Two blogs ago, I 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…
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.
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.
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 …