“Livin’ Large.” “On Holiday.” “Superstar.“ “Makin’ Magic.” The expansion packs for the inaugural edition of The Sims signal ideas of escaping familiar realities; of satisfying unfulfilled desires. Fine art filmmaker Jacky Connolly, however, utilizes the game to re-enact and re-imagine moments from the past. Predominantly shot within The Sims, Jacky’s films are inspired by her upbringing in New York’s Hudson Valley, an environment enveloped in kitschy charm and sublime nature. Composed of leisurely-paced, suburban vignettes, Jacky’s films brim with mood and atmosphere—spotlighting images of alienation and discovery as one comes of age.
We spoke with Jacky about the slippage (and possibility) that occurs when a Sims avatar has a life of their own, the surreal charm of the Hudson Valley, and her upcoming films made within the worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.
ORIGINS IN ART AND UPBRINGING
Which games did you play as a kid that helped kickstart your creative process?
When I was younger, games like American Girl Premiere were like paper dolls on a stage. It’s a keyframe animation program—you are essentially directing cinematic production of these dolls. I was always into playing with dolls and making elaborate productions with them. When I was a little older, I was into early PlayStation games, like Silent Hill, for the Gothic horror atmosphere. But The Sims was the one I was obsessed with. It was one of the most exciting days of my life when I got the first version of the game.
You have both a degree in Fine Art, but you also have a Master’s in Information Technology. How did these two disciplines inform each other and your creative process?
My mom’s a photographer. In high school, I was into shooting digital photos and posting them on Myspace. I quickly went through a traditional, large-format darkroom photography education, and made artists’ books and collage work. That brought me to the video space—I began to use found footage to make video collages.
I studied art history in undergrad, and photography was my studio focus. I’ve had a pretty self-taught trajectory with video—eventually, when I went to Pratt, I studied it a little more formally, taking classes in advanced animation. With library science, I’ve just always been really into computers and archiving and organizing information. My program allowed you to do both at the same time. I thought I would work as a librarian immediately, but then I solidified my artistic vision.
I returned to The Sims because I wanted to make animations and films, but I knew immediately that I didn’t have the resources to animate a feature-length film as a one-woman show. You know, for most animation students, their final project is two or three minutes long. The technical aspect—the craft of what I do—is essential to me. Still, the ability to quickly iterate through ideas or gather inspiration is more important than studying film or 3D modeling in a traditional program. When I thought to download The Sims again, it became my life [laughs].
What was it like growing up in the Hudson Valley—what particularities about that environment have affected your creative process?
One of early America’s first art movements is the Hudson River School. They were concerned with the sublimity of nature—paintings of gorgeous sunsets over the river with clouds. It’s not my art style, but it refers to the weird juxtaposition of nature and bland suburbia of where I grew up.
I grew up near Sleepy Hollow. There’s lots of fantastic supernatural lore, different myths about the Native American history of the area. There are lots of ghosts and weird energy, allegedly lots of UFO sightings. There’s a potent mood to the area with how beautiful the river is, too.
RE-EXPLORING THE SIMS
So what first compelled you to make a film within The Sims?
My family was in the furniture business, so I spent a lot of time in these huge showrooms meant to look like living rooms. I would go to work with my dad and sit in them, which I think started my fixation with these fake interiors.
I was in a computer programming class, and I wanted to make an animation that would allow you to navigate virtual rooms. I thought of building rooms in The Sims—you drag a box, then do the same with the furniture. It felt like coming home to this earlier obsession from my childhood.
I first played The Sims after my family’s house had a fire. We moved into a temporary house—it was bizarre, very modern, and had all these glass windows. That was a poignant, weird experience.
Later, I found out that Will Wright thought to develop The Sims when his house was affected by a fire. He had the idea to make this game like a virtual dollhouse—his virtual home—creating the interiors and everything.
When you start a project, what is the first step? Is it the narrative you’re writing in your head, or are you playing around with design within the engine?
Typically, the narrative comes somewhere in the middle or is somewhat after-the-fact. My early films were based on moods or atmospheres from my childhood…I intended first to build a virtual Hudson Valley in The Sims. Building my sets within The Sims is such a big part of the process. I have to spend time creating the film world before I shoot scenes in it. It starts with the places I choose in the game and the characters I design or find that already exist within the game. Certain elements like the weather, too.
