World Magazine, Issue 2.11, February 1998
Boldly Throwing Down the Gauntlet
by Barry J.C. Purves
Editor's Note: In the April 1996 issue of Animation World Magazine, Barry Purves brought us, "The Emporer's New Clothes." Nearly two years later Barry's article is still one of the most popular. With his latest installment we find that maybe he's not a Luddite after all.
Download a Quicktime movie clip from Barry Purves' most recent
short film, Achilles. © 1995 Bare Boards/Channel 4.
Just what has Barry Purves been doing for the last
two years? Swimming with dolphins in Australia,
among other things!
Photo courtesy of and © Barry Purves.
"Hey, didn't you used to be in animation?"
"I still am....it's the animation that got...computerized!"
Apologies to Norma Desmond, but that was the rough theme of the last article I wrote here, nearly two years ago. I'd just returned to England after the unique experience that was Mars Attacks! and was facing a struggle to get established and funded in the UK again. In some respects, things have not changed. In practical terms, the only animation I have done has been as an `understudy' covering animators on holidays and such. I have written and developed about ten films, and though there is interest in some, nothing specific has been signed and sealed. I am itching to get behind a camera again.
But fear not, this article will hopefully not be as bitter or as angry as the last one. Two years has given me plenty of time to be philosophical about all the changes around me. Norma Desmond may never have worked again in the `new' sound era, and who knows, I may never get to direct and animate puppets again in this new `CG' era, but at least I have admitted that CG animation is pretty damn amazing. There are things being produced that really could not be done with puppets; Jurassic Park - The Lost World, Alien: Resurrection and Men in Black bear witness to that. Titanic is the perfect example of breathtaking CG effects working for a film and not the other way around.
Room for CG
Given the chance I would not say `no' to working with CG characters. (Hey, I would not say `no' to working!) I certainly would not have said that two years ago, when I was totally haughty about CG. The main reason for this change of attitude is that this spectacular hiatus in my career has given me the chance to accept some very generous offers to go `round the world doing talks, workshops and being on the jury of many festivals. One of these offers came from Blue Sky in New York. Very kindly, Henry Anderson asked me to lead some acting classes with his computer class. In return, I got to spend some time working closely with his CG animators on Alien: Resurrection. I clearly had the better bargain there. This was a real Road to Damascus conversion for me, as I could see that the animators and I shared the same goal, which was to get a good acting performance out of the characters. We may have shared the same goal, but not the same language. Terms tripped easily off their tongues and had me rushing to my CG translation dictionary! I did feel very at home at this studio, unlike another nameless studio, who seemed overjoyed at having spent months developing the software to reproduce the exact texture of a pencil. "Hang on a minute," I felt like saying. What was wrong with the pencil itself?
So, I have generally come to the conclusion that it is horses for courses. The wonderful characters in James and the Giant Peach would not have worked as well in CG, and I don't think after Jurassic Park that we can, or should, ever accept a model animated dinosaur again. The only worry is if CG becomes the exclusive form of animation. Perhaps, it's as easy as saying CG is good for making the fantastic seem real, whereas puppets are more suited for making the fantastic seem credible, which is not the same at all.
Barry with a student, one of many to which he has taught the
craft of stop-motion animation in workshops and seminars
around the world. Photo courtesy of and © Barry Purves.
Time for Teaching
Whether I can find a place in the CG world I don't know, but in the last two years I have had great satisfaction from doing an enormous amount of teaching in various film and art colleges around the world. I certainly enjoy working with students and enjoy their response, but I am constantly alarmed by the lack of any real tuition that is evident in some colleges. Some students looked at me blankly as I spoke about single frame and film grammar. Too often I have seen the pressure on the students to churn out a film, any film. Sadly, more often than not, the films are a disaster because there has been so little preparation and nothing has been thought through. All the storyboards that are proudly shown to me have been masterpieces of graphic design, but contain no graphical information about the film and are certainly not useful in getting the film made. I can't help feeling that the emphasis is drastically wrong in many schools. In the rush to make a film to impress their tutors, the students do not have the time or patience to learn the very basic skills of animation and film grammar. As a future employer I would without a doubt choose a student who had made a small, simple film that was told concisely and clearly, over a student who had made a complex, ambitious film that failed to communicate anything.
