Interview with Stephen Irwin on Horse Glue

Stephen Irwin talks about his two macabre monochrome animations - Horse Glue and The Black Dog's Progress. The interview was conducted for the launch of Horse Glue's online exhibition in November 2010.


Horse Glue is two films that play at the same time, in a kind of battle - was that idea was prompted by anything in particular?

I was trying to remember the other day - itís been such a long process. Itís not a commissioned film, and I think I started it in early 2009 and then worked on it whenever I had a chance, in between paid jobs.

Glue started out as an adaptation of the Babes in the Wood, but I got bored with the idea of doing a straight adaptation and it just started to change and other things came in. It became an installation proposal too.

Basically, all of last year it was just going through these different stages and at some point another film that I was working on - that became Horse - mixed in with it.

So were they both just there as separate things on your desktop?

Yes. They were both separate story ideas, separate treatments. Though Glue was much more developed, because Iíd been wanting to do a Babes in the Wood story for a long time. Horse wasnít nearly as developed, and it was a much more simpler story as well.

Were you going back forth between them and one day you thought ďWellÖĒ Ė were they not working on their own or was it that they were taking time?

Horse definitely wasnít working, and with Glue, for a long time it was just The Babes in the Wood, and at some point it just started to go off in its own different direction.

I wanted more of a concept Ė as with The Black Dogís Progress Ė the question was how to design a narrative kind of idea. I started to think of concepts, because it was taking such a long time to put together, and it just keeps me interested if thereís a concept. I didnít know how to do it. I didnít know how to do The Black Dogís Progress when I started it - but figuring it out as I go along keeps me interested for six months or soÖ

The concept of The Black Dogís Progress is that the entire narrative is always sort of present within the frame and the kind of narrative destroys itself in the way that the black dog is destroyed kind of thing. That concept wasnít there at the beginning?

For a long time it was just a story - it was vaguely based on some little news report Iíd read about a woman setting fire to a dog.

And then it was when I applied for AnimateTV, it was the idea of coming up with an interesting way of telling a story, rather than just saying ďWell this is a story.Ē Itís a narrative piece, but it was taking it a bit further than that.

Well itís taking it into the realm of art, isnít it? Otherwise itís just telling a story - not that thatís a bad thing.

It always starts with a story, thatís the thing. And it's the same with Horse Glue. Itís also partly just to keep me interested, because itís a bit of challenge. The Black Dogís Progress was quite a challenge for a long time - to try and fit it all within the frame - at times I just wanted to cut to a close-up.

So, whether or not it produces something interesting or whether itís what I quite wanted Ė the important thing is the concept.

Is Horse Glue both films, or an amalgamation Ė one film?

I think it ultimately became this one film, but to begin with it was these two separate stories and the challenge was how I was going to mix them together. I donít know whether I quite fulfilled all the ideas Iíd had to begin with - at some point you have to start to concentrate on making the film itself and making that work.

There are so many different ideas - you canít fit them all into one thing and some get left by the wayside.

But with Horse Glue itís more than just making a film - theyíre two films and they donít simply run at the same time, theyíve got a relationship; thereís a struggle for power.

Yes. And thatís what became the most interesting thing as I worked through it.

The Black Dogís Progress was a very dark tale and when I Googled Horse and Glue, I got a Wikipedia entry for animal glue - so thereís an implicit and explicit grimness just in the title of Horse Glue. Violence and sadness - thatís a motif in your work.

Yes. Iím just sort of drawn towards those sorts of stories. As far as animation goes I like Phil Mulloy and that kind of thing Ė the dark side of short film. Thereís a lot of twee-ness around which doesnít interest me a great deal.

Itís not to say thatís all I watch, but for some reason when Iím working on my own stuff, thatís what comes out.

But you do create cute characters Ė itís just that you then abuse them!

I like to draw the cute Ėthey always start off as nice little sort of innocent things.

As well as Phil Mulloy, who are your other influences?

As far as animation itís quite varied. Pretty much anything. Norman McLaren and Len Lye and Yuri Norstein. But Iíve never been obsessed with animation in the same way that a lot of animators are. I was more obsessed just with features, with film in general. The usual - Scorsese and that kind of thing. But it was always Kubrick. I was obsessed with Kubrick the person, as well.

Iíve been to his house.

So have I. Both houses! The one that Simon Cowell grew up in as well. The first house that Kubrick bought, thatís where Simon Cowell grew up. He bought it off Simon Cowellís dad.

And now, still Kubrick. Lynch, Terrence Malick. All the greats really. But also at the moment a lot of Gus Van Sant and stuff like that. And Michael Haneke.

Someone who also does terrible things to children! But those directors have quite Ďspareí styles. Horse Glue is a spare story but the way itís told isnít spare. And the same with The Black Dogís Progress. Thereís a density, so that the films not only stand up to repeated viewing but demand repeated viewing - are they designed in that way?

Definitely. The short films I like and the kind of animation I like is the stuff that you want to watch again straight away. I think short film is open to that, especially if youíre watching it on the internet as well, where you actually can watch it again straight away.

Instead of just watching a short film and going ďOKĒ and thatís it - I like the idea of being able to watch it again. The Black Dogís Progress started out as an online commission, so I was always very aware that people would be watching it online - and even the idea of being able to just go backwards and forwards, so it didnít really matter if people got a bit lost. And with Horse Glue, I just donít want to be obvious with the story and spell everything out; I want to leave certain things unsaid.

