Pixie Cram, as her spritely name would imply, is an absolute delight. Upon meeting her, she immediately complimented my outfit and recognized me from my day job. The Ottawa-based artist has created documentary, experimental, and fiction films, along with video portraits, installations and more.
Her most recent effort, Emergency Broadcast, explores what a nuclear attack would have felt, sounded, and looked like inside the bunker at the height of the Cold War. Using stop motion technology, a recorded but thankfully unused 1972 CBC emergency radio broadcast, and the archives of Canada’s Cold War Museum, the film is as spooky as it is beautiful. The new film will be screened at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this fall. Regardless of medium, Cram’s art focuses narrowly on nature, technology, and war. She has a bright, friendly face and a mind like the inside of a mechanical fish. Read on to see what I mean.
Chloe Barker: How did you come to be a filmmaker? I know you originally studied playwriting and theatre.
Pixie Cram: By the end of my degree I realized that I wasn’t that keen on acting, which was my focus. I started to explore opportunities to be behind the scenes more. I found out about a filmmaking program from IFCO (Independent Filmmakers Co operative of Ottawa) the summer I graduated. I had never taken a film course in university because I was too intimidated. I figured that program was my chance, and that’s how I got started. I took all these plays and short stories that I had written and made them into film scripts.
CB: How did the Diefenbunker Residency come about?
PC: They have an open call every year for local artists to apply. Right now I’m finishing a fiction film and I had written a scene in the blast tunnel, but we cut that scene. After we finished filming I was disappointed that I hadn’t had a chance to use it as a location. So I thought, well there’s still an opportunity to go in. I had dreamed up the idea [for Broadcast], which was pretty much exactly what I ended up creating, because I really wanted to go in and work there.
CB: So you came up with the idea for Emergency Broadcast initially, and you went into the residency knowing the kind of film you wanted to make.
PC: Do you know the short story by Ray Bradbury called There Will Come a Soft Rain?
PC: It’s about a house in the future that’s mechanized. It has a coffee maker that makes coffee, and then the alarm clock goes off, and all of these machines and robots are going and you don’t find out until the end of the story what happened to the people—all the machines in the house are just continuing to function.
Then, the last image that he leaves you with is the silhouette of a family, burnt into the wall of the mechanized house, So that was one of the sources of inspiration for the concept that I came up with. In Emergency Broadcast there are no people, only objects. So that was a nod to the Ray Bradbury story.
“If you can dance you can animate.”
CB: That really took me in, because at first it all seems really familiar. Then you take a step back and realize there are no humans. It’s creepy because you’re not used to seeing objects divorced from people, from their functions. So why stop motion?
PC: It’s really the only kind of animation that I know how to do. I don’t draw very well. From the beginning, the first film I made out of theatre school, was an animation with objects. A fisherman catches a fish and inside there’s a clockwork mechanism. So I had this image that existed as a monologue that I had written and I thought “how am I going to translate that?” .
The people at the film co-op advised me to work in animation. So we came up with this puppet with mechanical innards and from there I was fascinated by the technique because it’s so human and also kind of strange at the same time.
CB: It’s funny, you say you don’t draw very well but stop motion is regarded as one of the hardest mediums to pull off.
PC: I met an animator one time who said “If you can dance you can animate.” So for me the moving of objects is much more about mimicking human movement, and choreography.
CB: So, what was the process of making Emergency Broadcast?
PC: It took a lot of hours. It started with some research in the archives, which moved quickly into location scouting around the bunker. Going through the rooms and thinking “Oh this would be a great shot, or a great scene” —and then also identifying the objects that could move. The museum is a community museum so they’re not rigid about going in and moving stuff around.
CB: You wear many hats: filmmaker, documentarian, animator, artist is there one thing that feels right for you or that you consider yourself to be first and foremost?
PC: Well, I love fiction, and I’ve been trying to become a better fiction filmmaker. I ended up in animation accidentally because I needed a way to find a way to realize these images in my mind. I’ve had more success with animation projects, but my heart lies in my fiction. I love storytelling.
CB: What I think is really cool about you and your practice is this cross-disciplinary aspect to it, paired with a really visually minded trajectory. The vision is there and the rest sorts itself out.
PC: The concept dictates the form, for sure.
CB: Talk about Hot Shoe Productions!
PC: I just came from there actually *laughs*. That’s been my main way of making my living for the past, at least, decade. Running programs for youth, teaching youth. It’s a mobile program, it’s become its own social enterprise at this point. We’re doing videos for clients, we have about 14 youth on the payroll, it’s freelance work. I like working with young people. They’re so open minded about everything. They’re excited to learn and haven’t faced too much disappointment in their lives yet so they’re not jaded.
CB: It must feel really empowering to have an accomplished artist like you come into their lives and say “I believe in you, I will show you how to do this, and you will occasionally get paid” I feel like that’s the big myth, that you can’t get paid if you’re an artist.
PC: Yeah, that myth needs to go. It’s not an easy field, what we try to teach them is you’ve got to be punctual, you have to have a business mindset, people need to know you’re reliable, or they won’t hire you. And the work has to be of good quality so there’s a real discipline that is required to survive. But yeah, you can make a good living.
CB: So what’s next for you?
PC: Well I’m finishing this fiction film and I’m looking forward to sending it out into the world. I’m looking forward to sharing it with people. Part of it is sort of based on recollections from a Hiroshima survivor.
I saw her in an interview on NPR and I used some of her memories for one of the characters experiences. The anniversaries (of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) are [in August].
This time of year people tend to remember and think more about the danger and take it more seriously.
CB: I also feel like unfortunately, that global scenario has been on people’s minds a lot lately. You’re striking a chord in the public consciousness right now.