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...



The complete collapse of the Wacom graphics tablet. Which I use every day. Aargh. Comically, it didn't just stop working but started issuing random commands to the computer, putting keyframes in wherever it fancied, turning layers on and off in a series of variations of its own devising - sometimes the opposite of what I had keyed in, but sometimes a more interesting set of visuals. Trying to tell me something? At this point of course one reflects on the over-reliance on technology (I couldn't look up the phone number of the computer repair shop, because it refused to input any text to the google search box. Of course I had recycled my Yellow pages (bah! Old technology! Dead trees!) so I had to drive there just to ask if they still did repairs...) but also on the abrupt stupidity of the mouse as a drawing tool.
 I had a friend who taught life drawing and made the students draw with pointed, wooden 18" sticks...but even he and his faithful students would have been frustrated by drawing with a cigarette packet on a piece of string. But, whilst I wait for a replacement tablet to arrive, this is what I attempt to do. Unfortunately, as I am in the middle of a film, the change in style will not be helpful...but perhaps it is a reminder to explore the extent to which we can make experimental gestural marks with the computer. The new tablet promises  more responsiveness, a lighter quicker touch...which frankly sounds more like an advert for a condom, but I'm hoping it will translate to a greater autographic sensibility. Disappointingly, some of the graphics tablets on offer have interchangeable textured mats (to mimic different papers). Sorry, but if you want the effect of drawing on Fink-Nottle's cold pressed watercolour paper with a wax crayon...then why not, you know, draw on Fink-Nottle's cold pressed... I'm still hoping there are interesting marks which are the computer's own and not a pale imitation (or even a really convincing imitation) of some other process. Computers can, and do, do so much... can we not also let them be computers?


Taking your ideas for a walk

...well no, nothing to do with fractals, tiny round islands or things not being what they seem. In fact the next film idea turns out to be about treadmills, repetition, and mechanical wind-up toys. Kafka and Tim Burton hang out in The Magic Roundabout. I suppose, if I had a brief...a client, a commission... I could start from there and it would be fractals all the way but if it's up to me then I can go any direction that moves me. The trick is not to dither endlessly or keep on the track if it has evidently become a dead-end. And here, perhaps the representation of rigidity, pre-determination and escape attempts owes something to a re-examining of my own routines. A need for structure. versus the joy of freefall. Well, watch this space to see whether the inner teenager or the inner parent will win.
But there is something so great about the wonky scale of tin toys - the massive heads, the tiny legs, the gigantic winding keys that makes even a kafka-esque nightmare landscape jolly. Even without the lurid, and slightly wobbly-edged colours.
I'm attempting a short movie that has NO pre-planning - taking a line for several walks (25 each second, but in slow motion spread over days). Free-range...No storyboard. No efficiencies or  "if I'd realised I wanted to wiggle those fingers I'd have drawn the hands on another layer". So time is wasted. But - I hear you ask - is time spent making art and learning how to do both the process and the end product better, ever wasted? I think not.


Animation as a social activity

Part 4 of shakespearean woman - Lady Macbeth on the analyst's couch - has won a wee prize at the Shakespeare Film Festival, Yay! Hopefully I will be down in Stratford for the shortshorts night...And the Nice People at Out in the Garden have recorded another voicetrack for part 6 which is now complete. Whither next? Oh, well experiments in new "theme tunes" are being conducted with friend and colleague Mike Kirkup; new "Elizabethan style" music on guitar and harpsichord (did they HAVE harpsichords in Elizabethan times?)...and also some incidental music of the old cinema school; a possible model for many future shorts. And the NP@OITG are considering the possibility of devising new stories for short shorts collaboratively, improvising screenplays instead of plays. Suddenly animation has become a very social activity. ...which means it all takes longer.

Meanwhile, I have been playing about with stained glass and driftwood, and making things. (possibly badgers) This has also involved walking on the beach. Is it art? is it craft? is it important? Well it's fun, and as I recall from the Sculpture School graffiti of the late 70s "Art can be Fun. Fun can be Art". And it provides achievable (with some language and personal injury) challenges. Plus getting feedback is nice. and making things can be a social activity.

