There are films that have blitzed my senses into giddy, drunken stupors of delirium and bewilderment, riotous exhalings of creativity, desperation, and experimentation. Too often, these voices expire as rapidly as they respired, brief greetings before vanishing into the crowded darkness. One of the first animation films to short circuit me was Hilary by then Royal College of Art graduate, Anthony Hodgson.
There are films that have blitzed my senses into giddy, drunken stupors of delirium and bewilderment, riotous exhalings of creativity, desperation, and experimentation. Too often, these voices expire as rapidly as they respired, brief greetings before vanishing into the crowded darkness.
There’s no point lamenting. It is what it is. We all go hoping.
One of the first animation films to short circuit me was Hilary by then Royal College of Art graduate, Anthony Hodgson. It was 1995. Annecy. Satie inspired piano notes. A man plays. A boy sits on the floor nearby banging his toy. Quietly annoyed, the man puts his young daughter to bed. As the man takes the girl to his room, he tells her the sad story of a feckless woman (the girl's Mom? the girl's future?)) named Hilary. Technically unpolished, this dark, moving, and absurd dreamscape danced awkwardly on the screen. I sat mesmerized by the crisp Hal Hartleyesque dialogue and the beautifully detached voice born of cross breeding Sterling Hayden with Martin Donovan.
A year later, Hodgson returned with Combination Skin, a beautifully painful film (that clearly influenced Suzie Templeton's Stanley and Dog) about a woman who prattles on at her impassive, disinterested young son in the reptile room of a zoo.
After that, silence...
It's been more than 15 years since Anthony Hodgson made Combination Skin. Using my Columbo-like detective skills, I spent minutes tracking Hodgson via google to find out what the hell happened to him.
What did you do after graduating from RCA?
I worked at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. They had a thing they ran with Channel 4 Television - you had to animate your film in a glass walled room for three months as a kind of living exhibit. Then Channel 4 would commission the film and you'd make it properly at a real studio with an actual budget, which is how I made Combination Skin.
After that I wrote a little for children's television. And I had a commission from the BBC to write a 30-minute short, which I did, and they didn't like it. And then I ran out of money. So when DreamWorks offered me a job animating on Antz, I took it. That was in 1997. My plan was to return to England after Antz. But I was enjoying myself at Dreamworks, I loved living in San Francisco, and then I met my wife, so I stayed. Since then I've worked on Shrek, Sinbad, Shrek2, Madagascar, Shrek3, Shrek the Halls, Madagascar 2, Megamind, and Madagascar 3.
Did you originally plan of making your own films after graduating or did you know that that might be the end of the road for that kind of filmmaking?
While I was at the RCA I presumed it would be my last opportunity to make a film. That's why there is so much stuff going on in Hilary - I wanted to try everything before it was too late. College certainly was a luxury. The whole of the second year at the RCA I was making Hilary. Most of the time was spent building the sets and the puppets. I was in the Industrial Design department for a long time constructing armatures out of bits of bicycle chain and ball bearings. Filming took about 12 weeks. I didn't have any kind of video assist, so I had no idea what the animation looked like until the film was developed. I never re-shot anything (clearly). There was just one scene that was too awful to put in the film. It was supposed to be the opening establishing shot, tracking down the street. But I couldn't get the camera move to work - I was nudging a 16mm Bolex along on a bit of home-made wooden track. It was supposed to zoom in on a specific window, but I kept missing the window or screwing up the focus. So I cut the shot. The film is better without it anyway.
Back then I wasn't really interested in being an animator. And I didn't think I would ever be good enough to earn a living at it. I wanted to be a writer. Making animated films was just a convenient way for me to tell stories.
What are the roots of Hilary?
I wanted to write a monologue, something like Alan Bennett's television series Talking Heads. But I didn't want to just animate a talking head, so I made the visual aspects of the film be a series of metaphors for what is going on in the monologue. Mostly they are kind of dumb, obvious metaphors, but I thought that was funny.
For a while I was writing it like a traditional fairy tale, and for a day I tried doing it in rhyming couplets like an Edward Gorey book. Eventually I settled on the device of a father telling his daughter a bedtime story, because that enabled me to have all the crazy stuff going on around them as if she was kind of half listening to what he was saying and half falling asleep and dreaming about it. That's my interpretation of the film. I don't know if other people have other interpretations. I don't really mind. I liked the idea of him telling the rather tragic story of their lives, and her not really paying attention because she's too young to understand. It seemed wonderfully sad to me.
The actual content of the monologue I was just making up as I went along. I was putting words together and keeping the ones that made me laugh. And eventually a story emerged.
What are you up to these days?
I am still a Supervising Animator at DreamWorks. I'm working in pre-production for Peabody & Sherman, which is scheduled for release in 2014. I've also been trying to make my own short film at DreamWorks for several years, but I haven't managed it yet.
Recently I've been doing a bit of stop-motion in our garage. And some drawn animation on a Nintendo DSi.
It's been more than 15 years since you made Hilary, how do you feel about the film looking back?
The animation is obviously pretty dodgy, but I like to think that adds to its charm. I still like the story, and John Woodvine's fantastic voice. It still feels quite original to me, although when I watch it I can see influences from the writers and filmmakers that I loved at the time - Mark Baker, the Brother Quay, Aardman, Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood, Mike Leigh, Oliver Postgate. I am still a massive fan of Postgate's Smallfilms.
When I finished Hilary I had no idea if it was any good or not. The first time I watched it with an audience was at our graduation show, and it was a great relief when everyone laughed in the right places. The RCA made prints and sent it out to the festivals, which is how DreamWorks saw it at the Ottawa Animation Festival - which is how I got my job. I think I was very fortunate. I had never animated with a computer, and I was not a good stop-motion animator. I guess there wasn't as much competition back then.
Hilary gets a few hits each week on Vimeo, and occasionally someone will leave a comment about how they saw it years ago and enjoyed it and were happy to find it again. That's very nice.
Do you have any regrets about not making more personal films?
It was always my intention to make more personal films, and I have tried, but obviously not hard enough. I don't know nearly enough about all the aspects of computer animation to make a film on my own, and getting support for something so time consuming is difficult. In hindsight I can see I should have continued making my films in stop-motion, because in stop-motion I can do pretty much everything myself. The results might be clunky, but a clunky looking finished film is a million times more impressive than a gorgeous looking unfinished one.
One problem is that I'm lazy and I haven't had a good deadline. Another is that I started to enjoy my day job, and my life in general. It's a cliché, but I think art is a lot easier to create when you're poor and lonely and don't have anything better to do.