Interview: William Marler on his film “Pep Mask”

Alex Widdowson: Your film, Pep Mask, was released a couple of months ago, can you describe the response you’ve had so far?

William Marler: The film kicked off at a small student-lead screening which was nice, because it allowed me to address the audience directly beforehand, and was an ideal opportunity for my close friends to see it for the first time. The first festival screening it had was at Flatpack Film Festival in April and I had lots of nice comments from various people. Some people focused on the animation itself, looking at the film artistically (such as my use of colour, which is purposefully limited), and others took the story as their main “souvenir”. Both types of response have fortunately been overwhelmingly positive.

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AW: How does it feel coming out so publicly as someone with cystic fibrosis?

WM: For me, Pep Mask isn’t some type of “coming out” moment for me, as most people know I have it, and those who don’t, don’t know because it’s an invisible illness. I’ve never tried to hide my CF and I’ve always been a very open person when it comes to my health. For example in 2015, I ran the London Marathon for the CF Trust, and promoted my doing so as a “CF patient running for CF”. It has been interesting to hear people’s responses who didn’t otherwise know I had it, or who had an incorrect view on certain aspects of it – but overall it’s not designed to be a revelation to people as such.

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AW: Have you heard any feedback from people who suffer from the same condition?

WM: One aspect of CF is that patients can’t mix due to cross-infection, so I don’t personally know many people at all with it. I specifically tweeted it out to a guy who I follow on Twitter so he could share it on, and he really enjoyed it. I’ve had very kind responses from people associated with it however, such as CF parents. I’d say the film is still in its larval stage of promotion at the moment, but my aim is to get as many interested parties seeing it as possible.

 

AW: Do you think the film will contribute to raising awareness of the issue of people living and dealing with cystic fibrosis? Have you had any experience of this yet?

WM: The film is yet to reach its full audience potential, but I have great hopes that it can at least introduce people to the existence of the condition and the routine it entails for some people. However, I had always set out to create a film about my CF in particular; it wasn’t designed to be a charity film, nor about CF in general. I’ve been a bit more relaxed when it comes to those potential aspects of the film, but really, this is just one single case of the condition, and it’s more about how I have personally dealt with it and how my parents kept me well through my childhood.

 

AW: Are you comfortable with the advocate/poster boy role?

WM: Absolutely. As I said, I’ve never had a problem with people knowing I have CF, and I’ve always been very open about it. Specifically though, I’d really like to be an advocate for what exercise, regular, strict treatment, and a focused attitude to the condition can achieve, I want people to know that a CF diagnosis is not the end of a fruitful life, but merely the beginning.

 

AW: Do you feel your film has helped you come to terms with your condition?

WM: I’ve never had any need to come to terms with my CF, that’s something I’ve done naturally as I’ve grown older. However, the film revisits a specific memory I have with my parents, and it’s helped me come to terms with that. It’s a memory I still find upsetting now, but I’ve realised that I should focus not on what I did to upset them in that moment, but what they did by not giving up on me.

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AW: Could you go into a little detail about the influences regarding your visual style and approach to storytelling?

WM: I was inspired to use the white stroke on black style by an animator I met in 2014 called Viviane Vollack. She joined my class at Uni and delivered a presentation in that style, and ever since I found it much more captivating than the standard black stroke on white background. The white really pierces your eyes and stands out more than black in my opinion. The colour and also the animation concept of breathing text in and out came from a drawing I did not long before production of the film began. I liked the link between breathing in and out, and receiving and giving speech. There’s a delivery-and-response aspect to both. The colour was designed to be a real contrast from the rest of the piece, particularly defining important foreground and background elements. For example, the red and white of the Michael Jackson BAD poster helped capture its constant presence on my left wall as I do physio every day. I often watch or listen to MJ during that time.

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AW: Do you consider this film a documentary?

WM: Certainly, I’m documenting both a specific time (the memory I revisit) and also document a general, repeated routine. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a documentary in the sense that I am teaching the audience or delivering information, however it fits that genre in that it captures a very important, and real, part of my life.

 

AW: When I was making a film about my own mental health experiences I felt like a bit of a fraud as an artist, as if transcribing events that I’d experienced was not a creative process. Do you relate to that at all?

