Actor and writer Kirsten Vangsness is well known for her role on long-running CBS crime drama Criminal Minds — but much like the colorful, compassionate computer wiz she played on the show, she is far from a one-dimensional creative force. Having poured her energies into stories, plays, one-woman shows and even a graphic novel, Vangsness is ready to unveil her first crack at animation to the world.
Vangsness’ animated debut, Curtains, is adapted from her own personal essay. The short centers on a feral cat who stars on a network procedural drama, takes ballroom dance lessons, and has an encounter with a predatory tow truck driver. It explores the idea of vulnerability as a source of power and the emotional “curtains” we lay over our essential selves.
The enthusiastic filmmaker shared the inspirations, challenges and experiences that went into Curtains with Animation Magazine.
How did you come up with the concept for this film?
It was based on a real life thing that happened to me: I wanted to make a piece of art from the situation that wasn’t just a story about a scary thing that happened to me. I was writing it for this short story performance, and after the performance, people kept coming up to me. I realized what a deeply personal experience they were having with the story. Mostly women but some men, too, or some men that knew people who were more feminine that had these kind of situations happen to them because they lead more with their feminine side: They had been in situations where either something actually terrible had happened or where something almost terrible had happened, and the constellation of feelings that come up.
After I did that performance, I realized it resonated with so many people that I went to my friend Brendan Bradley, who is a fantastic creator in his own right, and said, “Hey, I want to make a short film out of this and he said, “We can’t make a live action because I know you … you would be miserable having to do that again and again and again, but I think this would make a great animated short.”
What was the process of translating such a fraught situation to animation?
Once we decided that we were going to do it as an animated short, I suddenly realized one of the biggest problems I was having with showing it live is that people would look at it and see this more feminine creature and this more masculine creature and make judgments about, well this is happening to her because she’s voluptuous or not voluptuous, or because she has long hair or short hair. If you make the characters humans, people make judgments along the lines of, “well this is happening to them because of the way they look, something specific about the way they look.” I realized that making the characters cats took away a lot of these things that were just hardwired in our brains … you just go, that’s a cat, that’s a cat dressed up like a policeman, that’s a cat wearing a dress.
It also takes away anything that we have about, OK, that person is a person of color, that person is a white person. It clears that, because there is mention of someone speaking another language in it. It’s necessary for the story, but it has nothing to do with what’s happening and has no bearing on the reasons why people are making the choices they are, and when you make everyone cats you don’t look at the cats and go, ‘Oh that’s a Tabby and that’s a black and white cat and I can see where this would be scary.’ You don’t do that. Which is actually what I hope that all of us aspire to do as humans even if we don’t already. But that’s what inspired me to make that statement with the animation.
How was the animation created? What were your influences for the look of the short?
My animation brain was pretty limited. I loved graphic novels growing up in high school, but it was woefully obvious ones — Maus, The Sandman Chronicles, The Watchmen — so I guess, for me, it was super-saturated color like old Disney films, it was pretty pedestrian.
Our animator Jagriti Khirwar had a very specific style, and when I saw her style I was like, “Oh that could work!” Then, she came in with this color palette idea which I didn’t know about, really, so then what ended up happening was I would leave her voice memos that were 11 minutes long for every 30 seconds of the film basically saying, “OK, then in this frame I think this should happen, in this frame I think this should happen.”
The good thing is, I write a lot of things that have to do with the internal journey and I’m very visual, so it was easy for me to tell her, like, “I think there should be a curtain that looks like water and I think then all of a sudden we’re in space and then we’re back into her eye.” So, then between me and Jagriti, we worked that out.
What was the most challenging part of this project for you?
I make a lot of one-person shows and self-create a lot of things… I had this incredible team; there is an original score on the animation done by a group called Queertet (you can find them on Instagram and all that jazz) and then with Jagriti, David Beadle and Frank Maroni, Brendan Bradley and Queertet, they were all so talented, and it took me a second to realize: They can do this, make your imagination match their talent.
Basically it was like, “Oh I can stretch that farther, I can make that bigger.” It actually took my brain a second to understand what you can do with animation. Also, you know, things get lost in translation, so you have to keep going in and being like, “My version of a sweeping sound is different than yours,” or “my version of what ballroom dancing looks like is different than yours.” So, working all that out and then weaving it together so that it’s a collaborative thing.
What has been the most exciting/rewarding aspect?
It was seeing something I made that I really wanted to put out into the world be put out in such a specific way, there’s a lot of clarity to it. Another thing that’s sort of interesting about this is that when Brendan and I decided to do the animation, we sat down at my kitchen table and he recorded me reading the story once. He said, “Record it so that the animators have something good to animate to.” So, we always thought we were going to re-record it, but one of the great gifts of being a theater girl is that the moment you’re doing it is the only moment you are ever going to do it, in my mind.
