Steven Subotnick‘s film Hairyman began as an interpretation of an American folk tale from the South, but the idea evolved in an unexpected fashion that weaves back and forth between narrative and abstract imagery. The film’s striking images were created on underlit etched cels rubbed with lithographic ink, as well as some scenes that are simply ink-on-paper.
Subotnick, an independent filmmaker and a teacher at Rhode Island School of Design, is a graduate of the experimental animation program at CalArts, which was run by the late Jules Engel. In this video interview with Engel, he talks about how he came to accept Subotnick specifically into the school’s animation program.
Here is some background about Hairyman from an interview that Subotnick did with Lumen Eclipse:
‘Hairyman’ was shot on film. By the way, I had to shoot it three times, because there was a burr in the camera’s transport mechanism which kept scratching the negative. The film was inspired by a folk tale from Appalachia called ‘Wiley and the Hairy Man.’ It was about a wild, half-devil, wild man, who lives in the forests and eats children who wander in. A little boy named Wiley, with the help of his grandmother, tricks the Hairy Man three times, which magically makes Wiley safe. I developed three characters based on the folk tale: Hairyman, of course, and I changed the boy to a little girl, and the grandmother. And, rather than tell the story — I did actually storyboard the story several times, but I realized I was more interested in what the characters were rather than the folk tale. I began animating the characters improvisationally – like improvisational theater. When I accumulated enough scenes like this, I began editing them, and working with sound. I kept rearranging sequences until particular cuts began to suggest a narrative flow. So the narrative was woven out of the original improvisational scenes.
For the sound, I worked with Caleb Sampson. He was a sound designer who had worked with other independent filmmakers, like Flip Johnson and Amy Kravitz. He was one of the founding members of the Alloy Orchestra. I met with him actually for an earlier film. I went to his studio with my film, and he said ‘I found this zither recently.’ It was missing strings and it was all out of tune, but he began strumming the zither. We played the film, and the two of us just kept making noises with the zither and our voices, watching the film. At one point, he started screaming and grunting while he played. Well, it didn’t work for the film I was scoring, but later, when I was working on ‘Hairyman,’ I pulled out Caleb’s screaming and zither. His sound was a crucial element to ‘Hairyman’.