Where did the idea for A Family Portrait first come from?
I wanted to continue using this rotoscoped technique to explore the ‘human condition’, which of course is quite vague. I was interested in the family unit, a the British trait of suppressing emotions and sweeping feelings under the carpet. Once I decided on a female protagonist and set it during a photography (which I find deliciously awkward) session the script fell into place relatively quickly.
We had one when I was at a young age but a far less eventful session. It was very traditional and formal—white shirts and a pull down back-drop of a bookcase. I don’t really remember it, but those pictures came to really represent us, truthfully or not. Before making the short, I was quite into these modern ones where you’re encouraged to jump on each others’ backs or have a tug of war. They tend to make me cringe a lot. The idea stemmed from the question, ‘what if the family was having a bad day?’
What techniques and philosophies did you look at while making the film?
Technique-wise I developed the rotoscope technique by drawing by hand onto printouts (rather than using a tablet). This is of course labourious (printing drawing scanning and laying out), but I was happy with the faint texture of the print out and being able to colour it with inks. Philosophy-wise I enjoy flawed characters that you can sympathise with so quickly I developed this mother character who is consumed with paranoia, but this comes from her own guilt. I also like surprising the audience. By using animation AND comedy it’s easy to make the audience feel relaxed—they don’t expect to be challenged. But for me, films that provoke a guttural response are the ones I remember.
Rotoscoping, I know, can be a bit of a blessing and a curse—it offers you a guide for motion but it can also be difficult to break outside of the captured image. You’ve struck a fascinating balance of both real and surreal elements. How did you arrive at that style?
I guess I always wanted to draw, but I’m not very good at it. But give me a figure, and I can trace the outline all day long! When I started, I rotoscoped a man speaking, true to life. It seemed a bit lifeless and redundant, so I added a giant tongue that stuck out after the sentence, and it just brought it to life. They act as kind of tics or internal dialogues and add a layer of story to the film. Aside from these ‘tricks’ I think it’s really useful in characterising and adding little subtleties. It’s like me adding a layer of performance over the actors.
Rotoscoping tends to be the black sheep of the animation world, and people have told me (on blogs AND in person) that it’s not ‘proper’ animation. I myself have problems with a lot of rotoscoping, but it’s the same with any technique—it can be used effectively and not so. But for me, it’s about engaging with the audience. Whether it’s animation or not is beside the point. Oh, and it does take bloody ages to do!
I expected very little from this film, it was funded by Channel4 and Film London yet I never expected it to be as successful as my previous short (Stand Up). I learnt that you can never assume anything and not to cater a film to what you think the audience wants. For instance I assumed it was a very British film and the humour wouldn’t travel well yet it’s had a strong response in places as far as Japan. However personal a film might feel it can still carry universal themes (without being ‘mainstream’).
What are your thoughts on releasing the film online?
It’s probably been the biggest learning curve for this film and the production team. It’s too soon to know if it worked, but I feel we left it too long. This was down to various regional sales and rights rather than egos, but having said that, the film has had a long and fruitful festival life. Of course, exposure at festivals cannot compare to online festivals, but I wouldn’t be prepared to dismiss them entirely. I have only entered free festivals or when the fees have been waived—keeping costs down. Luckily we won a few prizes early on (particularly Clermont Ferrand) and this led to us being approached a lot. Eighteen months is pushing it a bit, but I think you have to judge it on the success and interest in your work. There’s no harm in staggering an online release thus doubling the impact of the work. Film festivals aren’t redundant but shouldn’t be revered or elitist. Also releasing a short online after it’s festival period can generate interest in new work. That’s my hope!
What’s next for you?
I’m slap-bang in the middle of a new short entitled The Pub. You could call it the third in a trilogy of rotoscoped shorts (I don’t think I have the mental strength to do another). It pushes the technique in new directions and is the most ambitious yet. It’s quite frightening sticking to the non-commercial path, but I’m passionate about storytelling and want to continue working in film whether it’s shorts, features, live-action or animation. You can follow the film’s progress on my twitter and website!