After artschool, after various group studios and the PhD forum (Northumbria) and the late lamented School of Arts & Media (Teesside), there needs to be a new art community...but this is not always easy to find. Will they want me - am I cool enough (should I have a handbag made of an old Dulux tin? are my earrings making a statement?) Is this a scary clique who regard me as competition - or is that all in my head? How do I get beyond smalltalk and make meaningful connections? Exploring the spaces between disciplines, and the overlaps, remembering to look for creative energy everywhere...and Its just possible I have re-acquired a community of practice.


Sound and Silence

Last night I watched The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, not Lloyd Webber), which unaccountably I had previously never seen. The Tyne Theatre was a character in this drama - sitting in the posh seats you can really enjoy the baroque, blue swags, plaster fruit and veg everywhere, the extreme wallpaper, the sickening height of the ceiling and the beautifully lettered names of composers adorning the balconies. Reminding you it was - is - also an Opera House. The film was a restored print with ghostly green or purple/blue tinges, and some of the scenes were almost undecipherable. In fact there was so much colour in the Black-and-White it took a while to register than in the masked ball sequence it had suddenly gone into colour...a garish, red-heavy technicolour. But it was excellent, atmospheric, and in the "famous" unmasking scene, truly scary. Meaningful looks, heaving bosoms and general (by modern talkie standards) overacting notwithstanding.

Excellent, very much because of the live score provided by Brendan Murphy and the Mediators, using piano, electric keyboards and synths, glass harmonica and random percussion. Normally, I hate electronic music, but the subtle shifts from piano to organ to disturbing electronics were perfect, and provided a great counterbalance to the melodramatic elements of the visuals. I started out expecting - hoping - this would be a percussion version of the Buster Keaton-esque rinkydink live piano, huge and fast and mirroring the film. Instead it was subtle, beautiful, minimal in places and crazy - but never baroque - in others. It balanced the film and helped to reinterpret it for a contemporary audience. And a live soundtrack, with all the emotion and sense of presence and spontaneity...as though the band were expressing their response to the film as it occurred to them (which of course wasn't how it worked)...
An inspired idea by whoever programmed it into the Whitley Bay Film Festival.
And it made me think why it is that I hate the comedy soundtracks of animations - the mwah-mwah noises , the plinkety plink of feet winding up to run, the strange violin wa-ee-a telling you someone's jaw has just dropped in amazement. You don't need them. It's overstating. It's bolted on. And formulaic - a code - the opposite of live, spontaneous and expressive. If animations - like silent films - need to make their statements boldly and clearly, then that can be counterbalanced by a soundtrack which tells the story in a more abstract and lyrical way. As an animator I work with just the images; although there may be a script if there is dialogue; but the story, the emotion, the atmosphere has to come across without any sound...or how can I complete it? The sound IS an add-on, and yet it has to be as communicative, as creative, as crafted as the animation (or the silent movie) itself. And somehow it has to give an impression of an integrated, holistic end product...of an interplay between the two elements even though one is created after and in response to the other...a collaboration. I wish I could produce my own scores for the animation. Mostly, I wish I could afford to commission Brendan to do it.


Make a badger

Stress, tiredness, difficult things...can make you lose it. IT. Your Mojo. Your infallible creative wossname, that keeps flinging out ideas - some good, some hilariously unworkable, a few that are "meh" and every now and then, a really great idea. What do you do if you lose it??
Panic that it won't come back. Hope it's just stress. Remember what a friend told you 5 years after artschool - that if Picasso stopped painting for 6 months, it wouldn't stop him being a painter. and if you did something else for six months...
Fuelled by a half-formed idea about freelancing, making-stuff-to-sell and well, recreational art, I started making some glass things. Is it art? is it craft? is it therapy? Who cares. As an artist, it's sometimes just great to do something that doesn't have to be art, that doesn't have anything to prove...a birthday card, a thing to give as a moving in present, an infographic for a seminar on research informed teaching. Just to remind ourselves what joy is in drawing, painting, making...like we did when we were kids, watching Blue Peter and thinking "Ooh, Im going to make one of those...only maybe orange and with a funny hat on..." It's hard to do this as an adult; to use the same tools, and processes as you use for capital A Art, but without any expectation, without your inner tutor scoffing "decorative! derivative!". To do this - (and I quote from a long-ago degree show at Brighton, sketchbook entry of a sculpture graduate whose name I cannot now remember...)

