'Sierra' director Sander Joon: Cinema and animation still in with a chance

"Sierra" by Sander Joon. Source: Screenshot from the movie

Estonian animation talent Sander Joon's latest short animation "Sierra" has met enormous success at international film festivals, with the possibility of a future Oscar nomination. How was the film's premiere at PÖFF's love film festival Tartuff and what inspired Sander to create the short film in the first place - let's find out!

It was a rainy night during the Estonian premiere of "Sierra" in the Tartu Town Hall Square, but despite that, how did the Tartu audience receive "Sierra"?

Considering the weather, the audience received the film very warmly! If you have to make a decision, whether to see a movie at ten o'clock in the evening in the rain and cold, or choose to sit at home and enjoy something on a streaming service, I think you can give a big round of applause to those who came. I had a warm feeling in my heart. The decision to have the premiere at Tartuff was definitely the right one!

How popular is moviegoing these days? Does cinema still have a fighting chance?

There is a chance, I think! As a filmmaker, it is still important for me that my film is seen on a big screen. The entire technical side of the film, e.g. colors and sound, how the light is reflected from the screen, affects the room itself – none of it is available when watching at home. I don't think cinema will die. Just to add, if you think about what streaming services have done to the film industry, it has democratized film-making. More experimental approach has definitely been added to the making of  films. Sometimes I feel like with certain movies, watching on streaming platforms creates a more intimate effect, you're alone with the movie. Certain films have their place there. But still, you can't get over or around the movie theater, the experience as such is many times stronger with every movie.

When you were a child or even a teenager, did you watch cartoons and which cartoons did you like the most?

Of course, I watched, who didn't!? It changed over time, but I have a feeling that Soviet-era productions resonated with me more – at least in my childhood. Those filmmakers had a more peculiar and individual style. When I started watching cartoons from the West, the style of the animators was more uniform in them, and the way of telling the story was also quite similar between different animations. It seemed to me that in Soviet animation, every filmmaker dared to have their personal approach. This is also something that has influenced me in the world of indie animation, it has given me the courage to make films in my own style. To name a few [Soviet era] cartoons: "Black and White Dog" and "Nu, pogodi!"

Were you also fascinated by cartoons like "Tom & Jerry"?

Definitely! From a certain moment, I realized that there is a great craft behind animation. I could see how smoothness was higher in "Tom & Jerry." Achieving a smooth movement could completely affect and mesmerize me. The substantive impact was still in Soviet animation; here we must mention Priit Pärn's animation, which was shown to young people and children. Some cartoons had a more serious tone, but we still watched them. A cartoon was a cartoon. We are influenced by them. You can't get over or around "Klaabu," it's the cornerstone of surrealism to the generation of my predecessors. Understanding surrealism happens thanks to these animations!

"Sierra" tells the story of a little boy and his relationship with his father; how did such an absurd yet sweet story come about?

It has quite a personal story behind it. An animation about a rally was made by my father back in the day, animated on 16 mm film. That's where the idea of "Sierra" began to branch out. I thought that I could make my animation out of my father's animation, and as I developed the story, I got closer and closer to what "Sierra" is now – the story of a father and son. It talks about how parents want the best for their offspring but often do it through their own dreams, which may not always produce the desired results. With "Sierra," a boy becomes a tire.

You've mentioned that the Sierra is also an old Ford that your family-owned; what memories do you have with this car?

Very warm memories! It was driven around a lot with friends: the very first trips to music festivals and the lake. Unfortunately, the endgame of the car was that it was stolen. It was a sad day in my life! It was unbelievable to look at the yard and see that the car was no longer there. The police never found it. I was so embarrassed that I didn't dare tell my father about it. Dad heard about the theft on the radio, so he called and asked if it was our Sierra. I had to admit that it was indeed our Sierra that was stolen.

"Sierra" includes a black and white excerpt from the animation made by your father, was your father also an animator?

