The absurd and whimsical world of Helen Hill

Late Canadian animator’s short films are rough, experimental and often liberating

  • Helen Hill in her makeshift film studio in Halifax. Hill, a celebrated animator, educator and activist, was murdered in 2007.

Potbellied pigs, teapots, eggs with wings and a love letter to Halifax’s little known bohemian underbelly: all are captured on 16mm in the absurd and whimsical animated works of Helen Hill.

Hill first began making movies when she was 11. She spent her life creating, teaching and advocating for experimental animation both in Canada and the United States. Hill was also a social activist involved in many grassroots movements.

Hill’s film career was tragically cut short when she was killed Jan. 4, 2007 in New Orleans. Her death was part of a string of eight unsolved homicides which occurred that fateful night.

The House of Sweet Magic is a collection of 10 of her best films.

Each film is a world unto itself and different from the one before, yet all come from the same determined, artistic vision.

Hill uses a number of animation techniques, from stop-motion animation to silhouettes, and some live action footage.

Lovingly made, handcrafted characters populate Hill’s playfully bizarre tales of the rain dancing with a lone cowboy and the tragedy at the world’s smallest fair.

Mouseholes and Madame Winger Makes a Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century are certainly the two standout shorts.

Madame Winger is a documentary on do-it-yourself film making as seen through the lens of a ‘60s Disney special.

How should one make a film when the apocalypse comes?

Hill gives us the proper steps to follow, putting the power of cinema back in the people’s hands in a way that would make filmmaker Michel Gondry proud.

Mouseholes is a moving film about the death of a grandfather from his granddaughter’s perspective. From a child’s point of view we see a man larger than life, someone who could walk on his hands and who ends up at a tea party in heaven. We are shown the beauty of this man, something seen in his life and his death.

Hill’s work gives the sense of a film student playing around. The films are rough, experimental and sometimes fail to work as a cohesive piece. Often they are about an idea more than a story, and there is little narrative push. Just as often, though, they are a triumph of will and ingenuity over budget.

Hill was an animator who thought everyone should be able to make a movie.

She knew that everyday objects held a hidden magic and was interested in capturing the absurdity of humanity. 

Published in Volume 64, Number 14 of The Uniter (December 3, 2009)

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