ideas...and how to catch them

(from a series "musing with mates").
What if ideas are just floating around in the air like Terry Pratchett suggests, waiting for a receptive mind to provide a conduit - an earth? When I was very young, I imagined babies as little souls, floating around over the earth waiting for parents to call them down and come and be born. That they watched, hopeful, in the skies when potential parents began to speak about starting a family, nudging one another - "you'll be next". This is what you get for teaching obscure tenets of Catholicism to children too young to understand...Similarly, what if ideas, like energy, like static before a storm, bursting to discharge, were hopefully seeking a receptive mind...like a hyperintelligent alien, having travelled millions of miles through vaccuuous space, and seeking someone to whom it could pass its momentous message from another galaxy...How to become such a mind...is there an artists' tinfoil hat or antenna? a drug as Carlos believed? a head tattoo, a magic sign like a crop circle which will attract them?
Or maybe, as Richard suggests, the creative mind is a muscle like any other which needs training, regular exercise, and a warm-up before getting up to speed. A warm-up like a series of bad, weak ideas you toy with and discard. Or a knockabout, a conversation with a friend, batting idea-ettes back and forth but neither trying to score a point... Or a blog... 
Do your scales, run through the exercises and get ready to Be Creative.

Like a visit to the gym, a visit to Being Creative needs some preparation. Empty your head. Transfer those things it is full of to paper, or sort them out - and they are gone. Drive them out with tiredness from a long walk, with the excruciating boredom of a staff meeting, with astonishment at some fabulous thing seen or heard that you can immerse yourself in, beside which the boring little idea of worrying about the leaking roof, remembering the laundry or caring why whatshername never posts on your facebook anymore will wither in embarrassment and shuffle off to a sleepless sunday night. Play with a ball of wool, a cat, or the garden.

Dress suitably. Comfortable clothes that will not restrict the free movement of ideas. Desperately chic vintage weirdness. Pyjamas. Your brother's old seacadet jumper which is too tight and unravelling at the cuffs. Does it help, if you look and feel like An Artist? Or just provide a handy excuse for days when the ideas don't seem to come..?

Always carry a pencil, a pen, paper; something to occupy your hands, something which provides sensory feedback - the sound of graphite scratching on paper, the vibration from the drawing action travelling up your arm. If you are chosen by an idea, if you spot one passing by, if you sense one bubbling up from some corner of your mind, write it down. Draw it. Doodle, expand, experiment...shamelessly. Ignore the CCTV, ignore everything...

Immediately, the idea will begin to evolve, to morph, to develop an attitude...it will decide who or what it wants to become. There will need to be a period of negotiation, which may be long-drawn-out and fruitful; your work may become a true collaboration between yourself and the idea... Like the characters in a novel you might try to write, the ideas will refine their personalities ; they will become confident and more assertive and eventually undermine your illusion of control. Help them to satisfying conclusion, to a narrative integrity, to a beautiful or a meaningful or an ecstatic expression. Help them communicate themselves and then, if you love them, let them go.


joining too many dots...

In between making glass doodads and mending broken stained glass window panels and building a madly ambitious glass-and-wood sculpture for the garden, and gardening... attempt ludicrously ambitious film ideas and get bogged down for days on end animating waving grasses because I saw some on the clifftops on a walk and thought what fabulous textures, and how they looked like the waves on the sea and how a boat might sail through them...and how that reminded me of an opera I saw based on Where the Wild Things Were, (the night Max wore his wolf suit and sailed out of the bedroom in a wooden dinghy)...and how I could knit a wolf suit, or maybe just a suit, in fact (pause to clear out sideboard and throw out dozens of old video tapes) I could perhaps knit one out of the videotape, (pause to contemplate recycled arts, the politics, the aesthetics, the fun factor of recycling as an art/craft mash-up)...and then thinking how that would disguise the form of the human underneath, perhaps enough to confuse the viewer as to the human's gender...and then reconnect with an older idea about wrapping a human in - something...bandages, paper and string?...so you could try to read it as a human but not as a man or woman... (and simultaneously, neither as black or white)

Miki Z modelling kitchen roll by Lidl
and finally, spending a mad but fun afternoon wrapping a friend in kitchen roll and taking photos for reference for an animation...that will have nothing whatever to do with waving grasses or boats or Rooks that suddenly take off, shouting from a fence post, buried neck-deep in meadow flowers...
and then going in to the new show at Baltic 39 and looking at a collage of a giraffe and thinking how Id like to keep it simple, no frothing textured fronds at all but blocks of joyful colour and sturdy solid lines and a suggestion of tree, grass, bird not a Samuel Palmer etching and then Oh how about a NARRATIVE in all of this and then
just do the drawings and stop trying to join ALL the dots. Some ideas will flow. Others will flow away - let it unfold as it will. Try not to get distracted by all the shiny toys. Try to strike a balance between what is "beautiful" and brings you "joy"/ and what is rich with meaning and brings you questions. And what is fun.


