Short of the Week

Interview with Tony Comley (Abigail)

Interview / November 6, 2007

What’s your background? How did you get into animation?

My intro to animation came from a decision to escape the corporate id I was studying in England by studying illustration in Brussels. Once there I misunderstood the commands of a partially deaf old teacher who didn’t speak a word of English, and I wrote and illustrated a children’s book (I was meant to construct a brochure for the Olympics). It was called The King Who Loved Apple Pies. It was basically Nietzsche for kids and was dreadful (seriously).

abigail_1Everyone said how much like a storyboard it looked, and it made me realise that film/animation had always been a passion, but until pretty much that year, the technology just wasn’t available to do it for less than a year’s wages. So off the back of this epiphany I applied to the Animation MA at the Royal College of Art with no more than 40 seconds of animation and a Flash movie that made sex noises when you roll over it.

Surprisingly, it worked, and I studied there for two years and had a great time getting to know London. In my second year, I made Abigail and have used it as an excuse to travel to various places around the world to see it screened.

Immediately after RCA I was selected for the Creative Pioneer Programme by an organisation called NESTA. Their remit is to promote innovation in the creative industries by selecting promising young artists and teaching them to start a business. I applied with an idea to create interactive animation for the Citizenship curriculum in the UK (It’s a brand new subject. It’s compulsory to teach and the government is pouring money into it. Also I have a huge chip on my shoulder about political apathy in Britain and wanted to do something about it).

After that I realised I had to get to know the industry a lot better, so I worked for the BBC for nine months as lead designer on an interactive educational cartoon to teach French. It was part of a £150 million project called BBC Jam which was cancelled halfway through after the european Commission complained about it gaining an unfair monopoly on teaching resources (The upper echelons of the BBC, as you may know, are constructed almost entirely by civil servants who’s mothers still wash their clothes for them and so they caved in straight away and robbed Britain of an excellent and free teaching resource).

That pretty much takes us up to date!

What was your inspiration for Abigail? How did this piece realize itself to you—both story and style?

Abigail was hard to write because it was a completely open brief. Until then i’d always had an audience, client and product to work with, so I decided the best approach was to collect all of the random ideas that pop into your head while you’re brushing your teeth or paying for gas and try and discern a common thread between them.

It wasn’t until the thought of the burning airplane popped into my head in a park in London that the film started to structure itself. After that it was a case of holding each tiny idea up against the this plane scenario and seeing which fit the best.

abgail_2It sounds wishy-washy but this kind of technique comes from the idea of a zeitgeist or memes (Richard Dawkin’s word for culturally prevalent ideas that are passed on and mutate like genes). It also relates to something Ed Hooks said about the roots of storytelling. He said that the role of the storyteller essentially hasn’t changed since the days of shamanism when stories were told to the tribe to vindicate their beliefs and bolster their reserve in tough times. I think he’s got a point. Even with apparently subversive and anarchic art: If it’s successful it’s a sure sign that it’s reflective of the values of some kind of ‘tribe’ of people who then re-digest it and use it to bolster their reserve in tough times.

That’s not to say that Abigail is subversive or even culturally important. For me it was just an experiment to see what kind of memes or cultural ephemera were in my head so that I might find something interesting… It’s like rooting through the trashcan of popular culture to try and find it’s bank details!

Why publish online?

Because that way more people see it! Abigail is a very computer-centric film. It was made entirely on a computer and designed to be viewed on a computer screen. It’s done the festival rounds and it’s great/terrifying to watch on a huge screen, but it has a much more interesting life on-line because once it’s part of the web it’s like a magnet with iron fillings. The oddest patterns emerge from those attracted and repelled by it.

abigail_3For example it was recently downloaded by a girl in China, stripped of it’s audio and re-scored with her favourite Spanish grunge band. the result was horrific but I was flattered. Two weeks later the band found it on YouTube and have since sent me T-Shirts, badges, CDs and god knows what else. They’ve asked me if I mind them making t-shirts with the burning plane to wear at their gigs. It’s very odd, but that’s Spain for you.

What’s next? Any future projects in the works?

The short answer is I don’t know. Right now I’m working on a couple of projects with other people. One is an animated TV series about a council estate of (literally) feral teenagers with cat-nip instead of heroin and all kinds of other anthropomorphic digs at The UK.

Like any filmmaker i’m eternally writing a new film, but actually the medium that inspires me right now is comic books. I recently started reading things like Watchmen by Alan Moore and various stuff by Robert Crumb and Daniel Clowes who did Ghost World. There are so many things about that medium that appeal to me. abigail_4For example one of the themes in Watchmen is the idea that all of time is a single physical object that we can’t discern as such because we’re built to travel along it in a straight line. So the book is designed such that when it’s closed certain panels line up and reveal themes that are much harder to discern when it’s open… completely fucking pointless, but I love it.

So i’d love to write a comic book (or graphic novel if i’m feeling insecure) and actually i’ve come across a guy called Scott McCloud who makes comics designed to be read exclusively on-line that are faithful to the technology. I don’t think he succeeds enormously well but now and then he has a great idea and i’d love to take that further… A graphic story told entirely through a web browser that properly plays to the strengths of that technology without becoming either an animation or a slideshow… there’s probably a good reason why it’s not done, but i’d love to give it a try.

~
Andrew makes no attempt to hide his love for the magic art of animation. He appreciates compelling visuals but never forgets that in this modern age, a strong story always reigns supreme. You can see his work at andrewsallen.com or his latest film The Thomas Beale Cipher.
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