If you want to grab the attention of the right people in the short film arena, winning a BAFTA is certainly one way to go about it. Collecting the award for Short Animation in 2013, Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson’s unique short The Making of Longbird wowed the panel with its ingenuity in concept and style. But where do you go after winning a BAFTA? We speak to the creative duo about their work as production company White Robot, find out what their specialist skills are and discover what’s next in their ever-expanding catalogue of work.
Ainslie Henderson is a BAFTA winning Writer/Director, and picked up the BAFTA New Talent Award in 2012 for his short film It’s About Spending Time Together. His film I Am Tom Moody is currently touring international film festivals and has won Best British short at Encounters film festival in Bristol, Best Student Film at Krok in Russia, Disney Best Student Film at Ottawa animation festival, the Special Jury Award at Annecy 2013 and the Animation category of the Adobe Design Achievement Awards.
I was a musician for a long time. I lived in a mad hippy commune in Edinburgh, there was a pottery in the basement, I’d spend nights in there playing with clay, sculpting characters and people and things. Model making felt natural to me. Around that time I met people who were studying at Edinburgh College Of Art, and learned it has a tradition of stop frame animation. I’ve always had this notion in the back of my head that I would one day do a degree in stop motion animation, I’m not sure where that came from, but suddenly, it was time to do that.
Will Anderson is a BAFTA winning Writer/Director and Animator from the Scottish Highlands. Currently living in Edinburgh, Will specialises in design & character animation for film and television. Will has worked in many professional productions, ranging from feature-length documentary films, to short animation series for both children’s and adults’ television entertainment. His short The Making of Longbird has screened at over 50 Film festivals, picking up prizes at Warsaw Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival, as well as Stuttgart, Annecy, and London International Animation Festivals.
From a young age I wanted to be an animator after enjoying TV animation series. It definitely wasn’t anything to do with the process back then, but that has changed in a way. I love making things, but the most important thing for me is that I enjoy it. I want to laugh, and cry (quietly when no one is looking). We use animation lots, but I like to think of myself as more of a filmmaker.
WILL: We both studied animation at the Edinburgh College of Art [ECA]. Previous to this I had virtually no experience in animation, just a compulsion to do it. I also didn’t see myself as much of a storyteller, that’s why my time spent there was so influential. It’s not a course that teaches technicalities, it’s much more driven toward developing your ideas.
“I’m constantly inspired by my peers”.
Have there been any animators/filmmakers/artists/designers or anyone else that have been a big influence on your animation style/storytelling?
WILL: I LOVE Eamonn O’Neill’s work and look up to it hugely. I tend to look to independent artists work. I think it’s inspiring to see what people do on there own or in small teams.
AINSLIE: Not particularly. When I watch films, or listen to music, or experience any art, I’m looking to be moved. I want to hear someone say something about how they feel, simply and honestly. Animation doesn’t typically do that. So I suppose independent animator, filmmakers like Suzie Templeton, or Don Hertzfeldt are influences.
WILL: White Robot happened by accident, when I recorded a conversation between Ainslie and I, asking him to play along with a job interview scenario in a Glaswegian accent. This is where we realised that we had a similar sense of humour. The recording felt natural, and it seemed to be funny. At that point I decided to animate our conversations in a very simple style with bold colourful characters. However, it’s not all like this, we do try to keep out of our comfort zones to push it.
AINSLIE: It started with Will and I having a laugh together. It was a natural thing that just happened from being around each other, rather than any formal agreement. It’s rare and precious to find someone that you can discuss your creative, half formed ideas with and have them get it, and bounce things back in a meaningful, constructive way. White Robot seemed to come from that.
What skills do you think each of you bring to the White Robot table?
WILL: I’m not funny, Ainslie is, so as long as I keep bouncing back from his performances then I’m happy.
AINSLIE: Will’s funny, and I’m good at buying coffee, watering plants and stuff like that.
“I think there is a real tendency to feel very isolated when working creatively with animation”.