shameful abandonment of blog

Once upon a time, working in France as an au pair, I was worried about not making art for a whole 6 months. Would I still be an artist? Would I forget how to do it? Would the ideas dry up without an outlet and then not flow again, like a dammed stream finding a new course...
Now, without the pressure to produce REF-able outputs and get them listed by a stupidly tight deadline, continuing to produce outputs - or as I like to consider it, to make art - is not slowing down...but the pressure to conform to a particular way of working, reflecting, surrounding the work in a specific language of interpretation and contextualisation is now relaxed. Going back to making art for the sake of it, the joy of it, still finding it the main reason for getting out of bed in the morning, not tied to a timetable or agenda; the only difference is I feel more free to experiment. BUT - I don't feel compelled to write up the experiments.
On the other hand, writing up is the reflective process that ensures we that learn something from those experiments and identify a useful place to explore and experiment next...rather than wandering self-indulgently in ever-decreasing blobby circles.
SO - why have I shamefully abandoned this blog? Because the garden needs me, to dig and weed and help it grow radish, spinach and courgettes. (developing muscles, the joy of tiredness caused by digging up and planting) Because the hills need me, to appreciate their beauty and peacefulness, (the joy of quietness, beauty, challenging gradients), because I did some commissions (stained glass, picture book, illustrations) and because actually making art is the most fun you can have, most of the time. So, I am trying to get a balance between physical exercise , thinking, creating and finding time for socialising, collaborating, learning.. Lord, Im even thinking of taking up running. So many ways to be happy...busy...so little time... So - apologies to my Reader for abandoning you, and to my academic hind-brain for leaving you to reflect by yourself. I will try harder.


Start with the right story

think in images not in words...?
Another day, another film festival... and I have to say: I don't really get it...animations that aren't actually animated, but seem to be a series of images, some of which have movements in, some not; and which accompany a story being told by a narrator. I don't want to come across all purist (having made a career of doing things the wrong way) but it seems to me the point of animation is that it should do something that text and image don't - something more. That it should be not so much an image that moves, but a movement that is captured. I wonder if people make these films because getting fluid movement is really hard, especially if you are looking for naturalistic movement, or even harder.. gracefulness? Or whether maybe they are starting with a story which is too complex and subtle to work any other way. I like to find stories which will work without dialogue, where the narrative comes across in the actions and the emotions come across in the visuals, the pace, the expressive capabilities of a wobbly drawing.
There's a fine balance in trying to make animations for adults, which are visual stories but neither slapstick nor downright obscure. I don't know if I'm making that balance; but I do know I'd never make an animation tutor- I'd be telling the students "You're starting with the wrong story!"


and afterwards, they schlepped

Yes...after the joy of making the film, hawking the finished product round, trying to get exhibitions or showings, doing the paperwork and creating special versions of the film just for one portal is deeply boring. and the downside of being a one-woman band is that you have to do all that, when the only bit you are competent at is long-completed and your head has skipped ahead to the next story idea

(There will be FISH. Inside someone's head. an expanding head. and people with REALLY long arms. and maybe dancers. and men which turn into women and women which turn into men. the fish might come out of a book. maybe the people turn into fish...why? why not?)

maturing. fermenting? or just preserved for later... 
Ideas crash together like in dreams, throwing up images from the recent holiday (black-and-white sea. mermaids. tiny ponds), Thursday's Dance performance (more anatomically-correct characters, so the distortions of a limb or a movement are more apparent?) and random things seen or heard (knitted sheds! pop-up cards, summerhouses on a mountaintop, an ancient man practicing the organ in church while the churchbell chimed 3pm. Running into an old friend and having a random conversation about cocktail dresses)

Something is needed to stir these up and precipitate out a useful narrative. Apparently, the annoyance factor of crappy technology (mine or someone else's) can in fact provide this. The screaming frustration of non-user-friendly systems with outdated technology (WHY do you still only accept onscreen viewers in 4:3? Hands up any animator not using 16:9?? WHY do you think it wont matter if you squash my movie to fit, just as though the visuals weren't important. It's a film, not Jam. Oh, wait...Jam??)

I understand some festivals operate on a tiny budget with harassed volunteers, and I am happy to support - with patience if possible - underfunded artist/filmmaker-led indy initiatives. But when festivals with a long pedigree and a big budgets, or festival portals which broker applications get it (the technology, the interface design, the dead links and translations-into-English which suddenly aren't, the missing vital information (we ONLY accept DCPs))wrong you feel like asking - AGAIN - why is it always artists paying for the right to beg to show their work? If the arts are big business, and Art is the commodity, why is the artist the one who doesn't make any money out of all this. If film matters, if animation is interesting, then how come all the ticket money doesn't provide the successful filmmaker with even a measly return of the entry fee?

and, instead of getting steamed up about this, can I make an animation about it?


The Medium is the Message...

