Interview with James Lowne

We spoke to James Lowne, winner of the Animate OPEN: Digitalis Jury Prize.


How did you come to make Someone behind the door knocks at irregular intervals? Was there something that prompted you, and/or specific themes you wanted to explore?

Just before I started Someone behind the door knocks at irregular intervals, I was embroiled in the very early stages of a much longer animated film. I felt that it wasn’t really looking how I wanted it to, so I decided to shelve it, but I was a bit frustrated because I still wanted to explore the aesthetic approach further.

I had been spending a bit of time down at the local pool using their ‘health suite’, and I found it an interesting place. Just a handful of people during the day. And it had this unique, short echoing acoustic quality to it, sounds all bleeding into each other. A place that could allow for contemplation, yet surrounded by a drab and very neutral interior, free from architectural distractions, very functional. And they had this big clock on the wall. It was set apart from everything else, and rested high above the floor. A benevolent alternative to the metropolitan portent.

I was surprised that no one had decided to put any pictures up on the walls. Something that interested me was the idea of contemplation and distraction, and how we relate to these contrasts in a world where images are heavily circulated. How we perceive this production line of conventional gestures that have been prepared, cropped and then framed for output. I also began to think about ideas non-activity, resting, whether these had been commodified, and the possibilities we have to engage with our natural, physical surroundings.

Which came first – the idea for the work, or the music track?

Well, for me, because of this very circulation of pictures, it feels like there’s one large overall context that allows this to happen, and I like to pluck images from this system and think about them differently. An image from a magazine, the internet or a TV show can resonate with ideas that I may be thinking about at the time. I was watching telly the other night and I saw an image of a light helicopter hovering over the landscape, and for some reason I instantly imagined it crashing into some nearby power cables, creating a great fire. I saw a tension with the proximity of the aircraft to the electric power lines. So this was a great idea for me and became a scene for the film I am making. Some pictures stay with you, and the personal dreams that they can evoke will make them radiant.

So I had this picture of a girl in the Jacuzzi at the leisure centre, maybe I was imagining myself as the girl. She was sitting in the Jacuzzi and the water was still, and that was it. She was doing nothing, just looking into the distance, and the longer the picture stayed with me I realised that she was contemplating, meditating perhaps.

Later on while I was trying to think what to work on my friend Ben played me a few instrumental songs he had been working on and one of them struck me a beautiful piece. I kept playing it over and over, I remember just laying on the floor of my front room listening to the track, and as I did the picture of the girl in the health suite kept appearing and it just seemed to fit perfectly.

You’re a musician yourself - does that influence the way you to use someone else’s music?

Definitely, yes. I would find it hard to work with a piece of music that I didn’t like, and being a fan of music I guess I can become quite critical. I have made lots of music myself, and as with any artistic practice it evolves and your attitudes towards the creative processes evolve too. I think after going to art college my thoughts about process heavily influenced the music I was making at the time. I was trying to apply concepts about visual art to music - seeing how I could become further removed from the making of the music and let mechanics and chance have a part to play. How also how one could detach oneself from the performance, assume another role perhaps. I think that good 'experimental' music works if it achieves a kind of freeing of the mind, allowing you to clearly perceive, outside of social constructs - a bit trippy I guess you could say! Having said that, I also think all music has a place and I am still a sucker for a good 'pop' song too. Music should also be about having fun.

The Jury was struck by the film’s very distinctive atmosphere, and a tension – with cinematic editing and framing. Is cinema a big influence – any particular films or directors?

I think cinema is a far greater influence than animation in fact. I have always been a fan of cinema, though never really a massive film buff, but certain genres had greater appeal to me. Horror would be a good example, particularly late seventies and eighties horror. Some of the directors like Argento, Romero and Fulci would be people that I would seek out on VHS when I was younger. Fulci was particularly intriguing with his gory films, with almost no character development and complete lack of narrative flow. Which I thought was great. The more unnatural the sense of the film in terms of depicting a plausible reality, the more convinced I was of the horror. The wooden acting, long pauses in dialogue, the obvious cut from real body parts to rubber limbs about to be decapitated, long close-up shots of faces trying to comprehend fear, often poorly acted, this made the form of the film for me, it evoked the dread.

Also I would watch a lot of the black and white matinees on the TV, films from the forties and fifties. I would watch these in fragments, often not knowing what the film was. But I loved the framing, the close-ups on the face, the facial expressions, still much more theatrical in those days, and the fact that it was a 4:3 aspect ratio really enhanced the picture. This is something that really only occurred to me when I started to learn about video production.

With regard to the narrative approach for Someone…, Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren was a huge influence. I love that film.

Did you explore animation at Central St Martin’s, or did it come later?

Animation wasn’t something I had ever considered, and before studying fine art I never thought it plausible that I could work with film and video. My main artistic practice was drawing and I still do this almost every day, I like to write too and this combination led me towards print making and that was the course I enrolled for. Print making, screen printing in particular, led me to making these kind of pastiche film posters where myself and a friend would act out the roles of the characters and document it and then screen print the poses onto seventies style graphic backdrops. The performance element soon became the focus of the work and the documentation onto video camera would became the principle material which would then be put into a visual context via editing.

After college I began working at a production company whilst at the same time focussing on music projects as my creative practice. It was at the company that I began to learn all about video post–production and computer animation. It was almost like another course in a way, which was great because I thought that I could use all these new skills to make art.

In Someone..., you’re exploring ways of using 3D software by trying to draw directly into the application “contrasting ideas of computer perfectionism and hand made”. How different is drawing in the computer to, er, ‘real’ drawing?

So this was the thing: I had learnt how to use all this software in a professional sense, more design based work, but I wanted to use it for art work. 3D computer graphics never really appealed to me but I thought there must be more ways to explore this digital stuff rather than just rendering perfect replicas of everyday objects. For me I use the term drawing broadly, it is the point of instant expression, very quick to make marks and convey thought, and I find this with writing phrases and word combinations too - free association. I wanted to find a way to get that connection with a computer, rather than just adjusting digital settings. I wanted to touch what was inside and move it about, paint into it. It took ages for me to find a way I was happy with. I find it also relates with contemporary music too in the transition from analogue audio effects to digital post effects. Both are valid mediums, but with analogue the effect is tangible, turning dials and altering the sound with movements of the whole hand, the fine increments determined by the hand position.

You make commercial and personal work. They’re very different ways of working – on one hand, you have to work to a brief, or animate someone else’s illustration..on the’re on your own! How do you negotiate that – do you see them as separate, or related..and how?

I don’t see any relationship between them. Thankfully I can detach the two. Commercial work I approach in a job like manner, and when I am working on a job for somebody I will always be thinking about ideas for my own work. I quite like to read a bit of theory and I use this time to focus on that too. I hope that doesn’t sound bad! I always try to take pride in whatever I do. I think.

Who are your influences or heroes/heroines – films, art, people?

This is always a tricky question. I go through phases of obsessing over some new artist or writer. I like to be introduced to new work, I buy lots of books and lots of records. Daily experience is a big influence. Maybe I can answer this in an adolescent, social networking kind of way with a list. I like lists.

Maya Deren, John Berger, Royal Trux, Stanely Kubrick, David Lynch, Cy Twombly, Will Oldham, Earth, BANK, Dada, Black Dice, Gary War, Philip K Dick, Barry Doupé, J G Ballard, Brian Eno, Electro Harmonix Memory Man audio effects pedal.