Whatever my dad wanted to do, he figured it out. I have tried to learn that from him. He used a 16 mm film camera, learned how to make an animation and started making it. When it comes to animation, he didn't have a textbook on how to do it. He took the camera, knowing that if you move the object forward frame by frame, it will create animation. He calculated how fast an object moves, how many frames need to be taken for movement, and finished the animation with a purely technical approach. Looking at it now, the animation is technically amazing. Even some who have seen this film at Nukufilm Studios have been surprised that this is the only animation dad has created through experimentation. He only made one animation, neither before nor after, but it has had a huge impact on my career.

How did you become interested in animation? Did your parents support your interest and professional choice?

Yes, they were supportive! Based on the "Sierra" film, you might get the impression that my parents wished for something else for me, but no. They were and are very supportive. When we had our first computer at home, my father bought a webcam for it, with which we could experiment with animation. Such support and technical help have come from the family, but at the same time, I've been left to my own devices. I've had to figure a lot out myself. That's where my confidence in animation came from. I know that every situation and idea I want to solve can be solved somehow. I have this instinct.

In 2016, your student animation "Velodrool" found success at festivals. "Velodrool" is again about sport. What fascinates you about sports so you can animate it skillfully and successfully?

Especially its dynamics. I like to animate characters that move dynamically, dancingly and rhythmically. In sports, it's all there already. Another thing that fascinates me is that in sports there are certain rules that people already know, and if you break these rules, you can get into really interesting situations. In the case of these films, the source has been a specific sport. I have watched them from a narrow and specific angle, which I have then distorted and built a surreal world around them.

Do you practice any sports yourself?

Fitness sports, for sure. That's the interesting thing though, I don't follow or play any particular sport. Sports is interesting to me from the angle of animation. Maybe it's my advantage that I'm not engaged to a particular sport on a realistic level. Therefore, I can turn it upside down without having a problem going too far. Since sport is not so important to me in my life, it makes it easier for me to make films about it.

How do you keep your mind and body in balance?

Long walks and jogging. Especially while writing the story script, long walks are the best solution. If there is some kind of writing block, this is how I solve it. It is best if my dog keeps me company on the walk. The dog's playfulness releases endorphins, which help to write the story forward.

Do you have your favorite trails where you can be found walking with your dog?

It varies every time which direction I go. While visiting Viljandi, a very specific circle has formed.

What's your connection with the small town of Viljandi?

My partner is from Viljandi and we have a place there. This is usually our summer home, but we also have a great time there in the wintertime. We live between Viljandi and the capital Tallinn. I grew up in the small village of Ääsmäe, but for most of my life, I've lived in Tallinn. I am used to life in Tallinn.

You went to study animation at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) the animation department of which and especially animator and teacher Priit Pärn's legacy are praised a lot. What's the phenomenon of the department?

The phenomenon is that in EKA the focus is primarily on script writing, and specifically on writing a playful and surreal script. I have noticed that in other schools the focus is less on the story development and more on the technical side. Animation education largely means technical education, but animation at EKA has chosen a different path. Technical skills come in the making, but the writing of the story should be as strong as possible. At EKA, the focus is on telling absurd stories, which is how you can recognize the animation of EKA's graduates.

"Sierra" is the first animation you've created as an independent artist and not as a student. How did this project evolve from paper to screen? How easy is it to create an animation outside of the safety of university environment?

The sense of responsibility was very scary at first. In addition, the issue of funding. It is important to be able to pay the team and yourself. Many thanks to the Estonian Film Institute and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia! It is good that we have a funding system and that animation is supported. If you think about our American colleagues, there is absolutely no such state support in the USA. You could complain that it was very difficult, but at the same time you have to understand that it's a great privilege that we can make our own films here in Estonia.

In "Sierra" you use co-animators. How was your collaboration with them?

