Filmmaker interview: “Voice on the Line”

On May 14th, we’re kicking off our best season yet with a jam-packed collection of audacious, crafty, punchy shorts in the program, This is What We Mean by Short Films. Who better to share our excitement than veteran Rooftop Filmmaker, Kelly Sears? Her contribution this year, “Voice on the Line,” is a calculated collage of archival footage, investigating unsettling Cold War era backroom deals. The film’s message– the dangers of unchecked paranoia– still resonates today. We sat down with Kelly to learn more.

Rooftop Films: Give a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Kelly Sears: A possible documentary and probable fiction involving beautiful voiced telephone operators paired with actual and fabricated CIA plots set in the Cold War era with the summer of love on a distance horizon.

RF: Where did the images in the film come from? What did you do to achieve a vintage look?

KS: The film is made up of footage that comes from ephemeral films from the Prelinger Archive. I collected a handful of films from the archive and digitally removed the backgrounds from the figures so I could stitch them together in a new story. The figures all hover over a background of decaying mid-century wallpaper that helps reveal the lascivious ending of the film.

RF: How do you think the era of the switchboard operators influenced communication and society today?

KS: I was thinking a lot about how we connected to one another through technology when making this film, and in the initial stages of making this film, it was going to focus more on how we connected to the world around us in disconnected ways. I think technology channels so many psychic fears and possible utopic impulses and is an interesting character to have in story. I was also largely thinking about a more contemporary atmosphere of the PATRIOT Act but thinking of how this surveillance could backfire in a comedic way.

RF: Some of your shot compositions are quite striking. What were you trying to achieve artistically?

KS: I always think I have one foot in more traditional stop motion animation and one foot in digital animation. Once I found these telephone operators who looked like they were out of a Fellini film, I knew this piece was going to be anchored on their faces. I wanted to frame the technology in this piece in the same way, partially fetishized and a little ominous. I tried to create some cinematic layering in the compositions with slow zooms and focus pulls between layers. The largely anchored foregrounds are supposed to be charged by the frenetic animated backgrounds.

RF: We’ve put your film in our Opening Night program, all about grand stories in little packages, with films about the power of storytelling, about the dangers of posturing and the joys of lying, about the magnificent thrill of re-writing history. We think it fits. What about you?

KS: That sounds like a perfect to me! I couldn’t ask for a better context.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker? If not, what else are you up to?

KS: I’m lucky right now and I get to focus a lot on making projects. Currently I am at the Core Program artist residency through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Other than that I am teaching video, animation, and media history classes to get by.

RF: Describe your next project.

KS: I’m making a disaster tale out of high school yearbooks from the 1970s that ties in with the Watergate scandal. This one is more of a fever dream than the rest, less directly referencing political events and more of a cinema verité animation. Very apocalyptic, but also very charming.

RF: We’re thrilled to have a third film of yours now at Rooftop. What keeps you coming back?

KS: Rooftop is amazing! The programming is fantastic and so many folks get to see the work. Each week there is something amazing to choose from. I am very happy to be shown along with such great other films, especially in this epic opening night program.