Leaving these film schools, I always feel a little sad and mean-spirited that after their generosity in getting me there, all I can do is criticize the way things are run. Too often the fault lies with the economics of the set up, but often the fault lies with the tutors whose lack of enthusiasm equals their lack of knowledge. I may not have anything startlingly original or informative about animation to give to students, but what I do say, I say with real passion and enthusiasm. I know that this is contagious and gets the students worked up. It's the passion that I have yet to find in a school. Once I'm on the plane back to England, I fear things may go a little flat. I know I'm no Jean Brodie going `round inspiring everyone I meet, but I think I can get students excited about what they are doing. I can also give students an insight to the realities, pressures and responsibilities of animation production. Unfortunately many colleges seem to be in Cloudcuckooland and in no way prepare the students for the real, practical world of animation. A half-finished degree film is not, as some students are encouraged to believe, an instant passport to a successful career.
However it is all very well for me to breeze into a college and be full of energy, wit and wisdom for a few days, then disappear. To actually train up three model animators in twelve weeks as Cosgrove Hall Films in Manchester asked me to do last autumn, was another thing all together. The three animators that passed the auditions had a little experience, but had got into all manner of lazy habits and ill-advised short cuts. They were very eager to get working with decent and sophisticated puppets, but I had to temper their impatience. For the first four weeks, we went right back to square one and worked only with a cube of wood and a bendy pipe cleaner mastering the very essential and basic skills, which is not something I had seen in any of the colleges I'd visited. Without the pressure of a big Degree show, the animators were able to experiment and could afford to get things wrong in order to find out why things do or do not work. At the end of the twelve weeks, I was very pleased with their progress, especially when they were immediately given a year's contract on a prestigious television series. One animator was so thrilled that he immediately went on holiday and broke his wrist snowboarding!
Funding My Own
I have been asked to do another course, which is useful financially, but this is not exactly where I'd seen myself heading. The irony of my situation was brought home to me by going to see a revival of A Chorus Line, when the lead character of Cassie sings, "God, I'm a dancer - a dancer dances! I don't want to teach people to do what I should be doing." The further irony was that her character had been in her business for nineteen years and she had not danced in two years. I could match those statistics exactly. Cassie, not good enough to be a star, but too different to be in the chorus, does not get a part in the show...
This was all a bit painful and spurred me on with even more determination and energy to get funding for any of the dozen or so projects I have written in the last two years. I've hardly been idle in pursuing the funding, but constant rejection is somewhat wearing. All these shouts of how well the British film industry is doing, seem to ring a little hollow when I look back at my and many of my contemporaries' last two years. I have been fortunate enough to team up with a new producer [Chris O'Hare] who has financially supported me through this rather bleak period. He has also pushed my work around to the various studios and television companies and we do have various exciting irons in the fire; but when one will happen, I do not know. Hopefully, we have a short film for Channel Four that may happen this year.
Barry Purves with Ray Harryhausen at the
Masters of Animation conference in Seattle, 1997.
Photo courtesy of and © Barry Purves.
Take A Risk!
Of all the projects that we have been pushing, it is interesting to see the more adventurous ones get rejected straight away. Of course I realize that animation is impossibly expensive, and recouping the budget both risky and slow, but it is terrifying to see the lack of risks being taken in animation features. I raised some fuss last year for daring to criticize [Disney's] The Hunchback of Notre Dame as being a light travesty of Victor Hugo's dark novel. The film was magnificent to look at and listen to, but it had little to do with Hugo. The point I argued then was, `If the novel is deemed as unsuitable for a family audience, please don't bring in the singing gargoyles and a happy ending. You are being unfair to the original and anybody who will eventually read the book.'
If I'm being honest now, it is not so much the meddling with the original that upsets me. After all, I did watch all the marvelous Steve Reeves Hercules movies, and they, like Disney, played somewhat free with Greek myths. The more worrying idea is that young and family audiences are being patronized and deemed to be unable to cope with anything of any substance or darkness or anything vaguely cultural. In trying to sell my various projects, I have had conversations that I have not believed: Tchaikovsky's music for The Nutcracker has been deemed too difficult for children, Gilbert and Sullivan too unfamiliar, Hans Andersen too dark and sophisticated and a music drama by Benjamin Britten about Noah, written specifically for ten year-olds, far too adult. I cannot believe that to watch and appreciate an animated feature, it is necessary to undergo some sort of cultural castration. It's odd that in a theater, where the running time is longer than a feature and the whole experience requires more concentration, children will sit with their mouths open watching the basically plotless The Nutcracker, totally entranced, their attention held and loving every note of the music. I have seldom seen an empty seat in a theater where The Nutcracker or any of the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals were playing.