So we did it and we never went back. I was like, that’s it.That’s what we use now, and I think what was really rewarding is to show up in all of my authenticity. Whether it be “this is the right recording,” asserting what I wanted it to look like or what I wanted a character to do, asserting it and working together with people and realizing that my vision works and it counts. When I first came up with the cats thing, everyone thought that I had three heads and they were like, “What!?” So, that makes me really happy.
What do you hope the impact of this film is on those who see it?
I hope this film just opens people’s hearts up. I want them to enjoy watching it. It’s a little harrowing to watch, but ultimately I want them to take pleasure from watching it. I hope it sticks with them and makes them think … I don’t believe there’s such a thing in the world as bad guys and good guys — there’s just people choosing in that moment to make a reprehensible choice, and people choosing in the moment to make a better choice. and people choosing in the moment to make a beautiful choice. That we all sort of do these dances with each other based on if we’re conscious or unconscious in that moment. I would hope that it makes them think about that.
How has making the film affected you?
To finish something and to just plow ahead and finish it, even when it seems like I don’t know how to do this — it’s changed my mind about creating things. I’m always sort of like, “I don’t know how to do this” and then I end up making it, so I think it was a re-reminder to me that you don’t have to know how to do something in order to finish it. It might even not be great, it might not be perfect, but there is a deep satisfaction in seeing something inside of your head and then working as hard as you can to make it come out of your head into a thing that other people can see, especially when you have a message.
Now that Curtains is ready to screen, what’s next? Can we expect more animation from you in the future?
Expect more animation from me in the future, yes! I’m going to try to get it in comic-book stores, but I just had a graphic novel that came out with illustrator Kaitlin Bruder about three weeks ago (I made a play last year called Cleo, Theo and Wu, we decided as a kick-starter perk we were going to make a graphic novel) so there’s that. And you know what, I love animation now. It really lends itself to a lot of stuff that I make. I actually have a play that I had done years ago, so maybe I make that into an animated short, I don’t know. So that is definitely something that’s in my noggin, I just have to see if I can get it out of my noggin.
I’m on a podcast called Voyage to the Stars that is a science-fiction, improv’d comedy podcast where I play a space cat, and there are a lot of illustrations of her and my voice being said space cat. So that’s been really a weird parallel that’s also been happening in my life as I was making the animated short, to get cast on that. And I exist as Penelope Garcia in reruns all over the world, which brings me great joy that people still watch that. And I’m writing a play right now that I am interested in submitting to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I have a lot of different fires; things haven’t been brought to a boil on the creative oven yet for me to share, but there’s that and now that Criminal Minds is over, I’m now auditioning for a lot of different shows so I’m sort of in a different part now, which is cool and a little scary.
Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers — especially women?
I think that we’ve been trained, by no one’s fault, but we’ve been trained … a lot of the movies that I love, a lot of the things that I have consumed in entertainment have been written with the male gaze. What I mean by that is, what a more masculine person’s version of strength is, what a more masculine person (not necessarily a man) would view as beauty, what a more masculine person would view as a reasonable emotional expression to something, a more masculine version of aggression. All of these things that we’re just used to. things being for a more
masculine-bent audience, and I want and I crave more stories, equal amounts of stories told from a woman’s perspective — from any specific person’s perspective, because no one has the exact experience of life that you do.
Whether you’re a singer, a writer, an illustrator, an animator, no one has your exact bone structure that moves that pen in that way, no one has the life experience that moves through your body to create things in a very specific way, and the more of us that tell specific stories that delight us to tell, then that resonates with someone else out in the world that needed that, then that might make them go make something of their own or at the very least, be able to take a bigger, deeper breath that day because they felt like someone else had an experience that they can relate to.
So I guess my advice is: make the things. The act of making the things, even just little tiny movements toward it, even if you work two jobs and have five minutes a day to write six words down of a short story, it counts. It counts for your own well-being and those little tiny incremental steps end up being these beautiful little steps that make you feel good and maybe, who knows, at the end you might make a thing out of it.
Also, find people around you that are talented and that are as excited to work on stuff as you and delegate. Find what you’re good at and then find other people that take great joy in the other bits of it that you don’t know. This idea of treating creative projects as, it has to be perfect — no, you just have to make it. ‘Cause you know what? That one might be not great and then the next one you make might be great, that’s not the point. The point is not for the art to be judged, the point is to make the art.