That's how Helen Hill works, making use of whatever materials around her and her own talents. After delighting audiences at last year's New Orleans Film Festival and capturing the New Orleans Video Access Center's Louisiana Video Shorts award with her poignant animated short, Mouseholes (a quirky memorial to her dying grandfather), the new New Orleanian decided to show people how easy it is to make movies.
She's done just that with Madame Winger. And while the 31-year-old gears up for the premiere of her film at this week's Festival, she will also present her new book, Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbook, on Sunday at Zeitgeist. Filled with wire-bound, photocopied pages and either hand- or typewritten, Recipes is a collection of ideas she's gathered over time from other filmmakers who have shared their best filmmaking tips.
It's all in the service of showing that using film to make movies doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. "I like to work with film, and I do really cheap, low-budget techniques," says Hill, who moved to New Orleans in January from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her husband, Paul Gailiunas. "There's this myth that video's cheaper than film. But what our film's about, and what the book is all about, it's just that you can make really cheap films, really low-budget, cheap films."
In Mouseholes, Hill featured different techniques -- the use of paper cutout puppets and puppets made from clay and cloth; drawn animation, pixillation -- to convey what became a tone poem for a dying relative. She used those same techniques in Madame Winger. And just like she did with Mouseholes, Hill was able to complete her work with grant money -- something she's still learning to find in New Orleans. Mouseholes cost less than $10,000, while the budget for Madame Winger (also shot with on Super 8 film) checked in at under $5,000. "A lot of filmmakers don't realize that film's just like photographic film. You can go buy those chemicals, and take a roll of film and dump it in the chemicals. It's a do-it-yourself technique instead of sending the [processing] lab your money."
Hill has been doing it herself since she was 11 years old when, inspired by a visit by an animator to her school in Columbia, S.C., the fifth-grader made her first movie, The House of Sweet Magic. "I built a candy house, a gingerbread house. You're looking at the house, and it builds itself. And this little monster comes and eats it. And then it snows. And that's it." After taking animation classes at Harvard, she ultimately got a graduate degree in experimental animation from California Institute of the Arts.
While living in Halifax, Hill and Gailiunas helped start a film co-op while getting involved in social-activist projects like Food Not Bombs, and became darlings of the community's art scene. But a post-college trip to New Orleans inspired them to move south as soon as Gailiunas graduated from medical school. Now the couple hopes to do many of the same things they did in Halifax, including starting a film co-op and getting involved in social activism while taking care of their cat and pet pig, Rosey.
They make a frightfully cute family, and Hill's voice, a highlight of Mouseholes, is a sing-songy hodge-podge the reflects both her South Carolina upbringing and Canadian residence. While her voice is absent from Madame Winger, she recruited her aunt, who adds a Southern elegance to the 8-minute film.
Her animation style bears that same childlike quality: simplistic and soft, with thick lines and bright colors in her drawings and a fascination with puppets and animals that partly came from summer visits to her relatives' farms across the border in North Carolina.
"I really think animation is lots of fun, and I like to do it," Hill says. "I like work with different materials, from puppets to drawing to objects, to create a world. I guess like any movie, but with animation it comes from your artwork. You know how people say they go to a movie to escape because they're in a different world for a little while? With animation you can create a different world even from your drawings and your art, and the things that you make yourself, too."