Laura Pop: “For me, animation film is a therapeutic process”

7 July, 2020

Animation film has been developing more and more in Romania over the years, especially since more and more young people choose to express themselves through this special language. A type of cinema too little discussed in our country, although until 1990 it had a tradition whose main representative was, of course, Ion Popescu-Gopo. Now, the best known Romanian animation authors are Anca Damian, whose feature and short films are going around through the biggest festivals, and Matei Branea, the creator of the famous character Omulan.

Laura Pop is one of the very young and extremely talented voices. One of the promises in Romanian animation. So far, she has only made short films and nano-films, as she calls them, and the best known is “The Monster” (2018), made during her master’s in animation at UNATC and selected at several local and international festivals. In 2019-2020 she made three more videos, “Miroir”, produced at the Camera-etc studio in Liège, “Death” and “Atria, ventricles”, made for this year’s edition of the European Film Festival, held exclusively online.

Laura Pop’s films, made in the 2D frame by frame technique, stand out with a minimalist, seemingly simple style, which mostly relies on the dance and contrast between black and white and a fascinating freedom of lines, which bring out a strong feeling of fluidity of forms. Her characters are caught in a moment of suffering, from which they try to escape to another world, hence the transformation they go through.

She also teaches production design and animation at UNATC – undergraduate and master’s courses, works at the International Center for Research and Education in Innovative Creative Technologies (CINETic) and started a PhD on the ocean feeling in animated films.

Photo Credit: Simona Lenghel

Laura Pop was born on March 17, 1994 in Cluj-Napoca, but never actually lived there. She lived in Baia Mare until she was nine, and after her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Sibiu.

There she went to the Art High School, in the graphics class, but she started with painting in advance. Although drawing wasn’t a great passion as a child, she went to an art high school because she was inspired by the environment and her family – her mother liked to paint, and many other relatives were interested in art.

“In high school I really liked drawing fashion sketches, all kinds of things related to fashion design. Then, for a while, I was interested in architecture, but I realized it wasn’t for me. It found it to be too technical”, she recalls.

In the 11th grade, she and her classmates were invited by some acting students from another vocational high school in Sibiu to create the set design for a show. She enjoyed it very much, so there was an idea of what she could study further. And so she chose to apply to UNATC.

At the time, film wasn’t her thing yet: “For me, film was like some alien stuff, something I never imagined doing. I thought it was something that only some chosen people could do and that you had to be a genius. I didn’t even consider it.”

Between 2013 and 2016, she studied stage design at UNATC. She was very excited, especially for coming to Bucharest, where her parents had also studied chemical engineering in their youth.

“I was by myself here, staying in a dorm room, I was starting a new life and in my first year I worked a lot on set design projects. But the atmosphere wasn’t OK and I feel like I didn’t learn much. In fact, there wasn’t a lot of working with directors either, because there was this idea that, since you don’t have experience, in the first year you are not allowed much to have projects outside the set mock-ups”, she says.

In the second year, she went to Paris, to EnsAD (École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs – National School of Decorative Arts): “It was a completely different kind of school. It wasn’t just theater or film, but decorative arts. There were ten departments, including set design, where I went, architecture, interior design, but also animation film. It was very different, because they didn’t see set design as something that should be applied only to theater. Set design was also for museums, for exhibitions. Theater set design was only a semester subject.”

She studied for a semester in Paris and then returned to UNATC, where she did another year and a half and finished her bachelor’s degree in stage design, although she was no longer passionate about it.

“Ever since I was in France, I realized that I didn’t want to continue with the stage design, that it wasn’t for me. In the third year, one of my teachers told me that stage design is a team work profession and that I’m not cut out for it. Even if I took it a little personally at the time, she was right”, Laura Pop also remembers.

Getting into animation happened gradually. The first contact she had was in France, when she became friends with a colleague in the animation department, who showed her how they work there. It might have not meant much at that moment, but now, looking back, it feels like that set the whole thing in motion.

In the third year, she ended up collaborating with a student who was doing her master’s in animation and needed help with the set design. That’s how she started going back and forth between the attic, where the stage design classes are held, and the basement, where the animation department is located. She met and started talking to professors Radu Igazság and Matei Branea, and in her bachelor’s thesis, a mock-up of a set for The Island by Gellu Naum, she also included elements of stop motion animation.

In the end, she chose the two-year master’s in animation, which she completed in 2018, with the film The Monster. That’s when she realized that’s what she likes to do.

“It was so different compared to stage design or any form of education I had experienced until then. Almost all of our professors were very young and all of them were very open and eager to help us carry out our projects to the end. And everything was very organized”, she also recalls.

Immediately after obtaining her master’s degree, she did a nine-month training course at the Camera-etc animation studio in Liège, Belgium, where she also made the short film Miroir, with the help of her colleagues there. In 2019 she returned to Bucharest, and now teaches production design and animation at UNATC and works at the International Center for Research and Education in Innovative Creative Technologies (CINETic) at the same university. In parallel, she started a PhD on the ocean feeling in animated films: “It’s a feeling of union with the universe, the desire to return to the womb, rebirth and healing, which I want to connect to trauma”. At the same time, she is working on her own animation projects.

She confesses that, in making a film, she starts “from what I live in a certain moment, from what concerns me the most”. “After I get to the source, all kinds of images and metaphors come to mind. I think it’s a very visual process, but also sensory. After all, I try to create a sensory experience through my films”, she explains.

“I start sketching the characters and usually go through a lot of inner searching until I get to the final minimalist shapes. The story and the images intertwine and develop along the way”, adds the filmmaker, for whom metaphor is very important in animation.

“Technically speaking, there isn’t much difference between black and white films, like mine, and full-color films. There’s pretty much the same amount of work. Even if a character is white, it still needs to be colored in white”, while talking about her technique.

“Animation gives you the chance to represent a reality in other ways than the realistic one. I ended up having this style after a lot of inner searching to that effect and by not developing my films as a filmmaker, but as a theater man, so without cuts and rather using long takes”, adds Laura Pop.

“Part of the reason I came up with this style is that I’m not interested in realistic, anatomical drawing. But I do have a good line, that’s what my teachers told me. That means it’s not rigid. It’s a free and very expressive line”, she adds.

She confesses that she really likes simplicity in the films she makes, because that defines her best, but she says it’s hard to get.

“However, reaching these simple forms is not that easy as it might seem. I start from more complicated forms, sometimes realistic, and go through several versions until I get to the essence. To me, simplicity says quite a lot actually, and gives the viewer enough room to imagine the rest. That’s why thinking about feature films feels a bit weird. What could I say more in a feature film, when a short film can already be very consistent?”, she says amused.

She feels that animation gives her everything: “You can do almost anything with animation and it’s a pretty individual process, up to a point. Making animation is something very personal, intimate and introspective, where you “play” all the characters – you decide exactly how they act, when they blink.”

She believes that animation “helps you tell ugly truths in a more pleasant way” and regrets that most people, when it comes to animation, think primarily of children’s films.

“Animation is marginalized, it’s not taken very seriously and is treated like a small child, like some sort of a black sheep of the family. I would love to see it being taken more in consideration”, says Laura Pop, who admits at the same time that animation film has developed quite a lot in Romania in recent years and believes that this direction will continue.

“Since I got into film, I’ve noticed that the big question is when the feature film will happen. Making a feature film seems to be the ultimate goal, but I don’t think it should be. I make short films because I want to make short films, not necessarily to pave my way to a feature film. It’s as if short films don’t make sense outside this context”, she concludes.



Photo Credit: Nadina Stoica

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.