Finally, found the time to start the experiments in Linoprint I had intended...thinking...imagining that as my style of drawing resembled linocut, it would be interesting to go back to basics - make linoprint images and then try animating them.
<hysterical laughter>
The difference between drawing on a graphics tablet and carving into lino is almost complete...From posture (standing instead of sitting) to scale (it is impossible to cut lines in crumbly lino as fine as those you can finagle with a pen) to the thinking process informing the design and the fact that lino has no back-button or facility for making multiple versions while you make your mind up...
Instead of a simple change of medium, this has become a way to explore new ways of drawing, to improve and fine-tune mark-making processes. It has made me go back to the computer with the idea that I am "designing linoprints" - the colour separation, the process, the simplicity of texture produced in black and white (no gray)
Although I worked exclusively in linoprint many years ago, this is another illustration of how you can't go back! So, in between looking enviously at the fluid shapes and intricate beauty of linoprints in galleries, I am going back to learning simple techniques, clumsy shapes, cut hands and the frustration of realising the huge gulf between a vision and a rusty, out of practice craft process.
Yes - fairly lumpy and disgusting. But without this I wouldn't have made a whole series of drawings reminiscent of the olden days of  rotring pens, or investigated the interplay of colour and texture, or ...well, had a play about - which is always a valuable exercise.
Last week, I was with a friend on the swings in a park...no children anywhere, it was a schoolday, so we had a go on the obstacle course too. Suddenly, 3 separate old people had gathered into a huddle and were glaring at us disapprovingly, staring, muttering, you could see they were trying to decide whether to come over and brandish sticks or just write to the local paper. Because grown-ups aren't supposed to play, unless they are doing it with small children. No wonder obesity is such a problem then...Meanwhile I will continue to try making linoprints - only better - and to learn through play, and through trying to reflect on what it has shown me.


Because it was there...

Once you are out of your artistic comfort zone, and no-one is crying, might as well try some other previously unused (by yourself) and hard-to-imagine-what-you-can-do-with-it technique. A tutor in my first year at artschool told me "you can change the story but you can't change the handwriting". We-e-ell Chris, actually you can if you work hard. If you decide to accept the challenge of doing a "simple clear instructional" animation style - just in case you really wanted to apply for some of those commissions - just to see you can - just because it was there. And quite quickly you realise you have to make the style your own, and it doesn't look much like the "inspiration/ source" materials that they have posted online because - well, that's someone else's work, ideas, style...handwriting. And because copying someone else's work is really boring.
(I mean, if that's what they want, why don't they find out who animated it and get them to do the commission? is that too simple? What about original ideas? What about being different because you are actually trying to compete with those sources so maybe an alternative approach rather than glorified plagiarism might be more exciting to your audience. Or maybe not. maybe your audience wants what everyone else has, in the same way everyone else has it? You see, I'd be rubbish at marketing...)
And then this interesting thing happens where if you take out all the autographic marks, the scribbly, gestural doodads, it becomes all about the colour. And you realise there is a very good reason why you normally work in black and white or limited colour palettes, because you're not very good at colour. I mean, I love colour! I love clashing red and purple clothes, rich mixtures of orange and red, I love the blue of bluebells and the contrast of purple and yellow in an iris. But without the marks, the textures, everything looks like it was cut out of sticky paper in a nursery classroom. And trying to use every crayon in the tin is fine when you are 7, but suddenly becomes painfully difficult and inappropriate when you are trying to be a mature artist. <Guffaw. Mature!>
Well then -  another day, another chance to learn something new, develop a new skill, face another challenge. Another chance to fail and a chance to be proud of succeeding. Another way to be a human.


Pencil tests

It has been said - by those who know me - that I favour the bull in china shop approach to experimentation - just barging in, bellowing with joy and occasionally going "wow! nice soup plates". It has also been said , not entirely unfairly, that I adopt the same approach to everything else. But, having decided to make 3 versions of the same film (which became 4 after the first one was eaten by owls*) means I get to reconsider the whole thing multiple times...and that the original line-only version becomes a pencil test for the versions which follow. In a way, this is boring. Like tacking stitches I never bothered to use before stitching something on a machine. But it also means you can mess about more with the images, experiment...the hard part (arguably) of deciding the story, the length, the various scenes/ shots is done. So you can play around with the treatment, and with putting in random extra things just because. And then, a new treatment suggests different scenes/ or different focusing in on a closeup, because it is being driven by the visual, not the narrative.

Oh well, maybe the two are indivisible, but the point is you SHOULD be telling the story differently if it is in colour vs black and white. You SHOULD think about what happens to your narrative integrity when something based on an exploration of line becomes something with mass, shape, texture. How best to preserve the sense of things flowing into each other and a fine balance between a certain randomity of direction, and the suggestion of causality, of narrative. Of trying to balance the thought "why a HORSE??" with the idea that the horse is only a representation of something like life - the life-force that doesn't care who lives it so maybe I shouldn't get hung up on it either... the balance between allowing the "characters" - the line, the funny little insect things - to act out their own story with the suspicion that this may be a self-indulgent failure to take responsibility for them. You made that horse, dammit, you can't just leave it there with no narrative resolution!