WM: If anything, I am so much more inclined to enjoy stories with a real human element to them. If a narrative is picked out of thin air then I don’t feel as strong a connection with the artist, whereas if there is something real about the story, even if it’s more visceral, my attention is captured more strongly. Not having to construct a narrative allowed me to focus on how to tell the story, both visually and chronologically.

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AW: Can you compare your experiences of dealing with documentary and fiction in animation?

WM: Actually I wrote a whole dissertation about the blurred boundaries of animated documentary. Focusing on Ryan by Chris Landreth, I explored how both fictional and non-fictional elements can be merged within the genre. As I said, I tend towards non-fiction animation as my favourite, but what I loved so much about Ryan is how fiction, or more accurately, exaggerated elements of real life, can bring a whole new experience to the art form. Everyone reading this now open a new tab and watch that film, because it is absolutely superb.

 

AW: Do you wish to continue as an animated documentary director?

WM: No, or at least not just as an animated documentary director. I’ve never liked the idea of defining myself, even as an animator really. Whenever I think I’ve found my niche, I end up branching into more different areas and interests. For example, I’m currently exploring projects concerning dance film, infographics, documentary, and so on. I just create, a lot of it is animation, but not always.

 

AW: My apologies for asking such a clichéd question for a recent graduate; what have you got planned next?

WM: Not long ago I started my new job at Ember Television in Birmingham as their in-house Motion Graphic Designer which has been really exciting because I’ve had different types of projects to work with and recently allowed myself the opportunity to challenge both my work, and that of the company. I’ve also recently set up a dance film collective with fellow filmmaker Dilek Osman called Figure + Phrase which will hopefully begin operating soon. I’m also planning another project surrounding my CF, which is really exciting, but I’m keeping somewhat under wraps…

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‘Private Parts’ by Anna Ginsburg (NSFW)

Anna Ginsburg’s snappy animated documentary, Private Parts, sidesteps social taboo by presenting frank and funny discussions about sex, with particular focus placed on the female anatomy.   

 Commissioned by Channel 4’s Random Acts, in partnership with It’s Nice That, Anna Ginsburg felt compelled to address the lack of attention given to carnal gratification when female sexuality is depicted in our society: “Conversations I’ve had with close female and male friends over the last decade have shed light on the continuing struggle that women have to engage with and love their own bodies, and to access the sexual pleasure they are capable of… I’ve been exposed to ‘dick drawings’ since primary school but have rarely, if ever, seen a vagina visualised other than in a clinical medical context. So I thought that talking to men and women about vaginas, masturbation and pubic hair – and then animating them as talking genitals – would be a good place to start in my crusade to open up these issues of sexual inequality and get the conversation started.”

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The ‘nuts and bolts’ of sex is a difficult matter to discuss both directly with an intimate partner but also between friends. In many respects the leap between the noticeably non-verbal language of sex and frank discussion is vast. This void is often first bridged by state sanctioned sexual education, however the increasing reach of internet pornography means that children as young as 8 are first learning about sex through media largely tailored to the male gaze.

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While it is not Anna’s explicit intention to make a sexual education film, she is clear about her interest in promoting open discussion: “Communication is the key to improving sexual confidence and sexual relationships… This documentary does not give any answers it just presents the sexual struggles, insecurities and successes of a range of people.”

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Ginsburg is working in the tradition of Creature Comforts, Aardman’s first Oscar winning short featuring non actors in vox-pop style interviews. Each subject was represented as a personified animal. Crucial to the success of this claymation documentary was the enormous attention paid to the characters facial expressions and gesticulation.  

 Directing 14 animators, Ginsburg places special focus on the design of each personified genitalia,: “Details like the foreskin, pubic hair and labia are used to give each penis and vagina a specific character, reflecting the specific human voice it embodies.” 

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Anna interviewed 22 participants for the film: “Usually it was just a case of talking to the person and giving them enough time to relax and adjust to the fact they were being recorded…I found interviewing people in small groups worked well as people would be encouraged by each others’ honesty and often get over-excited and hysterical which led to entertaining interactions.”

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Anna was compelled to address these issues as an interview based animated documentary.  Such a methodology allowed for authentic voices to be brought into the limelight without pushing the participants into a public forum. This anonymity minimised their feelings of embarrassment and inhibition. 