I did quite a lot in advance as cartoon drawings, and they did 3D animation of what I had animated. The barebones plan was made in advance and once it was clear how these things should move, the rest was quite natural. The initial animations were drawn quite sloppily. They finished it, doing it nicely and beautifully. In the process, we had also feedback sessions, so that the animators understood everything clearly, and as every scene progressed, we came to understand one another better. The cooperation went very well. It's interesting for me to watch this movie now, because each animator still added some of their own flavor to the film's characters. As a director, I see it and I love it immensely. Already during the making, I noticed which characteristic would fit in different scenes and based on that I already decided which of the animators could animate those scenes. It is necessary to understand, as soon as possible, who creates more dynamic and who prefers more emotional movement – then I divided the tasks according to the skillsets of the animators. If everyone does what they are best at, then cooperation will go well.

"Sierra" received Oscar-qualifying awards from San Francisco and Palm Springs ShortFest. What does this mean for an animator from tiny Estonia?

It means a lot of attention. I hope, this will help us continue to create, and I hope that it will attract more interest in Estonian animation in general. This is not just a film we made, I wish that through it Estonian animation culture will be discovered in its absurdity, surrealism and sensibility – that is my goal. It has been a great honor to win these festivals. I didn't imagine that a somewhat miniature father-son story could win the hearts of the jury of the big Palm Springs festival. This was a complete surprise outcome for us!

Did you have the opportunity to visit foreign festivals? What were your impressions?

Not at these specific festivals, but we visited three other festivals: Clermont-Ferrand, Glasgow and Lisbon. It's always nice to be at festivals, because the direct audience reaction to a culture with a different background is always exciting. You can't expect anything, but you'll be positively surprised how people react to the specific story of Estonian culture. It's heartwarming to me. The film was warmly received in all the countries we were at. There's a lot of recognition and interesting interpretation. In this way, you will also discover new aspects about your film that you didn't know before. It's a credit when a film can be interpreted in many ways. That was one of the goals in writing the script for "Sierra," that there wouldn't be just one interpretation.

At the moment, you have received the attention and recognition of the animation world! Do you also follow what is happening in animation on an international level? Have you noticed any exciting, emerging talent?

Yes, definitely. For me it's important to understand overall trends. On the one hand, to resonate in the contemporary animation scene but also to not repeat what has been already done. Also, I've noticed that free tools such as Blender have really diversified the international animation scene which I'm really excited about. There is a French animation director Jocelyn Charles, who has caught my attention with his amazing skills in storytelling, pristine design and dynamic movement.

How big a role does marketing play in an animation's success? Is marketing important to you?

It is important to me, but above all, it's important to my producer Aurelia Aasa. The success of this film is largely due to Aurelia's hard work. "Sierra" would not have made it this far without the promotional work. Many decisions to send and present it to festivals and talk about the film have come through Aurelia. Because of this, marketing can be considered immensely important.

"Sierra" is touring at the moment in Estonia, is it a family cartoon or animation for adults?

I'd like to think it's a family movie. The film has participated in many film festivals for young people, so it can be said that it is a family film. Both children and adults can draw their conclusions and interpretations from the film. I would like there to be no compartmentalization of whether it is a cartoon or an animation: it's both.

What international plans and opportunities await Sierra in the future?

Since it's a fairly new film, it's still touring festivals. There has been interest from various film distributors, who own streaming platforms and TV channels. "Sierra" will still travel around festivals with the chance of reaching different platforms.

Is animation generally a fashionable specialty, an art genre?

Of course, it is. The more screens there are showing animation, the more people are interested in doing it. This interest is definitely getting bigger and bigger, so I'm not worried about it at all.

On a personal level, do you dream of working as an animator for big Hollywood blockbuster films or pursuing your artistic line?

I've been thinking that it would be nice to work on the production side of a big movie and see how it's done, but I've set my sights on making my own movies. I have the impression that, in the long run, I would look back on such a career more fondly than the work done in blockbusters. It feels like I'm sticking to art animation for the time being.

Thank you for the interview, and let's hope the world will see more of your animations in the future!

Sander Joon. Source: Kadi Jaanisoo


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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