Tag Archives: Derek Hayes

The ‘lost’ Aardman Animations feature film and a new type of storytelling…

In yesterday’s blog animator and director Derek Hayes talked about his early career.

Here, he continues and updates… 


Derek Hayes talked to me from his West Country home via Skype during the coronavirus lockdown…

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do. 

I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.

JOHN: In 2000, you helped develop The Tortoise and The Hare at Aardman Animations. But The Tortoise and The Hare never happened because…?

DEREK: It disappeared when Dreamworks and Aardman separated. That had, I think, a 5-picture deal. Chicken Run was the first one, which did pretty well at the box office.

They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.

He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.

When we discussed the idea, there was nothing really except that it would be a cross between Creature Comforts and Brookside. 

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Run that Elevator Pitch past me again…

DEREK: A domestic story set in some normal city but with animals as the characters… and what came out of that was The Tortoise and The Hare.

The Tortoise and The Hare – Aardman’s ‘lost’ feature film

JOHN: The Greek fable?

DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.

The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.

No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.

But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”

JOHN: How had they solved the problem?

DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.

So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?

It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.

Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.

So we were just developing that… 

Chicken Run had done well at the box office, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-RabbitIt did really well around the world EXCEPT in America,

JOHN: Too British…

DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.

JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…

DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.

JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…

DEREK: Yeah.

JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website, you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?

DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.

JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?

DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.

You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.

So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies. 

They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.

You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.

JOHN: Copyright problems?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.

JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…

DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…


Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…

Skywhales (1983) is on YouTube… 

…and The Victor (1985) is on the BFI website

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-victor-1985-online

 

 

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Derek Hayes – from the Sex Pistols to the life of Christ and Madonna’s video

Derek Hayes, now a Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University

Two blogs agoI reprinted a piece I wrote in 1979 about the animated movie Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. The directors were two young National Film School graduates – Phil Austin and Derek Hayes. 

Last week, stuck at home by coronavirus lockdown, I chatted again to Derek Hayes via Skype…


JOHN: We were almost going to talk well over three weeks ago before the coronavirus lockdown when you came to London for the British Animation Awards…

Phil Hayes’ sheep-influenced BAA ‘flock’ wallpaper award

DEREK: Yes, the Awards are every two years and the awards themselves are actually made by animators for other animators and, because the initials are BAA, it is sheep-themed.

JOHN: You have made awards?

DEREK: One year, I made one that was flock wallpaper.

JOHN: Why?

DEREK: ‘Flock’ wallpaper… and the flock pattern design was of sheep.

JOHN: Doh!… Since we last met – you’ve made 10 short films, 2 cinema features and much more – videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John and lots of others; you’ve won a BAFTA for the opening titles of TV’s Jeeves and Wooster and all sorts of things…

 

JOHN: 41 years ago, you had just finished training as animators…

DEREK: When we were at the National Film School, we basically had no animation tutors – nor did we at Sheffield Art College when we first started. So it wasn’t until we got out into the world that we actually found out what real people did.

Because we were the first two Animation students at the National Film School – we said: “Well, you’re gonna have to spend some money and get people to come in and talk to us.” So we used to get anybody we wanted if they would come to Beaconsfield – to come and spend a day with us and show us films and talk.

One of the people who came was Terry Gilliam before he became really big in terms of film directing.

JOHN: So he was just known for Monty Python…

DEREK: Yes, I think he might have done Jabberwocky. But one of the things I always remember him saying was that the thing he was most proud of was a sequence where all he had done was a background and a picture of a dog lying on its back. There were voices off. One voice was saying: “That dog’s dead” and the other says “No he’s not! It’s alive. I saw it move!”… “No, he’s dead!”… “No! I saw it move!”

And that was it!

JOHN: So he just had to create one static picture…

DEREK: Yes. And he said people swore blind that they saw it move!

JOHN: So you learned simplicity from Terry Gilliam…

DEREK: Not really, because we just ignored everybody. We just did the most complex that we could. We did millions of drawings for everything, which is a crazy thing to do.

JOHN: You made Max Beeza and the City in The Sky at the National Film School in 1977; I last talked to you in 1979; then you and Phil Austin went on to run your own successful company Animation City…

DEREK: Yes, we did a lot of stuff and we were very successful for a few years – I think Animation City was probably the second most successful animation company in London after probably Hibbert Ralph.

JOHN: You and Phil animated Friggin’ in the Riggin’ for the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock n Roll Swindle. Surely a career highlight?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) We did all the animation and all the little bits of graphics – things like cash registers popping up and anything that needed a bit of effecty stuff – and inter-titles things – whatever.

JOHN: Animation City also did music videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John et al.

DEREK: Yes, mostly before Phil died. We had rented a nice building at the height of the property market and then there was the crash – I think I’ve been through about three or four recessions now. So, although the work was still coming in – some really good work, like those music videos – it wasn’t enough to sustain the building and all the staff.

JOHN: Phil Austin died in 1990…

DEREK: He was gay and he got AIDs at a time when there was nothing to ameliorate the condition.

JOHN: But Animation City carried on until 1993.

DEREK: Yes. Because we had been doing a lot of music business work, we had a lot of contacts so we still had a lot of music videos. Usually, the artist would decide they were sick of making videos – “I’m sick of standing on a rock with a guitar… Can’t we do an animated one where I don’t actually have to do anything?”

JOHN: I read an article yesterday where, on Superman, Marlon Brando tried to persuade the director that Superman’s dad should be played by a bagel and he would only do the voice-over – because he would still get paid the same mega-fee. The director decided against the idea.

DEREK: Well, Superman’s dad was Jor-el. That would have been Bag-el.

JOHN: Anyway, when you closed Animation City in 1993, you then pretty much went straight into your first feature film.

DEREK: The Miracle Maker, which was the life of Christ in animation…

JOHN: It was a traditional-ish animation?

DEREK: Well, The Miracle Maker was a collaboration between S4C in Wales and Russian animators. The Russians did stop-motion puppet animation and the Welsh were doing two-dimensional stuff. So those two things had to be put together.

JOHN: Why Russia? 

DEREK: They were cheap and did good work. S4C had had this idea to do the Bible in animation – nine half-hour Old Testament stories and four half hours for the New Testament. I did one about Elijah from the Old Testament but, when they started thinking about the New Testament, they realised it was going to be four half hours all about the same guy, so they thought: Why don’t we make a full-length feature film?

Because we were doing 2D and the Russians were doing stop motion, I had to come up with a way of combining the two things. So a lot of the visual effecty stuff came in there.

After that, S4C wanted another film based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi. It has a whole series of stories in it, including some of the earliest King Arthur stories. It was re-titled Otherworld for English-speakers.

S4C’s Otherworld, based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi

JOHN: That’s the English meaning of Mabinogi?

DEREK: No, the literal translation is ‘Stories to Tell Youth’.

JOHN: Nothing to do with Noggin The Nog?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) No. But Otherworld was my second feature. That was all 2D plus some live action and some visual effects to stitch them together.

JOHN: Nowadays, even live-action movies like the Marvel ones are almost mostly animations with all the CGI work.

DEREK: There are two things now. There’s still Special Effects – physical effects like blowing things up – and Visual Effects is everything else.

It goes from simple stuff if you’re like doing a period drama where you can add a townscape or you didn’t notice there was a factory chimney or a pylon in the background which you can get rid of with effects… through to where you might have only one real live actor against green screen and you can create an entire alien horde and all kinds of stuff around him.

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no… 

… CONTINUED HERE

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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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