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Ginsburg added that this process also puts the audience at ease: “Drawings are abstract enough to bring the feeling of universality to an individual voice… The use of animated characters in place of photographic footage works as a protective barrier which can quash ingrained prejudice and allow empathy to flow unobstructed. It is way easier to pass judgement on a person based on a photograph than based on a drawing – even if it is a drawing of a giggling vagina.” 

Reference:

Source of interview itsnicethat.com/features/anna-ginsberg-private-parts-channel-4-random-acts-170516

LIAF 2015 – animated documentary programme review

London International Animation Festival’s Animated Documentary screening returned to the Barbican in London in December 2015, showcasing a diverse selection of animated docs from around the world.

Many films of the selected films did not include any live action elements, and featured voiceovers which were obviously scripted and acted – raising questions about what makes a film a documentary at all. All these films were both presented and received as documentaries, but in many their claim to real world truth rested on trust – there was no ‘evidence’ presented in the film that what we were witnessing was real.

This is an interesting quality of the animated documentary – one which sets it apart from most live action work and which can, when successful, elevate it. This programme of films offered a rich variety of perspectives; not only on the world but on the documentary form itself.

The screening kicked off with Everyone is Waiting for Something to Happen, a mixed-media piece by UK-based animator Emma Calder. Calder’s film used the social media posts of one of her acquaintances to create a portrait of him over the course of a critical time in his life – his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The film offers a light-hearted look at the images we project of ourselves on social media, and the audiences we do not always know we have, who observe these.

Everyone is waiting for something to happen (Official Trailer) from Emma Calder/Pearly Oyster on Vimeo.

The Beast Inside by US filmmaker Drew Christie is a portrait of a homeless young person, determined to live a compassionate, creative and optimistic life in spite of his circumstances. The film is upbeat, with a lively, musical pace, but has moments of deep pathos that make an impact, such as when the protagonist is refused a job at a fast food joint because – he is told – he looks as if he would steal money or scare the customers. The young man’s hurt at the apparent indifference that the general public has towards the fate of those on the street, also provides a moving and memorable perspective.

The Beast Inside from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Drew Christie’s second film in the programme is Psychedelic Blues, an animated interview with ‘freak folk band’ Holy Modal Rounders which explores their formation and early days. This is a non-stop, acid- and amphetamine-fuelled celebratory rollercoaster of music and absurdity. The characters move fluidly between their old and young selves, caught up in moments that they’d never forget, if only they could remember. The gonzo glory of the memories is tempered by a twinge of sadness, evoked by the fragility in the voice of the ageing, drug-saturated narrator, allowing an openness in terms of how the film can be received.

Psychedelic Blues from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Baba is a colourful and entertaining short by New Zealand filmmaker Joel Kefali, in which his grandfather describes his experience of arriving in the country as a Turkish immigrant many years before. The film successfully captures the experience and character of an exuberant man, baffled by certain cultural oddities but ultimately filled with humour and joy of life; able to take the world on and adapt to his strange new environment.

BABA from joel kefali on Vimeo.

A Portrait by Greek filmmaker Aristotelis Maragkos is another film about a grandfather, but this one has a very different tone. In this piece, the film-maker’s grandfather is seen from the outside through the memories of his grandson. It is a sensitive portrayal of a complex relationship. The film touches on ugly and violent elements the man’s mysterious past, of which the film-maker only knows fragments – which lead him to fear what potential for darkness may lie inside his own genetic material. This sense of violence is undercut however by the clear love that the narrator has for his grandfather, and the tension between these two perspectives is elegantly brought out in the very short film, making it a moving and memorable work which brought depth to the programme.

Food, by US/China based Siqi Song, is a bizairre and compelling take on the talking heads interview format – in which the talking heads are in fact foodstuffs, discussing their own food choices. A plucked chicken describes its decision to go vegetarian, while a loud-mouthed burger extols the virtues of meat-eating. “I think maybe healthy is overrated” he says, his bun flapping open to reveal a tongue-like slab of meat and cheese as he speaks. The film is comically grotesque and, while the interviews themselves do not tell us anything very new, the delivery certainly makes for compelling viewing which adds a new dimension to the issues discussed.

FOOD from SIQI SONG on Vimeo.

The theme of food was returned to later in the programme with the visceral Canadian production Table D’hote, which combines an attractive illustrative style with repulsive and disturbing imagery, reflecting on the industrial savagery of meat production.

