The nature of filmmaking often means that as production requirements shift so do collaborators as diaries clash and visions diverge. That being said, there are those partnerships which prove to be so fruitful, they persist and develop across a multitude of projects, growing richer with each rendition. Such a description is apt for the relationship forged between animator Gavin C Robinson and musician/composer Mike Vass, who hit their collaborative hat-trick with contemplative music video Eyes Fixed. Gavin joins us to discuss how the pair’s alliance has matured from film to film and why excitement, rather than efficiency, dictates his production schedule.
Now with the perspective of time, what effect would you say Hart’s Desire’s BAFTA win has had on your career?
I think it’s quite a difficult thing to gauge. I usually don’t ask the people that approach me about how they heard of me. Also the BAFTA win was so soon after I had finished university, so I hadn’t been out in the real world trying to get work in animation for very long. I didn’t have much pre-award experience, trying to be a freelance animator to compare with post-award. I have a feeling it hasn’t actually impacted my career much. As a freelance animator I think it’s much more valuable to just get your work out there, share what your doing on social media. I get more people contacting me after I release work online than I did after the BAFTA: people seem to be more interested in what you’re doing rather than the awards you acquire… and that seems right I think.
Eyes Fixed is actually the third collaboration between yourself and composer Mike Vass. How has that collaborative relationship developed and grown across the three projects?
I was first put in touch with Mike because he was looking for someone to create a music video for Fiona Hunter’s version of the traditional Scottish ballad, Cruel Mother, which Mike had produced. So that was the reason we were first talking about working together. I was working on Hart’s Desire at the time and after hearing Mike’s then recently released album, Decemberwell, I thought that his style would complement what I was hoping to achieve with the film. So anyway a deal was struck, and we would help each other out with our respective projects. So entering into both of the first two projects was a bit of an unknown really, although I for one, was really happy with what Mike did for my film. I think that we’re both kind of quiet guys that like to be able to just get on with things ourselves, and that’s how our projects usually pan out. There isn’t a great deal of direction, guidance here and there maybe, but it’s generally the case that we leave the other to respond to the piece of work how they see fit. I think there’s certainly now a trust that this response will work well, and that we’re on the same page albeit in different books, with him in sound and me in visuals.
This film is part of Mike’s larger multi-media album The Dead Stations – how autonomous was Eyes Fixed from the other pieces of the project?
Yes, well the song is part of Mike and Charlotte Hathaway’s original project which was a set of live performances combining music, animation and voice acting, weaving a narrative inspired by abandoned railway stations. Mike has released the music from the show as an album and Eyes Fixed is one of the singles. So my music video was for the release of the single and wasn’t actually part of the original Dead Stations project (although Mike and Charlotte were kind enough to include it in their Edinburgh show as the video had just been finished). I was originally developing a narrative for the video based on the concept of The Dead Stations but Mike was keen for it to be something that would stand alone. So reading into the themes of the song itself, I developed the narrative. Not terribly long ago Mike had a real health scare and I could detect that his experiences with this was coming through in the song so, with his approval, I chose to reflect this in the video.
When we spoke for Hart’s Desire you described creating a “key moments comic strip”, has that preproduction practice persisted?
Well that “key moments comic strip” that I think you’re referring to was something that I did in the early planning stages of Hart’s Desire, and it was something that I did to help visualise the structure of the whole film in a fairly basic image that would fit on one page. Then creating a comic book in place of the storyboard was a natural progression from that early exercise. So for Eyes Fixed it was a bit different because that one page image of the film’s structure was the lyrics printed out on an A4 sheet with notes scribbled over it. For somebody that works in such a visual art, I actually tend to do quite a lot of writing, rather than drawing, in the early stages of a project. But I went back to the comic book style storyboard, the first time I have done since Hart’s Desire. I find that it helps me to concentrate on the compositional side of things rather than being distracted by the idea that what I’m drawing will become an animated film. When I’m thinking about it being a film at that stage, I tend to make too many decisions based on my own perceived ability to animate it and that ends in compromises that I probably won’t make when pretending that I’m just drawing a comic.
Once again you employ multiple, varying sized frames throughout the film. How did you build the relationship between song tempo and beats, onscreen action and the frames themselves?
The video is very narratively driven and I think that it sits somewhere between what might be considered a typical music video and a short film. So the action itself doesn’t do much correlating with the beats of the song. The multiple frames was a development of the comic book storyboard and their use, and the various cuts that are possible with this kind of layout, are what ties the video to the song in terms of rhythm. It meant that I could work on the action more freely while knowing that I’d still have this relationship with the song.
You worked with a mix of traditional hand drawn techniques and digital 2D animation what was your production workflow?
It’s all been created digitally. Where there are hand drawn elements I was using a graphics tablet, drawing straight onto the computer. The scene elements; the layers of landscape, the sea, the rain, was all drawn in Photoshop. The silhouette of the main character was a digital “puppet”, rigged in Anime Studio Pro. When the character’s face, for example, is highlighted by the glow of lamplight, this highlight is frame by frame animation (often a simple loop of just a few frames) drawn in Photoshop. So there was a bit of jumping between Photoshop and Anime Studio to begin with, and then all of the elements of a shot were brought together for compositing in After Effects. Things like texture, vignette, cloud, lamplight glow and the aurora borealis inspired sky were added as finishing touches at this stage.
Eyes Fixed was a solo animation effort, what efficiencies did you build into your process to maximise your time?
Well, probably for the first time on one of my solo projects, I created a shot list before I started animating. It outlined exactly how many frames each shot had and it was set up on a spreadsheet that calculated what percentage of the video I had completed, whenever I marked a shot as finished. This helped to keep me focussed. I probably don’t work in the most efficient of ways actually. I tend to work through the animation chronologically, from it’s start to it’s finish and complete every stage of a shot before moving on to the next one. It can often feel like I’m repeating myself when I could be doing the similar jobs that are required throughout the animation at the same time, which would probably be sensible. But I think I’m just kind of impatient or excited to see what a shot will be like finished.
Right now I’m taking a little time to develop various project ideas that I’ve been wanting to work on for a while, some illustration, some animation. One is an animated children’s TV series that’ll probably never see the light of day, but I have a growing desire to get to develop a bigger project like that, so hopefully some day.