HYPE’s Marc Williams spoke with Extn.21’s creator, the acclaimed British animator Lizzie Oxby and discovered a rich creative talent.
You graduated from the RCA with an MA in Animation in 1996. How did you come to be involved in animation in the first place?
I came to animation slightly late. For my first degree, I studied illustration at Chelsea School of Art, a really open-minded course. I would always be experimenting with different techniques and mediums, from photography, illustration to creating models to communicate ideas. Animation was a natural progression as it embraced everything I enjoyed and brought my work to life.
Which animators and animations have impressed, inspired or influenced you?
The film-makers that impress me most are those who create visually inventive, distinct strong cinematic worlds, or atmospheres that engage me emotionally. The Quay Brothers have created some of my favourite animated films. Their models and atmospheric cinematography are always delicately refined and their work has a choreographic beauty. In Absentia is one of my favourites, it’s an intensely, electrifying film. Ah Pook is Here by Phil Hunt is another film I am fond of. In live-action I particularly like the work of David Lynch, Krystof Kieslowski, Jeunet/Caro, Hal Hartley and Donnie Darko is another extraordinary film. A lot of the films I like now incorporate animation with live action. Dad’s Dead by Chris Shepherd is a very bold hybrid film and has a contemporary feel.
The Quay brothers are good, aren’t they? How would your describe your films? Could you say something about the techniques you use and the themes in your films.
I usually start off with creating a world, a space for something to happen in and how people would react if they found themselves in that world. Not all my work is dark, it’s just that the films that have had most exposure mostly lean towards darker themes. I try and look out for the quirky or strange things in life too – a lot of my work grows from personal illustrations I draw in my sketchbooks or a situations that might arise around me. I also like to work with music. On trying to develop work, I often listen mood music to help me shape the world I’m trying to create, both music and sounds have strong influence on my work.
I try to select techniques that relate directly to the theme of the film. In Extn.21 for example the character feels like a trapped man. So I made him into a hybrid; he has a real head trapped on an inadequate body – a stop-frame animated puppet body. The film centres around his state of mind, his inability to separate real from fantasy and so the technique paralleled this idea. Technically speaking, I would have also been severely restricted if I used a model puppet head, as the subtle nuances of human, facial expression wouldn’t have been possible. I needed a human ‘thinking’ head. So by combining the live-action head with the puppet body it seemed to give the film’s central theme more strength.
Most independent animators seem to do a variety of work apart from make their own films. What other projects/work have been involved in?
For broadcast I have made some promos and idents (MTV). I find music led work provides a wonderful template to choreographing the flow of moving images and setting moods. I made a fully animated promo for a drum and bass artist called Adam F (EMI Records) using mixed media and recently completed a music promo for an Icelandic band called Mum (FatCat Records) which combined live actors in miniature model sets and CGI environments.
I have also been fortunate to take my film work into live theatre. I co-directed and co-created a play for the stage called ‘Catch Your Breath’ with a theatre company called Theatre Rites (Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith). The play incorporated live puppet work with projections and physical performers. (I also studied classical dance for 14 years, and although my dance days are long gone, I found having a dance background helpful with analysing movement and choreography for both animation/camera work and live-theatre work).
Another collaboration I enjoyed, was working with a collective of performers/musicians called Readymade. I was free to write imaginary short film scenes to early drafts of music they had composed. They then completed their music by incorporating the scenes into each piece whilst I went onto illustrate each piece for their CD covers. In fact it was here I first wrote and illustrated a story about a fictitious man called Orman, which is the name of the character in Extn.21.
I find working in illustration, theatre and music healthy, as it cross-fertilizes into my film work – it keeps feeding and enriching what’s possible and keeps me thinking laterally. Being somewhere between live-action and animation is very interesting place to be.
I also teach animation and film across the School of Theatre at Wimbledon School of Art in London.
You received funding from Channel 4 and MOMI. Under that scheme you had to work in a glass booth observed by the public. How did it go? You were working on Extn. 21 at the time. Do the working conditions influence the work?
It could be considered that some animators find it intrusive being inside the glass booth, especially as most animators tend to work in isolation. However, I liked the fact that you always had company, albeit behind a glass screen – it was nice to feel the presence of people around you.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
I relish having free-time to develop my sketchbook ideas. Lately, I’ve been self-learning new software so I can test new ideas and techniques and help with executing new projects. I hope to bring more of my illustration work to life. I also try to get to the cinema as frequently as I can. Being in a dark theatre, catching up on films I may have missed out on is always something to look forward to, and finish reading books.
Have you visited Japan before? How do you feel about coming to the Hiroshima Animation festival?
Sadly, I am now unable to make it to the festival. I am disappointed as I’d so like to visit Japan. I hope that I can make it to Hiroshima one day as it is a place I would so like to come to, and the festival has such a very high standing in the world of animated festivals.
Any thoughts on Japanese animation?
I’m not that familiar with Japanese animation but there’s a brilliant film called Atama Yama by Koji Yamamura , which is extremely entertaining. Every time I watch it, I see more and more in it and the narrator’s voice is so expressive.
Atama Yama was shown here in 2002. I think everyone loved it. What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I have illustration work (I’m researching Japanese optical art for one of the illustrations!) for an Autumn/Winter touring play, produced by ENO/Lyric Theatre.
Thanks very much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Marc Williams – HYPE – GetHiroshima – Japan