Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to choose drawing and animation as your means of expression?
Hello I’m from a small town in the west midlands of England called Great Malvern which is where I grew up. Its famous for really nice hills and water.
I stumbled and flopped into drawing to be honest. I really flunked on my A levels at sixth form college (I studied ICT and Business Studies) and was working at Argos on the Malvern retail estate, which I absolutely loved as I just messed around on the top floor of the stock room launching stuff down the conveyor belt and left alone mostly.
I think it was a friend of my mums that mentioned this part time art access course at the Malvern Hills Art college, it was mostly for retired and generally more mature people, but they let me on when I was 19 and really looked after me. Had some great times there and was great being surrounded by people older than me to give me some home truths and good life lessons that sorted me out. They really were the sweetest people in the world and forever grateful for how they all looked after me as if I was the child of the whole class.
In terms of the work I made, I’d never studied art before so really was starting from scratch. But the teachers really embraced that with me and could see I was struggling with some of the more super accurate drawing exercises. They showed me artists like Jean Michel Basquiat and Jean Dubuffet and lent me books of theirs that I constantly looked at and was pretty obsessed with. They were the first artists I looked at that got me really excited and made me want to make stuff.
The animation side came from doing a life drawing class where we moved around the model every few seconds and quickly got down the shape of the model in each position. Then at the end we flicked through them, I still remember it like yesterday and still get my body tingling, because I honestly just found it magical, seeing these scruffy drawings of mine suddenly have life. Fuck. So good.
Is drawing and animating the same thing for you?
It’s the same thing for me. If I make one drawing all I’m thinking is “I want to see that move”. If I see a painting Picasso has blasted out I’m always thinking (I wonder what that would look like in a sequence of 24 more paintings following on from this one? Maybe a boil? Maybe a little loop?) painters are lazy, get that stuff moving about I say.
What are your favorite drawing tools?
Depends on what I’m drawing. Anything that makes a deep mark. I’ve used oil pastels for when I’ve combined it with paint based on techniques by Basquiat which I’ve always enjoyed, takes away any notion of drawing anything detailed so it’s all about “how do I make this as simple as possible” and creates a really nice textural contrast. My latest animation is done with coloured pens which has been a nice change. And when it comes to using a pencil, it’s about finding anything super soft like 8B or something, or any sort of oil based pencil so I can apply it as hard as possible and create a nice thick dark line. I’ve also done a few digital animation things and again I like to keep the ‘brush’ super thick, but I still find drawing digitally tough just because of looking at a screen.
Why do you prefer to work with analogue techniques?
I hate being on a computer. It’s the worst. I spend way too much of my life staring at screens anyway. I hate my phone, it’s poison. It’s annoying, I like to use a brick phone I have but I often switch back to my smartphone mostly for uber. I’m pathetic.
Working with analogue techniques lets my brain escape and it’s truly my mega happy place where I switch my phone off, computers off and I’m just sitting/standing there getting lost in my animation, nothing better.
Also working analogue, it encourages a lot more happy accidents that I try to include and gives the work an energy and spontaneity in certain actions that I don’t believe is achievable or at least a lot harder to achieve digitally.
What is your starting point for a film?
An idea for an animation really can come from anywhere. Something a friend says? Something I see on tv that I thought was funny? something I found sad? A dance move or movement I found myself doing? A sound I heard on the train? Something I tasted? A face I pulled in the mirror? Really anything. I like to be always on the prowl and alert for that next ooooooo moment. when that ooooooo moment arrives it’s about jarring it up. Maybe jot down in a notebook or something. Then its bang into the studio and churning it out.
Do you ever work with sketches or preliminary drawings?
Yeh sometimes, mostly for the animation called “please let me in“. There’s a lot of rotating and characters flipping in 3d spaces, so actually quite a bit of planning out sequences for me. And yeah I do a little bit of sketchbook work for character design etc, from time to time but a lot of the time I go straight charging into the animation without much planning. Again depends on the animation and changes from film to film.
What do you think is necessary to know about animation rules and/or techniques in order to tackle an animation project? …or is it better to know as little as possible?
Yes and no. I don’t like the word “rules” when talking about creating animation, or anything for that matter…….They are techniques that people have come up with that worked for them. Doesn’t work for everyone everyone.
