Boasting Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park and Peppa Pig’s Mark Baker amongst its most famous graduates, the National Film and Television School’s Directing Animation MA has made a name for itself as one of the most prestigious courses in its field. Here at Directors Notes, we always keep an eye out for the work of its students, including often attending the end-of-year grad show, and one name that’s been on our radar for a while now is recent graduate Matthew Lee. Joining us today to discuss short stop-motion piece Cabin Pressure and give us a brief insight into grad film One Liner, Matthew explains the importance of comedy and the appeal of “tragic” characters in his work.
Cabin pressure was made as your first year film at the NFTS – what was the brief from the school in terms of making this film?
The film was made as part of the character module as part of the Directing Animation course. Everything started from a character we created ourselves – mine being an overly-zealous health and safety officer called Graham Penge. Once we designed a character we were paired randomly with writers on the screenwriting course who had also created characters of their own.
My writer, Karim Khan’s character was Cynthia, a faded and extravagant Hollywood star. The brief was to create a short animation where these two characters meet and interact in a single setting and have some kind of effect on each other. We were pretty much free to choose whichever technique we wanted and had pretty much free reign in terms of story – provided we could get everything done in the timespan – which was 2 and a half months from start to finish.
Original Character sketches of Graham Penge
Can you introduce the premise of the film to our readers and explain a little about where the idea for the story came from?
Cabin Pressure is a short stop-motion comedy that follows fussy and nervous passenger Graham Penge on board a routine flight as he is sat next to disruptive passenger Cynthia. Very quickly in the flight things run into difficulties and Graham soon realises that his health and safety pamphlets might not be the answer to all his problems.
The premise for the film came about as I was deciding how the very different characters I had ended up with could possibly end up being thrown together. The idea of the aeroplane journey seemed too perfect as it would allow some funny moments for Graham, who would naturally love the safety aspects of flying, and allow him to play off the eccentric and more liberated nature of Cynthia, especially as they react to the same unfolding crisis.
Graham is a character that I really loved creating and thinking up situations for. There’s more than a little of myself in him, and I love the very British idea of being very overly prepared for the worst case scenario and thinking you’re in control, but then when the situation actually arises being completely hopeless in a crisis.
A still from One Liner – Matthew’s NFTS grad film that orbits around a has-been comedian on a cruise ship
Comedy seems to play an important role in your filmmaking, what is it about humour that you find appealing in your storytelling?
I’ve always been a big and slightly obsessive fan of comedy from an early age so I can’t really imagine making a film that doesn’t try to make people laugh in some way. The appeal of comedy for me is that it speaks to our inner truths. I once got told that drama gives us an insight of what we want the world to be, whilst comedy shows us who we really are including our insecurities and flaws – which for me as quite an introspective person is quite appealing.
We laugh because we recognize certain things and this shared recognition can be incredibly cathartic – and the idea of an audience being able to connect with what you are doing like that is really appealing. I think that’s probably a wordy and pretentious way of saying I like to make people laugh and get an instant reaction during a screening.
The evolution of the models used in Cabin Fever
What was the most challenging aspect of the production for Cabin Pressure?
I had never attempted a stop-motion film or properly made puppets before making Cabin Pressure so I went into it not sure if it was going to end up being a complete disaster! Luckily I had a lot of support and guidance, especially from my partner Sally who is a very talented production designer. She was always on hand when I was trying to find fabrics and I even roped her into making the aeroplane set, of which she did an amazing job.
When I turned up one day with fully made puppets I think they were a little relieved!
Although it was a challenge, as everything was new to me at the time and a lot of hard work, I found designing and making the puppets one of the most gratifying parts of the production. I think my tutors were quite worried if someone who had come from a CG/digital background would be able to manage it – and I made most of them at home – so when I turned up one day with fully made puppets I think they were a little relieved!
When it came to the stop-motion animation, this was pretty much all new to me, so I had no idea how long everything was going to take. I had an advantage that I had by chance chosen a premise where the characters are seated for the majority of the film so that definitely helped! The actual process of animating though could be hard work, but I felt like being pushed out of my comfort zone made me try a lot harder and made me more determined to get things right.