Because its fun. And importantly, because it gives your creative wossname a holiday. The work can be a kind of meditation...a kind of sympathetic magic where the feedback from your senses - the movement of your hands and the smell of the safety flux (!), the mess - makes the ideas come. Summons the mojo.

Next time I lose it, Im gonna make a badger.



The next big adventure came rather sooner than I planned - the adaptation of one of the tiny Shakespeare animations into a comic. The whole story.
 Interesting how you can get away with a certain amount of disconnect in an animation - two parallel strands of story that you switch between...even in a very short short; but that this immediately becomes confusing in a comic strip. You almost feel as though you want to put dirty great arrows on to say - look this bit follows this line of thought. Then you realise a more grown-up way to do this would be by mirroring some aspects of the visual. Pose, face...easy(?) when you can cut and paste. And then you are forcibly reminded that whilst in a storyboard every frame is exactly the same size and aspect ratio, that is a VERY dull way to compose a cartoon strip. But...those are the drawings you have to work with.
Actually, strip cartoons and old fashioned comics often use a standard size/shape, but have Batman Marvel forever spoilt that by leading us to expect dynamic, different-sized, non-rectangular...? Ooh wait, this goes with my earlier ideas about changing sizes and shapes of screen in a movie...There's probably a really nice piece of software that helps with the creation, measuring, balancing of different frames; but I probably wouldn't use it!
So now I get to re-read my favourite comic books, Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) and Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi), plus anything by Scott McCloud - this time looking at the shape of the boxes. And so many different ways to explore this particular range of adaptation...


Rebooting...please wait...

Famous Five cottage on the lake
After 2 weeks away I feel ready to plunge into the next great adventure. It was what my friend described as a Famous Five holiday - little lakes, my own rowing boat, mountains, caves, beaches, endless lovely walks round 1964, a real fire and lashings of ginger beer. (OK, wine, Im not actually 8 any more.)
Although this time, in spite of the achingly beautiful landscape, the long walks and the blissful quiet and calm isolation...I didn't get a headful of new ideas and inspiration. Possibly because my head was so full of stress and crap that it took that long just to empty it. What I did get was some insights. of the "Jean-Paul Sartre I always knew that but have only just realised that I always knew that" variety. or maybe some questions to explore.
1.Utopia is boring. so Perfect is boring
2. so the perfect holiday location is actually enhanced by the experience of terrifying roads, nearly capsizing in the lake, and discovering that my phone wouldn't work - at all. These give it shape, pace...drama
3. but the trick is to view them as essential points on the dramaturgy graph and not as things which "spoil" the rest of the times - so you gasp, laugh, entertain your friends with the story, instead of  moaning about them. This is easier when you're 25 and invincible.
As I was just starting a massive loopwalk round the Mayo cliffs, a local man passing amiably remarked "another rotten day, what?" He wasn't wrong - if what you wanted was to sit in the garden enjoying the view. But for a strenuous climb, cloud cover/shade was a bonus, and the wind just made the clifftops more exciting. But perhaps his point was "another" - a sudden heavy downpour might make me feel like dancing in it for joy, but after 5 days... So variety is part of pace.
While we ask how to get pace into the story, the animation, perhaps we should also investigate how to get pace, variety into the working practice. Meet more other animators, have (pacey) arguments about the nature of narrative with work colleagues (but NOT on facebook). Read more. Watch more films. I've often worried that when people ask "what've you been up to?" my reply sounds boring. Work. Samba. Making another Shakespeare animation.

Wild, Farmed, Potatoes
But making that animation has so many different aspects, moods, the terrifying roads and the beautiful landscape. The bits that make you cry with frustration as well as the bits that make you grin smugly... Or - it does if you're doing it properly.