Artschool used to be big on the importance and power of play. Experiment. But before we publish the results of our experiment, we need to have some idea of what we have found out, what we have learned, and what use any of this may be to someone else - which I suppose correlates to the meaning. So, does this tiny film mean anything...we-e-e-ll it "makes reference to" some ideas, perhaps even "playfully", and arguably it "questions the dominant hegemony" of something or the other so hell, yes. In non-artspeak, it features a hand with a pencil, which draws a figure, which then acquires its own pencil and draws itself a face, and then draws the world, so I'm going with "themes" of self-determination, freedom, the joy of playing and the importance of art.
Humpty Dumpty# may say it is about Glory, or Cabbage, or even the nature and existence of a God ...but we shall know how to respond to that.

*A literary reference (Mervyn Peake)
#another literary reference (Lewis Carroll)


Poems from the wreckage

new software. (which I haven't used for years) A learning curve. A new approach. Hoorah, let's be open to new experiences, new tools and how they can shape the work. Let's play, creatively.

Let's forget how flaky this software always was and how it sometimes crashes with no warning as if it were still the 90s and personal computers were and exciting novelty which, like a dog dancing, we did not expect to do anything well, but were only surprised at them doing it at all.

Not only crashed but corrupted beyond any hope of re-opening. 3 weeks' work. If your immediate response to this included the word "back-up", kindly leave this blog immediately. After searching various online forums and help sites, dowloading all the software they said might help rescue the work, installing, running, de-installing...finding that inexplicably people advertised software as opening file formats it did not open, but opened entirely different formats with similar letters in them, in a different order (is dyslexia rife amongst the nerd community? or vice versa?)...I still had zip, nada, a Foucauldian Lacuna... and irritating people saying I should have backed it up.

Gentlemen, advice about doing something yesterday, unless you are giving it to Dr Who, is not advice but merely smugness.

After tears, shouting, reassuring the cat I was not shouting at her, shouting at the cat, and quite a lot of caffeine, I have of course rebuilt the movie. It is better. It is a second draft. It has benefitted from being rethought from the beginning and by my having actually considered "is this worth doing?" and "what, in the end, is this all about?"
Yesterday, another artist/friend was lamenting that she often didn't finish works because she wasn't sure what it was for, what the point of it was. Never being able to say "this is it" because we don't know what the hell "it" is. Perhaps this comes perilously close to asking what the point of life is, but I suspect the answer may be the same. To do what you love. To do it better. To learn, grow, develop, explore...(failing, questioning, trying again)...does art have a better answer than "because it was there"?...or a less sanctimonious one than "to become a better person"?

The original movie was in danger of being just that, an endless experiment with no idea what it was hoping to discover or prove. A thing I started mainly because of the terror of not having a project...of being naked and lost in front of a computer.
I think I can describe the new movie as being a visual poem. That is risky enough for someone whose normal works might be best described as (visual) short stories.



Somewhere in the borderlands between farting about, playing, creative play and robust experimentation...somewhere in that liminal space which exists between worlds, and beyond the relentless call of emails, messages, and ooh I wonder if anyone has fitbits on special offer right now...
Somewhere in the space we desperately hope is neither this nor that, and so uniquely able to observe and learn from both the thisses and the thats...
Somewhere between serious artistic endeavour I hope will result in a useful product, and the joys and frustrations of the process for its own sake... between the joy of freeedom and the self-censorship that tuts "you are just wasting time"...seems to be where I live right now. Computing colleagues used to speak of "creeping featurism" - of the phenomenon of digital things never being finished because they were to easy to endlessly reproduce, tweak, to create different versions ... Self-imposed deadlines help, because shortness of time lessens the fart-about factor - correspondingly then, there is a danger that more time to invest in the art process simply results in more Faffing.
Currently, I am running 3 projects with a curious hierarchy. Animation with a capital A is an experiment in an animation driven not by narrative but by purely visual developments, events following other events on the basis of morphing shapes and what they suggest. Im counting the ways that could go wrong. Narrative is so fundamental, not just to my work but to human interpretation. Plus, new software which works differently, has to be re-learnt and is much less forgiving...Thanks for reminding me why my daily artwork environment is full of obsolescent and unsupported antiquities, at least a decade out of date but still my go-to tools like an ancient and almost hairless paintbrush that is perfect for scrubbing in texture...
Making animations with a lower-case a is a series of weekly animations for posting on social media. It's not self-consciously art, it's entertainment... into which I suppose friends and friends-of can read meaningfulness - or not.
The third which is perhaps art, or perhaps craft, but chiefly Fun with a capital F is not animation at all but making jolly things which will have some kind of a life, actually be seen and bring (in some tiny way) happiness to those who engage with them. A pair of wings for a costume hat, some glass bunting for the front window which the neighbours have remarked on, photoshopping...for so many occasions.

moving between liminalities via a Foucauldian lacuna
Sometimes the three can overlap...sometimes the fun leaks out and into other things... and the ideas can jump from one to another, if we do not allow ourselves to put fences round them, but let the borderlands overlap and cross-pollinate.

