Following on from our TheyAreAnimators feature on animation collective Late Night Work Club, this month’s interview sees us shoot the breeze with ingenious Irish animator and LNWC member Conor Finnegan. Announcing himself on the animation scene a couple of years ago with super-playful graduation film Fluffy Mc Cloud, the creative filmmaker has gone on to make commercials for Lush and Auto Trader, whilst his latest short Fear of Flying has toured festivals around the globe since its premier at Galway Film Fleadh in July 2012. With memories of his most recent film still floating in my mind, I spoke to Conor to find out about his route into animation, his production methods and plasticine dick jokes:
In school I wanted to do graphic design. It seemed the answer to earning a living while getting to create stuff. After graduating I enrolled in a graphic design course but soon found out that it wasn’t really where it was at for me. I finished the first year then changed courses to Film Production. We did a lot of film theory, film history, writing, making shorts, that kind of thing. It was all new and exciting and I really enjoyed making the shorts even though they were terrible. It was only a two year course though so just when I was starting to get the hang of it we were finished. Real world etc.
“Animation became this perfect art form that incorporated all the best aspects of design and film making”
I got a job in a post production studio as a runner and it was there that I fell in with animators for the first time. They were probably the most friendly people in the building so I kind of gravitated toward them while I was there. Suddenly animation became this perfect art form that incorporated all the best aspects of design and film making.
Around the same time, my brother started producing a show called Wonderscreen for TV3 that was designed to showcase the best short films and animations from around the world. This was pre-YouTube and way before Vimeo so he was basically being sent boxes of VHS tapes and DVDs from distributors and festivals from all over. I got to go through them with him and it was an eye opening experience. I applied to the National Film School’s animation degree course and got accepted. As soon as I started it I knew I liked it. We had these big animation desks and a PVR for shooting line tests, blue pencils, a big thing for punching holes in the the animation paper, peg-bars…! The bouncing ball exercise blew my mind and I was in.
Getting to go back to college to study animation after my previous stints in other courses/working in the industry for a while meant that I probably took it all a bit more seriously. I genuinely appreciated the fact that we had all this awesome (mostly crap, but still working) equipment for free. Also all the people I got to meet and make friends with, super talented guys like Eamonn O’Neill. I think the fact that I’d done the 2 year film course before definitely helped me in terms of writing, as there was no writing classes on the animation course in IADT. It’s also possibly why I leaned toward stop-motion/live action mixes with some of my shorts. I guess everything you learn along the way bleeds its way into your work at some stage.
“I remember getting a Gary Larson book when I was maybe 14. I really related to and got immersed in the worlds he created”.
He’s got this lovely mix of light and dark, cute animals up to no good. There’s a real dryness and seriousness to the absurdity. Around the same time as starting the animation course in IADT, I got my hands on the first Pitcoplasma, Characters in Motion DVD. Again, mind blown. All these great characters that looked like nothing I’d seen before. I was never that into “animation” in the traditional-Disney sense of things, and I’m still not. I think a lot of that is to do with design and storytelling. I’m more into the movies of people like Wes Anderson, the Coen Bros, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kauffman, Paul Thomas Anderson… Michel Gondry too. I really enjoy his cheap in-camera tricks.
Animation is, like film-making, founded on experimentation. It lends itself so well to being experimented with that it would be a real shame not to play around. Digital makes it all so much more accessible too. I was big into Gondry when I was younger (and still am). His mix of techniques always excited me. I think experimenting in animation often comes from the question of “How am I going to do this?”. It so often depends on the story or what needs to happen in the story. Does it need to be animated at all? I’m a big believer in animation being a means to an end, in that I think different stories will lend themselves better to certain techniques, be it live-action, animation, 2d, 3d , stop-motion, etc. There’s definitely something sweet in mixing techniques though, I love seeing it. I watched a making of Roger Rabbit the other day and it was so cool to see how they mixed the real world with that of the 2d animation. Incredible problem solving stuff went into making it. Style and design is then often dictated by technique. For Fear of Flying, where there’s live action puppets being mixed with 2d arms and legs it was quite restrictive in terms of design. These characters couldn’t turn their heads without turning their whole bodies. I basically had to make bean shaped head-bodies. I think restrictions can lead to interesting things though, whether it’s design restrictions or budget it’s always good to get inventive.
