Not over the Hill

On Jan. 4, 2007, at the age of 36, animator Helen Hill was murdered, for no known reason, in her home in the midst of hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. This tragic end exists in stark contrast to the rest of her life, which was spent creating vibrant, whimsical, short animations and, moreover, inspiring countless others to delve headlong into the craft.

This week, Winnipeg’s Cinematheque will celebrate Hill’s legacy with The House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill, a retrospective of her work introduced by Leslie Supnet, a local illustrator and animator. Supnet, who has screened her own short films across the world — most recently at Toronto’s Images Festival — shares similar lo-fi animation techniques with Hill, and cites her stridently DIY approach as an inspiration.

“She was a true DIY artist, she did everything herself,” said Supnet. “She processed her own film, shot her own work, made characters and sets and involved all of her friends and members of her community.”

Hill began by making small-scale, crafty animations on Super 8 in grade school and continued the practice for the rest of her life. Although her artistic technique was rough to say the least, her work has universally been described as incredibly heartfelt and charming. After receiving a BA from Harvard and Masters from The California Institute of the Arts she eventually relocated to Halifax to teach filmmaking at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design. She also became involved with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and, through this, left a major impression upon a great deal of Canadian independent filmmakers.

Moreover, it was Hill’s gung-ho, spirit to the wind creative sensibility that Supnet believes also “inspired many Canadian filmmakers, like Mike Marynuk [whose animated documentary Cattle Call screened at Sundance last year], who [she] looks up to. This sort of progression of influence amongst filmmakers is a great legacy.”

Supnet says this influence extended to at least one other big name in Canadian experimental filmmaking.

“Philip Hoffman actually brought up the idea when he was in town for WNDX, as Hill was a student of his at his Film Farm [an experimental filmmaking retreat in southern Ontario] years ago,” she related.

The House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill is set to feature 15 of Hill’s acclaimed short works, the sum of which reveal an artist unconstrained by genre or formal considerations.

“She used every animation technique out there,” Supnet notes. “Most animators use one form, perfect it, and then stick with it for their entire careers. By contrast, Helen did it all: structural work, puppets, claymation, traditional flat animation under cameras with paper and pixilation.”
But as interesting as her technique was, Supbet believes that Hill’s enduring legacy is engendered by a much deeper appeal. Indeed, “Beyond the process, Helen’s films are just full of love. It’s cheesy but you can really tell she was in love with animation and storytelling [ . . . ] and happy about life.”

The House of Sweet Magic: The Animated Films of Helen Hill screens at 7 p.m., on Dec. 5, at the Winnipeg Cinematheque, 100 Arthur Street. Admission is free!