Petra Szemán

Image: Monomyth: gekijouban (2021).

I came across Petra Szemán when I saw their work in the Hexham Illuminations Festival. I was really impressed with their work so I wanted to interview Petra to find out more about their journey.

Here is my interview with Petra

Hi Petra, would you like to introduce yourself to the readers?
I’m Petra Szemán – an artist mainly working with moving image, situated at the murky intersection of artists’ films, animation and video games. I grew up in Hungary, but moved to the North East to do a Fine Art BA at Newcastle University, and now I feel really connected to the region. I’ve been here for 8 years more or less, except for a 2 year period when I lived in Japan.

I’m now based in Gateshead, and living the self-employed artist lifestyle of juggling approximately 500 freelance projects. I do a mix of commission work, self-initiated endeavours, and teaching animation workshops.

Tell us about your journey into animation journey?
I went to do art at uni thinking that I wanted to be a painter, mainly because I didn’t know there were other options. Once I discovered that I pointedly did not enjoy painting, I randomly signed up to an AfterEffects workshop in my second year just to experiment, and that’s when it all started. AfterEffects is a video compositing software can do a lot, but I particularly got into the animation aspects of it, and then through those initial explorations I reconnected with a love I had for animation since early childhood, watching Japanese anime and the works of Hungarian animators. It just snowballed from there.

Describe your animation style?
I use a mixture of real life footage, 2D frame-by-frame drawn animation, anime and video game imagery. There’s a lot of layers, and I particularly appreciate animation that really embraces not being seamless. I try to go in that direction with my own practice.


What is the process from idea to final product?
That depends on the project – for something as straightforward as the Hexham trainscape video I made, it was quite clear from start to finish. I came up with an initial idea, drew a lot of sketches, collected the images I used to assemble it all, and then just dove in.

When it comes to my more intense video-essay-like works there’s a lot more back and forth motion. Often I will start with a specific idea for a scene, purely going off the visuals, and then certain ideas will start taking shape as I’m working on it, the process of animation and narrative being quite intertwined both conceptually and practically. I tend to chase these initial lines of thought just to see where they lead, and once a few things arise I will stop to try and impose a structure – draw storyboards, start a script draft.

And then it’s just a lot of time, drawing all the frames and putting all the scene compositions together. Usually by the time I’ve done most of the labour I have a pretty clear idea of where it’s all going.


What inspires you when creating animations?
I don’t want to sound corny, but I think my head is filled with all these animated worlds, with the scenes and motions trying to come out at every given opportunity. A lot of my ideas reveal themselves to me when I’m walking somewhere fast. I get a lot of inspiration from trains, playing games, watching anime and reading comics, and reading academic texts about animation, anime and the dynamics of fandom in general. When I lived in Japan I did a lot of “field work” going on pilgrimages to real life locations of animated films and series, and I’m still going through all that material and associated thoughts. Recently I’ve been getting a lot from playing Ghost of Tsushima on PS4 and Yokai Watch 4++ on the Nintendo Switch, as well as countryside walks in the vicinity of Gateshead.


Tell us about Animating Hexham(AH) how you got into doing it?
I came across the open call for Animating Hexham while browsing general arts opportunities. I thought the project was a lovely idea in general, and I put a proposal together, which happened to be selected!


Tell us about your AH piece?

My video, loosely titled ’Hexham Trainscape’ echoes the changing scenery rushing by as seen from the window of a train. The imaginary landscape is constructed out of photos of Hexham main street and significant buildings, interwoven with footage recorded in the surrounding countryside. It’s a mix of my own images and video stills from an old film depicting Hexham town centre from the North East Film Archive.

Through rearranging the individual components that are no doubt familiar to the locals already, I was hoping to arrange a scenery that represents the familiar elements in new contexts, interpreting Hexham and its surrounding area in an expanded visual sense. Exploring the passage of time as well as people’s individual experiences of Hexham through a displaced and floating imaginary landscape.

The video loops as if the train is passing through this archival depiction of Hexham for hours on end; representing the town with an endless potential for change and growth, the familiar structures morphing into new realms as the camera moves along.


Are you from Hexham, have you been before?
I’ve travelled through Hexham before, but haven’t spent considerable time there before the project. I went for a trip before I started development, to gather footage and also to get a general feel of the place. I had a lovely time there!


What did you learn about Hexham when creating your piece?
I learnt a lot of local history, various stories about old buildings – but my favourite part was getting to speak to people who live there and honestly deeply love the city. That was a great energy to witness. I also learnt a lot about the trainline connecting Hexham and Newcastle.


Where can people see your work?
Generally all my work should be available online, with my videos uploaded to vimeo. I try to keep it all organised and clearly signposted on my website at petraszeman.com .I appear in exhibitions and screenings sometimes, which I tend to post info about on my website or various social medias! (@petra.szeman on Instagram, @petra_szeman on Twitter)
On the 20th of October I’ll be doing an online livestream/talk/in-conversation as part of Screen Walks, an online project organised by The Photographers’ Gallery in London and Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. I’ll talk about lots of behind-the-scenes types bits, and show my working process in general.

Otherwise I’m currently working on a video for a larger project I’m managing called On Animatics, to be published early 2022. On Animatics involves new video art commissions from 5 different artists, and a book on animation I’m co-editing with  Jamie Sutcliffe.

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