Me and My Moulton is an NFB-supported film by Torill Kove. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Norway and coming to terms with her unconventional parents and her place in the world. The film takes an unhurried approach to storytelling and paints an engaging picture of this girl’s life and the everyday issues she deals with. It balances humour with nostalgia, conjuring a picture of a childhood world that is, while not untroubled, ultimately safe and filled with love.

Me and My Moulton (Trailer) from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Ode to Joy by UK-based filmmaker Martin Pickles is a tribute to hugely influential but near-forgotten animator Joy Batchelor, affirming her rightful place in the canon of British Animation.

Ode To Joy (2014) from Martin Pickles on Vimeo.

Elsewhere in the programme another film by Pickles, What is Animation?, is an insightful meditation on the nature of animation wrapped up in a portrait of British Animation legend Bob Godfrey. You can read more about this piece here.

In Last Words by Yuwen Xue, the filmmaker interviews hospice residents at the end of their lives, creating imaginative visual representations to capture these characters, and broadening the scope of the film beyond the individual sounds captured to wider thoughts and feelings. The visuals play experimentally with live action and animation, conjuring a fantastical space between life and somewhere else. Fascinating insights into the artist’s process can be found on Yuwen Xue’s production blog.

Words are again the focus in Arlene, by UK filmmaker Farouq Suleiman. This film is a portrait of a woman who suffers from Aphasia, a brain condition affecting language. Her difficulty with words is expressed with strong visuals including the memorable image of letters of the alphabet falling from a tree like autumn leaves.

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Still from Arlene

Hora, by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Brill, is a longer piece exploring same-sex love in Tel Aviv through reflections on public hand-holding. Interviewees discuss the practice of hand-holding, what it means to them and how the meaning changes when it is observed. There are some truthful and tender insights here, delivered with slick and engaging visuals; making for a film that carries you through smiling.

Still Born, by Swedish filmmaker Asa Sandzen, was the most hard-hitting film in the programme, in which a pregnant woman describes the experience of discovering that her 18-week old foetus has serious heart defect, and making the devastating decision to end the pregnancy. The film does not shelter from the painful process of this, taking the audience through the whole physical and emotional journey of late abortion and delivery. The film is made to feel very real by the small but affecting details that are recalled about the medicalised termination process and the disturbed thought process that takes place in parallel. Ultimately this is a raw and truthful film about the pain of loss, that is as disarming as it is memorable.

Tess Martin’s new film ‘Mario’ – film-maker interview

Mario from Tess Martin on Vimeo.

“In Italian playgrounds a song is sung that dates back to World War I. This paint on glass animation tells the dark tale of a soldier who returns home from war to find his girlfriend has left him.”

Tess Martin is a film-maker whose work ‘The Whale Story’ we featured last summer. We are thrilled to have not only an online exclusive of Tess’s new film ‘Mario’ which premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on 24th May, but also an interview with the film-maker herself.

Alys Scott Hawkins: So, Tess, tell us about your new film…

Tess Martin: My new short is called ‘Mario’, and it’s based on an Italian children’s song which translates as ‘Everybody Calls Me Mario’. As far as I can tell, it’s a song that started out as a folk song in either in WWI or WWII. People don’t really know how far back it stretches. It references war and a specific battle, but there are several different versions of the song with different lyrics so the origins are kind of mysterious, but it comes from the northern part of Italy, either near Torino or near Venice. It kind of mutated into a song that children sing in elementary schools, and when they sing it they also play a hand clapping game.

That song and that game is something that I played because I grew up in Florence. We were living in Italy because of my dad’s job and I was at an Italian elementary school, and this was one of those playground games, but I remember even at the time thinking that this is kind of a weird song for kids to be singing, because it is quite dark. Kids relish dark things, I think, which is probably why it was popular. For whatever reason it stuck with me, and I always remembered it even after years had passed. At a certain point I started doing research into the song, to see if I could find anyone else who remembered singing the song, and where it came from.

