I Am YEG Arts - Scott Portingale
November 16, 2023
On Monday, November 20, the EAC and our friends at the Edmonton Community Foundation will celebrate 25 years of Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund (EATF) awards. In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of EATF and our roster of more than 200 EATF recipients since the award’s inception in 1998, we’re highlighting some of the incredible past EATF recipients on the EAC blog. Today we feature Scott Portingale, a filmmaker and three-time EATF recipient…
Animator and filmmaker Scott Portingale meticulously creates motion through the frame-by-frame capturing of animation and time-lapse photography. Fascinated by the intersection of the human experience, humour and culture, Scott invites us into a world typically beyond our perception with his experimental natural history films and stop-motion narrative films. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts Story, Scott tells us about the important role FAVA played in his budding career, what his advice is for artists getting their start, and how the EATF award gave him the gift of time.
Tell us about your connection to Edmonton. What makes it home for you and keeps you living and working here?
I was born in Alberta, so Alberta is really home. I’ve been to around 25 countries and I’ve spent probably over three years overseas in various countries including Australia, Taiwan, India, Tanzania, and countries in Central America like Nicaragua and then shorter trips to other locations. Edmonton is where my family is. This is where everything is. If I was to be somewhere else, I wouldn’t be home anymore.
What drew you to animation and cinematography? How did you get your start?
It was a slow progression. I never went to school for filmmaking or the arts. I was actually a welder and a commercial diver up until my mid to late 20s. There was a bit of an overlap with when I found my dad’s film camera and started taking pictures of farms and rural Alberta and on my travels through India and Central America.
Seeing the world in a frame evolved into a newfound appreciation of movies and one night I just kind of thought, “Oh, I should do something different with my life and go to film school.” I got into Vancouver Film School but dropped out before starting when I discovered the 16mm workshop at FAVA. At FAVA I had way more freedom and Vancouver Film School (at the time) structured their course using an industry-based model that did not guarantee I would get to write/direct a film while I was there.
I made one film through FAVA’s 16-mm workshop called Photosynthesis and submitted it to a few festivals and won an award. After that, it just sort of snowballed from there. I started writing grant applications that funded another film, Midnight Matinée and that one also went to festivals and won awards. After Midnight Matinée, I experienced a series of failures when producing more ambitious projects. I developed a puppet animation, and I went quite far with it, but it was just too ambitious and I never did get the funding to complete it. I learned some valuable lessons during that project. It was kind of a PhD course on the realities of filmmaking and the tension between producing a project and directing a project.
As a storyteller, what narratives or themes do you find yourself returning to?
With the experimental natural history films that I create, I find myself returning to themes relating to patterns in nature. It’s a refreshing departure from my narrative work. Narrative work is very, very arduous. I wouldn’t call it stressful, but writing narrative is like feeling your way through a dark room. I’m feeling my way through the idea, trying to create a shape and translating that to a potential audience. With my experimental natural history work, I just set up the variables. I know the chemical reactions will take place. I know that plants grow even though I can’t see them. I approach it from a documentarian perspective. As a witness. I set up cameras with macro lenses that expand the size to capture what is beyond our perception. So patterns in nature, I think will always be something that inspires me, and it has worked its way into the production design of my narrative work as well.
In my narrative stop-motion films, a theme that I return to is the dynamics between polar opposites such as light and dark, and evil and good. There’s a tension between them that’s more than just hero and villain, it goes deep down into our psychology where you also realize that you sometimes need to explore darkness to fully understand what you have in the light.
I like to explore that intersection between the human experience, and culture. There’s a tension there because culture is made up in a way. I mean, that’s a really distilled way to say it. But we just sort of wake up in history, making up cultural structures like countries, and belief systems. If we were here 1500 years ago, during Roman times, it would have been a completely different experience, but everything would seem normal including togas and murderous gladiator entertainment.
What is the creative process like for you? Can you tell us about the experimental filmmaking techniques in your work?
I create films for the most part, frame by frame, so shooting sequences, whether they be time-lapse like a plant growing or chemical reactions or stop-motion animation, one frame at a time with DSLRs and then I sew those still images together to create motion and to create a performance with puppets.
At the beginning of my career, I worked frame by frame because it was an inexpensive way to get high-resolution images. I wasn’t able to afford the larger cameras. But even now with communities like FAVA, where we have access to cameras like that, I still enjoy doing it frame by frame and while I don’t know if I’ll do it my entire career, it’s definitely been a large part of my career so far.
What would your advice be for artists looking to get their start?
My main advice would be to travel, experience life and not waste time. If you were to break your life down by weeks, in a good situation with a little bit above the average life expectancy, you have 4000 weeks. There’s this precious time between about the age of 20 up until when the responsibilities of life, whether that be through family or career, weigh on you. So, if you have time, don’t waste it. It is a precious resource. Also, you can really set yourself apart if you embrace discipline. Waiting for motivation is like waiting for the weather. It’s a feeling you have little control over when it shows up. Discipline is a choice but it gives you agency. The aggregate of your good choices and the bad choices will add up over time and shape your future whether or not you like what that future looks like.
This year we’re celebrating 25 years of the Edmonton Artist Trust Fund awards. What does it mean to you to be a recipient and how has the award impacted your career in Edmonton?
Back when I first received the award it helped pay studio rent and enable me to create work. When I received the award again in 2019, a budget wasn’t required which I think is quite amazing. It enables artists to do necessary things like buy a new laptop – the type of big purchases that you have to make every so often. It was right before the pandemic as well, the award really helped me during that time.
About Scott Portingale
Scott Portingale is an award-winning animation director and cinematographer based out of North America’s most northern of northern metropolises Edmonton, Alberta. Scott is best known for experimental natural history time-lapse cinematography, stop-motion animation and cosmic practical effects work. His films have been programmed across multiple platforms including international film festivals, art galleries, and media art installations.