Interview with Tony Comley

Tony Comley tells us about the process behind making his Animate OPEN film, 'VERSE.


How did 'VERSE come about – what themes would you say you’re exploring?

'VERSE began with self-imposed external pressure. Finding the time and motivation to make personal work can be fraught, so I try to put myself in positions where others are holding me accountable. In this case I applied to the Animator in Residence programme at Newport School of Art, which is ideal in that it allows complete creative freedom and pays you for the privilege!

From there I approached the task of writing the film by asking what topics and themes have inbuilt technical and artistic flexibility. Creation myths are ideal in that they're based heavily on abstraction and anthropomorphism, which is a temptingly flexible canvas on which to start.

The first draft of 'VERSE was much more comedic. The premise was that God created mankind because he knew it would result in helicopters, but I realised that such a simple riff would spread too thinly over four minutes, so I began looking at existing myths for inspiration. When you look outside Christianity you find a lot of very poignant creation stories. Often mankind will arise at the expense of a God's happiness or sanity, and I find this a much stronger premise than the rather anthropocentric tale we're used to. With that in mind, I began to write a story of unrequited love in which the youthful exuberance of the young Earth is replaced in old age by uniformity and artifice. I would imagine that in the eyes of a God, volcanic instability is more attractive than a layer of apes and tarmac.

Have you always written poetry? Where did the inspiration come for the poem? And did you write it with the intention of using it in a film?

The poem and the visuals happened at the same time. It felt appropriate to dress a creation myth in grandiosity, so the portentious delivery and traditional structure of the prose are designed to embody a kind of absurd timelessness.

The visuals relate to the poem, but they don’t directly illustrate – was that something you wanted to avoid?

There's apparently a term in filmmaking called a ‘Lord Privy Seal’ which is a pejorative way of describing the act of directly illustrating the content of a voice over - in that case a Lord, sitting on a privy (outhouse toilet), next to a seal. It's something I work to avoid, as the job of visuals should be to augment rather than just reflect the content of the narration. Ideally the narration in 'VERSE would in turn rely on the visuals, but as it is it seems to work on its own, which gives the impression that the poem came first.

The visuals are very varied – abstract, graphic – but still coherent, and dynamic – was that tricky to achieve?

The visual style began much more disparately, which was intended to reflect the chaos of the subject matter, but it became obvious that whether you're communicating chaos or calm, you need to do so consistently. Time constraints dictated the style as much as anything else, which I'm happy with. I've always sought the clearest and simplest way to express an idea and so 'VERSE gave me all the excuse I needed to whip out my graphic design training and distil the essence of God!

The 3D is intentionally crude and is invoked whenever you encounter stubbornness. The 2D flourishes are there to contrast with the harshness of that and in doing so exacerbate it. It was assembled mainly in After Effects, which is slowly becoming a grey rectangular appendage of my soul.

Making the film as an Animator in Residence – how was that experience? How did you work collaboratively?

The AIR scheme is designed to be symbiotic. A director gets paid to make a film, and the students who work on it gain experience of a realistic production process. The whole affair takes place in an ancient Roman town near the Welsh border called Caerleon, which is a great place to make a film.

The best example of student input would be the scene in which modern vehicles are invented. For this sequence I needed to express an explosion of erratic and disparate culture but within a consistent visual framework. The solution was to tap the students' diversity by making a template for each of the 3D vehicles and asking them to decorate it. The result was more surprising and playful than I could ever manage on my own. You can also see this in action when the skyscrapers pop up.

How and why did you first come to make first animation?

I was in Brussels mis-understanding the orders of a non-English speaking tutor. He'd asked us to design a poster for the Olympics, but I thought he wanted a children's book, so I created The King Who Loved Apple Pies - a cautionary tale of totalitarianism for children aged 4+. It was a crap book, but a pretty good storyboard, so I took it as evidence of a propensity for moving image and followed it with a rendition of Spike Milligan's The Ning Nang Nong which now has a life of its own as a special needs educational tool in North America!

I was studying graphic design at the time, which is a discipline that I hated learning but which has been indispensable over the years. I think every animator should be made at some point to design a logo for something boring. It's a great way to spot your stylistic ticks and quirks by dint of having to suspend them. In the end it gave my work a useful clarity and concision. The best example of this in action is my latest short DNAUXB.

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

Paul Rand because he can make a rounded character out of a static square. Keita Takahashi because of all surrealist art before. Nobi Nobi Boy was just practice. I'm playing Mega Man 2 at the moment on an original NES, and both the game and the platform are so concise and joyous that I wonder why we didn't just declare consoles perfect at that point and move on.

The area of Deptford, South London inspires me because it's currently telling Sainsbury's to fuck off with more community vigour than I've ever witnessed. TED Talks is brilliant, because it's an excellent curation of largely fascinating thinkers sharing stuff in a beguiling format - free videos of 18 minutes talks. Facebook recently threw up a brilliant band called Deerhoof and a video that explains dimensions above three by a guy called Rob Bryanton.

And please consider Googling the following: Oliver Coates, Anna Meredith, Gameshow Outpatient and Pachinko Pictures, then go to YouTube and search for: "Ivor Cutler Looking for Truth with a Pin".