animation

A Short Time with Suzan

This Saturday in Bethlehem, PA I met George Nicholas at the South Side Film Festival. His film, Smoke -N- Suds, played with our film Ride in a short animation section. That program also included my current favorite festival film Take Rabbit, a rare piece that includes a real Virginia Woolf conclusion without being grim.

George credited Blue Kraning with the wise advice to NOT animate his story (I’m glad he didn’t take the advice, his film is a fun snapshot of long gone era). After our Q&A I told him that I know Blue, but I know him through his mother really (and also his brilliantly talented wife). We then waxed on about the amazing Suzan Pitt. George said she wasn’t doing well and was with the family in New Mexico. “She hasn’t made enough art,” I remarked selfishly, “she’s a person who is always creating but, for me, it’s still never enough.”

By the next morning, she had died.

There are countless people who knew her well, worked with her closely, and lived by her side for years. I hope they share pieces of Suzan that she left with them and that they keep her work vibrant. I only worked with her briefly, peripherally, on a project that barely warrants a footnote in her career. That time, to me, is seminal. I’d like to share my favorite story from it.

I had been working at The Ink Tank for around a year. I was doing office work. Answering phones. This was an era when people called on the telephone so frequently you needed a person dedicated to answering it. I hated it.

joy street


The studio had just begun production on a series of short films for The Children’s Television Workshop (to once more age the story, they’ve been known as Sesame Workshop for around a quarter century). Maciek Albrecht was directing and setting up a studio in Krakow to handle the animation. We needed someone to run the show stateside. R. O. Blechman has just seen Joy Street at the New York Film Festival. Always a man of stellar taste, he immediately loved it. He asked Suzan Pitt if she would handle the production from the U.S. She had never done anything like that before, but no one involved in the production had done anything like it, what difference would one more person make.

One of her conditions was that the studio would pay for the transfer of her 35mm films to DigiBeta (go ahead and laugh, it was the best 720x486 NTSC had to offer).

Since I knew nothing about just about everything, I figured I would take every opportunity to observe the mechanics of production and to watch as much film, especially animation, as possible. I had seen Joy Street on VHS, and it immediately became the greatest animated film I had seen. I had probably seen about 20 at this point in my life. It edged out -barely- John and Faith Hubley’s Eggs.

A nighttime transfer session was scheduled to run some of Suzan’s older films (at SyncSound, I think. Possibly Magno but I think it was SyncSound since they were doing the audio post and were trying to push their film-to-tape operation. It’s also possible this was at TapeHouse since the show was mostly transferred there, but I don’t think it was).

Nighttime telecine was usually about half the cost of a daytime transfer. I don’t understand the economics of this, maybe it was a supply/demand thing. Less that night transfers cost less, more that post houses could charge premium during the day to advertising clients. Typically the night operators weren’t as experienced as the day operators, often causing the half-priced transfer to take twice as long.

Nighttime also meant I could attend the session and not miss out on any important filing or phone calls that I was getting paid to handle. So I went with Suzan to transfer Asparagus, which I had never seen. In the dark room she told me how she had dozens of friends and students animate the stop motion theater scene by having each person take care of a single character in the audience. That way each puppet would have an individual performance, and really, anybody could do it. (Really, anybody? Even a no-talent like me?!?) Anybody.

So we sat there in the dark for a few hours, ordered delivery and talked about regular people things and getting the right colors in video. And then the ultimate scene of the film rolled on. The scene in which the faceless woman takes the asparagus into her mouth and pulls up to reveal an “asparagus” shaped fountain of jelly beans, down again, and up to reveal a rainbow and down and up and down and up. 23-year-old me became incredibly uncomfortable. It is fair to say I’d never seen anything like that. To this day, I doubt I’ve encountered any art as charged with psychological depth, feminist agency, unparalleled artistry and sheer eroticism. And sitting right next to me was the woman responsible. An artist. A capital A Artist. She was thirty years older than me, older than my parents but right then she was the coolest, foxiest, brightest kid in town.

asparagus

I didn’t see her much after her stint at The Ink Tank. The next season of the show I even kind of took her job (not really, since she was a creative force and they really needed a person to make schedules and be a “producer” since Maciek was going to be directing from Brooklyn). She was always kind to me when we did pass and we emailed on and off a few years back. She was great, she left a legacy that makes us better.