By Published: Jan. 16, 2024

CU Boulder Associate Professor Kelly Sears will premiere her short, animated feature ‘The Lost Season’ at the Sundance Film Festival beginning Thursday

Not too long ago, Kelly Sears went for a walk in the snowy New Hampshire woods and thought about the last winter on Earth.

She went for a lot of walks, actually, with an aging Canon Rebel XS camera in hand—capturing thousands of wintery images and speculating on how humanity would respond to losing the coldest season. She calls her musings science non-fiction.

Would there be collective and worldwide grief? Would mourning finally lead to climate action? Or would humanity, inevitably, find some way to commodify the loss?

Kelly Sears

Filmmaker and CU Boulder Associate Professor Kelly Sears will premiere her short, animated film The Lost Season at the Sundance Film Festival beginning Thursday.

Her thoughts wandered and then coalesced in The Lost Season, her short, animated film that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival beginning Thursday in Park City, Utah. It will be her fifth time screening at Sundance, which in no way diminishes the thrill of making one of just 53 short films selected from 12,000 submissions.

“I feel like—and I say this with pride, I don’t say this in any defeatist way—I do feel like my films are very much an outlier at Sundance,” says Sears, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of cinema studies and moving image arts. “One of the (Sundance) programmers was texting with me, asking, ‘Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in fiction? Do you want to be in animation?’ I think I’m an outlier in both those areas.

“I had such a connective time working on this project and I feel so close to it. I’m really happy to bring it out in the world.”

Familiar images reborn

Sears’ films occupy a niche in the world of cinema. They often begin with familiar images that Sears intentionally sculpts in a world-building process to that sees them reborn as something new. And they are animated, but not in a way that evokes cartoons or character-driven stories.

“There are many animation worlds,” Sears explains. “When I teach animation, I ask my students on the first day, ‘What do you associate with animation?’ Some might say Pixar or Disney, and then we may get wild answers like intuition or movement or intention.

“On the animation spectrum, there are so many ways to go about activating something that’s not there, whether with line and drawing, or by using a material or object and having it perform in a way that it wouldn’t without your hand.”

Growing up, Sears loved movies and gravitated to the art ones, the outsider ones, the weird ones. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, she didn’t at first know she wanted to pursue film but spotted someone cranking a 16 mm Bolex camera on campus one day and fell in love.

This happened at a time when film was moving into digital practices, but Sears was nevertheless infatuated with the tangible objects of the art—the Bolex cameras, the optical printers, the animation stands.

“I started playing with this longstanding technology and asking things like, ‘What happens when I put two pieces of film together? What if I animate the matte layer?’” Sears says. “When I went to grad school, I didn’t have access to that film apparatus, so it was a really good lesson that my art practice has to be able to go with me. It can’t be dependent on some equipment that I may or may not have access to.

The Lost Season title screen

Kelly Sears' film The Lost Season is a speculative docu-animation that grew out of contemporary ecological and labor histories.

“I taught myself digital animation at that point, but I still thought about it in a really analog way, about putting different layers together. As I was figuring out my film practice, it became apparent to me that there are so many film practices and one that people most often think about is narrative-based with actors, with dialogue. But none of that interested me foremost. I was always experimenting with visual textures and creating visual languages.”

Her work has been featured in festivals and shows around the world, as well as in the 2023 book Earmarked for Collision: A Highly Biased Tour of Collage Animation. In 2021, the band Sleater-Kinney contacted Sears about creating the video for their song “High in the Grass.”

“Something I’ve never seen before”

As she evolved as an artist, Sears grew increasingly interested in the juncture between non-fiction and speculative or science fiction. “I think across all my work there’s a tone of doom and dread and anxiety,” Sears says. “There’s also the element of the fantastic, this way of looking at the world as it is and thinking about a new way of moving through it at the same time. Even though my films have a bit of a doom tonality to them, I think when you’re in that place there comes a point where you have to ask, ‘What could be different?”

It's a question she asked herself during her MacDowell artist residency in New Hampshire, when she wandered the snowy woods and where The Lost Season was conceived. As Sears conceptualized Earth’s last winter, she envisioned a giant streaming company hiring all available photographers and videographers to film the final weeks of the soon-to-be-lost season. After seeing how their footage is used for ecological exploitation, they refuse to further commodify climate collapse with their labor.

In her director’s statement, Sears writes, “The Lost Season is a speculative docu-animation that grows out of contemporary ecological and labor histories. In 2023, we witnessed historic heat, monster wildfires and extreme weather storms. We also experienced labor disputes around Hollywood and studio productions concerning wage disparities and worsening job security. These grievances are shared by many other industries that also went on strike this year.”

The film is narrated by Skinner Myers, a CU Boulder assistant professor of cinema studies and moving image arts and Sears’ colleague. “We have a seriously cool department,” Sears says.

The Lost Season is one of a connected series of short films that Sears is shaping into a feature film, which is a different approach to filmmaking and an exciting artistic challenge, she says.

“A huge pleasure when I’m making films is trying to build an aesthetic tone in each film that doesn’t exist and really sculpting what the visuals look like and producing these frames that feel like something I’ve never seen before,” Sears says.


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