Chris Robinson gives a two fer one special in this months Animators Unearthed, digging up Chris Shepherds Who I Am and What I Want and Silence is Golden.
Its not unusual to receive multiple festival submissions from an animator, but it is a surprise when both are strong works. Thats the case this year with British animator, Chris Shepherd. The director of the deliciously dark Dads Dead (hows that for some awesome alliteration) recently completed Who I Am and What I Want, a hilarious and disturbing scribble film about a fucked up guy in denial named Pete made in collaboration with Scottish artist, David Shrigley and Silence is Golden, a live-action/animation hybrid about a young boy, his boozer mom and their crazy old neighbor.
The idea of collaborating with Shrigley began in 1998 when Shepherd was working on the British sketch TV show, Big Train. I read a book by David called, Why We Got the Sack from the Museum, recalls Shepherd. It reminded me of school. I got in trouble one time for drawing all over the walls of the sixth form common room. These drawings did not get me top marks. Obscenity was not in fashion then. The headmaster was not happy, he said Id blown my chances of being the head boy and I was heading straight to the chicken giblet factory to be a packer when I left school. Thank you sir. Davids book spoke volumes to me, the rawness of it took me back to those school days.
Shepherd then asked Shrigley if he wanted to collaborate on an animation film. Shrigley agreed and then the two artists spent the next five years talking about it. Finally, Shrigley showed Shepherd his book, Who I Am and What I Want, and both agreed that the story should be the basis for the film.
Shrigley, though, didnt just send his story to Shepherd and be done with it, the two collaborated on every aspect of the production. We bounced the script between us via email trying to make the book work as a film. We decided early on that we would use a voice over and not have written text in picture. Once we were happy with the script I did a rough animatic and from that David drew a kit of parts for me: a page of street furniture, trees, people, etc. From this we built a world for Pete to live in. So a lot of what you see in the film is Davids original drawings.
Complementing Shrigleys perfectly primitive drawings is the narration of actor Kevin Eldon. Eldons machine gun pace and smartass tone not to forget Shrigleys sharp, sparse text are key to the films success. David was originally going to do the voice himself, says Shepherd. I kept thinking back to when I was on Big Train and a sketch where Kevin Eldon played the Devil working in an office where Jesus was his boss. His character was quite belligerent. His voice was in my head when we read through the script. We both thought Kevin was the right choice. It was clever the way Kevin played Pete. An educated man in a state of total denial. Like hes holding in all of the madness. An academic on the verge of a mental breakdown. You could have played him as the crazy man, but we both knew that could have been a big mistake.
Silence is Golden emerged from a very different background. I tend to be a bit of a magpie, I use elements from my youth in my work, but I mix everything up, stories people tell me, things Ive overheard on the bus. Im a very nosy person. I dont wear a watch as I figure I then have an excuse to look into peoples living room. Ive seen all kinds of things that way.
While Silence is Golden is predominantly live action, the animation plays a pivotal role in the film as a stand-in for young Billys lively imagination. I like people and the real world. I also like imagining stuff in the context of everyday settings. So its natural for me to mix live action with animation. In Silence, its all Billys about fantasies. The world inside Billys head was like a 70s episode of Doctor Who, although maybe its a bit darker than what you might see on the telly.
In contrast to Dads Dead, I wanted all of the fantasies to be realistic, thats the way I imagine things. We went to great lengths to achieve this. For example, the scene where the Moonies get fried, I got hold of a flame thrower that could fire flame 30 feet and filmed all of the flames the way you see them in the film. A lot of things were blown up in that shoot.
Animation festivals are notoriously anal about hybrid films (even Ottawa), but that doesnt worry Shepherd. Its a bit early to tell what will happen with Silence yet. Films tend to find their own audiences. When I made Dads Dead I figured everyone would hate it, but to my surprise both live-action and animation festivals went for it. Who I Am appeals to a different bunch again. Silence is Golden will no doubt attract a different bunch again.
All three of Shepherds films have been dark portraits of a fucked up side of humanity. These are subjects that few animators are willing to tackle. It is changing to a degree, but for the most part, animators wanted to make precious films about the beauty of life. Thats not a bad thing, but ya cant see the light without the dark. We live in a world that is increasingly fragmented, isolated and discontent. Is animation adequately reflecting this state or living in a rose-colored hippy world filled with good talk?
Sometimes bad things can be beautiful or poetic, says Shepherd, finally able to get a word in. Its one thing to try ignoring bad stuff, but dont we all want to know why it happens? What makes people tick? I figure thats what writers like Hubert Selby Jr. do. They make us understand the reason for the bad things. Those stories are quite often the ones that interest me. The main thing for me is that I try not to judge the characters in my films; I like to show the story and let the audience decide if they are good or bad. Its not my place to judge people.
Yeah well okay, its my place then. Who I Am, in particular, is a savage excavation of a seemingly decent normal guy that certainly resembles some of the characters of the very fine writings of Hubert Selby (notably The Room, probably his most disturbing book). Shepherds films fall in the ranks of other animated poets of the darkness like Andreas Hykade, JJ Villard, Phil Mulloy and Michele Cournoyer. They take us to worlds that we dont want to see, but need to see.
Unlike me, Chris Shepherd isnt a miserable guy. I dont want the readers to get a wrong impression. I like a laugh and who knows one day I might tell a hippy dippy love story you can never tell.
So be it. Hippies or Hipsters, Jesus or Satan, Dylan or Timberlake, the road from darkness to light and light to darkness is one and the fucking same, mate.
Chris Robinson has been with the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1991. A noted animation critic, curator and historian, he has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. His acclaimed OIAF programming has been regarded as both thoughtful and provocative. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the Presidents Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation.
His books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHLs First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze.
An anthology of Robinsons Animation Pimp columns will be published in 2006. He is working on Fathers of Night, a novel about angels, devils and everything in-between. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly and sons Jarvis and Harrison.