Joanna Quinn is an acclaimed animator and director whose films have been nominated for three Oscars and have won three Emmys and four BAFTAs (among many other accolades). Caragh Medlicott caught up with Joanna over Zoom to hear more about Affairs of the Art – which was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 2022 Oscars and BAFTAs – and an exhibition celebrating her life in animation which is currently showing at the Senedd.
Caragh Medlicott: Could you start by talking a little bit about your path into the art world, was it always something you felt confident you could make a career out of, and was animation always the ultimate end goal?
Joanna Quinn: I’ve always been a drawer. I’ve always done it ever since I was little. It’s probably because I was an only child, with parents who were in the process of splitting up, so there was a lot of hiding away and drawing. I drew all the time, and I was known for that. I don’t think I’d ever thought specifically about a career in the arts, I just thought, I want to do this forever. I was very positive about it, it was very natural. My parents, because they were split up, I think I was a bit spoiled and they were just like, Anything you want! There was never pressure to become a banker or a secretary or anything like that. They were very encouraging, my mum always said to do whatever makes you happy.
Caragh Medlicott: I wonder if things would’ve been different if you didn’t have that, if it would’ve felt less possible.
Joanna Quinn: Yeah, definitely. I just had no doubt that I would be able to do what I wanted to do. I mean, my dad, he was a writer working in advertising and I think he worked with a lot of poor illustrators who went from job to job. So when I said I wanted to go to college and do illustration, I think – because he wasn’t an artist, he was coming more from a literary point of view – he was quite negative about it. So I did have to ignore him, but that was okay because I was living with my mum.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s interesting, too, what you say about drawing as an escape. I know Robin Williams used to say that because he was an only child, he’d end up doing all these different voices while he played as a kid – obviously that fed into what he went on to do.
Joanna Quinn: Definitely. I mean, I was quite quiet, and I wasn’t very good academically in school, but I was popular because I could make people laugh. And I could do drawing so everyone was always enchanted by that. But then whenever I had to do maths or anything like that I was terrified. I sort of scraped through my exams but I just thought, Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got my drawing. I do think because there were problems when I was little, I just focussed on my little world which I could control and disappear into.
Caragh Medlicott: What were you drawing, made up stuff or from life?
Joanna Quinn: Well, actually, it was mainly people. And when we were living in our first flat, when I was seven, my mum bought me an easel chalkboard. So I put it in the window and I was drawing the cars outside, just whatever I could see. And then of course I’d have to rub it out. Sort of like animation, you know? So from a very early age, I learned not to be very precious.
Caragh Medlicott: So, you weren’t getting attached even then.
Joanna Quinn: Yeah. And also, I think, because I was a little bit spoiled, I was allowed to have my bedroom covered in drawings. They were all over the walls and I can still remember my favourite drawing which was right by my bed. I used to lie down and look at it. It was of a scuba diver and I was very proud of it – of the perspective on the goggles. But it was mainly people and animals I did – no landscapes. Nothing like that.
Caragh Medlicott: I wonder what the experience of having worked in advertising and commercials is like – do you think it hones your craft to work within constraints, or is it the other way round, does it take up creative energy?
Joanna Quinn: Probably a bit of both, there are pluses and minuses. A lot of people focus on the minuses when they talk about doing commercial work. Being the optimist I am, I think the good things outweigh the bad things. The good things for us [Joanna Quinn and her creative partner Les Mills] are that we can employ a lot of people, and do a lot of teaching – we’re keen teachers. It means we get graduates in and lots of work experience with college and schools. We did that for about thirteen years and employed quite a lot of people over that period of time.
The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t doing animation, I’d be working in Tesco, or a job that would only be about money to pay my rent. And so instead of muddling it up with the idea that this was my creative outlet, I think of it as my equivalent of making money to earn a living. And still in a lovely creative environment, doing lovely creative stuff. But ultimately, when you’re doing commercial work, it’s somebody else’s ideas that you’re working on. It’s almost like a service industry, in a way, you know the original ideas aren’t yours but you do your best with it. I’d try not to feel disgruntled about having to work with somebody else’s ideas. I think that’s where people get really uptight about working commercially, because they feel like they’re not fulfilling their creative potential.
