Joseph Wallace is an acclaimed animation and puppetry director. He is currently working on a new animated short, produced by Delaval Film, which received a development residency at the Open Workshop in Denmark and won the 2017 Visegrad Animation Forum pitching prize in Czech Republic.
Your last interview for Puppet Place was in 2016 and you have achieved great success since then. You talked about the cut-out animation ‘Natural Disaster’ and you also mentioned you were hoping to start working on your longest animated short yet at fifteen minutes and told through puppet animation.
That gives indication as to how long the new short has taken to get off the ground in terms of finance. It’s changing now but for the past fifteen years the UK, England in particular, hasn’t really had any dedicated animation funding which is a real shame. When you look at statistics from the eighties, early nineties, it was British films winning top prizes at Annecy, Ottawa and Zagreb. And then all of that disappeared for a while and the scene here has become much more focused on commercial content, children’s series and advertising. And it’s due to a number of different factors; including broadcasters stopping funding animation or the British Film Institute stopping investing money into animation.
Things are starting to change now which is great but consequently it has meant this film I’m making now, ‘Salvation Has No Name’ has taken about four years to get off the ground and that’s not just finding finance, that’s developing ideas and getting producers on board. Because of the lack of funding infrastructure for animation it means that there are very little independent animation producers around. There are some but they tend to be producing within a company so it’s hard to find producers that are interested in taking on animation shorts. I’m very grateful to be working with producer Loran Dunn who runs Delaval Film, Loran’s doing brilliant things for independent British cinema right now and ‘Salvation’ will be her first animated short. I’ve always self-produced my own work in the past but I knew with this film I wanted to focus more on the creative side of things without having to production manage it all as well. It’s been a long long journey to get to this stage but we are finally going into production now so that’s a really humbling and exciting place to be.
You are doing a co-production with Delaval Film and Animation People in the Czech Republic. It seems like the cooperative spirit, especially between countries, is as critical as ever at the moment.
The film itself is about xenophobia and nationalism and borders, and the fear that comes from misunderstanding other people. A lot of my training and expertise in animation has come from being within Europe. I did a course called Animation Sans Frontières, which means animation without borders, and that was a course that was taught at four different animation schools across Europe. So I studied on that course and I found a lot of collaborators through it which led to working as part of a collective in France and also working with a director called Péter Vácz from Hungary. We’ve collaborated a lot over the years and all of that came from being in Europe. I often work in France, Hungary and Scandinavia, and this film is a commentary on current politics.
I pitched the film in Czech Republic at the Visegrad Animation Forum (which is now called CEE) and in the pitch I said it was really important for me to try and do the film as a co-production, not just for financial reasons, but also for artistic reasons to have an international cooperation between two countries at this point when the UK is building walls and separating itself from Europe. So I feel really privileged to be able to do this co-production with Czech Republic. Also because nearly all of my inspirations are Czech and Eastern European filmmakers, like Jiří Trnka and Jan Svankmajer, Karel Zeman. At the studio we’ll be shooting in, a lot of people who’ve worked with Trnka shot there and it’s in an old church in Prague so it feels like it’s very much ingrained in Czech animation history. I’m really excited to be able to shoot there. There’s an element of cut-out animation in the film and we’ll shoot all of that in Prague and the rest of it (the puppet animation) will be shot at my studio.
Could you tell us more about the Hangar Puppet Animation Studio which you founded last year?
I’ve been doing bigger and bigger projects and needing more space to create works, and I was aware that there were lots of young independent stop motion artists in Bristol who were working from their bedrooms or attics. I also have a lot of equipment which I’m not using all the time and I was keen to create a space, almost like I did in France where I could share a lot of my resources and equipment and work around other artists who are doing similar work. So I found a space which is part of Estate of the Arts and it was the biggest warehouse they had. I pulled together a lot of artists I’d worked with or people whose work I knew to see if they would come and share the space with me and help to renovate (what was essentially an empty warehouse) into a little stop motion hub. We’ve spent a year on and off doing up the space and installing electrics and creating shooting space and an office space. Now it’s up and running and there’s seven of us in there including Roos Mattaar and Heather Colbert, who are making their own work. By the end of the month there will have been five projects shot there and that’s been really heartwarming seeing work coming out and being able to facilitate projects there and share resources. Everyone put a lot of work in to get it set up, and it’s still a bit messy, but it’s full of creativity now which is great.
Do you think you will want to collaborate on projects together?
The space is set up as a shared workshop space, so it’s not a company or a collective or anything although there are collaborations happening between artists who are based there which is really exciting. People have been helping each other out a lot which is really great to see.