But also, in Horse Glue, thereís the complexity of both stories being told at the same time. The film has an immediate impact but if you watch it again then those layers start to reveal themselves. I think itís very interesting in your work how Ė because itís not interactive in that sense - but thereís a lot there that can be discovered for oneís self, but that youíre not directional in that kind of way.

I think itís partly because I donít know what Iím doing half the time! Genuinely, this is the way it comes. In a way Iíd like to one of those animators that scripts it and then storyboards it and then the animatic and then finish. But for me it just doesnít happen like that.

Like, the endings quite often arenít worked out until Iím actually doing it - and itís a horrible way of doing it really, in animation. Itís so wasteful and thatís why they take so much time.

But - you used the word design - and thereís a design in the way that Horse and Glue connect.

Oh yes, in the early stages, but then it keeps developing and thereís never a cut-off point where I go ďRight, thatís the story. Now Iím just going to animate it.Ē And why not, you know?! Itís not commissioned. I donít have to satisfy people at every stage. I can change things as I go along, and thatís like the nice thing about short filmmaking.

So with all that effort that you put into some part that might get dropped - what are you actually doing? How are they made? Is there much actual drawing and physical stuff?

Yes. In Horse, every single thing is hand-drawn and then itís sort of ordered in Photoshop and assembled in After Effects. But I use After Effects in the most basic, minimal way, ordering the frames and then putting it all together. And there are lots of different layers and thereís a lot of texture.

And the films are monochrome. Why dispense with colour?

I donít know. Iíve used colour in the past but even when I do, I always end up taking it down. I just like how black and white looks. I like the starkness of it, especially with Horse Glue.

And it simplifies the process slightly as well. I donít have to colour backgrounds and that sort of thing. Iím just sort of drawn to that. I guess itís the David Lynch thing. I always go back to Eraserhead.

I hadnít thought about Eraserhead - but of course, itís a kind of gothic, horrible fairytale. Are you drawn to something like Babes in the Wood because all fairytales have those undercurrents of menace and horror?

Well I was just obsessed with Babes in the Wood when I was a kid. I had a nursery rhyme book and I used to read it and cry - I was obsessed with how awful it was.

Itís such a strange thing to give to a child. Itís a really strange story - basically just two children going into the woods and end up dying.

In the folk tale, their parents die and the uncle wants the kidsí money but he only gets it if they die. So he pays some guys to take them into the wood. But they canít kill them so they just leave them there. And they starve to death.

But the nursery rhyme that I used to read is even more simple. They get lost in the woods and die, and some birds cover them with leaves, and thatís the end. Which is quite odd.

The simplicity of the story is quite nice, especially if youíre going to do a short animation. Youíve just got simple little plot points.

You kind of reference comic books and comic characters, but you mentioned the influence of feature filmmakers. So why animation?

The first few films that I made at university were live action but itís just so difficult and just such hard work and I never really liked how they looked. And, you know, you canít go back and change them once youíve filmed the thing.

The first couple did have little bits of really simple, Terry Gilliam style cut-out animation. And then I think from the third or fourth it was just animation. It was because I had more control over it; I just donít have the energy and talent to do live action.

I mean I would still love to do a live action short but itís a completely different process, completely different skillsÖ

I think itís incredible you think itís harder to do live action than it is to sit chained to your computer!

Ah..see..with the computer, I can just stay there all day and get it right, get that one shot right. Whereas there are so many different things going on with live action to get that one shot. And I donít think Iím the sort of person that can sort of command a group of people.

But you still have to work with other people. Youíve collaborated with Sorenious Bonk twice on soundtracks. How does that collaboration work?

With Black Dog it was already written - he just re-ordered it so there wasnít much going back and forth. And with Horse Glue it happened so slowly, I was sending him stuff as I went through it, and all through last year he did little bits and pieces.

But then, of course, it always comes to the point where youíre rushing it in the last month. But even then itís just emails and phone calls and just going back and forth. I just leave him to it because I canít really describe what I want musically - I just know that I like his stuff.

Have you worked in that way before?

I had a composer on Bows and Arrows but there wasnít a huge amount of talking back and forward, it was quite vague. With Soren, this time Iím sent him some references, I sent him like bits from the Punch Drunk Love soundtrack which I really like. The opening titles of Woyzeck I really like. Just little sorts of things. I always said, ďJust ignore these if you want and just do your own thing. Itís just what Iíve been listening to.Ē

But did you adjust what you were doing in response to what he did at all?

Yes. Once he started sending the stuff through it was always edited to his music, because that what worked well on Black Dogís Progress.

And Horse Glue has two soundtracks?

Yes. Sorenís score is mainly for Glue. Horse doesnít really have a soundtrack - itís distortion and he did some weird tones with a bass and stuff, which I mixed in with the distortion and the hisses and crackles and stuff - thereís all sort of things going on.

But Horse essentially doesnít really have a soundtrack - itís almost as if itís lost its own track - thatís how I thought of it - over the years or something. And so it doesnít really have any proper sound effects either.

Horse Glue is showing in festivals, but do you see online as being the preferable place for people to engage with it?

Iím thinking festivals, because the thing that pushed it forward - and the reason why it got finished in the end - is because it got into Ottawa. So that became my deadline and thatís why I had a mad last six weeks. Iíd been sort of leisurely working on it for like 18 months and then it suddenly came down to six weeks to finish it.

But with anything I make now itís always going to be thought of as it will be online, because why not?

And is it a wrench when it leaves you and becomes a public thing?

Well thereís always a sort of slow transition, because I start to show other people before it goes to like general public - people whose opinion I actually care about, rather than the YouTube audience. You know, with the YouTube audience, you basically hand it over to a bunch of nutters.