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Chicago Animator Jim Trainor: The Anti-Disney

February 15, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

Jordan Poast

Chicago Animator, Jim Trainor

Chicago-area independent animator, Jim Trainor, has established a name for himself as the anti-Disney.  Despite a predilection for anthropomorphic animals (Jim’s most popular quartet of shorts have been exhibited under the title The Animals and their Limitations), Jim utilizes none of the elements that were hallmarks for Disney. Rejecting the polished and flourished quality of traditional cell animation, Trainor’s shorts like the Bats and the Moschops feature the director’s trademark stripped-down style, typified by stark, choppy lines hand drawn in Sharpie marker on simple white paper, which oscillate on the screen due to the process of repeated tracing.

In terms of subject matter, Jim’s films depart drastically from Disney’s common fascination with fables and fantasies, examining instead the much grimmer and realistic habits of animals in their natural habitats, thereby placing him in a distinct artistic space between David Attenborough and Don Hertzfeldt. Nihilistic with a sardonic undercurrent, Trainor’s comedy arises in the way he imbues his animal subjects with expression in the form of a monotonous voice-over track.  Exploring their interior processes, the director delights in illustrating the divide between bestial instinct, and human emotion and logic. In Jim’s pieces, lions speak frankly and unapologetically about killing their girlfriends’ children, while bats unsentimentally describe the common deaths of siblings.

Developing out of his expansive knowledge of often arcane subjects, Trainor’s wryly-witted films have become a hit with audiences around the nation, as the director continues to find venues for exhibition. Adding to his growing success, Jim was honored with 2010’s prestigious Alpert Award, given to four deserving recipients for contributions to their respective artistic media. Using animation as his vehicle for transforming obsessions into expression, Trainor has proven to be a true local talent.

Much like his films, Jim’s animating genesis was anything but conventional. Having acquired both an interest in drawing and a morbid streak from studying books by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, Trainor had already garnered a reputation as a gifted cartoonist by the seventh grade when a schoolmate presented him with an enticing proposal.  As a home project, Jim’s friend and his father had created a makeshift animation studio in their basement, with the goal of producing films for a purely technical challenge. With no artistic skills between them, the pair asked Trainor to conceive and draw their movies, which the boy’s parents would fund (making them Jim’s first producers). This arrangement continued until Trainor was a senior in high school, giving him a dozen films to his credit by the time he graduated.

Still from "The Bats" by Jim Trainor

With a desire to turn his hobby into a profession, Jim eschewed an interest in science and began teaching himself the intricacies of animation while studying English at Columbia University. After graduating, Trainor began living the life of a starving artist, spending the majority of the ‘80s and ‘90s working odd jobs as a bartender at night to fund his animation studio, located in his New York apartment. Despite being supported by these jobs, though, Jim always defined himself by his true passion, his animation.  “I never had too many difficulties in making films at this time because, honestly, I was going to do this anyway.  I think it would be difficult if I ever thought I could make a living off of it.”

With patience, determination and good exposure, Trainor’s films began to rise in popularity, developing a following based on his series of animal-centered shorts. Soon after the release of The Fetishist in 1997, Jim became known as a unique figure in the animation community, one with an acerbic wit and investigative eye. Squarely under his microscope were nature documentaries, which the scientifically-minded director always felt were misrepresentative. Faulting their “religiously” reassuring depictions of the cycle of life, Trainor wanted to make films that reflected the destructive force of nature, which he hoped would leave people in a proper state of “existential horror.”

Lacking the resources to make his own documentary, Jim began exposing the blunt realities of nature and culture in his animation, which the director has found to be a valuable tool for depicting disturbing and subversive subject matter.  Trainor’s medium has afforded him liberty to deal with perverse and erotic content that would be too provocative in motion. “If my films were live-action, I’d probably be jailed.”

While the shocking quality of Jim’s work dominates discussion of his artistry, a deeper look into his exhaustive creative process proves a level of care that might not be expected from his deceptively simple cartoons. Initially, Trainor conceives his topics out of his “obsessive interests.” Rather than research, Jim’s narratives evolve out of the comprehensive knowledge he acquires about specific subjects that arouse his attention. “My interests are not broad, but when I do get interested, I’m a completist.  I often feel that my subjects choose me rather than the other way around.” Consuming everything he can about topics in the realms of nature (prehistoric animals in the Moschops) and anthropology (Pre-Columbian art in The Presentation Theme), Trainor’s reverence converts to humor as he begins writing dryly whimsical poems reflecting the lives of his obsessions, which become the texts of his films.

Jim Trainor at the lightbox

Making Jim’s process all the more unique is his refusal to storyboard his projects. A staple of pre-production, storyboarding allows animators to organize their work into efficient bits. Finding this to be stifling, Trainor animates out the entirety of his script, which affords him freedom in the editing phase. In a typical film, only a quarter of the footage shot by Jim will make the final edit, an exceptionally low amount. “The problem that [most animators] have, which I’ve tried to steer away from, is they get lost in the planning stage.  They make artistic decisions too early, which makes the actual animation a tedious labor.  Although I animate relatively so much more, my process allows me to remain engaged with my material.”

This artistic process has taken Trainor a long way, as he was honored with the prestigious Alpert Award for his work in film.  Nominated anonymously by members of the creative community, Jim won for his distinctive voice and style.  Along with the prestige of being chosen, the award includes a significant cash prize to be used at the artist’s discretion, which Trainor has invested in his first full-length feature rather than in more practical needs. “My wife probably would have liked to put a down payment on a house.” With the dream of working in live-action for the first time now attainable, Jim has used the resources at his disposal as a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago to produce a “fact-based horror film,” titled the Pink Egg, which he hopes to complete later this year.

Despite being known for his whimsically morbid films about the dark deeds of humans and animals, Jim Trainor is an optimist. “My films suggest a bleaker, more troubled person than I am.  I’d like to do something nicer someday, but haven’t gotten around to it.”  For now, Jim’s non-nice movies have become the artist’s way of fulfilling both his love of the natural world and his own creative impulses, which have been rewarded with success and accolades. Despite this, though, Trainor maintains the zeal to self-expression that motivated the journey of he and countless independent animators like him. “The hardest thing for young animators is accepting the divergence in their lives. Creative fulfillment won’t pay your way, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be the top priority in your life. I would caution artists against using personal fulfillment as the only criterion; after all, we don’t make art for ourselves, but for others.”


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