The twisted animations of Erma Fiend

Talking with the New York based animator whose animated-GIF’s are intentionally walking the line between artistry and entertainment.

Published: October 2, 2017
Words: Erma Fiend & J.Scott Stratton

Just like most things in the world, animation has become one of those things that is synonymous with computers. Even some of the more well known Claymation feature films and animated series’ are actually done with 3D modeling and rendering.

Now I’m not one to wax reminiscent about the good old Ray Harryhausen days where the majority of all animation was painstaking done by hand – subtly adjusting figures an photographing tens-of-thousands of images. It would be ridiculous to abandon the tools that drastically streamline that process.

But I do find myself being drawn to animators who stylistically express the influence of classic stop-motion in their work – even if the large majority of it is finalized in After Effects.

This is was grabbed me about the work of artist Erma Fiend. Scrolling through her instagram feed is like taking a tour through the worlds of David W. Allen, David Lynch and Monty Python all roll into one deliciously, obscure brain melt.

Beyond the pure entertainment level of her work, lies a craftsmanship that is something can’t be achieved by simply watching an online tutorial on Maya or Photoshop. There is a intricate planning to her simple animation – specifically because of that one detail. Their simple…at least in their consumption.

The majority of Fiend’s work is made purely as repeating animated gifs. Which means that the entire structure of the frame-by-frame images is far more complicated that it might first appear. Everything needs to be meticulously planned out. Each element within her animations must not only move from point A to point B, but must also animate to point C, which is a mirror image of point A – thus completing the circular animation.

There is a lot more to the process in which Fiend’s works, of which I am doing no justice, so I sat down with her talk about her what inspires her and keeps her animating.

Your feed has provided me with endless hours of entertainment, so I don’t even know where to start. But I guess, tell me how you got into working with animation?

I’ve been doodling and making little things for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved mixed media animation.  I started working as a production assistant for a children’s television show in my early 20’s, and I spent many years on the producing side of things.  I’ve always worked on my own animated shorts on the side, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started making gifs on a regular basis.  Now I can’t stop!

The animations and gifs that you make, do you create them specifically for the web, or are they all part of a larger collection of work?

I love getting a chance to show high-res stuff on a big screen, but I definitely make things with the web in mind.  I love that internet viewing gives people intimate access to explore and watch gifs on repeat.  There’s something special about discovering looping nuggets of motion that don’t have a start or end, or a place or context for viewing.  They’re just portals into different worlds that you can stumble upon at your own pace.

“I want my work to span funny, eerie, upsetting, and delightful simultaneously.”

Do you consider yourself falling into the category of classical “artist,” in the sense that this is your full-time creative pursuit?

I have a background in production and technical jobs that aren’t always creative but right now animation is my full-time focus.  Anyone who has the drive to create evocative experiences just for the sake of making their idea come to fruition is an artist in my book.

Tell me about your process for how you create one of your animations?

I usually start with a vague idea for an action or scene, and then I plan out all the different shots that I’d need to put it together.  Sometimes it’s straightforward frame-by-frame stop motion with a few added effects that I draw on digitally, but usually, I have a few different stop-motion sequences that I cut up in Photoshop and Frankenstein onto a timeline to play out simultaneously.  There’s a lot of trial and error, and sometimes I go back and add multiple layers of effects until it’s interesting enough to watch on repeat.

When people have written about your work, you’re often referred to in the context of “horror,” although personally, I find your work more Lynchian. Would you consider yourself a Horror Queen or has that been projected on you?

I like to create surreal worlds with their own logic and aesthetic, but I don’t aim to fit the horror genre necessarily.  I want my work to span funny, eerie, upsetting, and delightful simultaneously.  I consider myself a horror queen in real life, though.

Because what you do is so closely related to film work, is that also a discipline that you explore?

I recently directed a short film written by a friend of mine, and I’m hoping to start making some short form looping video for Instagram.  In the long-term, I’m writing a horror movie about people who work at a tech company that designs AI sex dolls.  I want to work up to that with some smaller scale videos first.  I’m excited to start combining some of my gif effects with audio and live action video.

Beyond the grossly entertaining treats that you post on Instagram, where can people find out more about your work?

I just built my website, which I hope to expand soon by selling lenticular prints of my gifs (it’s a cool technique, they look like holograms but for frame animation).  You can also check out my work on artist page

Fiend’s work is definitely finding a home in the hearts of many on the interwebs, with her work being picked up by Vice, Bullett Media, and a host of other global publication – in that regard, I suppose we’re the awkward ones showing up late to the party.

Regardless of the internet hype around Fiend’s work, it was nice to learn that her skill as an animator is leading her down more adventurous and scalable projects. While her animated-GIF’s are fantastic, there is a lot of work that goes into a small piece of digital art that most people normally consume in seconds without even bothering to acknowledge the artist or their hours of toil.

But until the day that I see her name in the final credits of a larger project, I’m happy enough to simply open my Instagram feed, find another bizarre animation from this talented motion designer, and know a little bit more about the person who made it.

NOTE: Unfortunately, even though animated GIF’s are common everywhere, if you’re looking at this site on mobile they will appear as films. This is because apparently our website was designed in 2005 and we have zero money to pay fancy web guys to fix it. But you can see all of Fiends’ work here:

Painting & Illustration

Karen Lederer & the evocative life of objects

Two Brooklyn girls have a chat, as our voice in New York, AM DeBrincat speaks with artist Karen Lederer about color, process...

Low-Brow Art

Volkano’s Symbolistic Transformations

Dipping into the lowbrow art stylings of florida-based artist to get the skinny on his work

Installation Art

Amalie Jakobsen ‘Wrongdoers’

Talking about the spaces in between objects, people and color with Danish artist Amalie Jakobsen

detail of Carla Chan exhibition 'Ashes of Snow' at Den Frie
Installation Art

Carla Chan

The Berlin-based artist talks about her relocation from Hong Kong and her shift from digital medias to analog objects.