Saturday, June 25, 2011
I want to switch gears for a bit and use some posts to publish some interviews I conducted with some of today's top talents working in North American animation. Today's interview, with twice Oscar-nominated Cordell Barker, dates from 2009 for use in my book Directing Animation. I first met Cordell in Annecy 2001, and then a few times after that in Ottawa. As a longtime admirer of his work dating back to his infectious NFBC film "The Cat Came Back" (1988), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Cordell some questions about his work and process. While I used a lot of his answers in my book, I'm pleased to be able to share the unused portions of the interview on this post. I repeated one section (used in the book) where Cordell talks about his influences, just because it was fun to include links to the films he referenced. Hope you enjoy!
Cordell Barker was born in Winnipeg in 1956. He began his career in 1974 working for Sesame Street and collaborating on a number of commercials. In 1982, he joined the NFB where he made his first film, The Cat Came Back (1988). The short was a huge audience favourite and garnered 16 awards in addition to picking up an Oscar® nomination. He subsequently returned to advertising, directing commercials for major companies (Bell Canada, Nike, Coca Cola, etc.) before returning to filmmaking with Strange Invaders (2001). It turned out to be another sensational hit, winning 16 awards and receiving an Oscar® nomination. Runaway (2009), (pictured below) his third film and third collaboration with the NFB, is likewise an absurd comedy filled with latent social satire. As a filmmaker who focuses on pacing, action and narrative, Cordell Barker enjoys this particular form of expression because it enables him to make the most of his incisive sense of humour.
1- Who are your indie animation hereos and what has their work taught you?
An obvious animation hero of mine is Richard Condie (The Big Snit). His films really make the most of distilling character animation down to its simplest form. It wasn’t about the animation, it was about the timing and poses of simple cycles and strong poses. It doesn’t hurt that his ideas were also extremely funny. And that he lives in the same city as me. Another would have to be Paul Driessen (An Old Box). There was something extremely poetic in the animation and timing of his characters that were like beautifully balletic lumps of lard.
2-In your indie films, in what areas have you sought out collaboration with other creative people and why?
The only real collaboration I’ve sought out is in the audio. I’m not a musician so I have to find someone who can bring that component into the mix. This is always a difficult process as music is so abstract. You can discuss it all you want, but it’s such a flowing ephemeral thing that it can be hard to pin down. The second you hear the note played it is gone. Not like working with a graphic artist where you can sit and stare at the drawing and discuss it in concrete terms. With a musician you can discuss endlessly and never be sure that you’re talking about the same thing. Also, I have a very strong sense of what I want musically, but since I’m not a musician, I can’t adequately describe it or play it in any way. This is obviously very unfair on the musician. Now that’s for the musician. As for the sound designer, that’s a whole different story. Working with the sound designer is a much more concrete process where I have a complete involvement. I really love fully immersing myself in this part. I think I might be a bit of a control freak.
3-Is there a secret to good communication with your collaborators?
I’m not sure there’s any secret to collaboration. The one thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t work to settle on something so that everyone can get along and stay friendly. It doesn’t serve the film. Often in the past, on a commercial job, to be the nice guy I would say “sure that works”, even though I didn’t feel it was 100% right. And then invariably it would bite me in the ass later. A client would notice that it didn’t work quite right and I would cringe because I let it go, knowing it was wrong. So, I’ve learned that to be a director, you have to be willing to be the bad guy. You have to keep asking for changes even when you now it’s wearing down the other guy – because you’re the one that has to live with your film the rest of your life. Everyone else is ultimately just a hired contributor that doesn’t have the same depth of investment of time and commitment as you.
4-Do indie animation directors get stereotyped as comedy or action or etc?
And, if so, does that have a negative impact on one's industry career? And, what can be done about it? I think any stereo-typing that goes on in indie filmmaking is completely self imposed. By definition and indie filmmaker is creating his own project that he/she can guide along to their hearts content. If I wanted to make a serious film, I could just decide to do it and that would be it. Trouble is, I’m trapped by my own sensibilities.
5-What part of directing animation gives you the most satisfaction?
The greatest satisfaction in the animation process for me is the timing of the animation, after the agony of completing the drawings. Also, the editing is fun. Timing the shots and cutting frames here and there can really bring the film alive. And maybe the most satisfying of all is working with the sound designer. It’s amazing how much the sound can make or break a film, and the pleasant part of the sound design is how rapidly it all goes together. The animation can take years and the sound can be a matter of a couple of weeks.
6-What methods have been the most effective in giving notes and feedback to your animators (assuming you do this)? And, what has not worked so well, and why?
Generally I just talk to them. But sometimes I’ll take their Quicktime linetest and put it into Adobe AfterEffects where I can cut up their linetest and affect the timing. I can even cut up the body of the character to alter timing of various body parts within the action of a single character. If it gets too complicated, though, it falls back to a face to face conversation, or I will sketch over their keys with a very crude drawing that captures the general shape of what I’m after. I never worry about the details. In fact, I usually have to beg my assistants to stop putting in so much detail on initial drawings.
More fun on the tracks from Cordell Barker, pictured in this still from The Cat Came Back.
7-Where did you learn your sense of timing, acting, staging, and storytelling that is so essential in directing animation?
I’m not so sure I really learned any of this stuff from an outside source. A lot of it is innate. Either you have it or you don’t. It’s a matter of being able to look at things a certain way, having a certain sensibility and having a specific sense of rhythm. You, of course, have to experiment with it all for it to float to the surface, but if you don’t have these abilities within you, I think you could fight and struggle with it forever.
8- What has watching your films play to audience taught you, that you would not have discovered otherwise?
Watching with an anonymous audience is the only real reaction you get. When I’m finishing production of a film I never get any feedback of any kind from anyone. It’s only ever complete strangers that seem to give an honest reaction. And it is immensely satisfying to hear an audience react to a specific moment in my film by laughing on cue. That’s the advantage of trying to make a funny film – if it works you actually get a quantifiable reaction – an audible laugh. That’s why making an intended funny film is such a difficult project - If you don’t get the laugh, the moment just hangs there and you feel like a failure.
9- Besides your indie films, what other goals would you like to achieve in your career in animation?
I’ve always wondered how I would fare making a feature film. A huge jump from a short film to a feature, but in many ways making a concise short is probably more difficult. You don’t have the screen time to elaborate on an idea in a short film so the need to be super concise is unrelenting.
10- What is your secret to sticking with an indie film through to completion?
This is a tough one. I’m not sure how I keep going. I think maybe it’s a bit of ego. I define myself by my previous successes so my ego drives me forward to achieve the same success, which is the gateway to the next level – whatever that might me. But that being said, when I look back on runaway, I’m not sure how I got through it because that film was the toughest slogging I’ve ever done.
A still from Strange Invaders.