It really does seem as if producers can think only of entertainment and merchandise (and not always in that order). Is it not possible to make a film that not only entertains, but can also inspire, stimulate, engage and have some substance and innovation? I still think the most perfect family film of recent years was Babe. With special effects secondary to the wonderful characters and plot, the film did not shy away from the darker issues, and, amazingly, had a wonderful soundtrack that included Bizet and Camille Saint-Saens. I wonder if Saint-Saens was mentioned at the early stage of planning. I have certainly heard many a child singing that tremendously infectious melody.
It does worry me that animated features are not taking the chances that other art forms clearly are. How I would love to see an animated feature that took a classic and reinvented it with startling innovation and, whilst being true to the original, still manages to bring new meaning and depth to it. This doesn't mean cheapening the original, just bringing fresh eyes to it. Recent examples that have knocked me for six have been Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake with male swans, Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls, the revamped Broadway Chicago, all of Sondheim's works especially Into the Woods and the Royal National Theatre's Peter Pan. All of these have taken very familiar stories and produced them as if they had never seen them before, and all of them made perfect sense. I'm looking forward to seeing the Broadway [production] The Lion King, which seems to have broken new ground. If only there was an animated feature that could dare to be as adventurous with its narration, design, sophistication and substance as these productions. Disney's amazing Hercules was quite a radical departure, but I fear the Greeks got a little lost on the way.
The New Year
So, two years on and I'm still prattling on about quality and standards in animation, but whether I have any room to say anything, I don't know. It is not me, after all, who is getting any films made. There must be a lesson for me to learn there. Maybe, I should just take the first thing offered, shut up and get on with it. Sadly, I would find it difficult to get excited about a project such as was offered to me recently: a company approached full of praise for my previous work and wanted me to do a pop video along the same lines. They did not have an idea of a theme or style, nor a practical budget, but they did want three and a half minutes of detailed animation delivered within as many weeks. Reluctantly, I turned it down, but I'm sure someone has been able to churn something out. Then the, `Well, if they can do it for so little money and time, why can't you?' begins.
I have no idea what will happen this year, but I have to move forward. Hopefully, I will get one of my films going. If not, I will have to diversify; already I have come up against the, `But can you work with or direct people?' syndrome, as if nineteen years of experience counts for nothing. I would love to write a book or present a documentary about animation; anything where I can express my passion for animation and do something as an outlet for all the frustrated creativity that is building up inside me.
It has, without a doubt, been a very difficult couple of years for me, both in terms of my finances and my morale. On top of all this, I suffered a devastating personal tragedy that colored everything. There were times when things were really touch and go. However, I've still got that British stiff upper lip and I'm optimistic about this year - there are projects slowly bubbling away. It is ironic that just as life really has given me something to talk about in a film, I don't have the means to express myself.
Yes, I know I've grumbled a lot, but there really have been some tremendous moments. I have met some wonderful people from around the world. I still find it hard to believe that my few, short, small films could be responsible for me swimming with dolphins in Australia, being adopted by Carmen Miranda's lovely sister, Aurora, in Rio, dancing with Maori drag queens in New Zealand, and being on the same panel as Henry Selick and Ray Harryhausen at a Masters of Animation weekend in Seattle. It is enormously satisfying to have some of my films on various exam syllabus's around the world, to have students writing their thesis on "Sexuality in the Work of Barry Purves" and to have people familiar with my films wherever I've been. I just wish I could have the chance to make more films and to stop having to rely on what has gone before.
P.S. Since writing the above article, I have been lucky enough to catch The Lion King on Broadway, and, boy, did my heart leap as high as those gazelles. Surely there has never been a big commercial musical so inventive, so wittily designed, nor so respectful of its' ethnic origins. Most of the theatrical tricks, and there are dozens of them, are not particularly new, having taking inspiration from ancient Japanese theater, Balinese shadow puppets, and even English folk traditions, but they have never been drawn together like this to create something so new. It is a real innovative hymn to the imagination. I shall not forget the sight of two giraffes walking calmly onto the open stage dominated by a blood red sun. Let's hope that four years from now, on arriving in any foreign city, we are not forced to sigh a weary sigh when confronted with yet another scaled down bus and truck tour of The Lion King, or any of the inevitable rip off productions. Let's hope instead that producers will be inspired enough to take equally imaginative risks and break new ground with where The Lion King started - the animated feature.
(....and if anyone happened to be asking, yes, I do happen to have a script that could pick up the gauntlet that I have rather boldly thrown down!)
Barry Purves is a Manchester-based filmmaker. Through his production company, Bare Boards Productions, he has directed several stop-motion animated films and commercials, including Next, Screen Play, Rigoletto and Achilles.
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