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David O'Reilly: The 'Wrist' Behind 'Son of Rambow'

Ellen Wolff talks to the animator/illustrator about his reversion to childhood in order to create the artwork for the highly anticipated indie film.


To create a young boy's scribbles in Son of Rambow, David O'Reilly had to unlearn years of art lessons to draw like a child. All images © 2008 by Paramount Vantage. Photo by Maggie Ferreira.

Illustrator/animator David O'Reilly remembers how he reacted to reading the script for Son of Rambow, the 2007 Sundance favorite that's being released today by Paramount Vantage. The script for this coming-of-age tale came to O'Reilly from writer/director Garth Jennings and his producer partner Nick Goldsmith of the London-based production company Hammer & Tongs. In Son of Rambow, two preteen boys watch a pirated copy of the Sylvester Stallone film Rambo: First Blood and decide to make their own camcorder action-epic -- stunts and all. One of the boys is from a puritanical family, and he uses the pages of a Bible to scribble his moviemaking fantasies -- an idea that sparked O'Reilly's own response to Garth Jennings' script.

"I was originally just asked to do the CG," O'Reilly recalls. "But I sent back the printed script with loads of drawings and flipbooks over the text. Garth liked them so much I got the job doing the actual props in the film. I was given free rein over the content of the drawings; Garth was remarkably open about it all. We didn't have the five-hour meetings you get at big studios. It was more like 'Hey Garth, I have this idea,' and his response was 'Great! Do it!'"

Jennings had good reason to trust the wrist -- and instincts -- of O'Reilly, who had previously created animation for Jennings' 2005 feature debut The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At that time, O'Reilly was working with the design group Shynola, which had hired him based on work done while he was still a student. The iconic animation in the film provided an ideal vehicle for the witty musings of the story's author, Douglas Adams, which were a key part of Hitchhiker's charm. O'Reilly notes that Jennings "had only heard of me as this hired animation gun brought in to do the complex work on Hitchhiker's. I actually met Garth through our mutual friend Adam Buxton, who wanted us to collaborate on a completely different project. We clicked immediately and around six months later we started talking about Son of Rambow."

O'Reilly's ability to work solo was essential, since this film was a labor of love with a budget that was a small fraction of what Jennings and Goldsmith had for Hitchhiker's. He set up shop on a barge in London alongside Hammer & Tongs and spent three or four months creating all the graphics, flipbooks and end credits for Son of Rambow. "It was great! You forget you're in the middle of London. Of course, we needed to be out on the waters so the authorities couldn't steal our ideas," he deadpans. The Irish-born O'Reilly, who moved to Berlin after finishing Son of Rambow, adds, "I have the same problem here. I keep tinted windows on my studio. You can't be too careful."

While O'Reilly regards the business side of moviemaking with a well-developed sense of irony, he's dead serious about the creative challenges. "My process is very different to how a studio works; it's probably more akin to making music. I don't draw a line between getting ideas, storyboarding and animating in 3D. Very often I do everything at once. For Son of Rambow specifically, I had to learn how to draw like a child, which took a few months of practice. I had to unlearn years of anatomy, perspective, line weight, composition and color theory.

"Children use very specific motifs and symbols in their drawing, which is exactly what you avoid when learning to draw classically. Nothing has perspective -- everything must be flattened and scaled in relation to its importance, and so on. I was slightly frustrated by the drawings the studio did for the poster. They feature a crudely drawn helicopter, but it uses foreshortening! This completely gives it away. If there's something I take pride in, it's keeping aesthetic consistency in each thing I do."

Looking back on the process, O'Reilly remarks, "I'm still recovering. Thanks Garth."

O'Reilly hopes that his work on Son of Rambow will lead to other feature film projects. "There are a lot of people doing animation solo right now, but not many that could deliver for the big screen. To be dreadfully honest, the living directors I respect are few in number. My problem is that I'd rather starve than do a job I don't fully believe in."

O'Reilly is mum on his technical methods, but alleges that he uses Japanese software Xdugef DesuDesuDesu, developed in the early '90s.

So O'Reilly is presently devoting most of his time to personal projects, including the often surreal short films that are winning praise on the festival circuit (and can be viewed on his website).

"I spend about 75% of my time on my own work. I'm currently developing a cartoon for the web called Please Say Something." This tale of a mouse and cat couple joins an oeuvre that includes RGB XYZ, Wofl, and Serial Entopics. "I wanted to learn about relationships for Please Say Something, so I read every book out there on the art of pick-up and ended up dating a lot of different girls out of curiosity. They're now my biggest distraction and it's twice as hard to get any work done. I guess it backfired."

O'Reilly is protective about discussing his technical methods, except to say he's a Mac user. When asked about his software tools, his answer is enigmatic. "I mainly use proprietary software called Xdugef DesuDesuDesu. It was developed in Japan in the early '90s. I believe only four other copies exist."

But he is very straightforward about discussing the path that got him to his current position, which includes enough commercial work that he can turn down jobs that are turn-offs. "I've never formally studied animation," O'Reilly admits. "Much of my success has been due to a small number of people who believe in me, Garth included. There are whispers of more work with Nick & Garth soon, so watch this space!"

In the meantime, don't look for O'Reilly at premieres for Son of Rambow or even at festivals that screen his short films. "I'm far too shy to go to screenings," he says. "It's hard to describe; I just can't bear to look at my work in front of a crowd like that. I wish it was an affectation. It's not!"

Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.