Based in New York, Julia Pott makes animations that follow dark, often depressing subject matter through a host of weird and cute characters.
After finishing a degree at Kingston in illustration and animation, Pott started work directing music videos and ads, but found she missed animation. Her decision to start an MA at the RCA was prompted by a desire to focus on her storytelling ability, as well as facing up to some weaknesses. The animator explains, “There were so many skills that I felt weak in, they had become these demons to me. Up until my MA I had just avoided them. Once I was there it felt like a wasted venture if I didn’t battle them head on.”
This head-on battle took form as Pott’s RCA thesis film: a short piece entitled Belly, inspired by a story she had read about a whale whose sonar signal was slightly higher than the rest of her species. “They had a recording of her haunting wail, and it was so moving,” say Pott, “I wanted to take this haunting noise and use it to vocalise an internal longing – it became the crux of the film.”
Pott used Belly as an opportunity to face her list of fears all in one go. “My logic was that if I faced so many of my weaknesses at once I would become numb to the fear of failure.” As a result of this rigorous discipline, Pott attributes much of the development of her personal style and work process to Belly.
On leaving the RCA, Pott signed as a director to Hornet Inc in New York, and moved to Brooklyn. This gave her the opportunity to work on commercial projects with clients like Hermes, MTV and Toyota, as well as still developing her personal work. She recently released a new short film in collaboration with Channel 4’s Random Acts, entitled The Event.
One of the most striking features of the animator’s work is the dark subject matter of her short films. Pott maintains that her work doesn’t necessarily match her personality, but admits that there’s catharsis to be found in working with disturbing subjects. “I think it’s an aspect of my character that I can work through creatively and get out of my system.” she says. “I have an outlet for it so it doesn’t surface when I’m in public and make me seem unstable.” Part of the disturbing nature of her films harks back to childhood, and Pott explains that when she’s making films she uses the same thought process she had as a child. “As kids I think we are more willing to immerse ourselves in horror and gore and casual death – I remember being fascinated by quicksand, ghosts, being beheaded. As I got older I became less immune to the spooky, not wanting to embrace the strange as openly. Injecting the uncanny into a story can bring back that childlike love affair with the unknown.”
Many of her films also ignore the fixed rules of gravity, and laws of nature, featuring characters losing limbs with no apparent ill effect, and breathing underwater. “As a child the laws of physics are so much more ambiguous.” she explains. “It seems perfectly feasible that you could walk through walls or push through another person. These physical devices became a great way of expressing the characters’ internal dialogue and creating a unique world for them to live in.”
For Pott, the unexpected darkness of her subject matter works both as a narrative device to move a story forward, but also as a way of provoking a reaction in the viewer. In her own words, “It makes you feel inexplicably weird, and that’s wonderful.” However, her use of the ‘cute’ factor is what softens the blow of many of her films, and prevents them from becoming unrelentingly bleak. She explains, “There needs to be a moment of reprieve – an element of humour to take you away from the intensity for a moment, otherwise it can overwhelm you. The fact that human situations are acted out by more imaginary counterparts can make the narrative more digestible.”
Despite her history in animation, Pott doesn’t necessarily see this as the only path her storytelling work can take. “I think the crux of what I enjoy doing is narrative,” she says, “and that doesn’t necessarily have to live in the world of cute, animated characters.”