So did I come home with my creative axe sharpened?  I came home determined, in love with a new place, and with some visual & conceptual inspirations that havent yet turned into anything... but I suspect the next story will feature fractals, confusions of scale, & things that turn into other things (the coral beach at Ceathru Rua which looks like sand til you realise the scale is all wrong and then the texture and then the shapes - like tiny driftwood); tiny round islands (lough Corrib), the contrast between the wild and the farmed (Kylemore, Enniscoe)... something or other to do with how life shapes the landscape and the landscape shapes life (the stone walls of Inis Mor). That seems like a good place to start...


Performance to Camera...or Microphone

A good friend and sometime artistic collaborator has recently started working in "performance to camera" which is interestingly/ subtly not the same as acting or - well - performing. It is a way to share practice which is not simply a documentation, and engages the audience on an emotional level more than a documentary, perhaps because the artist has control of the process. Although maybe also a fruitful area for debate/ argument about auteurship and the locus of the "art" within the medium. I thought of this when I was doing the final sound mix for the soundtracks of the Shakespeares. I wrote the scripts, yes (based obviously on the ideas of Shakespeare, Hollinshed, and a number of scholars); but they were recorded as a kind of radio play, by members of "Out in the Garden" theatre group. It was live, and although the actors were not professionals they were very human and convincing . And it was apparent that there was a real interaction between the characters as well as the actors.
Mary Queen of Scots...it's an allegory
In very short animated shorts, the whole process tends to be a one-woman band. Ideas, Writing, Drawing, Animating... rather like the process of painting. This process did begin with a written story, but also with a strong sense of what the visuals would be and that the two would work together. Isn't that the only way? But working with a group of people in this way is refreshing. The group sessions had their own life, and that life came into the film, opened it out - letting mistakes or improvisations happen and then remodelling the film around the sound. Letting the particular way someone said a word, or phrased a thought feed back into the pace, and the detail of the images. Making sure that the things I had written actually made some kind of sense - or even some kind of poetry. So Im wondering about conceptualising this as a performance to microphone...which is then in conversation with the images, and they agree what they want to do and then get on with it.
The timings are different - the rhythms of natural speech are sometimes too fast/ sometimes too slow for the drawings...And the drawings have their own speed. Lumpier, more highly textured drawings wanting to move at a slower speed. Black and white drawings seemed to want a cleaner, crisper kind of sound - not technically crisp but stylistically. And then you have to try to match the kind of voice with not just the style of drawing but the shape of the character and how it moves. One of the voice cast asked me "How should a woodcut speak?"

Now that is a bloody good question all animators should be asking ourselves.



Finally  - actually quite quickly - finished the illustration for the book, although covers/ endpapers are still to be discussed tomorrow. Now that (see last post) was a good challenge and a good deal has been learned. It's useful to work in a different way sometimes, to have different constraints. They can be arbitrary (a film exactly 60 seconds long, a story without words or dialogue, a limited palette) but again, some artbitrary rules are more useful than others. When I was at artschool, systems painting was still going on - and paintings made to a decision process governed by chance (e.g. throw of a die). But I think agency is important. I make art, films, illustrations for trees, because I have something to communicate - a message, a sense, a celebration maybe even an inspiration. Without agency we cannot communicate.
The tree (in the book) is female. The other main characters are also female - which can make for a confusion of pronouns - but is an important element of the story. We (the author and I) did not discuss gender stereotypes or why and in what possible sense could an artificial christmas tree be regarded as female...because we are old friends and it felt like we didn't have to. So the story can become one about empowering girls - not to do anything in particular, but just to be free of the pink-disney princess-or-maybe-its-OK-to-be-sporty stereotype. And to say not "a girl can do anything a boy can do" but yes, a girl can do anything a child can do, including dream. I tried not to give the girlchild a pink anorak, I did. But that was what she wanted to wear. Cerise pink, to clash with her red and purple hat. A character you can believe in has to have the space to make her own decisions in your narrative...which is why you need to push those arbitrary limitations - in your animation as in your life!
UPDATE: New improved girlchild, with more hair and generally looking less like Elmer Fudd. Avoiding gender stereotypes is quite tricky when you have so little detail to play with AND when faced with the audiences default assumption that people are male...


