In Conversation with DICE

Still from Man in a Cat animation

Dice is the pseudonym of animator/director Louis Hudson and writer Ian Ravenscroft. They're known for their funny, absurd, and sometimes disturbing films that have appeared on television and picked up awards around the world.

 

PF : How did you get into animation and why?

Louis - Ian and I became friends based on our mutual habit of drawing strange and silly cartoons.

It was when we were choosing universities, that I realised that the drawings weren't complete without moving. I was also obsessed with the career of Terry Gilliam and knew that I wanted to make live action films as much as animation. I had no idea what was involved in making a professional live action film, but I knew that given some paper and a camera, I could work out how to make an animated film.

Ian - I grew up watching a ton of animation. Ren & Stimpy and The Simpsons were big influences, alongside things like Danger Mouse and Count Duckula.  The 90s was a great time to be young and watching TV. The variation was incredible. It's a medium I feel very natural writing in, and understanding how Louis works as an animator is a big help. It's a difficult thing to get right unless you understand the realities of making it happen visually, so having that close collaboration was a big reason it has developed the way it has.

 

PF: What have been your major milestones along the way?

Louis - I got a few early opportunities at university. The first ever proper 10 seconds I animated got picked up by an MTV competition. Towards the end of my course, online video platforms were appearing everywhere. That helped build the possibility that there were all sorts of routes into making films and that online could be our niche.

In 2008, a rough version of my unfinished student film, Man in a Cat was featured on YouTube's homepage. This helped us to make contacts in the industry and encouraged us to keep animating and experimenting with live action.

In 2010, Man in a Cat was commissioned by UK Film Council. We got to work with the great comedy talents of Kevin Eldon and Josie Long. We could finally afford to collaborate with animators we wouldn't have met otherwise.

It set a domino effect that's still going on. Its success on the festival circuit placed us better in the animation industry and made it easier to pitch for more ambitious work. 2013 brought two Channel 4 Random Acts commissions. Our animated film Don't Fear Death, led us to work with Rik Mayall and Ed Bye. That's an experience neither of us will ever forget.

Our second commission was Gregory Is a Dancer. This was our first commissioned live action film and was a great chance to fit everything we had learnt into making it as distinctive and fun as possible.

Our latest big milestone is DuckManBoy that was made for Nickelodeon International. We had a lot of fun working on Nickelodeon and it's been really well received. It recently became our 4th Vimeo Staff Pick, and Nickelodeon International's most viewed short on Vimeo.

 

 

 

Dice with the late Rik Mayall
The late great Rik Mayall

PF: What obstacles have you encountered and continue to in being animators and developing creative animation projects?

Louis - Animation takes a long time, so you always have to pick and choose what you spend energy on creatively. It's more time that you can spend finding all of the holes in an idea or finding things you'd rather be tinkering with. But that can also be a very good exercise as long as you have an idea you really care about.

Collaborations can also be more of a slog than in live action. It's like 5 marathons in a row rather than an assault course.

Ian - Funding is always an issue. I wouldn't say animation is any more expensive than film, but the opportunities provided by funding bodies for the medium are increasingly rare. Between Creative England and BFI, there are hardly any funding slots for animated film. Similarly, TV has limited animation outlets. I think it's a perception thing in part. It is seen as slow and expensive, but that doesn't always have to be the case.

PF: What are the major creative projects you are involved with or trying to get off the ground at the moment?

Louis - We're looking at more live action silliness after enjoying the results of Croissant, which is starting a run of festivals including Flatpack. We're also planning what our our next proper animated "festival" film will be.

Ian - There are a few projects brewing that I'm excited about and we'd like to tackle together soon. I'm also currently working at the BBC in their Digital Guerrillas content innovation team where I focus on new forms of digital storytelling using new technology and platforms. I've been lucky to be able to take my comedy and short film experience into that and it’s definitely broadened my horizons when it comes to creative projects and the wider media machine.

Man in a croissant head-piece
Croissant.

 

PF What advice would you give to those who want to be animators today?

Louis - Buy Richard Williams' The Animator's Survival Kit. Study it fully. Practise. Then study it again.

Keep making stuff for yourself. That's probably why you started and the more you make, the better you'll get.