The action is often subtle. I’ll notice a certain way the characters walk or how it feels when someone enters or exits this space. Eventually, I narrow it down, and think, This will be a vignette where this specific action happens. So I work from this constellation of vignettes, and I eventually decide on the narrative. It’s drawn from how these things all relate to each other.
SURPRISES ‘ON SET’
Would you say that there’s part of it that is improvisational? It’s almost as if you’re speaking of the process as if you’re shooting a documentary film.
It’s intuitive—I’ll have a vague idea of what I’m going to film. What’s interesting about filming in the game is that it’s similar to filming on location in that it’s is unexpected. Things happen. The game is moving all the time. Avatars you aren’t controlling are walking around on their own. Or maybe the weather changes. I’ll notice that a Sim will do something random related to their AI about being hungry or feeling embarrassed. I’ll try to capture it as it’s happening, or else I’ll recreate or re-enact it.
Is there a concrete distinction between playing the game and making your projects?
Usually, I don’t play. Although, each time I start a new project, I spend some time where I catch myself playing it out of curiosity. [The game itself] is not that fulfilling, but it’s important to once in a while return to the game as intended. There’s a community of obsessive, master Sims builders, who show their creations online. What’s cool about the gameplay is that so much of it is about creating the world.
I also like not to be too influenced by what the game signifies to other players, but I don’t want to be alienated completely. When I do play, I find it is pretty boring! It’s different when you’re a kid; you’re like, Oh, I’m going to be a grown-up, I’m going to drive a convertible, I’m going to have all this cool stuff. Then, when you’re a grown-up; you’re like, I’m not going to go to work and make 10 million. It’s less exciting when you’re an adult—you’re simulating this other shitty version of adulthood [laughs].
Do you think that has something to do with why you return to the past and turn to memories as a narrative way into a project?
It is so linked for me to that period of my life. I was making more childhood-focused stories in my early work. The game lends itself perfectly to a suburban story—precisely because it is such a suburbia game, living that suburban fantasy.
The unhurried pacing of your films is also so powerful.
I wish my projects didn’t have to be feature-length, but they have to be, you know? I spend so many hours myself in the game that the temporality of each film is so much about spending the time in the world, and as it passes. What I get from the game world that I want to convey in my films is the long duration. I want the viewer to feel the dread of it, in the way it interacts in their reality.
Where do you get inspiration for designing the objects, fashion, and furniture in your films?
In cinema, there are archetypes. I think, What’s my version of that character type? David Lynch’s movies are a perfect example. It feels like [Lynch] type-casts based on a headshot. They’re vessels for an archetype—you know, that type of guy, you’ve seen him before. So I think, What does a high-school school bully look like in 1999?
When you made Hudson Valley Ruins, what was the process of recreating your hometown? Were you corroborating between the real space and the virtual environment as you were building it?
The starting point is almost always a real place, then I try to create a more bizarro, surreal version of it. A few things are replicas from reality. One of the girl’s bedrooms is almost a literal remake of my room as a teengaer. Mostly though, it’s these little snippets of design motifs I remember. The film is not officially set in the nineties—when it is set is ambiguous to me—but the aesthetic developed because I was thinking of a certain place and time… the nineties and early 00s.
Can you talk about how Anhedonia came to be?
I switched to a newer version of The Sims. At first, I didn’t like the quality of the animation in it. The Sims 3 is this open map. It’s a much bigger world than The Sims 4, in which you are playing at your house; you only can walk around your culdesac. The Sims 4 much slicker, influenced by reality TV [aesthetics], almost. But I got into it over time.
That newer aesthetic gave into the dissociated feeling of the story. It made sense to work in this more sterile animation style, one less jagged around the edges. The first Sims everyone used as a kid is so rudimentary—the game is in 3D, but it already felt outdated even when I started using it. In that way, it lent itself to telling stories from the past.
The newer Sims feels very ‘of this moment.’ It looks similar to the mass-produced Netflix animations that kids watch now. When I use the new one, I still mess with it to make it look my way.
How did you go about structuring the narrative for Anhedonia?
I wanted to experiment with making something with short chapter. The entire idea is this feeling stuck and anhedonic, anything associated with spending too much time inside (which is pretty pertinent to right now!). I wanted to play with it being this catalog of different chapters for distinct afflictions, all starting with the letter A—amnesia, et cetera.
