Looking at an animated film by Lynn Tomlinson ’88, a viewer feels like they’re in front of an impressionist painting by Van Gogh or the Hudson River School painters, or riding the waves with fishermen in a work by Winslow Homer.
Tomlinson uses colorful, clay-on-glass animation to create her stories, a process where oil-based modeling clay is spread thinly on a glass sheet and moved frame-by-frame like a moving finger painting.
Tomlinson’s most recent work, "The Elephant's Song," tells the story of Old Bet, the first circus elephant in America. The story, narrated by a farm dog who becomes Bet’s friend, has won multiple awards at various festivals. Tomlinson was in Ithaca in late October to show an excerpt from the film and give a talk at Cornell Cinema.
Tomlinson created the story with her son, Sam Saper, a college senior, who also composed the song for the film, which weaves the story of Old Bet with historic footage recreated during the choruses.
While the dog tells the story during the verses of the song, Old Bet sings the choruses, which are animated with oil pastel on video frames printed from archival films, paintings and photographs. Those frames illustrate how elephants have been used – and misused – throughout history for their ivory and their abilities, whether by circuses or landowners.
Tomlinson spends at least three hours animating for each second of film that appears on screen. So, the seven-minute long “Elephant’s Song” took Tomlinson more than 1,200 hours to create.
The pair has been traveling to various festivals with the film, winning the Global Insights Stellar Award from the Black Maria Film Festival, Best of Festival and Best Animation awards at the Peekskill Film Festival and the Award of Merit for animation from the University Film & Video Association, among other awards. The film has also screened at the Maryland Film Festival and the Woods Hole Film Festival and internationally at festivals in Japan, Finland, the UK, Canada, China, and Qatar.
At Cornell, Tomlinson enrolled as a biology major but always pursued art. She ended up an English major, but got turned on to studying film after taking a class her junior year, “Myth onto Film,” taught by anthropology professor Robert Ascher.
“The class mixed animation with theories of myth and anthropology,” she said. “We drew right onto 35 mm film with tiny pens.”
As a student, Tomlinson loved browsing through the Cornell course catalog, which was then in print form. “I’d say ‘wow, look at all of these weird and interesting things I could take here.’ “
She spent a semester abroad in England her junior year and found herself watching more and more films, so she took film production courses when she returned for her senior year and made animation projects for both of those classes. She also spent time at Ithaca’s community access television station, now Pegasys, creating a documentary about student businesses at Cornell.
Tomlinson went on to earn master’s degrees in art education, communication and studio art. In graduate school in the late 1980s, she discovered the clay-on-glass animation method, and has been develooping that unusual technique ever since.
Her work table holds a 6-inch by 10- inch glass plate lit from the top, with bits of clay all over and a food warmer underneath to keep it pliable enough to work with.
“Oil-based kids clay comes in great colors,” Tomlinson said. “Sometimes, I’ll spend a couple of hours kneading colors together to make a palette. But usually it looks like a mess — smeared bits of goo every which way.”
Along with short works, Tomlinson has created films for PBS and Sesame Street, along with sculptures and ceramics and six large-scale collaborative community art projects in Central Florida, including four mosaics. Her animation was also featured in a video, “Fired Up,” that went viral in 2017 featuring a speech by President Barack Obama and the work of 13 animators.
She is currently an assistant professor at Towson University, but for 10 summers, she spent time in Ithaca teaching an animation class in the Department of Performing and Media Arts.
Inspiration for “The Elephant’s Song” came from a podcast that told the story of Old Bet.
“The loneliness really hit me, of the elephant being the only one of its species, alone in the United States,” she said. “The diasporic narrative seemed very pertinent today. And then, in researching the story of the elephant, there were so many interesting tangents that spun out of that, that took me in all of these different directions.”
Tomlinson was also intrigued thinking about the elephant’s skin as a texture in her painting process. And she and Saper invented the character of the dog as a way to tell the story from a different perspective.
“We’re saying maybe you’ve heard this story from the circus people a certain way, but it might look different from this different non-human perspective,” Saper said.
Another interesting Cornell tie: the sound effects for the elephants in the film come from The Elephant Listening Project at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.
“The Elephant’s Song” will be available online, in a year or so, once it has finished its film festival run, but you can follow the film on Facebook. Tomlinson’s last film, “The Ballad of Holland Island House,” can be viewed here.