What do you think are the advantages of working together as a duo?
AINSLIE: We both can correct each other and bring different ideas, thoughts and suggestions to each other.
WILL: I think that when there is two of you generating ideas, it somehow gives the ideas more credit and more merit. They aren’t just invisible floating things, they are discussed at the earliest stage out in the open.
AINSLIE: For me, it’s easy to go round and round in your own head. I think I’m more of a perfectionist than Will, that’s not to say what I do is any more perfect than what Will does, just that I can get lost and hung up searching for perfection. Will has a brilliant, creative spontaneity and an impatience that is a good balance for me. Maybe I slow him down. Is that a good thing? Maybe the differences in us cause a kind of friction that good things seem to come from. In short, maybe I’m a thinker and Will’s a doer. Having another point of view that you trust to help question what you’re doing is always an advantage.
Can you tell us a bit about the tools you tend to favour to create your animations? Do you always use similar production methods or do you like to mix it up on a film-by-film basis?
WILL: Well much of the work we have done collaboratively, so far, has been 2D digital work. However, we’re making a short at the moment that hybrids stop motion, 3D, & live-action to achieve its look and feel. I’m of the opinion that animation should only be used if it is necessary for the story, so therefore any technique used would be thought about carefully on a film-by-film basis.
AINSLIE: I’m drawn to stop motion, I’m most at home there and I find a particular magic in that medium. Having said that, I’ve learned a great deal about digital animation, mainly from working with Will. There is something laboured about stop motion that you can get around with digital, I hope to explore that a bit more. I think mixing it up and playing with new forms is something we’re both into.
How do you tend to share the production process of a film between the pair of you?
WILL: Good question. I guess on a film-by-film basis again. Our current short film Monkey Love Experiments was definitely generated by Ainslie in the first instance. It was clear that both of our skills were needed to make the film we wanted, so it makes sense for us to share responsibility.
AINSLIE: I think that’s something we’re still working out and hopefully will continue to evolve. I only graduated a year ago, we’re still very much finding our feet and figuring out all the ways we can work together. I think it’s a great strength that we don’t have fixed roles, the shape of our collaboration and the amount of influence we each have on a project is always different.
You co-wrote the BAFTA winning short The Making of Longbird together – how did the writing process go? It’s an unusual film – did the plot come together easily or take a lot of work?
WILL: I was thinking about it for a few months, not really stressing too much about exactly what was going to happen. I knew I wanted to make a film about making a film, and I knew that Longbird would get in the way.
AINSLIE: It was writing Longbird that first allowed us to work together. It is an unusual film and it was written in an unusual way, we didn’t ever sit down and write out a script. It came from us talking, coming up with things as Will was making it. Much of the voice recording was done, half improvised, round a microphone and a bottle of vodka.
You also created the animation for The Great Hip Hop Hoax by Jeanie Finlay (a good friend of the site), how was it working on an animation that was to be part of a feature film? What do you think the animation brings to the film?
AINSLIE: I’m really proud of that film, it was the first commissioned work of that kind Will and I had done. We had to switch into ‘working studio mode’ which was interesting and fun, and came with its own pressures. Jeanie Finlay knew or at least seemed to know what she wanted and what she was doing, and I think we kind of got into the feeling of making her happy. I resisted watching it back until Edinburgh Film Festival, last month and it was a real joy to see. The animation works so well and really adds another dimension to the film.
WILL: The guys became different people and abstracted themselves into obnoxious Americans. For us it makes a lot of sense to use animation to further drive that point forward, as they sort of became cartoon characters.
Animals seem to feature quite heavily in your work, with your latest films Scroogin on a Greg & Sweetie & Sunshine both centring around a couple of talking creatures. What is that appeals to you so much about giving a voice to animals?
WILL: It’s strange because I don’t really think of the characters I’ve worked with as being animals. They are humans, totally personified. The bird thing is hard to explain because I’m still working out why. I think what happens a lot with animation is that strict rules are made in order to focus the idea(s). The bird videos we make for online at the moment are a method in which Ainslie and I can make conversational, vibrant, fun work. It’s a conversation between friends like any other.