 I'm thinking I will make a map of these borderlands, of the areas where quicksands and bogs threaten the unwary, of the mountains that offer the best view on a clear day, and the citycentres full of excitement, diversion; and the chance to compare notes with other travellers over a pint or two of creative metaphor. Of paths less travelled by, of where be dragons, and where best to start your recherche for temps perdu. Although perhaps the point is that liminal spaces cannot be mapped - but that's no reason not to try.


a christmas without art...

away from the computer, away from instagram...will I cope? This year I did not haul my desktop computer (NO apologies for my preferred tool not being a slim fold-up tablet with voice input, auto-white-balance and coffee grinder) across 10 counties, nor even bring a "project". (Flashback to my mother's panicked phonecall of many christmases ago demanding that I set her a knitting project, in dread of being "stuck in the house for 4 days with nothing to knit"). Instead I thought, a refreshing break, with visits, conversation, crisp winter walks and maybe funnelling creativity instead into hideously difficult cryptic puzzles. But somehow being drawn in to making christmas hats for the aunties, and customising a ragdoll from the elements of a toy-in-a-tin kit. Redesigning the rooms. Problem-solving garden layouts...almost as if being an artist were the natural state...
Sketchbook untouched, but that is nothing new. Nowadays my drawings happen on whatever paper I can grab - including the white space of a newspaper advert if that is all there is to hand - and are binned as soon as they have made it into a film...or pasted into an ideas scrapbook for future consideration. Similarly preparatory sketches for films. I don't do pencil tests, but I do try-it-and-see, and then draw-over-the-top-of-the-old-ones-til-it-comes-out-right. Sorry, anyone who might be hoping my old work will one day be worth millions. Ghosts of old tutors clutch their heads in hands, horrified by the lack of life drawing, the lost art of making beautiful marks in graphite sticks that capture energy of the moment, blah blah, yes I never really got drawing from (still) life. No patience. Not enough room for messing about - observational drawing, so useful but so much less fun that doodling a man with a spaceship growing out of his head or a dog doing aerobics. My serious colleagues tutting over the necessity to make numerous studies from life before starting the project-in-hand, while I always wanted to just plough in and start the building (yeah, painting is building. If you do it right). BUT...animation has done what years of actually filling sketchbooks and painting from life couldn't, free me from the tedious compulsion to make everything "realistic". From the thought that the beauty of the shape of a hand or the line of a cheek is necessarily any more beautiful that the joy of red and purple, unconstrained by realistic representation.
So, if new year is a time of reflection, I propose to reflect on this: Freedom. Experiments unconstrained by timescales, must-do film festivals or REF submissions. Mucking about with ideas, stories, shapes and colours. Fun. And a quiet belief that it will come to something, will end up being time well-spent and resolve itself. Not into a "message to the world" but a small voice that will bring a challenge, a question, a new idea... and a moment of joy to the little slice of the world that engages with it.
Happy New Year to anyone who is reading this, and I hope your year will bring you a challenge, a means to funnel your creativity, and some joy.


New Year, New Nostalgia

On a christmas walk, on the shiny new cycle track past the ornamental pond with its duckhouse and the ancient line of pinetrees screening the railway line. The new people, the off-comers, who have lived their whole lives in these quietly well-ordered streets, named after trees that never grew here - This is their world, but it used to be mine... and just once somebody asks
"You used to live here  before this housing estate was built? What was it like?"

 There was a footpath down to the field, it was always muddy. There was spring where a ghost of a monk used to come and fill a bucket of water, then disappear into a secret tunnel that led to the big house with the fancy wall. But no-one had ever actually seen it. There were two enormous conker trees either side of the entrance to the sloping field . In winter, you could sledge down it, and skim the strangely whirring ice across the pond to shatter on the bank. In summer the meadow flowers and grasses came nearly up to your waist. There were cowslips and shepherd's purse and lady's bedstraw and we looked up their names in the Observer book of wildflowers. There was a horse called Dolly lived in the field sometimes, and when she laid down she flattened the grass all round, you could lie down in the flat bits and hide and no-one would ever find you. In the middle was a wood, with holly trees - no good for climbing but you could slide down the clay banks hanging on to the branches, or hide. At the bottom was a willow tree which grew along the ground and then some branches went straight up. It was like a ship, and the long grass was wavy like the waves of the sea. You could stand in the prow like a pirate, shading your eyes against the sun and see for miles. Climb through the willow and walk all round the pond, balancing on the narrow bank between the water and the brambles. You could drag branches to try to make a bridge to the island. But it never really worked - someone always fell in the water and went home with one wet gray sock. It was Enid Blyton, it was Where the Wild Things were. It was the Phantom Tollbooth. That's what it was like.