Going to the dogs

Stop Press. (do they do that anymore?) Garden - complete with vampire wasps - is off to the Walthamstow International Film festival where it has been short-listed. Yay! Not sure what it's been shortlisted for, mind. Possibly a form of humane wasp control. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's got a laundry basket on it's head (you kind of had to be there). Walthamstow, 3rd June
And even though Ive lived so long in the North East, Its quite exciting to be showing near to where I was born (Clapton) and first went to school (Wood Green). Wasps were even scarier than...


challenge...and challenge

Trump has been elected. We now have a snap election coming up, with the attendant vulgar, scaremongering and deceitful media coverage, and the terror of the future possibilities. And now, my workplace - my artistic context, research support network and daily what-passes-for-normality - has been deranged, to be replaced with something else, not yet known or understood.

And these are challenges, to which I am exhorted to rise, smiling.
People need challenge. Without it we become bored or complacent. So we seek cures for cancer, we train for marathons...but we also die taking selfies on top of crane towers. Not all challenges are equal.

Working as an artist, an animator is challenging. (working as an illustrator when you are really an animator, doubly so) - the frustrations of trying to fit a layout template onto an organic and irregular story form. Of trying to animate rushing water. Or find a sound that will reliably represent the non-existent and unimaginable. Experimentation, and often failure; submission, and often rejection; technology demands and trying to remain sane and civil when these go horribly wrong. Pushing boundaries - challenging your own skills and stretching them.
I believe in challenge, in confronting your own fears, in saying let's see what happens if I... And more importantly, in doing this alone - yes I CAN cycle up that 3 mile 1-in-4, yes I have a fear of heights but I can fly a glider, or perform on stage at the Sage, or travel to Svalbard, or lose a bunch of weight and learn to surf, or put it all on again and smile and say 'hey-ho'.

Now Harry Lime said, however inaccurately...

So - the challenges of coping with systemic fear and uncertainty are supposed to make me produce my best work ever. Big challenges - justice, equality, overthrowing dictatorships and protesting attacks on democracy; here, anger is useful. There are large things you can do, in community with others, helping each other in solidarity. You can write the Internationale, create posters encouraging people to join the quinta brigada, write Ubu Roi or 1984, film Fahrenheit 9/11. Save the world by painting it.

But when you feel, or when you have been told quite categorically there IS nothing you can do... the challenge is to accept, "deal with", make the best of, to find an opportunity in the middle of an imposition of confusion. I'd love to be the kind of person who says "bring it on, I eat problems for breakfast". But I'm this kind of person. The kind who chooses challenges which are interesting, exciting and will make the world a better place. Can I teach this module? Can I overcome my fear of heights? Can I draw a squid climbing out of a spider suit? Can I organise everything when your mother is possibly dying in a foreign hospital? yes. Can I cope with stuff happening at work/ in the government which seems to make no logical sense and which I suspect I am not being told the truth about? with the feeling of powerlessness and being dragged about? Does it motivate me to seize control?  er, no. It simply make me depressed, the opposite of creative.
These are not useful challenges, they may make me more resilient but they will make me less sensitive. They will make me leap to the defence of the people and the things I love, but they will not help me do the things I love (animation, teaching amongst others) better. Of course we survive - but as an artist and an educator I have to do more than simply survive. I have to dream. I have to make those dreams useful. I have to share the useful dreams and make other people believe they could come true.

If challenge is a central driving force in the work of the artist, If challenge is an exciting, dynamic agent of change, then I would like that to be change for the better. To pick a useful and worthwhile challenge. A friend in Hull told me that there are many ways to be a hero, that stepping in front of a bullet to save another person's life is an easy way.. But that surviving day after day living on Hessle Road is a much harder way to be a hero.



Once there was a tree. This isn't it...this is the other tree. Lending a hand.

Not quite how I imagined it, I thought it would be more wild and splodgy/ scratchy/ dynamic...oh Lord, maybe its really boring.
Apparently, I have found a style and am now stuck with it. Ever have one of those moments when you look at someone else's work and think "I wish I could have drawn/ painted/ animated that."? In that style...And you could copy it. But no...as Anna (the Tree story's author) said - you start to write the character and you think you want them to do this or that or develop in this way or that...but then they just decide to do something different. Apparently the same is true of drawings. I wanted wild and crazy lines, but they wanted to be quite neat and detailed, thank you. Bloody kids!