What drew you to incorporate live-action filmmaking in Ariadne? What was it like including yourself, in addition to the virtual version of yourself?
It was an experiment to see how my vision would translate to live-action. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a hybrid project. I wanted real people to act Sim-like. It’s interesting, some friends said that it felt like the live-action was what felt more dissonant or virtual, and that the animated world felt more familiar or relatable.
Also, the location was important—we shot at this bizarre swingers hotel. They’re almost all out of business. In the Hudson Valley, there used to be all these love hotels with heart-shaped hot tubs and stuff. Coincidentally, the heart-shaped hot tub is one of the objects from the first Sims. That was the object that prompted me to think, I want to go somewhere that feels like a live-action Sims environment.
What was the process like for your Weather Lamp series? The lamps are vessels of images, or scenes, in a way—there’s a narrative quality to them.
I wanted to make something that worked well with the Ariadne. In the film, there’s a lot of religious imagery… there’s this feeling of seeking a certain spirituality, a ‘dark night of the soul.’ It’s this feeling deadened and homogenized.
I am especially fond craftsman-style lamps—Frank Lloyd Wright made amazing ones. In the Hudson Valley, that craftsmen motif is everywhere. From seeing that aesthetic around so much and loving stained glass, I wanted to make an object that had movement to it. I love how light creates this feeling of something moving, or having a life to it. The challenge was to figure out how to incorporate the images into the geometric design of the stained glass. You don’t see it that often in lamp design, but I wanted it painted like the way that church has painted windows. In a way, the lamps become these religious healing objects.
How do you create sounds for your work, and what is the importance of silence in your work?
I combine or manipulate sounds from the world of the game. A lot of it is the [digital] weather, ambient room sounds, and sounds from my real environmen.
Interestingly, the sounds sampled in the game are real. They’re not fabricated but are these compressed, low-quality, little samples of a recording of weather or traffic cars moving. I’ll take those and mix in [my own sounds] if I want a better Foley at a certain part—you know, someone walking or a door slamming. I’m so low-fi! I’m constantly ripping sounds from YouTube, but that digital sound quality combines well enough with the visual style. The thing that I have not resolved is the characters’ voice. I’ve tried drafts with voiceover, but to me, the silence and ambient sound speak so much in the work. It’s a fine line of not wanting to interrupt that process.
Can you talk a bit about the projects you’re currently working on?
I want to find a way to be freer and put less pressure on myself. I create these long, detailed, and baroque projects that usually take at least a year to make, so I’m always struggling with wanting to inject new energy and to have it feel like something new. I’m lucky in that there already is something speculative or otherworldly about my work. A lot of it’s contingent on the way it feels to be on earth right now. There are so many different moods right now that make it hard… the future’s in such a limbo makes it harder to imagine different futures.
Currently, I’m working on a couple of projects. I’m doing a short in Blender with scratch animation. I didn’t realize the burden of this medium—the time it takes to render! It can be weeks to create a two-minute video. I’m also working on a project filmed in Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. It’s new for me because it’s more towards documentary-style shooting. I’m using more of the materials that already exist in the game.
The process for this project is more about finding the marginalia of the game—especially minor characters that aren’t a part really of the main structure. For instance, there isn’t any female character isn’t a nagging wife or a prostitute [laughs]. As I find more characters, I find myself more interested in creating many-voiced or transpersonal stories, usually centering women. This is the first film that is definitively not set in the Hudson Valley. Rather, it’s like I’m going to Hollywood. I’m making my LA movie [laughs].
You work in this liminal space between fine art, cinema, and games. How have people within these different fields responded to your work?
My favorite context is for people to be watching it in a physical space, but I show most often in another country, where I’m not there in the screening context. In the gallery, there’s the worry of people’s distractedness or attention. And in galleries, you often see if video works are shorter or more ambient; they’re less of a ‘cinematic’ experience where you have to sit down and spend a lot of time with it. I’ve found that there’s something magical about the animation. It captivates, draws people in to start watching it.
I’ve gotten good responses from a few young teenage girls being like, Oh my God, I can’t believe you made this! One of my favorite messages was from a Sims YouTuber. She said, I thought that I would have to give up making Sims videos when I went to college. But my art teacher showed me your project, and now I’m going to study film.