The island had a dogrose, dark pink. It had the remains of half-successful bonfires, and tattered pages from a dirty magazine the Big Boys left behind. Next to the pond was a kind of swamp, full of tadpoles and bullrushes, stinky grey mud...and a  stream which ran down the side of the field through a wood; all bluebells, windflowers and primroses. Beyond the pond-edge brambles, and through the fence, lived another horse; pale and elegant with a stripe down its nose. And a brick path to the railway station, with two tiny, scary dogs that hurtled out of a farmyard, barking and jumping.
It was a place where we walked, and talked, and ran and shouted and dreamed and played. Picked flowers, stared at insects, laid in the sun and watched the lazy aeroplanes go over.  It was a place for kids, not for sunday afternoon granddads who preferred the climb to the water tower, via the railway bridge where we waved pointlessly at trains. Not for bicycling family picnics, or for healthy walks; but a place you rushed to, past the haunted house at the fork in the path, stomping through the mud past flowering bushes and huge nettles, hurtling down the grass slope with your brother, with your friends, on your own, hiding from the bad kids...  It was, for a few short years, my world. Before it was a Green Space, it was just a green space. That's what it was like.

And later, it was a racketty pathway, rutted with treeroots over which we rode our bikes, shrieking, downhill; hanging on to the freedom of childhood long after bras and Olevels got in the way. A place where we shared secrets and complaints and dreams of our future. We cried when they built on it, we had thought it was wild... but really we knew it was once an ornamental garden, with metal cages still round the maytrees and concrete stairs making a waterfall into the pond. The garden of the Big House on which, earlier, our own housing estate had been built. Kids probably played there with hobby horses or croquet, like in a Jane Austen novel, and dreamed of being explorers. Some family, who couldn't believe that anyone would one day forget that great grandfather planted that copse, ordered the modelling of that fishpond. Or that people would build houses, then more houses, then a third set of houses all over and fence off the pond so that it was overrun with hopping frogs every year, swarming the road, making traffic swerve and us squeal and jump to avoid them, never stopping to ask what became of all those tadpoles that we used to catch. Those posh children in pantaloons; before it was my world, it was theirs. And every child who played there, every Big Boy with his dirty books and every courting couple who walked the fields whittling or blowing dandelion clocks after a picnic with lashings of ginger beer and cliches... everyone has his own perfect remembered model of this small space, which expanded and contracted to fill the size of the dream and the length of the day. That's what it was like.
And now it's yours. So much smaller, but there are still rookeries that make the sound of summer and ice that whirrs on the pond. There are still tadpoles and mud and hedgerow flowers. And full of small things that ask for your attention. Lie down and watch the insects dance, inspect the leaves of the mosses and listen to the chattering of the squirrels in the quiet between trains. Make grass trumpets and collect acorns to plant.
Find your own ghosts.
Treasure them. 


Lions, Tigers and (Teddy) Bears

Having completed my online, animated advent calendar (all made though not all posted as I am uploading a new one each day) a friend suggested making a Hannukah calendar for the 8 days of Hannukah. Why not, I like a challenge and I recklessly completed the first one too early...
But also, being stalled on my current project due to a problem with external suppliers, Iwas looking for a short-term project to complete meanwhile.
So - what have we learned so far from this exercise? The amount of time it takes to make  8 x 15 second animations increases exponentially when it is such unfamiliar territory. I'm not Jewish, and while advent calendars -  chocolate, musical or otherwise - are an annual part of my experience, I've never celebrated Hannukah. Obviously, I know what it is (I told myself, realising rapidly that didactic knowledge and emotional understanding are miles apart)...but while I feel confident in messing with my own (lapsed, born-again Atheist) traditions and stories, when faced with someone else's I am unsure. I imagine I would give the same sort of wishes, gifts, and suffer the same rituals around Hannukah as I do around Christmas - and I am thrilled to discover the wealth and variety of revolting Hanukkah Jumpers available to buy, not to mention the elf-equivalent Mensch-on-a-Bench. But what if I tread on some cultural-specific toes? what if I just get it wrong and people think "meh! nothing like MY Hannukah".
This is the joy of moving into commission territory. Not the fear of seeming something-ist. Not the egotistical notion that my online work will reach such a vast audience as to command massive outrage or misery. More the realisation that so much of our work is necessarily and irrevocably tied to our individual experience, and trying to gain that experience and understanding second- or third-hand is really really hard work. And very hard to be certain you have got it right. Speaking recently to some overseas students about the multiple possibilities of informal conversational language, I heard myself saying "well, you could say that, but no-one ever does. I mean people would understand what you meant, but most people would say..." But. You would be marked out as foreign, outsider, not necessarily badly treated for all that, but not really getting it, and so perhaps not - in this context - worth listening to. What can I possibly tell someone about, or how can I add to or illuminate, their experience if I can't even share it?
In the end, I'm doing this because I said I would. and because I'm finding the process to be a learning one. and because I'm hoping that there is more - more familiarity to family rituals, and mid-winter affirmations of life, love and belonging - that unites us as people than there are things - religious, cultural or historical - that divide us.


