British Shorts Berlin 2019
Drama / Comedy / Animation / Experimental / Fantasy / Thriller
Fri 18.1. 23:00 / Sputnik Kino 1
A day at the beach takes a gruesome turn when triplets Lily, Milly and Billy attempt a prank on their
grumpy ol' dad.
Hi Ben, thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for British Shorts 2019?
My pleasure. Very happy to be screening at British Shorts again, they have a fantastic line-up this year.
Do you ever get any nerves ahead of a festival screening?
As my films are all meant to be funny I suppose I get a bit anxious that people won't respond to them, adorable rascal that I am. This film is sort of faux-funny for the first minute and a bit before it turns a corner and reveals its true nature, so when I've seen it with audiences it's always a bit tense at the start and a relief when they warm to it. So far I've never been to any screenings where it's bombed...I hope I didn't just jinx that.
What was your first film festival experience like?
As far as this film goes the first one I managed to get to was a few months into its run at Encounters, here in my hometown of Bristol. It got two screenings and went down encouragingly well, one guy came up to me and actually got emotional about it which was nice but a bit of a head-scratcher.
If you meant my first ever film festival I don't recall which one it was but it would have been back in '06/'07 I reckon, as an audience member. I was just learning animation and remember finding some of the films to be really high-quality and intimidating, but then every once in a while there'd be a film that got in that was pretty mediocre and clearly just there for filler. A light bulb pinged on - "I can make mediocre filler too!" - that ethos helped get my old student film across the finish line and I've been knocking out filler for over a decade now!
How does it feel to be at the festival with Sunscapades?
I'm feeling very appreciative toward all the festivals who are taking a punt on it as it's a bit of a hard sell (it's no huge secret that a lot of festivals sneer at films that lie more on the 'cartooney' end of the animation spectrum), but I have a special soft spot for festivals that have screened other films of mine in the past, as British Shorts have.
Tell me a little bit about Sunscapades how did this project come about?
I think I started with the main gag of the film, three kids playing a prank on their dad that backfires horribly, as a series of notebook doodles and built the film outward from there. I had wanted to do something that evoked a very specific area of kids' shows I enjoyed growing up, the ones that sort of assaulted you with a rapid succession of loud voices and cartoon violence before ending abruptly and leaving you feeling a bit rattled. Bob Camp and several other Ren & Stimpy directors were major ports of call in that regard, as well as Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken. I've been asked if this is meant to be a pilot but it was conceived as a standalone short - I was mainly going for the feeling of stumbling across something unusual on an old VHS tape, a show that may have existed but without much by way of context.
What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Sunscapades to life?
Probably finding the time to do it. There was a big chunk of at least six months in 2017 where I had to just put it away as I was on a job with a huge commute. I also had a wedding coming up, so any available spare time went toward screaming at venue managers over the phone about corkage. Some projects get stalled like that and you go to pick them up again and the enthusiasm for them is just gone, so having to take so much time off it was a concern. Fortunately in this case I slid back into it pretty easily once the time had freed up and it got done by early 2018.
How important is the collaborative process for you?
For a project like this it was a hugely important. There have been other films where the ideas are so simple that I can more or less knock them out on my own - my last film didn't even have backgrounds - but for this to capture that Saturday morning cartoon feel I needed a few people to help out. I worked mainly with Weird Eye Collective who are three amazing ladies that really elevated the overall look and feel of the film, especially when it came to the voice acting and the painterly look to the backgrounds. Those were mostly done by Hannah Stevens from Weird Eye and a brilliant UWE student called Carwyn David did the really detailed close-up shots. I also usually take on all the music for my films but in this one I needed something a little broodier to go against my goofier music cues and really downshift the mood at a crucial point. The first person on my wishlist for that was a composer called Phil Brookes who'd worked on some films I love, fortunately he was available and nailed what I was after in one pass.
Have you always been interested in animation?
I think as a kid being an animator was something I saw myself doing but in the same sense that I saw myself being a Ghostbuster or astronaut; it was more of a fantasy idea. I think rekindling a passion for it as an art form came from studying design in uni which then branched off into mograph, then eventually I did character animation and storytelling for my MA. Certainly if anything I've done as an adult hearkens back to my earliest interest in animation it would be this film.
How much has your approach to your work changed since your debut short film?
The main difference is I try to be as active as possible as far as soliciting feedback at all stages of production, so I showed the animatic to a bunch of people whose opinions I valued to cut the deadwood out early on. Then near the end when I'd become blind to what worked and what didn't I sent out rough cuts to another group of people who I knew wouldn't pull any punches. Some of the feedback stings a little in the moment, especially when it confirms what you already suspect and you have to go back and redo a segment (or remove it entirely), but the film is far tighter as a result.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?
Don't necessarily worry about getting all the funding in place before you start - the main currency in this indie world is time, and even doodling a thumbnail board when you have a free afternoon can go a long way toward getting a film off the ground. Also don't take rejection personally, especially in this day and age when festivals are more inundated with films to sift through than ever. I've been on that side of the looking glass as a curator myself and not being selected doesn't necessarily mean your work is bad, it's just that programming space is limited; certainly the days of mediocre filler are behind us now that filmmakers have so many submission platforms available to them.
For a more general overview when it comes to standing out as an animation filmmaker I'd suggest checking out my book 'Independent Animation: Developing, Producing and Distributing Your Animated Films' - it's full of advice and first-hand experiences collated from some hugely inspiring indie animators the world over.
What are you currently working on?
These days I do commissioned animation and also teach part-time as well as managing the animation resource Skwigly, so there are always irons in the fire. As far as personal creative projects go, the end of last year was pretty full-on so I'm taking a bit of a break and having some 'me' time. I've been reliably informed that I don't improve with acquaintance, so I anticipate I'll have had enough of me by the Spring and will probably start a new film around then. It'll either be about birds, bullies, speed-dating or mayonnaise, I haven't decided which.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from your work?
Always check the label.