OSCARS Nominee 2022
Best Animated Short Film
Joanna Quinn & Les Mills
Affairs of the Art
All images © NFB and Beryl Productions International
Originally published during Annecy 2021
Beryl’s back in Affairs of the Art, which showcases one family’s eccentric yet endearing obsessions with everything from drawing to screw threads and pet taxidermy.
Hi Joanna & Les, thanks for talking to tNC, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?
We’ve been starved of the same things most people have missed: travelling abroad, meeting friends, going to live music concerts. We are big jazz fans. Luckily, we live next to a wonderful park in central Cardiff that follows the river for about eight kilometres, so we’ve been walking and biking a lot.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspirations?
We’ve exhausted all the TV series and we’ve been checking out a lot of great older movies. Joanna has been doing life-drawing sessions on Zoom with different models from all over the world, honing her drawing and observational skills. She even draws the characters on the Judge Judy show, which we both find incredibly interesting and often very humorous. We are working on ideas for the next short film, and dreams still figure strongly in our ideas, but the one thing we agree on is that it needs to be short and quick to make!
Do you still get nerves ahead of a festival screening?
Absolutely, especially as we haven't been able to attend any festivals because of the harsh Covid restrictions, so it’s been impossible to introduce the film in person, to speak face to face with audiences, journalists, fellow filmmakers, etc. Worst of all, we haven’t seen or heard any audience reactions, any laughter, any applause. In fact, we haven't actually seen our film in a cinema. It’s like we are operating in a communication vacuum—it’s very frustrating and depressing. The nearest we’ve got to communicating is answering questions in the chat box on Zoom sessions and in some online festival chat rooms!
Congratulations on your recent Best Animation win at Clermont-Ferrand ISFF, what has it meant for you both to get this type of recognition for your latest film?
Well, of course it was a wonderful surprise but also a huge relief to win an award at the first festival Affairs of the Art was shown at. It has taken a long time to produce this film, and the recurring question from friends and animators was, ‘When will it be finished?’ This built up the tension enormously. And we had no idea what the audience or critics would think about the film. So winning that award and two more was an incredible boost to us.
How does it feel to be at Annecy with Affairs of the Art?
Naturally, we were over the moon when our film got into competition at Annecy this year, especially Joanna, because Annecy kicked off her whole career as an animator in 1987 when she won three awards there for her first film, Girls Night Out.
Not only was it an enormous boost to her confidence, but it also introduced her to the world of independent animation in Europe. Before that, like most people, Joanna thought of animation as feature films being made by the big studios, or cartoon series for TV. Being exposed to Annecy and other European festivals and animators changed all that, and for Joanna it unlocked a new, creatively motivated world linked to personal expression, art forms and personal ideas.
Of course, we are deeply frustrated and so disappointed that we cannot be at Annecy in person this year. It was the one dream that kept Joanna going through the last gruelling stretch of the film.
"We have always worked very closely together from the day we first met, and we’ve always recognized each other’s strengths and capitalized on them."
Can you tell me a little bit about Affairs of the Art, what is the inspiration behind the screenplay?
Affairs of the Art continued to develop the character of Beryl, the main female protagonist in three of our previous films. In those films, against all the odds, Beryl, an ordinary Welsh factory worker, battled male dominance, belittling sexist harassment at work and stereotyping. In the process, she discovered ways to explore and establish her own creative identity in a largely male-dominated world. Beryl’s determination to succeed at all costs was the dominant theme in the first three films and continues to be in Affairs of the Art. Only in this film, we have contextualized where the character of Beryl originated by introducing a back history—incidents in her childhood involving family members, as well as scenes with her sister Beverly, her son Colin and her husband Ivor. So in effect we went back in time and introduced new characters from Beryl’s childhood, which we have never done before. All the characters have obsessions and fixations of some sort, and these are explored intensely in the film. Many of the characters, situations and incidents are autobiographical.
Do you allow yourself much flexibility as writer/director once a project is in production?
In production we rarely go 'off-piste,' sticking very closely to the final animatic and script, which has undergone many changes over the very long pre-production period, during the storyboarding and final script-drafting process. Writing a script is a very complex process and involves many drafts before any actual production takes place. Our scripts are character led: the character profiles I write are very comprehensive and usually define major aspects of the script structure. Once the script is finally resolved and we are happy with the dialogue, we do voice rehearsals and studio recordings with the actors and include them on the final animatic. We may undertake some minor changes during editing but no radical changes. Joanna’s animation is still hand-drawn on paper. Very rare nowadays, so changing the animation is not an option!
What was the biggest challenge you faced making Affairs of the Art?
Because of Joanna’s distinctive, intensive and dynamic animation technique, the production period was very long... six years. Maintaining the motivation of Joanna and our production team was a priority and tough, but finally we think we might have achieved what we wanted—a distinctive, personal and humorous film that audiences seem to warm to.
Where did your passion for animation come from and is it ever hard to let go of your films and hand them over to audiences?
Joanna has drawn all her life, and even before going to art school she was avidly drawing humorous comic strips and illustrations for posters, books and magazines. When she went to Middlesex University to study graphic design, she was introduced to animation and it was an instant revelation. Discovering that she could 'make her drawings move' added a whole new dimension to her obsession with drawing, and from that moment on she has never looked back. My background is fine art and documentary film, which often feeds the ideas in our scripts.
No, it is never hard to let go of our films; after all, that’s why we make films. For an audience to be moved, affected, thrilled or challenged by our film is a fantastic experience for us—the best!
Famous Fred was Oscar nominated and The Canterbury Tales gained multiple nominations and won 3 Primetime Emmys. Does getting this type of recognition for your work add any extra pressure on you?
Not really. Being recognized by your peers and by audiences is a unique and very special privilege; and far from putting pressure on us, it encourages us to try and do something even more distinctive and memorable in our next project.
How much has your approach to your films changed since your debut?
Our approach to making films together has changed very little over the last 35 years. We have always worked very closely together from the day we first met, and we’ve always recognized each other’s strengths and capitalized on them. We try to say something significant, which we hope will appeal to a wide audience, regardless of their proclivities. Humour is an essential and major ingredient in our films.
Is there any advice you would offer an emerging filmmaker?
Stick to your principles, be creative, say something really personal, use observation as a major tool to inform your work, and don’t give up when the going gets really tough. If you go to college or film school, make sure you make a film there, however short. It will be your passport to success.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Affairs of the Art?
Perhaps not to be afraid of their own dreams, never give up on their ambitions and obsessions, and be as creative as they can be in whatever they do.