A Quick Tour

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...I finally finished the film-with-the-clockwork-man-in, which is now called Tour. (Pause for existential moment - did I have trouble naming this because I don't really know what it's about?) (No, OK good) Usefully, tour is (in French) a masculine noun meaning a tour or a circling, and a feminine noun meaning a tower. So if anyone happened to know that small fact it would be very appropriate. Mind you, I watched a film in some festival or other, marvelling at the irony of entitling such a dark and apocalyptic image "Gift" and constructing a bridge of meaning before realising it was the German gift - poison. (In my defence it was by an English filmmaker). Fortunately, even in English, it will still mean tour.
There has also been a flurry of festival submissions, (speculative, hopeful) and now I am looking at some randomly assorted possible projects; possible book illustrations , a probable animations, a piece of glasswork I am mildly terrified by the scale of. But this year, for the first time ever, I actually do feel like hibernating instead. It is shriekingly cold, and the house is too comfortable. The workshop shed would be far too cold, even if the electrics hadn't died in there. The downside of having the studio(s; I have the luxury of a clean room for animation/ computer stuff and a dirty room for glass, sanding, glue...) at home is that its too easy to sit down to work in Pyjamas, or get distracted by home things like shopping online or sorting Christmas. Also, there is the temptation to want the studio room to be comfortable...tidy because it is part of a house, and you don't want to clart up the walls with oilpaint or walk chips of glass all over the house. Or annoy the neighbours with incessant drilling... But I have become very disciplined, determined and tried to develop the ability to focus tightly - to concentrate on the screen or the worktable and not notice that other stuff. To be completely immersed in the work to the point of tunnel vision. But it makes me think about the importance of the room we work in, the studio. Woolf's Room of one's own.
workspace at Kingston Art Group

Last weekend was the annual open studios in Newcastle, a chance to take a tour not only of the work people are up to 12 months on, but also the way that they are using their spaces. Some huge and spare like Mervyn Peake's raft of floorboards. Some insanely small, but with an excellent light. Some cosy with armchairs, music and kettles. and some with a very jealous-making array of shelves, custom shaped for the collection of tools and materials kept there... Many artists "when they get to my age" head for the home studio as it is warm, convenient, paid for...and you dont have to put up with all the bullshit studio politics that some places have. It's accessible, open 24/7, and never creepy if you are working at 2 am. The obvious downsides are the lack of community and feedback...but also the lack of edge. Edge flavoured with the filthy, tumbledown, cheap, and repurposed; riotous with activity ...except when tumbleweed is blowing through the studio corridors and everyone is working at their "other" job. Tense with the opposition of immersion and hyper-self-awareness. And this year, I found the work overall less edgy, more design-y...less experimental...well, we all need to make a living and some of the artists had queues for the credit card machine. While others...were not there. The edgy stuff that doesn't sell is not helped by open studios - but then how do we get to see it? I don't want a tour of studios to be a retail experience but a chance to understand and enjoy ideas, work in progress, the process of the practice. For me it's a gallery, or maybe a show-and-tell; something very hard to do in a home studio where the intimacy and domesticity is a tangible barrier for visitors.


Feed your Head - with Animation

I love film festivals. And Aesthetica/ASFF & Manchester/MAF give you 2 in one week which tends to make your head rather full. Also, strangely, it tends to give you a sense of existential crisis. (This film festival is full of film students. Only film students. We are making movies in order to train people to make movies. My life is pointless. sort of thing). Once again I was amused to hear some informed scoffing (Huh, its just a one-character shot. Too easy) and relieved to hear other people voicing my own confusion. There is always at least one film I get to the end of thinking "What? WTAF? I don't get it"... but sadly not in a good, "ooh this really challenges your assumptions and makes you think" kind of way but more in a "either I am really dense or this animator is just failing to communicate, and why the hell do ALL of these animations have funny little firefly things in" kind of way.  There was one which featured fireflies as protagonists, and one in which they were the metaphor that carried the plot...but about 8 more in which I just felt like animators were afraid of stillness so there had to be some kind of random movement in the background. Or, ooh, maybe fireflies are this year's big trend. And I've missed it. Again.

There were some fabulous films, my favourite from MAF was probably Lucrece Andreae's Pepe le Morse /Grandpa Walrus (the story, the drawings, the believability of the characters) but there was also some really effective mixing of media/ style/ scene in Daisy Jacob's the Full Story - mixing drawn and painted images seamlessly with pixillation...(and that was something else besides bugs that was very big this year, live action pixillated)and Carlos Gomez Salamanca's Lupus, a kind of animated documentry/ reflection.
ASFF seemed to have more stuff that was visually dark and highly textured, but also with - well - JOY. The biggest hit with the audiences seemed to be Jack Bennett's Not the End of the World, because it captured so accurately the excruciating intensity of teenage first crushes and confusion. Once again the programmers appeared not to have anticipated that anyone might want to see all the animation programmes (rather than pick-and-mix through experimental, music videos and a bit of thriller, say) so trying to see them all meant travelling down on two separate days and a killer sunday schedule. Thank goodness for the nice warm teabar at City Screen.
And once again MAF co-incided with the latenight xmas market, so enabling shameless retail interludes in the gaps between my selected programmes. This enabled me to empty my head (aw look, baby penguin xmas baubles) before filling it again with ideas, questions, inspirations and enthusiasm for my next animation experiment. Hoorah!


