The Theatre of Stop-motion: An Interview with Barry Purves

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Veteran stop-motion animator and celebrated filmmaker, Barry JC Purves has been involved in stop-motion puppet animation for over 30 years.  His immense body of work includes well-loved television shows such as ‘Wind in the Willows’.  However, it is his own independent filmmaking that provides the greatest insight to the artist. Purves’ short films often explore adult themes, are highly theatrical and rich.  We sat down with him at BFP15 to talk about his passion for the theatre, connections between stop-motion and puppetry and the art of artifice.

You have considerable professional experience and a personal passion for the theatre, so why stop-motion?
I think the link is performing.  My puppets perform and they usually perform in a theatrical setting.  I think my theatrical style initially came from economy because I couldn’t afford big sets or hundreds of puppets.  Actually, do we need hundreds of puppets?  Why not make one puppet perform?  I love theatre tricks, I love illusion and animation is an illusion. I love transformations.  I always say animation isn’t just about the puppet, it’s about lighting and staging – it’s all about presentation.  It’s consciously enjoying the storytelling. All my films enjoy lighting, tricks, presentation.  You know it’s a puppet, if not on a stage, in a fluid space, like theatre is.  I like the liberation that theatre allows and I bring that liberation to my animation.

Have you ever been involved in traditional puppetry?
I’ve used puppetry in my theatrical work.  I did a production of ‘Turn of the Screw’ and we had to work with real children.  They just ran with it really and the fact that they had a puppet made them feel they could do anything.  At the end of the performance, a boy had to rip the head off the character who became a ghost in the story and the relish with which he ripped off the head; you knew that character had seen some terrible things.  It was interesting to do this through a puppet.  The audience just squirmed to watch this ten year old boy doing something terrible.  But it was a puppet and you can get away with anything with a puppet.

A question often asked of stop-motion artists by traditional puppeteers is ‘how do you maintain the immediacy of the performance?’
I guess of all the animation forms, stop-motion is spontaneous but it’s spontaneous over twelve seconds a day.  It’s the only form of animation where you start at frame zero and finish at frame two hundred and fifty.  You can plot it.  You know the plot that has to come out of that scene, you know the emotion that has to come out of that scene but you still get to the point where you’ve got a character raising its arm and you think, ‘oh, the hand’s in the shadow… So I’ve got to just adjust the arm to get it into the light.’  So you have to adjust to your surroundings.  It is spontaneous, within the parameters that the director or the storyboard has set.

With regard to your own short films, your characters tend to be realistic representations of human beings, who express quite highly naturalistic movement, which can be quite complex and subtle.  What interests you in this approach?
I take slight issue there (smiles).  I wouldn’t use the word realistic.  I’d use the word credible but I would also say that it’s a bit more like dance.  Tchaikovsky doesn’t speak, he doesn’t have a mouth movement at all, it’s just in the eyes.  It’s all body language, which isn’t realistic and he’s in a picture frame, which isn’t realistic.  But I get this a lot.  With ‘Achilles’, people say ‘it’s very realistic’ but it has two stone statues, having sex in front of a Greek chorus, on a stone plinth, suspended in space with a spotlight.  I’m sorry I haven’t found that in life!

I wouldn’t say I’m realistic.  I’m figurative, I like figures and they’re credible, you can see the thought process, but they’re not realistic, no.

Theatre and live performance is a recurring theme in your work.  Even when cinematic conventions are used I often get the very real sense that I could be watching a recorded live performance.
Yes, what is unusual about my films are that they happen in real time. You think you could be watching a live performance, but actually there are quite a few tricks going on.  For example, in ‘Screen Play’ things are revealed behind the screens.  A character was here, but hang on, he was there two seconds beforehand.  It’s more about a fluid space I think.  I like to use conventions.  With ‘Achilles’ I set myself the conventions of characters having only sticks and shields.  I did a film about Gilbert & Sullivan and the convention there was a bed, that was all I had.  It comes from economy, but also it inspires you.  With the Shakespeare film (‘Next’), I had very lofty ambitions for that film – big sets, hundreds of characters.  But the budget, which was a good budget, only allowed for one decent puppet so the challenge was how much can I get out of one puppet?  ‘Plume’ is literally just a naked puppet in a pool of light, but it is so powerful.  The challenge was to tell this really complex story.  It’s very dark emotionally.  There’s no set, no costume, no cultural references, no dialogue.  It’s just a puppet.  But people are absolutely shocked by the film.  That’s what it’s about, it’s all about the puppet.

I do like restraints, because it makes you focus creatively.  I’m working on a feature film at the moment, which has the same idea of theatrical economy.  I wish people didn’t see the word theatrical as a criticism…  Let’s change that.  Let’s call it ‘the art of artifice – celebration of the non-literal.’  It’s the idea of liberating sound, music, so that everything is there to tell the story.  If it doesn’t tell the story, lose it.

It’s called theatre, its called artifice.  Opera is a celebration of artifice, theatre is a celebration of artifice and puppetry is a celebration of artifice.  To sum it up, Oscar Wilde said ‘give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.’  By having this artifice, you can be much more truthful, much more honest.  I think that’s what puppetry does so well.  It’s removed and it only does what matters… The truthful stuff.

Interview by Emma Windsor


A full-length audio version of this interview can be found on the Puppet Place Vimeo channel.  More information about Barry Purves’ commercial and independent work can be found at his website: http://www.barrypurves.com

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