I encountered Ali Kellner by stumbling across a heap of accolades for her Sheridan graduation film, “Nana”. Hoping to talk with her about the short, I soon learned she’s a rare interviewee doubleheader: in her first long-term gig post-graduation, Ali has been an Animator on Bravest Warriors in Toronto since last summer. “Nana,” recounting her grandmother’s story of being torn from her life and home in 1944 Budapest, continues to wow festival audiences worldwide, while Ali keeps busy with a bunch of exciting projects. We can only feature the full short for 2 weeks – so get to watching above!
Did you always want to animate? What did you imagine being as a kid?
Growing up, I was always considered “artsy” to my family and friends. I remember being instantly attracted to anything I could use to create with my hands. In high school I loved doodling and was really into creating old school Flash animations during computer class. From there I knew I just wanted to do art and use computers. Funnily enough, when I was a kid, I never thought of having a career in art. I wanted to be a Marine Biologist.
When did you know you wanted to pursue animation professionally?
In high school when I discovered that there were actual people behind my obsession, Spongebob Squarepants. That made me realize that animation was a possibility, and I knew I had to figure out a way to get there. In Quebec we have post secondary education called CEGEP that we do directly after high school, like pre-university college. I pursued Fine Arts for my degree. I learned how to use plaster casting, wood shop, printmaking, etching, canvas painting. I thought that if I learned how to draw and paint, I could apply for the animation program at Concordia University in Montreal. I went there directly after CEGEP.
But “Nana” is your Sheridan grad film – how long were you at Concordia?
I was there for 3 years. I decided not to do a “final film” because I didn’t think I had the technical stuff down: aka, I didn’t think I knew enough to make something good enough. My 3 years there were great, but I didn’t see myself landing a job or anything. I’d heard Sheridan was supposed to be “the best animation school in Canada” and thought Toronto would have way more jobs than Montreal. So I took some part time courses, worked on my Sheridan portfolio, and applied. If I can, maybe one day I’ll go back to Concordia and finish my degree there, because I still have that final film I can make. Then I’ll have 2 Bachelor degrees in Animation! And two thesis films… hmm…
How was your experience at Sheridan?
I absolutely loved my time at Sheridan. The first two years are really tough. It can totally be considered “animation boot-camp”. I loved that we were taught how to animate and how to draw technically. I think those skillsets are essential for a career in animation, even if you’re in 3D or 2D puppet rigs. For our final year, Sheridan gives us the opportunity to create a short film completely on our own. I really am grateful for that experience, and to have had the support from my family to do it.
How were you inspired to create “Nana”?
On one of my visits to my grandmother, we casually started talking about her past. I realized she hadn’t really told anyone the full story. My family knew she went through a camp and walked for a long time, but I don’t think she’d ever had the opportunity to really talk about her experience. When she started reminiscing, I realized this is such an important story to tell and I decided to come back before starting my thesis film and record her. It occurred to me that I had one year to work full time, fully funded, with Sheridan’s state of the art facilities in order to make a short film. I decided to make something I knew I would never regret spending time and energy on. I wanted to make something she, and I, would be proud of. I knew if I made this film, I would never think back to my last year of university and wish I had done something different.
What was the process of creating “Nana”? Did you have to cut things out?
I recorded my grandmother for about half an hour. The conversation was casual and I had a very long voice track to work with when it was done. I got to school after my summer internship and started editing the recording to get a clearer narrative. She had so many other experiences that she told me about, but I needed to cut it down to a “doable” amount of time. I finally managed to get it just under 5 minutes. The entire recording is factual and in chronological order.
How does “Nana” differ from or build upon your prior work?
“Nana” is my first short film, so I don’t have much to compare it to filmmaking-wise. That being said, it’s pretty interesting that I chose to go with a black and white animated documentary, considering my work is very colourful and cartoony. I tend to stray away from realism, but I think my film marries the stylistic cartoony approach with the heavy documentary subject matter. If you look at my website or Instagram, the art I usually do is totally different than the traditional 2D method I used with my film. However, I really enjoyed experimenting and discovering the process, and hope to do another film similarly in the future.
After graduating, did you go right to work on Bravest Warriors? How was the job hunt, if there was one?