Caragh Medlicott: And that’s when the bitterness sets in.
Joanna Quinn: Definitely, and I’ve met a lot of bitter directors in animation. People who are making good money from the commercial stuff too. That’s why you’ve got to keep it separate – the personal work and the professionalism on the other side. Don’t get me wrong, I like putting in as many of my ideas as I can, but ultimately it’s a job at the end of the day.
Caragh Medlicott: In Affairs of the Art, your long-time character Beryl describes herself as “besotted with drawing” – that very much seems to be your position, too. I wonder what it is about drawing that you love so much, or is it too insticuntal to word in that way?
Joanna Quinn: Funnily enough, I was teaching a life drawing class yesterday and we were talking about, you know, drawing and mark making and lines – how to hold the pencil and how not to hold the pencil. With a pen it’s just a simple line and when you draw you’re trying to create a three dimensional shape on paper, and using the pencil and all its qualities to try and achieve that. And as I was teaching, I was just thinking, I love drawing so much, you know, I just love going into the drawing. I enjoy the touch of the pencil on the paper – the actual physicality of drawing. So there’s that.
But then there’s also what you create. One of the little test ideas we did – that they always do at art school, too – is drawing without looking at the paper. At the end we put all the drawings on the floor and all of them were lovely. Beautiful lines, purely from the right side of the brain. No worries there. So it’s looking at that and thinking, this is what we’re trying to achieve but with looking at the same time. Finding that organic quality but while you deliberately create, that’s what becomes difficult.
Caragh Medlicott: Because that’s when the analytical brain comes in, the self-critic?
Joanna Quinn: It is that. When I’m drawing I’m trying, constantly, to be as right-hand brainy as possible and not worry too much. In general life I can be a bit anal, but drawing I want to go off on a tangent and be free.
Caragh Medlicott: Zen like, then?
Joanna Quinn: Well, I’m one of those people that works at night. I find it much easier to get into that zone because the phone’s not ringing, everyone else is asleep… Except when we were working for Americans! But it’s that quiet which helps you drift away. You don’t have the weight of expectations.
Caragh Medlicott: Affairs of the Art is concerned, thematically, with obsession and compulsion. Do you think obsession is especially necessary for an artform like animation which is so labour intensive?
Joanna Quinn: Absolutely. Today I was sent a little clip of an animator who does embroidery animation. Some of my friends think I’m mad, and I’m like, if you think I’m mad, look at this! It’s a complete obsession. To figure out one image and then another, that repetitive act – you’re creating something over and over and over and over again. And it takes a really, really long time. So you can’t be in a hurry. You can’t have other things to do.
It’s the same with teaching as well. Seeing the students that apply to do animation, there are a lot of loners because it’s a lonely job. I knew an animator who couldn’t decide between photography and animation. He was one of those talented people who was good at everything and he was handsome, too. And he said, I’m too handsome to be in animation! So he chose to do photography. He said I have to be with people, I can’t be locked in a room with this face!
Caragh Medlicott: Maybe a career best suited to introverts, then.
Joanna Quinn: Yes. Lots of introverts!
Caragh Medlicott: I wanted to talk about your collaborative process with Les Mills, too. I wonder what the shared artistic process looks like sequentially, what goes first and what comes last, or is the whole thing pretty fluid?
Joanna Quinn: It’s very fluid. Les is a storyteller. So he’s got lots and lots of stories, and has had a very rich life full of madness. Plus, he’s got a fantastic imagination. So there’s lots of vivid imagery, and he’s from an arts background – he did fine art in Cardiff College of Art, and then went to America, and then was in the art scene in New York – so he came back with lots of stories. He’s brilliant.
So, once we have a story I take it and storyboard it. First of all in sketches – I’ve got loads and loads of sketchbooks – to come up with ideas for characters and stuff. So for the last film, the character Beryl obviously already existed because she’s a recurrent character, but her sister didn’t really exist. Me and Les have been together for years so he constantly challenges me – he can be quite critical, pointing out when I slip into my safety area. That’s when he says, Why don’t you try it from this angle? I’ll do it and it’s always better. It’s a challenge for me which is good.