Persistence of Vision

Having undertaken to illustrate a children's picture story (that's a separate category from picture book, who knew?), I thought it would be so much easier to make a simple series of 30 images instead of 1500 per minute. How much more time I would be able to spend on each, making it perfect. How intricate and endlessly fascinating each image could be, like the best of those I remembered from childhood. Those which allowed you not only to enter the image, but wander around examining flowers, delicate grasses and textures...and imagine the backstory; look deeper and invent more stories. The liberating ability to include random extras, red herrings and decorative details.
In fact, I have wildly underestimated the demands of a different discipline; I am struggling not to assume that each illustration must be exactly the same size and shape, filling the "screen" , even though some of them are detailed close-ups and some distant views. The shift from landscape to portrait orientation is easier so far - possibly because coming from painting into animation I found the transition from portrait to landscape was quite hard in the first place.
I failed to anticipate the scariness of trying to draw something well enough to withstand that lengthy scrutiny instead of hurtling past at 25 images per second. Weirdly, this means I am sketching on paper and scanning the sketch in a desperate attempt to get the process going...Not only all of this, but more importantly I have also underestimated the power of persistence of vision. Every image I see in my mind is a "scene" - an animation, and I can't read "the tree was about as tall as a person" without seeing the tree grow upwards, a person peer around the branches and then wave at the reader. Trying to build that sense of movement, of energy...trying to develop the dramatic pace that will match that of the original story...without using animation? Will I be able to complete this project without having accidentally created the e-version, the flickbook, and the interactive animated ebook first??
Watch this space.


Stanislavski's Cat

Recording voiceovers for the tiny Shakespeares, with a group of local drama types, seated round a massage table. None of us is an "Ac-tor", so we try to find ourselves in the story...to speak as-if. Dressing up "like a witch" in pointy hat and stick-on warts as-if Dressing in our best butch to pre-empt certain types of undesired attention. To pass unnoticed...or to challenge and brazen out. If the story is right we should all be able to find a personal truth in it somewhere, which means we can speak for ourselves rather than try to be a Jacobean era witch/herbalist/batty old lady.

stolen from pinterest. Cat from Maeterlinck's Bluebird
None of us is an "Ac-tor", so there was a certain amount of confusion, hilarity and collapse of stout party. In fact, most of the cackling happened off-the-record as we just chatted, teased and generally improvised around the theme. Our host suggested that instead of one of us making a cat noise, why not record the cat? Ah, I have failed to explain that the point is there is no cat. We fashion an imaginary cat to make believe we are witches. Directing is a whole lot more difficult when there are actual people involved. Let alone cats.

Witch one (which one?) suggested we should just record all the bits in between the script...Woman 1 (not yet a witch) replied that that might be the basis of another and much better film - about 3 women pretending to be 3 witches, who in turn are anachronistically commentating on a play in which they were actors. About how the contemporary sensibilities, politics and social structures would commentate on that. About a group of feminist/ lesbian/ non-actors interpreting the behaviours and words of 3 women who were really men, and whose words were crafted by a man.

No, stop, my head hurts. In the end, there really does need to be a "good bit later where Lady Macbeth goes nuts."


Community of Practice Revisited

animating painting...
Last week I had a random tutorial with a Masters student... from a course I don't actually teach on.
From a different subject area.
Except that we are both painters now trying to make animations. Trying to animate paintings.

OK, it was his first and my Nth, but while I was talking I realised both how much I had learnt since MY first - and how much I still had to learn; how many things I had to try and to explore...

He was doing things "properly" - storyboards, pencil tests, animatics (I had to look it up to even find out what an animatic was); I seem to have made an artistic career out of doing things improperly. But what was interesting was not which set of processes we each were using so much as how the process affects the form. In painting there are always happy accidents, interesting marks and ways in which the paint reacts with the surface, the solvent, the other paint.It isn't so easy to see but there are ways in which a technical or computer process also affects the form, and offers opportunities for random accidents of inspiration. Where the problems and frustrations - or the need to save time - generate creative solutions.
We talked about the different demands of learning as much as possible through the project, and of completing a fabulous movie...that old thing of process vs product but somehow still hugely relevant, hugely important to remember. We say that the learning is vital...that it's research...but are we maybe too keen to steer our students  - and our practice - towards the perfect product?