Then I got a grant from 4Culture, an arts organisation in Seattle, so that’s when everything really started. The research I tried every which way, and there’s not a lot of information out there about this song. But it definitely exists – it wasn’t a figment of my imagination! There is one recording of some people in a village, that an ethnomusicologist recorded in 1960, and this is held in an archive in Rome, but it’s not accessible unless you go there in person. There is also a version on YouTube, but it actually has quite a different tune from the melody that I remember. But you can find people on the internet talking about the song and discussing the different lyrics they remember from their childhoods. Clearly its one of those things that’s mutated so much that there are now different lyrics, and different melodies, and no-one really knows where it came from.

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It’s a really haunting story of a soldier who becomes enraged with jealousy at his ex-girlfriend. It has a lot of connotations, like was he just a jealous person, or did it have to do with the fact that he’s been at war? And the girl is clearly the subject of his obsession but we never hear her side of the story. It’s just from his point of view, so she remains a mysterious figure. We don’t really know did she actually do something wrong to him or is he just really over-protective?

And at the end there’s this last stanza where he addresses his mother [laughs] which is just such an Italian element to it! And he asks for forgiveness from his mother for having committed this crime. I don’t remember that stanza, that wasn’t in my version, but I found it in most of the other versions and I decided to include it because it seemed like an appropriate conclusion that he ends up repenting in some manner.

I had been working with some techniques that were modified base techniques, mostly marker-on-glass and ink-on-glass, but I hadn’t tried proper paint-on-glass before. There was something about the old fashioned tone of the song that made me feel that paint-on-glass would be appropriate. I worked on it over about six months, and I found the technique quite challenging and so I had to do a lot of experimentation, and in the end I combined it with marker-on-glass technique, so you’ll see some scenes that have both a paint fill, but also a clear marker drawing outline of the characters.

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I ended up finishing the film here in the Netherlands, just because I moved here in between [to begin a Masters course in Animation at St. Joost, Breda], and I finally got it finished a few months ago because I’ve been juggling my course and the film.

ASH: Could you tell us anything more about the production process?

TM: Well, the first stop was doing the storyboard and testing the paint technique, but at the same time I spent a lot of time on the audio, because I knew that was going to be a very important part of the film. So I started scouring Seattle for Italian speaking children, and I finally found a few and taught them the song and recorded them. It was super fun, but I realised I needed a strong voice to be the main voice, because it was such a singular point of view, from his perspective and I felt that one strong singer would be really appropriate.

And then I moved to the Netherlands. Luckily I have an Italian friend here, and I was at his house in Torino for new year and his mother agreed to sing for me. I had sung the song as the temp track, to get the rhythm down and start storyboarding and planning the animation. But I am not a talented singer, so I was really looking forward to being able to switch out my temp track for an actual singer. I had Anna listen to my version on headphones as she was singing, so that she could know exactly what the tune was and the tempo. It was pretty easy! We just did four takes, and the fourth one is the one you hear, and then I added in the kids’ voices where I felt it would be good. And then I worked with a very talented composer who I’ve worked with before in Seattle, called Jason Staczek and he took the audio recordings and cleaned them up and added his own really simple score, because he said this thing was so powerful that it didn’t need a lot of elaborate instruments. That was a really important part of the process. I feel like the film didn’t really come together until I got that singing on tape.

ASH: Can you talk us through the rest of the process?

TM: The whole process was me singing the song to myself on the temp track, just to get it down in an MP3, just to figure out how long the different sections were. Then I make really basic storyboards: brainstorming, just figuring out images that might be appropriate for that part of the story. I had to figure out how to visualise the different elements. How could one moment transition into the next and how could I make it a cohesive story? I hit upon the metaphor of the birds because one of the lyrics is ‘I had a girlfriend, she left me like a swallow in the spring’. That’s right at the beginning of the song, so we see the girl but then she turns into a bird and flies away but then the bird comes back in various forms throughout the song. Once I hit upon that it was a good thing to hang the rest of the visuals on to.

After the storyboard then I started testing with the paint, asking ‘what can the paint do? Is the paint better for detailed close ups or rough smudgy imprecise drawings?’ You also see a lot of texture, so there are a couple of scenes where the paint fills the screen or the paint is being erased, and that’s just fun to do. Then I started animating and I completed about half of it before I moved to the Netherlands, but I didn’t have my same multi-plane stand here, so I had to figure out how to deal with that.