So we’re very much involved together all the way through, his role is the storytelling but also helping with the design. He’s really good with colour so he does the colours for every scene – it becomes the blueprint for the overall colour palette. It’s very much a team effort.
Caragh Medlicott: Has he ever brought you a story you haven’t wanted to work on?
Joanna Quinn: Yeah, yes. There’s been times I’ve looked at a story and just said, Oh my god, how many characters! Because I’m thinking visually. I can actually be quite negative with new ideas initially. It takes quite a while for me to get into that and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Probably because animation is so labour intensive and you’ve got to be quite realistic about what you can achieve within your lifetime.
It’s something people who aren’t from an animation background aren’t always aware of. I did a job once and the overall director was from theatre – so very, very different. He was a writer and it was all about playing with the language and he was enjoying that, playing with repetition. But from my animation point of view I’m just thinking: economy, economy, economy.
With a sentence that repetition might work, but with animation it means you’ve got to do everything three times. So it’s always about trying to be creative but economic, too. Finding the simplest way to say something that doesn’t tip into being too complicated – otherwise the message can get lost. It’s a fine line between being experimental and creative.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s interesting, that relationship between the storytelling and the animation. It strikes me that your work has a lot of heart to it, that it’s ultimately optimistic about people and their flaws and differences. Is that a conscious choice, and does it come more from you or Les?
Joanna Quinn: It’s probably both our outlooks put together, Les is more of a pessimist. Like most producers, probably, you know, imagining the worst case scenario. The two of us together are complete opposites. But I think the one thing that we’ve got in common is that we love characters and people. We like to see what people can achieve, I think it probably comes from teaching. Seeing students who have come from a background that is really difficult, yet still seeing how much they can do – overcoming the negatives in their life. If we were all from clean slate backgrounds, from wonderful families, maybe we’d all achieve wonderful things. But of course that’s not the case.
Caragh Medlicott: And maybe it’d be more boring, as well.
Joanna Quinn: Yes, true. I suppose in the way that we teach, we always like to surprise people about themselves. It’s seeing people say, This is what I’ve done but it’s not very good. And then you ask, What’s that over there? And you find this tiny, tiny thing in their sketchbook that’s really good, that’s really original, and you push them to pursue that rather than copying someone else. That’s what we both enjoy, what we like about character and put into our films.
Caragh Medlicott: I read in a past interview that working on Affairs of the Art changed your outlook in the sense that you started to wonder whether the creative process was more important than the actual finished product. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Joanna Quinn: I think that came up in Affairs of the Art in particular because we self-funded this film. In the end, it was a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, but that was part of the way into the production – it didn’t start off that way. It was just us making a film and we didn’t have the normal deadlines or expectations of working with someone who is putting their own money into it. It was a bit like extended college, really. We brought in graduates who had just finished animation courses. It was just about allowing enough space for us to learn stuff and that ended up being a really enjoyable experience. I was learning a lot from the new generation of animators who are all digital, you know, I’m analogue. We couldn’t have done it in the same way if we’d had a strict deadline.
It was just such fun, so enjoyable. Just to learn how to do it in a way, animation is very much a craft and usually you’re always working towards an end goal so that tends to become the primary concern. But this time around it just felt like living in the moment and really not thinking about the outcome too much. I think maybe as well, that’s because I’m a bit older, and life is too short. If you have the possibility to enjoy what you do, then do it. I often imagine a painter is in the moment when they’re working on a piece, they’re not thinking, Oh, I’m going to do this fantastic painting. It’s about the experience.
Caragh Medlicott: Did you have any expectation of what the end product might be like, and where it would go?
Joanna Quinn: Well, we had a storyboard. Initially we tried to do it digitally – I actually animated digitally for six months. Then I realised how unhappy I’d become. I was drawing on a Cintiq – like a glass surface with a digital pen – and that’s when I realised how much I enjoyed the act of drawing with pencil on paper. Because I was just missing it, that physical thing, the immediacy from the brain to the hand. Obviously, there’s lots of possibilities digitally but you have to do it consciously. You’ve got to tell the computer what to do, it removes that organic part of it.