We always say - especially to the students - that teaching is an exchange, that we learn from the process just as the students do. That this is a community of practice in which we can all help each other to grow and develop;  to reflect on our own practice and where it fits with other peoples'. So it was nice to be reminded that that does actually work. Cheers, Christopher...


Scripts, image sequences and videotape

Working on the scripts for the Shakespeare shorts has made me realise how much fun it is to work in a different medium. To explore telling a story through multiple perspectives but using words/ and different voices.
To find creative ways of avoiding too much lip-synching but without resorting to a disembodied narrator...through close-ups, cutaways...keeping the story visual and not letting the images become secondary to the words. I find this means the script changes as I go, as interesting visuals suggest themselves. Forgive me (colleagues) but I seldom stick to a storyboard and seldom even draw one. Its mostly back-of-the-beer-mat/ organic flow - or as we professionals call it Zen Animation!

But...I have only just realised -while updating the website - that every narrative I create is also told (differently) through a series of still images (the thumbnails) which compose a sort of trailer in comic-book form. In fact, another adaptation.
Damn. Now I've realised that, I'm going to have to start being more creative with the shape/ layout/ size of the thumbnails.
Maybe with speech bubbles...


The Slow Lane

...now leads to Sunderland, where this tiny road movie has been selected for the short film festival. Which means I will actually get to go to a festival which has my film in it - so that's a new combination.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a short post (about nothing to do with animation, but involving thinking rocks and goats) has been accepted in this fine blog Febulous February.

And a second set of cackling witch woodcuts is underway, this one exploring the thorny problem of careers for young girls/ witches (virgin, mother, crone and ...er...the other one).

I had originally set out to create very short versions of Shakespeare films...but this is so much more fun. Apparently, what I'm doing here is adaptation.


MacBeth/ Macbeth/ mac beith ...

...is turning out to be enormous fun. Read Learned Papers! Disagree with them! search the internet for mad German woodcuts of what Choleric temperament looks like;confuse yourself with Elizabethan/ Jacobean customs, attitudes and belief systems; wish you still had a copy of "1066 and all that".

Some of the papers I found were student dissertations and essays; some of the evidence and rationale was scanty. But all of it was interesting. Put it in a sack, shake it up, and pull out some mildly controversial fragments which I hope will encourage people too look at and enjoy the plays. For those "forced" to study them at GCSE/ A level. For those frustrated by the deeply gender-divided and unequal world view of the day but looking for a way through it. Or bored by the passnotes which are just that - notes to get you a pass, but not necessarily to make you think deeply/ or sideways-on. (yes, it's "about ambition". but also the pointlessness of war, gender politics, philosophy, Brechtian devices, "Mock the Week" and the perils of patronage. A cultural mash-up) (maybe...you decide)
And now, even more fun, I get to draw woodcut-esque and intricate Black-and-White images with a vulgar disregard for perspective, anatomy... or anachronism.
God, I feel Shakespearean!


Toonies Bar...the club for People.

Finally. The latest experiment - working Hi-resolution - is completed. This has been a major challenge technically but also because the film has a larger cast of characters. ..many of whom have no obvious or unambiguous gender. Some of whom - being robots, blobs and scribbly yellow things - don't need a gender anyway.

It has been very difficult to keep gender and sexuality assumptions out of it; to establish two characters being friendly or even intimate but "not in a sex way"; and to establish simple identifiers of masculinity which operate as clearly (and as annoyingly) as long eyelashes or hair-ribbons do for femininity.

Also problematic is how to suggest the shrugging off of gender - which is so central to human identity - without simply suggesting transitioning between genders. Is is even possible to discuss gender-freedom in a way that is not overtly political and essentially "queer". Or NOT to be defined by gender, nor in relation to it nor by its absence?

I suspect this will be the first in a long line of tries and possibly fails - but that is sort of the point of research, no?