'Mario' soldiers_bomb

At first I was a little bit worried about it, but I liked the layering of the paint and marker together, and I had just recently, finally, properly learned how to use After Effects, so then I realised I could just composite the two together. The scenes where that appears towards the end were animated twice, once in paint and once in marker, so instead of doing them both at the same time on a multi-plane I animated them by themselves and composited them together.

I definitely used post-production more on this film than I have in the past. Most of my previous films were pretty straightforward frame-by-frame techniques. There’s really not much post-production needed – it’s just ‘straight ahead’ animation. For this one, because I was trying to solve various problems, it was actually really fun, it was liberating. There were a lot more possibilities, I found, if I opened myself up to this filter or that layering technique, for example.

ASH: It sounds like you’ve learnt a lot in the making of this film?

TM: I always like it when it turns out that way otherwise it’s boring! It’s true that whenever I start a film I do think about new ways to animate that I haven’t tried before; and I know some people disagree with that approach because it means you’re learning on the job. But I love it because to me that’s the most fun and exciting part about animation: figuring out how to do something and what can this technique do and that another technique can’t, and how to take advantage of that. And those are the types of animations that I most enjoy watching – the ones that really are exploring and stretching what animation can do. It’s true that it is a gamble, if you happen to suck at that particular technique, then it’s a challenge to make it work.

ASH: At the storyboard stage everything is potential, but sometimes the production stage can be like just carrying out a set of instructions if there’s nothing new to discover along the way.

TM: That’s an excellent point, and I know that a lot of people don’t have that flexibility, like maybe you’ve got funders or producers breathing down your neck, who are worried about your creative choices, or you’re working with other people and you need to make all those decisions earlier so that they need to know what’s going to happen. And, to be honest, part of the reason why I’ve never worked that way is that I don’t like being tied down so much. I’ve always been super-open to collaboration and I’ve always collaborated with sound designers and musicians and post-production people to a certain extent, but in terms of true collaboration with a capital C, that hasn’t really happened for me yet. Partly you need to meet the right people but also for that reason: I really like being able to change my mind when I want to!

ASH: So how much did the funding you got for this film tie you down to what you’d proposed? To what degree did you have to specify what the film would be like?

TM: I was quite lucky that while I was living in Seattle, I was just applying for artist’s grants, which painters and sculptors and poets are applying for, and these are very open. You have to show a sample of your previous work, and you have to describe the film that you want to make, but then after that they pretty much leave you alone, you just have to finish it. That’s something that I have come to realise, since moving back to Europe, that is quite special. Here in the Netherlands there are the film funds, but it’s more like a live-action granting organisation where you have to have a producer, and a budget, and prove that you’re going to be employing so many local film-makers and contributing to the local economy and so on. And I’d love to get a Dutch film funds grant, so I’m happy to learn how to do it that way, but there’s definitely a little more planning involved.

'Mario' feather_lightbox

ASH: It’s really interesting to hear this behind-the-scenes part of the process which is not usually visible. Funding and the limitations it imposes always make an impact on the work produced. It sounds as though the loose nature of the funding allowed you to develop the film in a fluid and flexible way?

TM: I think I didn’t know how lucky I was! Of course there might be downsides to it as well. If you were to try to fund a film the more traditional way, and have a producer who is applying for grants and perhaps a co-producer from another country, and then you can apply for their country’s grants; it all takes forever and a lot of people are involved. I find the main advantage of that system is not actually the funding but the distribution part of it. With all the funding advantages also come the distribution advantages, so you will actually have someone who will try to get your film seen, and try sell it to the various TV markets and actually submit to the correct festivals in the correct order. And that of course doesn’t come with the loosey-goosey art grants. They just give you a pot of money and then you’re on your own! Unless you’re really smart and you use that money to hire in a producer to do that for you…

It would of course be great to have the best of both worlds, but there is no magic solution. Each route has pluses and minuses, and you have to figure out what’s best for you. I’d still love to work with a producer properly, but once I do that, perhaps I’ll find out that that experience wasn’t as amazing as I expected!

ASH: I know a lot of film-makers – myself included – who dream of finding that Holy Grail of a producer, the person who understands and champions your work, finds the funding, can identify where you work will be well-received and so on…

TM: It’s a nice dream to keep an eye out for that person. Something that I admire about live action film makers is that they’re generally bumping into those sorts of people more, because their structure is already set up for that; that they are more used to finding producers and trying out different relationships. Doing what I do, I don’t really need a producer, so it makes it more something that you have figure out, and then find people who are actually interested in this brand of weird independent animated shorts which aren’t going to make any money! I do sometimes envy live action film-makers because I feel like they have more of a support network around them.