Be inspired by other animation, but absorb live action films, books, philosophy, art, life. If you only reproduce what's already been made you'll always be making poorer versions of what exists. Smash some other inspirations together and you might find uncharted territory.

Meet people and be interested in them. Go to festivals and make friends. In a few years you might end up working with each other or find a project to collaborate on. We met our producer friend Jon Petrie when he was running an event called Popcorn Comedy. We now owe most of our careers to him. Watch his TV series called People Just Do Nothing.

Ian - Collaborate with other disciplines. A lot of what lets independent animation down is often the writing or the sound. If you can find a good writer who understands story and structure, and a composer or sound designer who you can work with, take those opportunities to reach out. Having a network that can become a creative team is a big step forward.

Also, be really clear about what you are and what you want. Are you a director looking to make short films? Or are you an animator looking for a studio job? They require very different skills and varied approaches.

PF: How is the animation world looking like in the region at the moment? What would you like to see happen? why Birmingham?

Louis - It's still largely a cottage industry but there are some well established companies and people doing great work. Birmingham's a great place to have space to do your own thing and make relationships with people doing relevant work.

A larger animation studio in Birmingham would bring a lot of stability to upcoming talent and make it easier to retain potential freelancers. However, I can see the attraction of staying small, and the internet makes working remotely fairly easy.

Animation Forum WM brought a lot of activity to the region when that was going. It'd be nice to see that revived in some form.

PF: Ian, as the writer of your duo, can you tell us more about any specifics you maybe think about whilst writing for animation? Is there a significant difference between Live Action and Animation?

Ian - Writing for animation and live action is more similar than you might think. While it's easy to assume writing for animation means you can do absolutely anything, it's not really the case. You still have to adhere to all the pressures of maintaining a logical world for your characters, and you still have to craft a compelling and entertaining story. That's true of any medium.

I think the freedom in animation is knowing you can do things like bend physics if needed as well as getting really specific about certain ideas without the worry of having to capture it on a shoot, or the weather turning. The pace of animation is also a lot more fluid; you can push a lot of information to an audience in a short amount of time as you have so much control of the frame.

There seems to be an established acceptance in animation that you can push the boundaries and tell some really 'out there' stories if you want to. It's a harder sell with live-action as the audience has that strong connection with reality before you even begin. Weird things happening in animation is perhaps less of a logical leap for people to make. They're already on board.

Louis - Generally, there isn't any difference. They're just two filmmaking mediums for realising a concept.

We usually find that there's no point animating an idea if it can be filmed. Our last short, Croissant, is a good example. Some people might think of it as an animated idea, but it was more surprising to film it with prosthetics and a bit of VFX. If the film was animated you would expect something that couldn't happen in real life.

Alternatively, something like King of the Hill or the Stare Out Competitions in Big Train worked because it's a loaded medium. It's funny that someone drew a scene where not much happens. It makes you focus in on the nuances.

PF: Louis, as the animator, is there a specific reason why you chose to specialise in 2D?

I think 2D animation features more in my animation influences. Animation has also been an extension of me sketching and has been a way for me to make a film without many other resources. Live action seems to fulfil the need for other aesthetics.

I have the upmost respect for stopmotion though. There's no purer animator than one making multiple characters perform with emotion in a single take. 2D animators have the crutch of being allowed to revise over and over till the motion's correct.

PF: What do you think are the strengths/weaknesses of this medium are and how important is it do you feel to define your own style or way of animating?

Louis - Apart from the above, I think it's slightly easier to crew up for a stop motion production as most time will be spent on the visuals rather than the very specific role of making a puppet act.

I think 2D can lend itself to comedy easier. More movements are possible to pull off because you're not restrained to a physical environment. The ability to revise the motion also makes it easier to nail comedy timing.

I think it's important to feel like you're using the right style and do it as well as you can. I'm not sure it's important to actively find a style because the things you find interesting will keep occurring to you like a bad habit. I think you only really have a style until someone tells you that you have one.

Ian - In some ways, artists can also be stuck in their own style. It can limit ambition, or even force you to repeat yourself. Having a style is great but probably not at the expense of being versatile and rounded in your approach to storytelling. It's important never to put style over substance.

 

See the guys website to  find out about Birmingham screenings of Croissant as part of the FlatPack festival.

 

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