Ottawa Animation Festival: An elegy for a friend

A scene from Shannon Amen by Ottawa animator Chris Dainty.

Chris Dainty and Shannon Jamieson really connected as friends in high school.

They were both going to Vankleek Hill Collegiate Institute in the small town about an hour east of Ottawa.

They become close friends “because of art,” Dainty said. “We had an art class together. A lot of my high school adventures included Shannon, me and her hanging out. She taught me how to play guitar. We did a lot of art together.

“She was a phenomenal artist, so creative. Art was the glue that had us kind of stuck together in a small town. We both knew we had some talent so we fed off each other artistically.”

They were each other’s confidante. He knew, for example, that she was gay.

“I remember her telling me. I had always assumed it, but it wasn’t something I was going to pry from her. I let her let me know. I think it was a relief for her to let it out.”

Shannon was also religious. She went to a local Baptist church, and that’s where the minister betrayed her trust and revealed her sexual identity. She never opened up to Chris about that. “Her mom told me these stories after.”

“I knew religion was important to her but it wasn’t something that she talked about. Later, when she was out and proud and vocal, religion was this underlying question that she didn’t talk about. She did put that conversation in her art.”

There is a piece of art by Shannon that Chris found. She had written ‘I feel Guilty’ more than 100 times.

Shannon Jamieson and Chris Dainty. Courtesy Chris Dainty

He found that and many other revealing things after Shannon committed suicide.

“I found things that shocked me. I knew her so well, but there was this other side that she put into her art and hid from people.

“Two days before she killed herself, we were hanging out and having a great time. We went out for breakfast and she told me about her job. I said ‘I’m going to make a cartoon about you.’ It was going to be a comedy.” Shannon was working at a call centre at the time.

“After it happened I was trying to make sense of it all and I just kept coming back to thinking that I needed to make something about her. As a close friend I hadn’t seen everything and there was so much. I wanted the world to know about Shannon.

“I think she is an important Canadian artist who put her raw emotions out there and I  want people to see that.”

Shannon had had a major exhibition at the Arbour Gallery in Vankleek Hill in about 2003 and it was a huge success. She sold most of the work.

In 2006, she had another show that she called a retrospective. Her mother told Chris that she thought that was kind of strange to do at that age. A few months later she killed herself.

Chris started to think about how to make a film about her almost immediately. But the idea steeped for almost a decade.

His animation, Shannon Amen was been in production for five years.

He successfully pitched the National Film Board who gave him the green light. He spent a year on the script.

“That was really intense. In the early version, there was a lot of dialogue which I also found therapeutic. I imagined conversations I had had with her.”

Eventually a lot of the dialogue was cut out but it gave him time to contemplate things that had happened.

One of those was a photo shoot in a barn that was precious to Shannon.

“She looked at that place as a place of reverence. She looked at the barn as a church with the light beaming in.”

Looking at the photos later, Chris found there was a whole context that he didn’t realize at the time.

“I felt this strong sense that Shannon would want people to see this stuff and hear her voice. She was an artist who just needed to make art. She didn’t care what people got from it.

This image based on Shannon Jamieson’s work appears in the animation.

He finds that commitment to art-making “truly inspiring.”

Shannon would hang herself in that barn.

Chris has an animation business that does work for entertainment producers such as  Sinking Ship Entertainment. Dainty Productions has worked on shows such as Odd Squad. He’s also done work on video games including animating Sesame Street characters for a Nintendo Wii game. And he’s just launched an app for Hinterland’s Who’s Who in which he has taken 50 years of content and put that into the app long with games and collectible cards.

He’s a graduate of the Algonquin Animation Program and today he teaches there one day a week.

He has a natural curiosity and one evening he met a fellow in a bar who was an ice carver. He said he would teach Dainty who couldn’t wait to get started.

Now Dainty does large work at Winterlude in the international competition.

In 2015, he made a large sculpture with the carver Kevin Ash. It was of a tree built of human bodies. That was the moment that Chris decided he wanted to animate the sculptures.

His first attempt was of a walking deer that was used in an animation that preceded the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Chris Dainty. Photo: Mitch Lenet.

He used that concept as part of his  approach to the National Film Board about his film called Shannon Amen.

“I think we are so fortunate in Canada to have the NFB because I don’t think many people or organizations would fund something like this.”

There is little doubt that the ‘ice animation’ used in this 15 minute film is quite unique.

But what appears effortless on screen belies all the heavy lifting.

The ice sculpture moves through a combination of stop motion, puppetry and a little bit of digital animation.

“When the character moves, and you see the hand move, I’m actually puppeteering the ice.”

The scenes were planned out on computer and then the various parts were moved by hand. For example, he had five different legs that he used.

Needless to say the parts were really heavy. “It was a very physical shoot,” Chris says with an understatement.

Another thing about ice: it breaks — easily. He had a few sculptures break en route to the shoot inside Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts in the ByWard Market area where most of the film was done.

“We bubble-wrapped everything.” And they rented a refrigerator truck to move the sculptures, and they had a big team to load them into the church.

They filmed in the church during a cold part of winter with the heat off.

The film also contains more than 100 pieces of art by Shannon along with her speaking voice. There is something of her in every frame, he said.

As for the future:

“I’d like to do more ice animation. I learned a lot from it, but it was intense. It requires a lot of planning and people.

“If I could have it my way, I’d never make this project because Shannon” would still be around. It’s very bittersweet for Chris. He said he had always wanted to work with the NFB.

“I have been working on this project my son’s whole life. It’s surreal to be finally done. I feel fortunate to be able to tell Shannon’s story.”

He hopes her story will give a sense of empathy to people.

“I never saw myself being an advocate but I felt compelled to tell her story. It’s upsetting how it’s not a unique story for people in the LGBTQ community. I’m a straight guy and this is a film for everyone to help them understand better.”

The last two weeks of production, Dainty said, pushed him like he’d never been pushed. He was trying to get his film into festivals in Calgary and in Ottawa. This was all happening as the NFB was moving.

“Thankfully the move date was pushed back. I was afraid I wouldn’t finish the film on time if that hadn’t happened.”

Even as the final push was on, Chris changed some music at the last minute.

He asked the singer-songwriter Lyndell Montgomery to make the adjustment. She was one of the last people to see Shannon alive.

“I knew she had had a strong connection with Shannon who loved folk music and really appreciated Lyndell’s music.

He also hired a former student to work on the film. Izzy Campbell, who is gay, helped shape the film, providing insights that Chris didn’t have.

“Izzy brought level of authenticity to the film. I think Shannon would be proud of that.”

In town: Chris Dainty’s film is entered in the Ottawa International Animation Festival Short Film Competition. You can see screenings of it on Sept. 26 from 9:15 p.m. to 10:35 p.m. at the ByTowne Cinema; Sept. 28 from 9:15 p.m. to 10:35 p.m. at the National Gallery Auditorium. For more please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.