Despite only being 31 when she filmed Madame Winger Makes a Film, Helen Hill had already been making hand-made animated shorts for around 20 years. She started on them as an 11-year-old and carried through as an undergrad at Harvard, eventually earning an MA in experimental animation at CalArts. For all her training, though, her passion was for films that were spontaneous, direct, and honest. She billed Madame Winger as “A Survival Guide for the 21st Century,” but it’s not so much a guide as a low-key call to arms, an instructional video aimed at inspiring a new generation of animators.
Made in 2001, the film is an interesting time capsule. It sees the value in being as hands-on as possible, running through the basics of shooting and developing your own film. It is skeptical of digital animation, but also aware that 8mm film won’t always be easy to get your hands on. That early 2000s transition was a tricky time, and no one was quite sure how the digital revolution was going to affect indie filmmaking. As it turns out, new technology has made animation more accessible than ever, but the film’s main statement hasn’t aged a day: making your own movies isn’t about having the fanciest technology, it’s about having an idea, some determination, and whatever setup gets the job done.
Born in the US, she spent time in Halifax at NSCAD, the Centre for Art Tapes and with the Atlantic Filmmakers Coop before moving to Louisiana, where she would ultimately be killed by a home invader at the age of 36. Despite that tragic ending to her story, she’s left a powerful legacy in the animation community—Quickdraw still has a tribute to her on our walls, and her message that anyone can be an animator is one that is very dear to our hearts. Her films are still best seen on 16mm (Harvard maintains a library of 10 of her works in their rental library), but since that isn’t always practical, her family recently uploaded nearly two dozen of her works to Vimeo. Madame Winger felt like the right one to spotlight here, but consider this a call to dig through her whole catalogue. And when you’ve finished with that, start a catalogue of your own.