassic Park.” I must have watched “Jurassic Park” and its sequel over 20 times.

Anything else we should know?
Outside of Atlanta, I also work with ACM SIGGRAPH as a strategy group advisor with the Outreach committee working to define internal SIGGRAPH network and external partners as well as externally to facilitate strong and clearer communication, retain and strengthen current relationships, and build new relations. I’m also the producer for the upcoming SIGGRAPH Asia Computer animation festival working the the Chairs, conference management, and all aspects of operation for the festivals including industry panels that will be hosted in Bangkok, Thailand at the end of November. I also run a blog called the Needy Animator providing external resources for animators about film festivals, internship tips, and more which currently has 25k+ hits a month and 800k hits since Sept 2014. 

Find out more about Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong at her website.

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