But I can only go from my own personal experience. When I was studying I found doing animation really tricky and stressful when starting out. Ironically the first exercise I was given at the film school of Wales Newport was a morphing exercise, and I really struggled and was terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. My friends from the course still mock me for my ‘morphing’ tea cup I did. Still gives me shudders. I’m pretty sure the animator Luiz Stockler has it on one of his old hard drives somewhere which he threatens to expose to the world from time to time. It Really REALLY was awful and I was so bummed out after and questioned really what I am doing and was considered bailing from the course.
The rest of the year looked at the principles and all the Richard Williams book stuff and did exercises looking at squash and stretch, exaggeration, slowing in and out etc. which were super useful and really helped me build my confidence. Maybe not to the untrained eye, but I still use a lot of what I learnt from those early exercises in my current work. Without those exercises I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now. But I found it frustrating again about this thing about the sacred ‘rules’ and that it has to be exactly like how it is in the book etc. Oh man I think that is such guff. Luckily I had a couple of tutors who saw me adapting the exercises to my own way of working and pushed me to pursue that.
I teach at Kingston School of Art and I run some workshops in the 1st year on the Illustration Animation course based on some of the techniques that helped me when starting out with animation. I feel most books and online tutorials over complicate everything and make approaching animation too intimidating, so I try and simplify everything based on these techniques. You can really see the confidence of the students build throughout the year who in my time working there have been really special and inspiring. The aim is that I have given them a base layer and hopefully some confidence to show that animation isn’t this big scary thing and that they can then take it into whichever direction or process of animation they want after they leave the 1st year. Do they need to pursue the sacred techniques further to be perfect animators? Not necessarily . I don’t look at animators, let’s say Peter Burr or Annapurna Kumar and think they studied every single principle of animation from the animator’s survival kit to perfection, (maybe they did though? Have to ask them), do I think they make incredibly exciting work that pushes animation and gets my body and mind tingling away, hell yeah. And for me that’s what makes animation special, not how well you can animate a character picking up a box.
Did you build up your own set of rules or working strategies over the years?
I guess I feel I did for a little bit of my time. Which frustrates me looking back. There’s a few films that had similar patterns, similar moments that occur and maybe played it too safe in my own little world. It can be hard to break that if you’re working on a particular long project to not start to over think and revert back to old tropes. I try to keep reminding myself to keep the idea simple, don’t force something on it that doesn’t exist, do what you think is fun and retain that energy. The second you start playing it safe and overthinking it will go flat.
Can you tell us about your process of animating?
I tend to just go for it. I have a vague notion in my head of how it’s going to pan out. Again it’s going back to the accidental mistakes, when you go full storming it those mistakes happen and lead you through other exciting paths that I enjoy blindly going down. I tend to not test stuff whilst doing it, I find it becomes too tempting to make everything look perfect then and you can fixate on stuff that doesn’t matter. What tends to happen is I draw too fast/too spaced out and have to do in-betweens particularly for tough movements. That’s the only editing in terms of the actual animation that occurs.
To me sound and image seem and inseparable entity in your films. As far as I know it is all made by yourself?
Yes it is. I used to use a bigger mixture of homemade sounds and license free sounds on my older films but now tend to just be all my own which I much prefer. I do animation sacrilege and tend to do all the sound at the end. But during the entire process I have ideas about what it’s going to be. It’s only really when I see something moving I truly get the vibes of what I want the sound to be, again it’s all about those small intricate happy mistakes and energy in the movement that makes the sound what it becomes.
Your films seem as if they are born out of pure spontaneity and intuition. They release an incredible freedom and lifelines, yet they don’t seem completely random. Where are the moments at which you need to structure or plan things regarding the animation process and the dramatic structure of the film?
It always needs a thread especially for the longer animations. This could be from the pacing, the characters, the sound etc. Without it the animation falls apart and it might get dangerously close to the ‘random’ sphere. Again going back to a previous question, I feel I was starting to repeat certain structures in animations and that was frustrating me. So I try to stay away from overthinking the structure and try to let the structure come to me. If that makes sense?…
It’s a fine balance. The animations that I’ve made, that I still enjoy watching and don’t send me to a pit of doom came from an incredibly simple idea, when I’ve stuck with that simple idea it’s all good, when I’ve veered away and tried to make it something else it’s gone semi plop. In terms of the animation dynamics and pacing, it’s only when you have the different scenes together that you can start moving stuff around and working out what it’s going to be. Much like the sound, it’s only when I see stuff moving that I truly start to understand the structure and energy of the film.
Where do you take inspiration from?