After graduating I had a great 2D demo reel from my previous work experience at a studio in Montreal, ToonDraw Inc., and a studio in Los Angeles, 6 Point Harness. I was lucky that I didn’t need my thesis film to be my calling card; I could use my work experience to land a job in Toronto. Right after graduating, I got a gig freelance animating on the TV adaptation of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but that didn’t last too long. Then I managed to sign a contract with Portfolio Entertainment (the animation production house for Bravest Warriors), and I started my job at the end of the summer.
How has the transition to professional life been?
Transitioning from Sheridan to full-time work wasn’t too difficult. At Sheridan I kept a regimen of waking up early, getting to school early, and leaving school around 5 or 6pm. I knew that these were typical studio hours and I wanted to feel like I was working on my film as though I were in a studio. The main difference was that at Sheridan I was working pretty much every weekend on my film, but at Portfolio I only come in on weekends when I absolutely have to.
What do you like best about working on Bravest Warriors?
It’s so fun to animate on a show that I actually watch. I was a fan of Bravest Warriors from before and when I found out it was being animated in Toronto I was so excited. It’s actually really cool moving Beth, Chris, Wallow and Danny and giving them life. Such an awesome experience.
Do you have a favorite Bravest Warriors character?
Has to be Danny. Like how can it not be? He’s so beautifully complex and yet so simple at the same time. His writing is always on point. I love him so much. He’s by far my favorite character to animate. He’s the only one with eyebrows too, so that’s always fun!
Brow game strong. Do you work on your own projects outside of the job?
Honestly, now I tend to do art when it’s project based or if there’s an end goal. After graduating I packed my plate full with projects, so I haven’t found too much time to make personal work. Thanks to the success of “Nana,” I did get a great opportunity to create another short. I’m currently directing and animating a very short, narrated interstitial for a PBS show based here in Toronto, Luna Around the World, created by Joe Murray. I feel really lucky; these opportunities are rare, especially right out of school. When I find time to draw for myself, I work on my TV show pitches, which I hope to get off the ground. One is for kids, one for adults. I dream of one day telling stories for a living and hopefully working in animation development.
What are your favorite cartoons or animated features?
Well, Spongebob Squarepants was my first and most important inspiration. It will always have a place in my heart. Adventure Time was also a huge obsession of mine in college. Rick and Morty has by far some of the best writing in animation I think I’ve ever seen. In terms of feature films, Nightmare Before Christmas is always a good time. But honestly, every time a new animated feature comes out, it’s very rare that I don’t like it! I can’t choose my favourites.
Which artists, animators or writers inspire you most?
I have a lot of amazing art / animation inspirations. There’s the big guys, from Charles Schulz to Pete Docter. But I’d like to give a shout out to my boyfriend Noam Sussman’s love for art and all things off the beaten path. His style is always inspiring and makes me want to do more of my own thing and push myself outside of my comfort zone. Other amazing women friends who I look up to and who deserve lots of attention are Cheyenne Curtis, Jackie Droujko, Esther Cheung, Kathryn Durst, and Sarah Kieley, among many, many others.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
What is this “outside of work”? Haha, kidding. I like biking around Toronto and exploring this city that I moved to only a year ago. Sitting in cool coffee shops and sketching, life drawing or stuff from my own life. If I’m so lucky to get out of the city, hiking is definitely on my list. Other than that, I’m just enthralled with all the really amazing television these days. Netflix is a gift to us all.
Do you get to see your Grandmother often? Where does she live now?
She moved from Budapest to Israel after the war, and then from Israel to Montreal about a decade later. She actually never went back to Budapest. She says she just refused… which I totally get. So I grew up with her in Montreal. I go home regularly to visit her and spend time with her. I call her every couple of days to check in and chat. She is one of my best friends, come to think about it. I’m so lucky to have this relationship with her.
And it’s amazing that your film will be part of your family history now!
Thank you! Yeah, actually my family had this big reunion a few weekends ago. They showed “Nana” at a screening to everyone and she was there. I couldn’t attend, but it’s so cool that she was able to just be famous and get all the attention for a day. She deserves it, and I’m really happy. Also, I just found out my film is being considered for the Yad Vashem video archive in Israel. If it were selected, she would live on there forever. Unreal. ❀
Thank you for the interview, Ali! Really excited to see where your path as a storyteller leads you. We’ll be watching for sure! And happy (almost) Workiversary on BW!
– Cooper ❀