For Sweetie & Sunshine it made a lot of sense to animate and voice the panda characters. I wouldn’t see the need to animate that film at all without bringing the pandas to life and creating an emotional dialogue. This is another example of using animation for a reason. In our real world I couldn’t film them bickering and arguing, so with animation I can. The rest of the film is made up of real interviews we could have filmed, but because the rules of the film are about abstracting their relationship, making the whole film have a consistent aesthetic also made sense.
Short answer – I don’t really seem to differentiate animals from humans.
AINSLIE: I suppose when we’re coming up with voices I’m not imagining animals as much as characters. Malkie, Kleggie, Simon and others, they’re all based on real people or exaggerations of people. The birds and the designs of all those characters are Will’s.
What can you tell us about upcoming short Monkey Love Experiments? How does it differ from your previous work?
AINSLIE: I’m really happy with it. It’s a strange film, dark and sad, with a twisted sense of humour. There are themes of childhood that I’m always drawn to, but, we’re definitely not repeating ourselves at all. I’m proud of that, it’s such a unique piece of work, no one will watch it and compare it to another film, it’s distinctive. It would have been easy for us to make another Longbird or a Tom Moody, but we wanted the challenge of something new. It’s a mixture of stop motion and live action, many of the shots were a really complicated mixture of the two, that took some working out. I love that we’re using stop motion like it was originally conceived, as a special effect, spliced into film. It’s Harryhausen in a way. I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world.
WILL: It was a chance for us to be totally out of our comfort zone, stylistically and tonally.
Your film, The Making of Longbird shot to fame when it won the BAFTA for Short Animation this year – what has the award meant for your career?
WILL: It was unbelievable. I remember telling people when I finished it I didn’t think it was a ‘festival film’. I genuinely really enjoyed making that film and didn’t worry about how it turned out or if it was going to be a success. This is something which I really want to keep with my work – to keep it free and enjoyable to make.
Career wise it’s really important, but I don’t rest easy and I always look for the next thing. I’m not the kind of person that can sit still for too long.
AINSLIE: It definitely opens doors.
Once your shorts are completed, how do you approach the tricky subject of distribution? Is your aim always to enter them in festivals or are you more than happy to launch a film directly online?
WILL: I think festivals are great and would send to them in the first instance. However, I’m really aware that it’s a changing game. Longbird was made for next to nothing, with a group of amazing people and it’s already got me to a place I would have never expected. I like the idea of sharing work online independently and I’m starting a project that does exactly that, on a regular basis.
We deliberately make online short sketches to get stuff out and work on our shorts with the intention of them eventually being made public online for free.
How do you feel the festival scene compares to the world of online distribution?
WILL: I think it’s a bit of a no-brainer – online MUCH more people see your work and share it. Festivals are great, but they’re exclusive. I’ve met some amazing friends though traveling with my short and that’s invaluable. I also think a great film is a great film, regardless. If you see a great film online your likely to see the same great film at a festival, perhaps.
AINSLIE: I’m torn with this one. I love festivals. I love sitting in a big black room with people I don’t know and being given an experience you can’t get anywhere else. I think I’ll always enjoy having films show at festivals in that way. Having said that, the life that work can have online is exciting too. Maybe there are different types of film, some work better in a festival, and some online.
So what’s next in the pipeline? And where’s the best place for people to go to keep updated with your work?
WILL: Well Monkey Love Experiments is all shot and hopefully playing at a festival soon. Check out our film blog for updates after its completion. Ainslie and I are working on a couple of independent projects helping each other out and are starting work on a feature script.
AINSLIE: Stay tuned to whiterobot.co.uk
Finally, if you had one piece of advice for upcoming animators – what would it be?
WILL: Be bold with your work and think about why you’re using it.
AINSLIE: Try to do things you care about, we’ve got plenty crap in the world already. Do something that matters to you.