Oh my days where to start? It’s really all over the shop. From old school painters like Aleckhinksy, Karel Appel, Jean Dubuffet etc. to more contemporary artists like Ruohan Wang, Alfie Kungu, Anythony Coleman. Musicians like John Lurie, Moondog, Jonathan Richman, Busdriver, Daniel Johnston, Kevin Ayers etc. Writers/poets like Daniil Kharms, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouc, Peter Blegvad.
Animation wise I’ve mentioned Peter Burr and Annapurnma Kumar who are two contemporaries I dig, I’d include Ted Wiggin, David O’Reilly, Amy Lockhart, Reka Bucsi , Nikita Diakur, Michael Frei, Becky and Joe, Sean Buckelew, Caleb Wood as people I have huge respect for in terms of their work and also all super nice people. Seriously, this list could go on forever and doesn’t even scratch the service of the amount of animators I admire, I’ve had such a privilege to meet some amazing directors over the years from going to loads of film festivals. It’s cliche, but it’s super exciting seeing what new directions people are taking animation. I tend to gravitate to the works where you can truly get a grasp of a person’s personality stamped into the film.
When I was starting out it was all about a mixture of Bruce Bickford and the mad animations he made, was incredible to get to meet him at Ottawa International Animation Festival one year. Mixed with early Jonathan Hodgson work, when I first saw his film Night Club it was a real ooooooooohhhhhhh moment for me, and was the first time I truly saw loose drawings being animated effectively.
I find myself watching skateboard videos a lot, especially in my low moments. I find them super therapeutic. Although skating is a commercial ding dong in some corners there is still such a DIY playful aspect to it especially with the videoing that I really connect with and get excited to watch. It was Mark Gonzales who really opened my eyes to it all, he has so many great interviews and the famous blind video part with the John Coltrane music never fails to get my creative juices fizzing. Also the Louie Barletta part from Bag of suck to the Rod Stewart Young Turks song is perfect, super playful whilst showing some amazing skating.
I think that’s enough for now. Really I could go on forever.
Would you call yourself rather an animator or an artist…?
An animator artist perhaps? A animator fartist? A turdimator?
Your protagonists often seem vulnerable, maybe because they cannot predict what is going on around them – or even with them. That is hilarious as much as it is tragic. Can you tell us a bit more about them?
They are an extension of myself I feel. Apart from my film Hogan. Which was Hulk Hogan. But yes my characters are extensions of me. I don’t think too much into them to be honest, I guess that goes with the nature of how I do my work.
You touch on their vulnerability and seeming to not know what is going to happen to them. I guess that’s life isn’t it though. We are all vulnerable and don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Live everyday as if it’s your last and all that because like in my characters cases, you never know if a big banana might squash you or you will do a huge never ending fart and touch on their vulnerability and seeming to not know what is going to happen to them. I guess that’s life isn’t it though. We are all vulnerable and don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Live everyday as if it’s your last and all that because like in my character’s cases, you never know if a big banana might squash you or you will do a huge never ending fart and disappear.
Do you prefer to work by yourself or can you imagine to do a collaboration work?
There have been very few collaborations or commissions I’ve done that have ended happily. I’d imagine especially when I was younger that I was a complete butt hole to work with. I found it tough and still find it a challenge working with people unless it is my sole control.
I say this… there’s a few little pies approaching ready for my fingers to dip into in the very near future with people I really trust. Which is exciting and they are leaving me to it really.
Producing an animated film involves many skills, not only drawing. Is there any stage of production that you would like to further or that you find annoying and would like to skip?
Not really I love it all. Truly I do. I just wish with editing and scanning I didn’t need to be glued to a computer so much. There’s no way around that unless I started working and editing solely on 16mm or something. I’d have to get a much better job to afford that and sounds a bloody nightmare. So I won’t moan too much about it. It’s all those things that make animation the best no? Mixing them all together to create something that’s truly yours with its many layers, and then on top of that have the opportunity to screen it in a big cinema full of people at film festivals. Before most screenings I have to pinch myself that someone actually wants to show a film of mine to so many people. It’s surreal and exciting. There’s not many buzzes better than that and why I feel very privileged to be a part of this amazing filmmaking community.
Peter Millard is an acclaimed animator and artist from the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England. His independent animated films have been shown at short film festivals around the world, collecting numerous awards. Alongside animation Millard’s practice extends to sculpture and sound, and he currently works from his studio in Deptford, South East London.