Leann Erickson is one talented filmmaker. During her 25 years in the biz, she has made some amazing animations, wild experimental work and fascinating documentaries. Her work has appeared on public and cable TV, at film festivals and in art galleries. Her most recent project Top Secret Rosies, is a PBS documentary about the female mathematicians who helped win World War II. And she’s an Associate Professor of film and video production at Temple.
Luckily, she was able to find some time to chat with us! Read on to learn more about Erickson’s work.
What got you into film?
My background was that I was actually an artist. I went to undergraduate school and got an art degree, and I was a high school art teacher for a while. I was also very interested in photography. When I went to graduate school, I said I wanted to study consumer video, which was something that was happening in the 80s. Finally, the technology had gotten cheap enough that regular people could own video cameras and they could edit things. So, it was this amazing time when I realized, it’s not like you have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to make your own work. So, I quit my job and went to graduate school and I got my MFA in film and video art. So photography was my way in, but I think in some ways it was the accessibility of technology that showed me that I could afford to do this. I didn’t need to be in LA or something, working on somebody else’s film. I could do my own work. And that was a pretty amazing, empowering moment.
You’ve said that all your work is ultimately an exploration of yourself – what does that mean?
My parents were both feminists long before that term was ever used in the 60s. One of my earliest memories is of my dad telling me when I was five years old, “You can grow up to be president. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything that you want to do.” And that’s kind of an amazing thing. My mother was a working-mother, and she worked to put him through college and he worked to put her through college. So they had a very egalitarian relationship.
I’ve always had that idealism myself, about women and their worth. So to be able to use such a strong medium like the moving image, like documentary, to tell these stories that other people don’t know was always very important to me. I’m glad I’ve been able to do that.
You do so many different kids of projects – from animation to experimental films to PBS documentaries.
I think there’s this idea that a filmmaker may have a style that he or she brings to their work. Like Hitchcock – no matter what film you watch of Hitchcock, you say to yourself, “That looks like a Hitchcock film.” What I’ve always felt is that as an artist you need to talk both to your medium and to your subject in terms of a creative, aesthetic conversation.
Looking at Top Secret Rosies, it was going to be my first HD project I’d ever done. So I said, I would either just blow up people’s talking heads and just fill up the bigger screen. Or I could take this beautiful gigantic screen and treat it like a painter would treat a canvas. I purposely took a collage approach to the screen itself.
And because this was about an invention that nobody had ever invented before. So I said, lets invent a soundtrack. What might the first computer have sounded like? No one knows; there are no recordings of this. Let’s just let our imaginations go wild here. So I tried to take my interest in experimental work and apply it in what might be considered a more traditional documentary.
[For Top Secret Rosies], I wanted a broad audience. I wanted it to be viewed in schools, I wanted it to be in television. So I paid attention to those media, and I studied them, and said, where can my sensibility and my aesthetic interests come together with this particular style to ensure that get a product that I’m interested in and proud of, and that people will find accessible.
Tell us about those awesome animation projects you did with your son. How old was he at the time?
He was four or five years old. So we wrote stories together and I scanned in the drawings and I animated them. And we got his friends to do voices and he did voices. So it was really, really fun. For two or three years there we collaborated on a number of little pieces. And they did actually really well out in the festival world. So it wasn’t just a vanity project for the two of us. It turned out it had resonance with other people.
Is he still interested in film?
Yeah! He’s a junior in the film program in Temple University.
So what are you working on now?
I did so much work for the Top Secret Rosies project; it took me seven years to complete from the moment I started researching it. It took from 2003 to 2010. So I want to get as much out of all of that work and knowledge that I’ve acquired as I can. Looking at the educational distribution of the documentary, I noticed that the age group is about junior high, high school, college. And late elementary and early middle school is a pretty crucial time for girls. They’re good at math and science stem studies, their interested in math and science. But we start to loose them in junior high.
So, what I’m working on is I’m adapting the film into an interactive iBook app for use by 10, 11 and 12 year olds, and it’s going to be called The Computer Wore Heels.
It’ll have elements of a book and it’s very dramatic and written to engage kids of that level, but then they can pop out and see video clips of say, Roosevelt declaring war on Japan or they can listen to audio clips of a radio broadcast. They can look at original documents and photographs. I’d also like to include math games that can teach them the kind of math these girls were doing, so they can have a better understanding of the whole story. So I’m hoping that teachers of that level might be using that in an English class, or math, science, computer lab – all the different places that this story intersects. And how cool would it be to come full circle – the first programmers of the first multi-purpose computer and now kids are learning about them on the latest iPad.
What makes you a geek?
Me a geek! When these folks said they were going to nominate me [for Geek of the Week] I said that’s such an honor.
I was very late to computers. I remember being a high school teacher in the early 1980s, and we got a tech lab. And I’d walk by that room, going “Eh, this stuff isn’t going anywhere!” (laughing). I just had no sense that technology would do what it does. But I use it every day now. I’m a filmmaker and a video editor so I use Photoshop, After Effects, FinalCut Pro, Avid, ProTools.
So If I have a geek element, it’s that I have a total enthusiasm for the potential of technology to do good.