Karen Aqua


A cell from Karen Aqua’s Nine Lives

Our fourth Living on the Earth Award nominee is animation artist Karen Aqua.

The first time I met Karen, she was presenting a screening of her films up to that time, in January 1994 at Kalani Honua Oceanside Retreat. The films, none longer than ten minutes, totalled about an hour of viewing, and over a decade of work. She was just about to begin what turned out ot be a long and successful work relationship with Sesame Street, for which she created many animated sections.

Karen shared that the stack of drawings needed for a ten minute animated film would fill a medium sized closet, stacked floor to ceiling. She explained that her work time is chiefly paid by grants, some to do animation and some to teach. She travels widely as artist in residence, but she works mostly in her studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Karen’s well-loved and well-used animation stand

Eleven years later, I visited Karen and saw her studio, with its animation stand and many framed animation cells on the wall. I asked a lot of questions.

Karen explained to me that the sound track for an animated film is created first, because it is much simpler to draw in synch with the music and/or script than it is to record the sound track to follow the drawings. She likes scripts to move along quickly, so that the animator doesn’t have to create extra seconds worth of art. How much art?

If the animation is of the highest, densest quality (say, a Disney cartoon), that’s 24 frames per second. But low tech animation is in vogue right now, particularly in television advertising, and that’s twelve frames per second.

If you want the drawings to flicker, you make three similar but different drawings and alternate them. Each drawing is based on the last one; the animation stand contains a light box so that the drawing underneath the one being drawn acts as a guide. The paper is prepunched with holes that match upright rods on the stand, so that each animation cell is perfectly aligned. The cells are digitized by scanning or photographing with a digital camera on a stand. Karen prefers the camera. So, even though the artwork is created by hand, the animation itself is put together in a computer program, rather than with film, as it was in decades past.

Ken Field and Karen Aqua 

Karen’s long and happy marriage to jazz saxophonist Ken Field has included a number of wonderful collaborations, including the film Ground Zero/Sacred Ground, a protest against the use of nuclear weapons danced for us by petroglyphs from an ancient Native American rock site.