Going back to ‘Salvation Has no Name’. Could you tell us, from an animator and puppet maker’s perspective, what do you think will be the most challenging part of the process of making the film?
If I’m honest probably the most challenging part was finding my producer and finding the financing. Now I’m just really excited about getting on with making it. I mean there’s going to be a lot of challenging elements in there and it’s the most ambitious film I’ve ever embarked on in that it’s fifteen minutes; longer than the other animated films I’ve made. There are a lot more characters and a great deal of dialogue. The script I wrote draws a lot from the theatre work that I’ve done in terms of there’s a Shakespearian feel to it in the dialogue, the conceit and the drama. So there will probably be a lot of challenges in terms of performance and also in balancing the ambition of the film with the budget that we have. Other than commercial work, all the short films I’ve made have been made on shoe string budget. They were produced in my spare time or subsidised by commercial work or made as part of a collective, so this is the first short that I’ve had real support to make it. But at the same time it’s never enough money to do it justice so it’s about finding compromises all the time in terms of detail, scale and ambition.
How do you get your ideas and who or what are your main sources of inspiration?
It’s interesting, I think usually ideas come first. I don’t necessarily sit down and say: ‘I’m going to make a new film ‘what’s it going to be?’ I think there’s two types of process for me: One where the story comes fairly fully formed as an idea and I’ll write it down and it will still evolve but in the first instance it seems quite whole. And the other is more like ‘Salvation Has no Name’ where it actually came from a lot of research about the refugee crisis. I started working on it in 2013-2014 which was in the early stages of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, with people who’d been displaced from Syria and North Africa.
I read a lot, watched a lot of news and responding to that, wanting to make something that responded to those themes in a poetic way, that was almost a cautionary tale, a folk tale. So that narrative was pieced together over a long time. Not out of intention necessarily but partly because it’s taken so long getting everything together funding wise but that gave it time to bubble away and introduce ideas and really research a lot. I read a lot of books and also looked at a lot of painting. I think for me, I’m more inspired by going to museums and art galleries than going to film festivals necessarily. Seeing a great film at a film festival can be motivating but when I see a painting or a sculpture I think about how that might transition into animation, how would you take the essence of a painting and put in a film? That’s what really keeps me excited creatively.
I watch a lot of live action films and a lot of old live action films, like Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, black and white cinema, partly because it feels like these experiments were being made for the first time narratively and cinematically. So that’s the kind of period I get a lot of inspiration from. Sometimes it’s real life, sometimes it’s paintings, and meshing these things together.
Where did your interest and passion for animation, in particular stop-motion, come from?
When I was growing up, I was lucky to be immersed in this period of children’s television in the UK where it was a pre-CGI world and there was a lot of stop motion around. So I grew up with Postman Pat, early Aardman work, the first Wallace and Gromit film, Ivor Wood, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. It was a whole landscape. The children’s television was very physical, very tactile, you know, all these little worlds that you were invited into, I think that’s really transpired into the work I make now. I am really interested in worlds and drawing the viewer into a complete world. So I think that was a big influence and I was mad about Wallace and Gromit when I was a kid. I used to make a lot of plasticine models and I think I was always interested in very tactile artworks and animation, and I felt like I didn’t really understand how 2D animation was done with cells and everything else but I could understand that if you had a blob of plasticine and put it in front of a camera you could move it frame by frame and bring it to life.
I did a couple of courses when I was a child and now it’s incredible because if you’re growing up wanting to do stop motion you can shoot with an iPhone. The technology is so accessible you can make plasticine models and animate them straight away. I made models and sets when I was a child but I didn’t get to animate until I was a fair bit older. Now I really I don’t like to spend too much time in front of a screen so I try and do as much in-camera as I can, and avoid spending too much time faffing about on computers. Trying to keep it as tactile as possible, you know, painting, sculpting, making things with my hands. I have a lot of respect for what people do with 2D and digital techniques but it wouldn’t really fuel me creatively, I think.
What are you interested in exploring next?
Well, right now I’m about to go to Cardiff to direct a commercial which is going to use object animation, which is something I’ve always loved but haven’t done for a while in my personal work. When I got asked to do this advert it was really a nice opportunity to return to using objects and shooting bigger, broader stop motion. And then ‘Salvation Has No Name’ is a mix of puppet animation, also cut-out animation which is bringing two slightly disparate parts of my practice together. I’m also making sequences for a documentary feature film which I can’t really talk about much right now but I will probably be posting about it on social media in the next few months. And for that I’ll be again exploring puppet animation and cut-out animation and trying to also mix the two a little bit.
Are you planning on finishing the short next year?
The short will be finished in the spring/early summer next year and heading to festivals in the summer, all going well.
Interview by Marta Smyk