Even as a child, Caroline Leaf had an avid interest in reading and drawing. Encouraged by her parents, she went on to study visual arts at Radcliffe, a college affiliated with Harvard University. In 1969, her painting professor recommended her to Derek Lamb, who was teaching animation there. She was initially skeptical about the medium until she tried animating with sand and suddenly discovered the technique that suited her and that would delight Norman McLaren when he visited the class.
Before the year was out, Leaf had animated her first film, Sand or Peter and the Wolf. In her next film, Orfeo (1972), Leaf experimented with painting directly on glass under the camera. That same year, she also made How Beaver Stole Fire, before joining the National Film Board of Canada's English Animation Studio.
Not long after, inspired by a collection of Inuit tales, she left for the Far North. On her return in 1974, she made the wryly humorous The Owl Who Married a Goose: An Eskimo Legend, again using the technique of animating sand on glass. This film, produced by the NFB's French Animation Studio, won 11 awards.
Her following two films, The Street (1976) and The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), brought her international acclaim. The Street garnered 22 awards and ranked second on the list of the world's 50 best animated films at the Animation Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. In it, she used paint mixed with glycerine to keep it from drying so it would have the same fluidity as sand. In the latter film, which won 10 prizes, she pursued her use of sand, emphasizing shadows and keeping background details to a minimum.
Feeling she had reached a plateau in animation, Leaf teamed up with experimental filmmaker Veronika Soul to make Interview, a soul-searching exercise in which the two women illustrated their perceptions of each other through their respective filmmaking techniques. This opened up the possibility of using live action and collaborating with others.
Leaf tried her hand at documentary, making the profile Kate and Anna McGarrigle (1981). However, she found it difficult to create rhythm through editing and felt that the camera lacked the flexibility of her drawings. She was more at ease in fiction, which she could imagine in advance, and in 1982 made the educational drama An Equal Opportunity for the Canadian Labour Congress.
In 1986, after a hiatus of almost ten years, she returned to animation, making two films inspired by Chinese and Mexican legends. She then innovated with the technique of scratching on film, using 70 mm colour film and reshooting it on 35 mm. The resulting Two Sisters (1990) won the award for best short film at the Annecy Animated Film Festival, propelling her back to international attention.
She used the same technique, but on 35 mm monochrome film, for I Met a Man, a one-minute animated clip she made for MTV.
Leaf's work is characterized by her technique of creating movement by using a stationary camera and gradually changing the size of her drawing in sand or paint. She says her memory has to pass through her eyes and hands for her to feel a movement. Animating sand or paint also allows her to work with metamorphosis -- and anamorphosis (distortion of the image).Leaf is often invited to sit on festival juries, give animation workshops and present her work. When not making films, she spends her time painting.