Four felt puppets play in a jazz quartet, in a still from a Cardboard Reality video

Outside the Box: An Interview with Northumberland’s Cardboard Reality

Featured Image: A still from “Sting of the Cactus by Ori Dagan” music video by Cardboard Reality

What do permaculture farming and animation have in common? Plenty, if you ask bekky O’Neil and Keith Del Principe, co-owners of Northumberland’s Cardboard Reality Farm & Studio. As animators, they’ve created award-winning stop-motion and 2D animated short films on their farm outside Roseneath. On the same property they’ve grown flowers, raised ducks, and experimented with a range of sustainable agricultural practices, making them the rare business whose output is equally at home at film festivals and the Cobourg Farmers’ Market.

Both partners agree the practices are separate in some ways but deeply complementary in others. “The amount of time you spend on the computer going over things and editing—it started to feel, maybe a little bit when we were living in our tiny Montreal apartment, like it would be nice to do something that was totally removed from that,” says O’Neil, of finding balance with her animation work. “You know, we’d be able to grow something that exists in the real world, not as this abstract idea or a file that someone could play.”

A lush green garden with a stone farmhouse seen in the background

On the other end of the spectrum, the farm has shared close connections with their animation work, both in terms of the subject matter their films address and the practical details. Del Principe notes that they’ve made inks from plants they’ve grown themselves, which later show up on screen. “The farming practice really reinforces the animation practice,” he adds. “Because when you’re growing vegetables, you’ve got to nurture it, you’ve got to water it, you’ve got to weed it. If you’re growing an idea it’s the same thing. You might start with words and flesh it out, maybe some scratches on paper in your pocket. Then you’ll start to make script and flesh it out more. You’re nurturing it.”

Both partners agree patience is a requisite. They’ve set a demanding pace nonetheless, supplementing their personal artistry with freelance contracts for music videos, commercials, and short films. Recent projects include “White Christmas,” a music video collaboration with UK artist Karl Loxley, and “How to Lose Everything: A Field Guide,” adapted from the work of Cree author Christa Couture. The latter is currently playing the festival circuit and expected to premiere on CBC Gem in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile the pair are also preparing to open a farm shop on their property to sell fresh-cut flowers in the spring.

Cardboard Reality Sample Reel

Viewers who see “White Christmas” might notice some shared DNA with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and other holiday classics by the animation studio Rankin-Bass. However, O’Neil and Del Principe has resisted leaning into a single signature style of their own, opting instead to let each project find its own form. “It does feel like each project has sort of a set of references we’re going after,” O’Neil says. ”And if we’ve done our job well, those references come across and I think each work sort of calls for something different.”

A key influence for both partners is Bread and Puppet Theatre, a Vermont-based theatre company active since the sixties. O’Neil and Del Principe met on the Bread and Puppet farm and bonded over their love of politically conscious experimental theatre. After getting married, the pair attended the Film Animation program together at Concordia University in Montreal. Their growing affection for recorded rather than live mediums, and a desire for more space, led them to consider a more rural lifestyle. Eventually, they made the move to O’Neil’s family farm in Northumberland.

Keith Del Principe and bekky O'Neil pose for a photograph

“I grew up coming out here on weekends and had a relationship to the space,” says O’Neil. “It does happen to be quite a big piece of land, but [farming] wasn’t really what my family set out to do—it just happened to have it attached.” The couple set out to change that, choosing their practices with the goal of minimizing their environmental impact. They’ve seen encouraging signs that their efforts are worthwhile. “Six years in, you start to see more wildlife comes back. All of a sudden there are fireflies everywhere—it’s been really interesting to watch.”

At the same time, it was vital not to lose touch with their artistic practice. “It does feel like it’s been a really supportive community in which we’ve found ourselves, O’Neil says, “where maybe people didn’t always understand what we were interested in doing, but they still wanted there to be a space for us to do it.” From 2018 to 2020, they maintained a brick and mortar location in downtown Cobourg where they taught art workshops, though the difficulty of operating through COVID led them to shutter it when the lease expired. Fortunately, the availability of reliable high-speed Internet allowed them to continue working from the comfort of home. “The fact we’ve been able to collaborate across continents through our work has been really exciting, and an interesting way to get to know what the collaborative process can look like digitally.”

A number of collaborations are currently in the works, including a series of animated vignettes to accompany an upcoming Digital Concert at the Barn by Westben Centre for Connection & Creativity through Music. As their varied output suggests, O’Neil and Del Principe prefer not to default to set roles when working on a project. Although Del Principe says he typically handles technical elements like sound design while O’Neil is more proficient with textiles, he places the emphasis on the crossover between their skills. “It’s almost like being a triathlete, but in our specific discipline. We just did it. We just kept doing it. We have a lot of energy, and we channel it,” Del Principe adds. “It’s fascinating, and I want my life to be fascinating. I want to be excited about being alive, and this is how I got there.”


Visit cardboardreality.ca to order prints, gifts, and farm products, view more sample videos, or commission a short film.

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