01/10/21 • News & Happenings

The Lightbulb Moment

With Cliodhna Lyons

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Cliodhna Lyons, Assistant Director

For some artists, the decision to pursue a career in animation can be linked back to one eureka-like moment, influenced perhaps by a particular style of animation or an animated film they watched as a kid. Others, meanwhile, may not be able to pinpoint the exact impetus that set them on their path. For these artists, the decision is less of a conscious choice, and more of a dawning certainty that they belong within the animation world.


Cliodhna Lyons falls into the latter category. Cliodhna is an animator with a first name that few outside of Ireland can pronounce. (N.B. it’s pronounced ‘Klee-nah’. Incidentally, she has always felt slightly miffed about how her name came about: she was named after a boat on the Aran Islands where she was born, and as she puts it “boats are usually named after people and not the other way around”.) She studied animation at Ballyfermot College in Dublin and later studied comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has worked on both animated features and television for the past 15 years. She now works at Lighthouse Studios as an assistant director.

While Cliodhna can’t pinpoint the exact moment she decided to become an animator, she can cite the film that impacted on her the most creatively. Interestingly, given her chosen career, the film is not animated. But we’ll let Cliodhna tell you about it herself.

I’ve always been a fan of animation and watched just about anything I could get my hands on. With that said, I didn’t have one singular ‘lightbulb moment’ where I knew I wanted to work in animation. I could claim that after seeing the Lion King for the tenth time in the cinema, I knew that it was the career for me – but I honestly don’t recall when I decided I was going to study animation.  I just did one day and never changed my mind. 

However, I do know what film made the most impact on me creatively and changed the way I looked at film language. 

While studying at the New York School of Visual Arts, I took a film history class called International Cinema.  I remember it was at 9am on a Monday morning, and a lot of the films we watched and discussed could be quite heavy for that time of day! One cold winter morning, I sat in the school screening room and watched a film I now consider to be the greatest film ever made.  It was live action, black and white and silent – Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s approach to the subject matter, his use of cinematography and his art direction has influenced me greatly. To explain, let me give you some context as to what was happening in French cinema at the time. 

Abel Gance had just created his epic Napoleon, which included a battle sequence projected as a triptych across three screens. This was the sort of innovation that was happening at this time in France – huge battles, natural disasters and dramatic events were being put on film using new technology and filming methods – some being created on the spot to get the shot the directors wanted. For example, in Napoleon, Gance wanted the audience to feel like they were on a wave above a large crowd – so he strapped the camera to a giant swinging pendulum and swung it above the set. 

Into this scene stepped Danish director, Carl Dreyer, who, after success in his home country, had been invited by the Société Gėnėrale des Films to come to France to make a film about either Marie Antoinette, Catherine de Medici or Joan of Arc. Dreyer chose Joan of Arc, which delighted the Société Gėnėrale des Films, as they assumed the film would be similar to Gance’s Napoleon and feature epic battle sequences and dramatic shots of Joan leading the army.  

Dreyer, however, was not interested in this part of her story. Instead, he wanted to focus only on her trial.  

The film’s backers remained enthusiastic, as they thought they would get a court room drama, with many dramatic wide camera angles of judges and crowds. Then Dreyer dropped his biggest bombshell – he was going to film the entire film in close-up. This annoyed the backers – they had built one of the most expensive sets for a European film at the time, which would now only be shown in small segments.  

On release, the film was a critical success but a financial flop. However, the story doesn’t end there. 

Just before its general release, Dreyer held several private screenings. The Archbishop of Paris wasn’t happy and demanded cuts be made. Dreyer was furious, but when he attempted to get his version of the film back the original negative had been destroyed. Dreyer made a second cut using alternative and unused takes, but this version was destroyed in a fire.  

For decades, no original version of the film existed – there were only bad copies of the second Dreyer cut available, and the film was considered lost. Then, in 1981 at a mental institution in Oslo, several film canisters were found in a janitor’s closet. When examined, they were found to be Dreyer’s original cut of the film. There was no record of the film being sent to Norway, but the director of the institution was a friend of Dreyer’s, and some think he was sent a copy of the film to see how schizophrenics would react to Joan. Thanks to this discovery, a fully restored version of the film is now available. 

Cliodhna Lyons

While at the time I considered myself a film buff and big consumer of both live-action and animated films, this film was the first to make me really think about the visual language and how it can be used. I love the approach that, not just Dreyer, but filmmakers like Gance took – they didn’t worry about the limitations of the technology at the time, they pushed what was there and invented whole new techniques and equipment when needed. The Passion of Joan of Arc was made in 1928 yet feels much more recent with its approach to camera work and storytelling. There have been quite a few films on Joan of Arc since, but in my opinion none can hold a candle to Dreyer’s masterpiece. 

As the film was realised in 1928, it is now in the public domain and as such you can view the entire film online on sites like YouTube. However, for maximum experience, I do recommend the Criterion Collections DVD for the fully remastered picture, which includes music by Richard Einhorn called Voices of Light which was written for the film in 1995 and is used at many live screenings of the film. There is a great video on the Toronto International Film Festival YouTube channel which features actor Viggo Mortensen talking about the film, its production history and influence.  

I would also recommend Abel Gance’s Napoleon. It has been remastered several times as like The Passion of Joan of Arc there were several versions made and some footage damaged or lost. Several years ago, I saw a screening in London with a live orchestra and full triptych screening and it was just stunning.  

Also from 1927 is Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic Metropolis – another film that is referenced so much in current cinema and doesn’t feel like it’s aged.  

I strongly encourage people to look at cinema outside of what they are used to or comfortable with. Many classic films now don’t impress people, as we are so used to the techniques and film language used that they appear almost cliche, but look again and think about when and how a film was made – you might just find a whole new world reveals itself.”


You can find Viggo Mortensen’s talk at TIFF here

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