Matthew working on Cabin Fever – the production looks a lot different than that of his grad film One Liner (see below)
The short has had a healthy festival run, playing at events worldwide. What has this attention meant for your career as a filmmaker so far?
It’s been a lovely surprise that a very short project could have such a life. It’s also been quite surprising that what I thought of as such a British specific type of humour could translate so well and be received by other countries, from Russia to America and even China. The main thing has been it’s given me the chance to travel to lots of different places and meet lots of other filmmakers along the way, which has been very inspiring and given me a lot of exposure. The fact that it picked up some awards along the way gave me a lot of confidence, which was much-needed as I dived into the production of my grad film not long after it was completed.
Stills from Matthew Lee’s NFTS grad film One Liner
Your NFTS final film One Liner is also now complete and starting its festival run – what can we expect from this in terms of style and story?
One Liner follows has-been comedian Ian Plinth as he attempts to make his solo comeback on board an ageing cruise liner in front of a hostile audience of geriatrics. Ian was once part of a successful double act in the 1970s but was always regarded as the rubbish one. Now he’s back and ready to take centre stage, but things don’t go quite to plan.
I love tragic characters, I find imperfections and vulnerability very endearing.
For One Liner I decided I wanted to focus on the tragic world of a washed up comedian. I love tragic characters, I find imperfections and vulnerability very endearing and something that comedy does so well. I’m also drawn, in a lot of my films, to characters who are against themselves in some way, rather than necessarily external forces – and I think the idea of being in the spotlight and the pressure of entertaining is something quite relatable.
I decided to stick with the stop motion/2D drawn face combination that I used in Cabin Pressure, but decided this time rather than going for fabric puppets I wanted to push the 2D facial animation aspect a bit further and use a material for the puppet that I could actually paint directly onto myself to help integrate the line work. I decided to use foam latex puppets and was fortunate to have the support of the model making department at the NFTS to help me create the puppets. Based on my designs the model makers sculpted and cast the puppets – and from there I painted them. The final film has quite a graphic look because of this, with the illustrated style even continuing onto the sets, painstakingly painted on by our team of art assistants.
A selection of behind-the-scenes photos from One Liner
How much did your work on Cabin Pressure influence the storytelling and production for this film?
In terms of storytelling, I think I learnt a few lessons from Cabin Pressure which I tried to keep in mind when making One Liner. The main thing to me was keeping things simple. I think one of the reasons Cabin Pressure works is it really is very simple, but that’s part of the joy of it. The audience is just there for the ride and gets swept up in things and isn’t questioning or trying to work things out. I think when I first started work on One Liner I kind of lost sight of this and at first, tried to make an overly complicated story with multiple flashbacks and loads of exposition. Because of this people just weren’t able to emotionally engage with the characters as they were too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and they were certainly weren’t finding it funny! So looking back at Cabin Pressure it helped me to simplify and clarify the story for One Liner.
As well as simplicity I learnt to appreciate the power of brevity which definitely went on to inform how One Liner was structured. Despite just being a short project I still managed to make Cabin Pressure overly-long in early versions of the animatic. My tutors were constantly nagging me to cut things out as they felt I was repeating the same beats. Although at first, I was quite precious and reluctant to do this, when I finally started being brutal and chopping bits out it only seemed to get stronger as a whole. As a result, I think the final film is incredibly lean and I don’t think there’s a moment wasted. For comedy I think this is so important as the rhythm of the film is vital to the humour and if there’s a lull in the film then it can mean the next few jokes don’t land and at worst you can have lost your audience completely. I definitely kept this in mind when making One Liner and tried to boil the beats down to their most integral parts and try to make sure that every beat progresses the story in some way.
Matthew Lee on the set of One Liner
Now that you’ve graduated from the NFTS, what plans do you have for your immediate future?
After the all encompassing nature of the process of making a film at the NFTS I’m glad to finally have my life back after completing my graduation film! Now it’s all done though I’m looking forward to seeing how it does at festivals as well as starting to develop something new and continuing the use of practical animation techniques.
Cabin Pressure is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.