I hate walk cycles

Is it just me, or is the obligatory concentration on walk cycles really boring and cliched? Of course, how people(animals, animated cheese-on-toasts) move is a great way to show character and mood - (sneaky, happy, existential dread). In a character with limited information (when compared to a human actor) we have to use everything we can to establish a real, empathic personality. And this includes posture and movement. It's the idea that everything is about walking...  I can appreciate the philosophy that "Its not the destination, it's the glory of the ride" but the more interesting journey is a metaphorical one...

In 10 years of hand-drawn animation, the current short is the first  time I have ever needed to concentrate on walking as an activity, and tried to show the difference between walking with hope, drudging without it, going up a hill or down...but all of these were variations on the same character, in a mostly one character storyline with no dialogue. So the way he moves is all there is, and what he is doing is walking (to get away from, to get to, to search for...) . generally, walking in these shorts is a rare activity, its all about cauldron stirring, extreme closeups and maybe drawing yourself a new face.

It's possible I completely misunderstand how to do animation and that all of my work would be improved by a greater study of walk cycles; but for me, the movements, their extreme range, anticipation and aftermath of each one in Disney or the classics is too much. Too ugly and unreal. The extreme exaggeration is also part of what makes female characters so sexualised. But is it necessary? I like my movements and my characters to be more subtle, less funny but more likeable.

If we all learn (and teach)how to do animation the same way, the films will all come out the same way. And part of that problem may be that in most commercial/ feature animations, the imagery is flat and bland - that is to say it has no signs of having been drawn by a human hand - perfect curves, smooth flat colour, shading provided by computer algorithm. In small films by independent makers you will get something more shaky, quirky, visually interesting even before anything starts to move. The character can be described in the marks, the energy of the drawn lines, the round/angular smooth/jagged, sketchy/ assured...the materials themselves and their natures & associations. Unfortunately this kind of handmade and "painterly"(ooh I can use that word for the first time since Artschool) style is time-consuming and expensive for studios and so seldom seen. How can we scale it up? How can we economise ? How can we treat animation as an art process rather than a commercial film production line? and How can we encourage students to really experiment with technique, texture, style but still provide them with the skills they need if they want to join the commercial hegemony? I'm not sure walk cycles is an answer...


15 second hero

I thought a minute was an interesting challenge but instagram gives you 15 seconds... and I've just completed 24 animations of less than 15 seconds for the advent calendar. Besides the strangeness of thinking so much about xmas in October, there is the challenge of a narrative that can unfold so quickly but which has some kind of meaning, isn't just a oneline joke. Something with a character - a "hero" you can care about and believe in. (15 second hero -better than 3 minute hero? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA-gTRqqTkM hmm.).

Definitely fun to do: normally animations take so long that one good idea lasts for months - even with
random sidebars and plot changes. Doing this meant having several ideas every day, discarding the weaker ones and the ones that are too hard to draw (well I did learn something from the squid-in-a-rubber-suit experience) and still having two left that I could run with. It was a good workout, another learning curve...and just hope some people will see them - especially since they have a limited shelf life! Although, I have been in discussion about a Channukah calendar...
UPDATE: having finished at least the first rush of these, going back to the film I was making before - and kind of stuck on...messing with extracts from it has helped me improve the "big" film (ooh could even be 5 minutes) and tighten up the storyline. A useful reminder of the creative power of playing, and of the need sometimes to look away and be prepared to follow ludicrous tangents in order to find the best direction...


Actual films online

Quick note to both my readers...short films, trailers, and experiments are now being posted twice a week on Instagram ...Highlights, Lowlights and random nuns.
Also, I'm leading up to an animated advent calendar to be posted daily from 1st December.
Don't like Instagram - then try Vimeo


Trailers (for sale or rent)

making posters is an even more specialist skill!
A friend suggested I really should be using instagram - for videos - which means 15 second cuts: as if 1 minute wasn't enough of a challenge...
I started by trying to make a 15 second narrative (which in a couple of cases was actually possible as they had started out extremely short and with a fairly non-narrative kind of narrative) but for most of the ideas, the challenge was finding the good bits (visual) weren't necessarily the good bits of narrative. It emphasised the inseparable nature of the visuals and the narrative - which is good - but also helped with thinking about how shots or ideas could be re-ordered without unravelling the story. Some film festivals ask for trailers, and I always think...that's mad, a trailer for a 2 minute movie...but actually that is a more helpful way of looking at 15 seconds extracted from a short short. It's not about condensing the whole story... or extracting the "best" 15 seconds of visuals (because that may not tell a story, may not have pace... oh wait, how can they be the best visuals if they dont have pace? Then they are only 2 dimensional). So a better comparison/ starting point might be to look at the images I chose to extract for the screenshot web pages - a series of images which tell parts of the story but don't reveal the ending, and which are chosen for their variety as well as the strength of the images themselves, and the way they carry the narrative sense. But trying to put them together as a series of sequences rather than stills...aaaargh! Starting to really appreciate why storyboarding is a specialist skill and so is producing trailers.
UPDATE: a very useful training session from Tom Armitage, via Northern Film and Media, about creative ways to use the web to promote/ contextualise/ raise interest in/ support and reinforce your film work... I think I might actually be heading in the right direction...