Caragh Medlicott: Affairs of the Art received lots of major awards and nominations. I wonder, with the Oscar nomination especially, if there’s a pressure or responsibility that comes with that – a sense that you’re bringing Wales to the world via Beryl?
Joanna Quinn: I didn’t feel a responsibility at all, it was all the icing on the cake. Because it just happened, I didn’t have to force it. I’d been nominated before but it was for a film that I’d directed, and it wasn’t a Beryl film, so it wasn’t really a Welsh film – but this time it was Beryl, so it meant so much more. And also just being in America, being in LA, and in that Hollywood bubble. Having people saying, [doing an American accent] Oh, so what is it you do? And you say, Oh it’s just a little short film about Beryl. And then to have them be like, Oh, Beryl! We love Beryl! So that was really lovely. And of course the other lovely thing is that you realise they’re all human too, they’re all as anxious as you are.
Caragh Medlicott: That’s sort of hard to imagine from a distance, when you’re seeing it with that gloss over it.
Joanna Quinn: It’s really hard to imagine, but they’re just people and they even go up to each other and say, Hello, I’m a big fan. And you realise they don’t all know each other. You always kind of assume they have these big parties in Hollywood and everyone knows each other. But I don’t think that’s true, they’re all just normal and meet at events.
Caragh Medlicott: How was the actual Oscars ceremony?
Joanna Quinn: It was fantastic and really exciting. But sadly Les got COVID. We were in America, and we went to the luncheon, the Oscar luncheon, which is actually better than the event itself. Because it’s with all the nominees so it’s condensed with stars, and they do this wonderful thing where you eat a meal and everybody chats on big tables. Then they call every nominee out one by one, and they have to come out and walk onto the stage to get a photo. So everybody claps you, it’s such a lovely atmosphere. And that’s when you can go up and meet people. So I went up to Steven Spielberg, and Kenneth Branagh. It was wonderful. You didn’t feel like you were pestering, everyone was just mingling, we were all on the same level.
Caragh Medlicott: Any favourites of the people you spoke to?
Joanna Quinn: I’d have to say Spielberg because he took a flick book of Beryl, and he went to give it back to me, and I said, No, you can keep it. And he went, can I? So that was very sweet. But after that we went back to the UK to go to the BAFTAs and the British Animation Awards and we caught COVID. Les didn’t make it to the actual Oscar ceremony, but I made it by one day. I went and had a great time. But talking about Beryl and the Welshness, sitting in The Dolby Theatre, you know this huge place, and they showed clips of all of the films. And they showed Beryl so there was just this Welsh voice booming around the Oscars ceremony and I thought, This is brilliant. That was probably the best bit.
Caragh Medlicott: You currently have an exhibition on at the Senedd which is all about your work in relation to the Affairs of the Art, could you tell us a little bit more about that – how it came about and what people can expect?
Joanna Quinn: Well, it’s on until 6th September and it’s actually artwork from all of the films, but I think they wanted to call it Affairs of the Art because it fits in with the film. So there’s chronological stuff from when I was student right through to now. We have lovely flip book boxes, old Zoetrope style kinetic toys. There’s also my lightbox with my drawings and all the notes. Funnily enough that seems to be what people are most interested in, even though you kind of take that for granted when you’re working on something. There’s a progress chart up there and people have found that fascinating, because I don’t think many people realise how much work goes into animation. When you see it broken down it brings it home.
Most of the people I’ve spoken to have come away with a much better understanding of animation. We also have some documentaries showing and we’re doing an open day on 29th August where we’re teaching animation. It’s to tie in with the Butetown carnival, so we’ll be at the Senedd for most of the day teaching an advanced animation workshop and an unadvanced workshop which anyone can join, including toddlers. So people have to book those places, but then in the afternoon people can just come along and have a go. I think the thing I love about the exhibition is its open to the public, and there are people coming in not expecting to see it. People are stumbling upon it who wouldn’t see it otherwise, and that’s lovely.
You can watch Affairs of the Art on BBC iPlayer now. Affairs of the Art: The Art of Joanna Quinn will be showing at the Senedd until 6th September. Animation workshops with Joanna Quinn will be held on 29th August as a part of the Butetown Carnival and Cardiff Animation Festival, more details here.
Feature image credit: Senedd Cymru