Fear of Flying was definitely a step up from making Fluffy Mc Cloud. It got funding from the Irish Film Board, RTE (that’s our national broadcaster) and The Arts Council under the Frameworks scheme. We really are so lucky in Ireland to have such an amazing resource as the IFB and they contribute so much to the film industry here. It was amazing to have a budget (albeit small) and get to work with a crew of people, from model makers to a DOP and 3d animators. Possibly the best thing was getting to work with a sound designer, which I’d never done before. I got to work with Gav Little of ECHOLAB who added so much richness and comedy to the film. Everyone that worked on it was super helpful and kind with their time. I’d say I was by far the least experienced person on set everyday (it was a 5 day shoot) but we got through it. The film is about a bird with a fear of flying. He tries to avoid heading South for the winter by stocking up on supplies and battening down the hatches for a long cold winter. It mixes live-action puppets and 2d and 3d animation. It kinda looks like stop-motion but feels a bit more wonky and analogue. Its done well at festivals and has picked up a few awards which is nice. I’m looking forward to putting it online soon.
Fluffy Mc Cloud was my graduate film from IADT. It’s about a well intentioned/lonely cloud that goes around trying to help everything and everyone he encounters. Along the way he meets with a total jerk and we get to see Fluffy’s other side. I guess in many ways its about how we take nature for granted but in a non-preachy sort of a way.
It was made with a very small budget. I shot it at home in my attic because it meant I could work on it at my own pace. If I’d shot it in college, I’d be getting kicked out at 9pm and couldn’t come in to work on it over the weekends. I really enjoyed working on this short and had a lot of fun making it.
The mixing of techniques happened quite naturally. I’m not a great model maker so I decided to use the models from miniature train sets that I knew I could buy or borrow. These models come in parts that have to be glued together so I ended up high on glue for a large portion of the reproduction while sticking tiny houses together and getting head-aches. I did some concept art and tests and decided to do the cloud’s mouth in 2d because I didn’t know how to build an animatable stop-motion mouth. I knew I could have done it in cut-out but that seemed too labour intensive and always tended to look a bit messy. The decision to use live-action people and comp them into the miniature world came quite naturally too. It meant I didn’t have to build or animate tiny people. Instead, I hired a green screen stage at a studio that was normally used for commercials and got my friends to come in and mess around for the day. The woman and baby in it are my sister and niece, which was great because having a baby in there added a lot of production value. I shot the goldfish (again lots of production value) in my attic. I actually bought two of them in case one died.
This was my first time doing stop-motion animation. Its basically a dick joke between a cute plasticine man and woman. In some ways there are a lot of truths to it though, I think all men have worried about the size of their tackle at some point in their lives. It’s one of those weird primitive things. It’s also social commentary on the times we live in and the ready availability of plastic/cosmetic surgery, etc. It’s really quite a deep and meaningful film.
It’s nice to sit in a screening room and hear people laugh. You know instantly that the film is working (or not) and that people are getting something from it (or not). It seems to be the case at so many film fests I go to that many of the shorts screening are about something awful happening to someone, someone dying of cancer, kids being abused, etc. I think it’d be very difficult for me to make a film as serious as that.
It’s going good. I got an email last summer from Eimhinn McNamara asking if I’d like to get involved and jumped at the chance. I was blown away by the amount of talent the guys had mustered up. It’s Scott Benson, Charles Huettner, Eimhinn and Eamonn’s brainchild and each of them approached other animators they knew and/or liked. I think there are nearly 20 people involved now and they’re an intimidatingly talented group. I’m seriously excited to see what everyone comes up with. I’m doing mine in 2d, straight into After Effects and it’s gonna be really short, like 2mins max. I’m kind of making it up as I go along, I don’t have a storyboard but I know what needs to happen. It’s a lot of fun just working more freely like this and I’ve been enjoying doing it. Hopefully we’ll get to make lots more stuff down the line.
I think fests are great places to exhibit your work and there really is nothing like seeing your stuff on a big screen and sharing the hive mind of a cinema audience. Fests are great places to meet like minded people too, especially after slogging away on a film for a year. It’s nice to let loose and meet other people that are doing the same thing as you. Everyone’s always super nice and festivals are the only place you’re gonna get to meet these people in the flesh because mostly they’re stuck in a studio/office somewhere working their ass off. Having said that, the internet has always been very good to me. Plastesex did well when YouTube was just new and it really instilled in me a belief that the internet rocks. Fluffy Mc Cloud did well too and I got a lot of fests inviting me to submit to them after they’d seen it online. In terms of numbers, I know for a fact that more people have seen my work online than ever will at a festival. Fluffy still gets about 600 views a week which is totally bonkers. I’ve kind of stopped using YouTube recently, not because I’ve anything against it, I just prefer Vimeo’s interface and there are no ads. Vimeo’s community is probably a lot nicer too, not that I’ve ever been trolled on YouTube, but it’s nice that you see the same names pop up on Vimeo all the time, everyone’s so encouraging and friendly.
I’ve signed with Nexus in the UK for commercial representation and SpeersFilm here in Dublin. I’m trying to develop a feature film, set in the same kind of world as FOF but with a totally different story. My LNWC short should be out soon and I’ll be releasing Fear of Flying after the summer most likely.