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ASH: Do you describe your films as animated documentaries?

TM: I don’t think I’ve ever called them that. If someone asks I say they’re documentary-style films, because that makes it a little clearer to people what I mean. So for example, ‘They Look Right Through You’ which is a film about people and their pets; I went and interviewed people, and I used the interviews as a basis for the audio, and in that respect it’s quite documentary – it’s real people with real pets. But it’s very much a philosophical meditation on the topic. It’s still quite non-narrative, not like I’m following one person and their relationship with their pet.

Most of my work is I would say is more ‘documentary in style’. Not because I don’t want to be considered in that category – I am honoured if people think they are animated documentaries – but because I don’t want people to expect an actual documentary! I’m not a journalist, I don’t have the same ethical constraints that a ‘proper documentarian’ might have to deal with.

ASH: So can you tell us what’s next? What lies ahead for you?

TM: I’m finishing up my masters degree, and my graduation film is using a cut-out technique. I’d call them photo cut-outs, so it’s using real actors but cut out of paper. It’s based on a medical case of a man who had a neurological disorder which meant he couldn’t form new memories, and had also lost 30 years of his memory, so he thought he was 19 years old when really he was 45. Every few minutes he would reset and say “Where am I? Who are you?”. It’s a film exploring what it must be like to live in that way and how it affects the people around him. It’s based on a true story, but at the same time I’m taking some creative liberties with it and using actors and animation, so it’s definitely not a ‘proper documentary’, but I hope that it retains that ‘true’ feel to it. And then I’ll probably end up hanging around Netherlands or Europe for at least another year after I graduate, just because I can with my visa. After that, we’ll see!

ASH: Is Seattle the place you call home?

TM: I think it is now but I only moved there about six years ago. Seattle is great, it’s a beautiful place and there’s a community of independent animators there. In fact I have been touring with a programme of their films while I’ve been here [in Europe]. I’ve showed films in Brussels last weekend, and before that Amsterdam and Budapest, and Prague and Vienna. It’s been really great to show people what is being made in Seattle. But home is such a tricky question for someone who grew up living around the world. I love Europe and being so close to everything. That is the struggle when you’re living in the north-west of the States. Everything is so far away and so expensive. Trying to make films anywhere is a challenge, and learning how to make films in different countries and systems and communities and funding bodies and criteria is definitely a learning experience!

‘Irish Folk Furniture’ by Tony Donoghue

Irish Folk Furniture [clip] (2012) from Alan Eddie on Vimeo.

https://vimeo.com/59224188

We must have been busy with all sorts of of other things here at the blog (we have! – more soon) as it’s taken us a few months to catch up with this short which won the Short Film Jury Prize for Animation at Sundance this spring.

It has screened at many festivals, including Sheffield Doc/Fest this June, who described it thus:
“A strikingly beautiful stop motion animation exploring a local craftsman’s restoration of rural furniture in a small Irish community. Experimenting with the vivid expression of folklore storytelling, artifacts of bygone days are transformed from decaying neglect and brought to life, with playful vivacity.”

An interview with director Tony here:
http://irishamerica.com/2013/03/irish-folk-furniture-an-interview-with-tony-donoghue/

And various news reports here:

And here:
http://www.thejournal.ie/sundance-irish-folk-furniture-763455-Jan2013/

The film was funded by the Irish Film Board’s Frameworks scheme:
http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/funding_programmes/Frameworks/65

‘Camp 14 – Total Control Zone’ by Marc Wiese

Camp 14 - Total Control Zone

Screening in London on the 18th & 20th March as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this feature tells the story of Shin Dong-Huyk, born into a North Korean prison camp as the son of political prisoners.

Using animated sequences which are not perhaps the most elegant, the film nonetheless take us into a brutal and challenging world, both inside and outside the camp.

Festival info here: http://ff.hrw.org/film/camp-14-total-control-zone?city=4

Read more and watch the trailer on the film’s website here: http://www.camp14-film.com/CAMP_14_ENGL/Home.html

Interview with Jeff Simpson, co-director of ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The untrue story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’

liars-autobiography-chapman

Here is our first interview with a film maker in what we hope to be a regular feature on our blog.

Jeff Simpson, one of the three co-directors of A Liar’s Autobiography, talks about the experience of making the animated feature based on Graham Chapman’s life.

I asked Jeff to explain the genesis of the project. He sprang into a well rehearsed monologue, recounting professional encounters with the Pythons in which he had dropped in the idea of making a documentary about Graham Chapman, the only deceased member. With the help of David Sherlock, Graham’s long-term partner, Jeff tracked down the voice recordings Chapman did of his autobiography.

Jeff talked about his formal training as a BBC Arts documentary maker, so unsurprisingly his first instinct was to approach the great British Broadcasting Corporation for a talking heads documentary.  To quote Jeff “In their wisdom they turned it down; they didn’t feel Graham Chapman was interesting enough”. He made it clear he was not bitter, the tone of light sarcasm bubbling underneath, and proceeded to spell out the surname of the BBC executive who rejected the project.

The other two co-directors, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett, seemed to come into play soon after this point. Similarly to Jeff, they had been working with the Pythons recently on a big budget documentary series for U.S. television. Bill (who is the son of Terry Jones) was crucial in gaining them access again to the other Pythons. However Jeff was repetitious in his emphasis that this was a Graham Chapman film, not a Monty Python feature.

Saying that, inspired by Terry Gilliam’s cut-out paper interludes, Bill & Ben had explored animation as a structural device in their documentaries, while Jeff had done the equivalent for his pitch to the BBC. Jeff described a eureka moment which happened after the three of them partnered up. This was where they realized the autobiography was more or less divided into a series of scenes with dialogue.  “We realised we could take out Graham’s voice from the other characters and replace them with other members of Monty Python… so effectively you’ve got a new scene. As soon as you say we can get Terry Jones to play the mum, Michael Palin to play the dad then you’ve got it.” As the project developed into an animated feature, the other Pythons were keen to come on board as they all had great respect for Graham as a writer. Palin in particularly used a passage from A Liar’s Autobiography to describe their first visit to America in his one-man show.

In reference to working as one of three directors, Jeff explained, “When I signed up for this I thought it would be a disaster”. As it turns out now Jeff recommends it as a formula; “With two [directors] I can see it would be difficult. There’s no way of brokering a disagreement… It happened on Holy Grail, the plan was that Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones would co direct it but they ended up fighting.  One Terry would shoot something in the morning and then the other Terry in the afternoon would re-shoot it differently… With three there’s always a majority vote.” Jeff used to tell his editors at the BBC “ I probably come up with ten new ideas every day, but only two of them are any good and your job is to tell me which two are the good ones.”

The animation was a technically daunting process. Not only had they recruited over a dozen different animation studios but also they took on stereoscopic cinema or 3D with none of the crew having much experience. Luckily for Jeff, Bill and Ben they had Justin Weyers, the animation producer. Jeff humbly proclaimed at the cast and crew screening “…people wonder what the directors actually do on a film. We tell Justin what we want and he makes it happen.” Justin was not only the go between, animation wrangler, director of animation and technical guy, he was also one of the animators, directing the Biggles scene in the fighter plane. Jeff explained it was the directors’ role to concentrate on script and story while also keeping the over view, making sure what was essentially a set of shorts works as a feature film.

Later he went into detail about the process of gaining funding. Crucially Ben Timlett managed to negotiate a final cut with Epix, a US broadcaster who footed half the bill. Initially another channel had rejected the script because it was a bit raunchy while Epix picked up the project for the reason the other studio discarded it.

When I asked how he saw this film fitting into the wider context of animated documentary Jeff retorts “We do see our film as something completely different. It’s interesting that you think of it as a documentary. Because we actually see it as fictionalised. It claims to be fictionalised. So how could it be a documentary?  In fact it was put up for an award as a documentary and we asked for it to be withdrawn from the category as we didn’t want it to be seen [that way].”

“Ben calls it a new genre; a fabricated animated bio-pic. We always liked the idea that Graham is teasing you with what’s true and what’s not true. As it happens when you dig into it you find that a lot of it is true, apart form his abduction by space aliens.”

A Liar’s Autobiography, which is now available in store on Blue ray and DVD, will be reviewed in a forthcoming Animated Documentary post.