By Jonathan Marlow
September 29, 2005 - 6:45 AM PDT
Dave McKean isn't merely wildly prolific; he's wildly prolific in a wide range of artistic disciplines: illustration, photography, comics, music, writing and film. Jonathan Marlow asks him about turning one of his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman into his first feature, MirrorMask.
I want to talk a little bit about your experience at Berkshire College of Art and Design. How much of a formative experience was your college education? Did you come into the school with a relative idea of how your style was going to develop?
It was completely and utterly formative. I came out a completely different person, I think. I went in with very set ideas of what I liked and what I did and I just really wanted to be left alone. I argued with everybody for about two years solid and then, finally, they got through to me. I started to just try things. From then on, I was completely turned around. I had a great drawing teacher who additionally taught semiotics, signs and signifiers. We would have film history classes and analyze Hitchcock movies and things like that. Things I had never even thought about before. It opened up a whole world where everything is full of meaning and possibilities and interpretations. I also had a terrific design teacher who was, at the same time, running a working studio, so he would give me work. Of course, it was great that he was a good design teacher but it was even better that he gave me practical experience with real deadlines and real clients. I would have to go and explain myself, so that was fantastic.
You graduated in 1986...
I did. I was on the design course but I did very little design. I ended up mostly doing illustration, film and video, and other things.
It was that same year that you met Neil Gaiman for the first time?
Yes. I was still in art school and Neil was working as a journalist. We both loved comics. I really loved comics in art school and fortunately I had a couple of teachers who also had a soft spot for comics, which is quite unusual. Most art schools are pretty stiffy about comics, so I had some support there. We did comics in the school and we got them printed at the printing department. I'd take them up to London with a friend of mine who I made them with and we'd try to sell them at comic conventions, comic marts and things like that. We got to know a couple of people who were in that world in London. A new magazine was starting up and Neil was one of the writers. I was writing and drawing a couple of stories for that magazine. We had great, very enthusiastic meetings and a bunch of people there went on to be professionals but the magazine collapsed and never happened. Neil and I started working on a book together called Violent Cases. That was our first book and we were off.
Yes, you were off alright. You've put a relatively major project in motion essentially every year thereafter, up until a decade later when you did your first short, The Week Before. What made you decide to make the leap from design and illustration into filmmaking?
I've always really loved films and I didn't want to make another film that looked the same as other peoples' films. I wanted to try to find a point of view or a tone of voice - something that felt like mine. It just took awhile to get the confidence up to try. Around about that time, I'd started playing a little bit with moving picture programs like After Effects, Premier and things like that. I started to try and find ways of making my images work as moving images. It kind of progressed from there, really. I had an eye on what Peter Greenaway was doing. I had my eye on what the Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer and other animators were doing. The filmmakers who I really love, like Luis Buñuel and Fellini, are people whose work generates a point of view.
Then I thought nobody would actually knock on my door and give me money to make a film. The trouble with film is that they're so bloody expensive! I thought I should just get on and make one, so I made two short films. One of them was called The Week Before and the other N[eon]. They were quite different, but they had similar techniques to them. They were both love letters to silent films, which I really love. I thought that if I was starting films then I should start at the beginning. I should start with Méliès and Murnau and Dreyer and work my way up to sound, working my way up to the present day. I felt very happy starting, trying to invent film for myself, and they cost nothing at all. They were just done with friends which I paid a little bit myself. They were great fun to do. I had a wonderful time making them and then they did pretty well. They played at some festivals. N[eon] was at Telluride and won an award at Clermont-Ferrand [International Short Film Festival]. Lisa Henson got to see them and then this opportunity to make MirrorMask came up.
You were approached by the Jim Henson Company, specifically Lisa Henson, prior to the formation of MirrorMask?
You know, this film didn't really start with a story or anything like that. It started with an offer, if we could think of a way of making a fantasy film. It had to be a fantasy film of some kind because this came out of the interest in Jim's feature films Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. There's been a lot of interest in, and perpetual rediscovery of, those films by new generations over the years. But they were very expensive films to make and we had a very small amount of money, something like a tenth of the budget of Labyrinth, which was made 20 years ago. It was a really tall order and Lisa was the one spearheading this project, but she couldn't think of any way to do it because they couldn't really afford to build sets and have Muppets and puppets and all the creatures and everything. They couldn't afford to involve the Creature Shop to do all the effects or they'd be out of business. She was interested in my short films and obviously she knew Neil. She was developing a project, Neverwhere, with Neil, so then it all started to come together.
So, in essence, she thought, "I don't have a lot of money to work with but, based on these fantastic shorts, this seems to be the person that can do it."
"We need something cheap."
You actually went and created a whole new computer rendering studio while you were producing the film which, based on your earlier comments, is perhaps not the wisest path to take.
It's not, but unfortunately it was our only path. We just didn't have any other options. There's no way we could have afforded the number of effects shots to any established places, or even the Creature Shop; even the Henson shop was expected to do it within the budget. There was just no way. The only way was to do a sort of expanded version of the studio that made the short films, which was just really me and a friend in a little room in London. We got a slightly bigger room and fifteen people rather than two of us. To be honest, I felt a lot better with that. I felt more in control of it. I think if I had to send the shots off to a big post-house - you know, they have their own arcane way of deciding how much each shot costs, but it's always a lot. There's no way I could have kept control over it.
It would have definitely changed the look of the film.
Yes, even if I could have established the look, it wouldn't have been the same. This felt like it was being made by hand. I was in the studio every day. We might as well have been making the film with plasticine or with cut-outs or drawings. You know, the computers were just a tool. The fact was that it was very hands-on and handmade. I was there all the time working with them. I made all the texture maps for the models, I designed everything and storyboarded it and then composited everything at the end. So I had full control at the beginning and the end of the process and I was happy for the animators to play in-between, to add their own sensibilities and their own ticks and mannerisms to the animation and to have a bit of fun with it. It was very playful, really.
That's true. It's clear in the look of the film that it has a very handmade style to it. You keep those rough edges in the construction of the images.
Yeah. That's where the beauty is. Although it's a huge technical thing, it's such a shame that computers are used to try and recreate the real world in some way.
You end up with something that is much worse in the attempt to recreate reality rather than re-imagining reality.
You can't improve on reality so you get some sort of plastic version and you can just tell. You know, to recreate water or scenery or a human face or whatever, is an amazing, huge technical achievement. It takes a long time, a lot of rendering. I'm not sure that that's a particularly interesting goal to aim for.
I would agree. Obviously, if you're using as a touchpoint the work of Stephen and Timothy Quay or Jan Svankmajer, these are filmmakers that actually introduce elements of roughness into their final work...
You can see the fingerprints in the plasticine in Svankmajer's films; you can see the dust settle on the Quay Brothers' films. These tactile qualities are what, I think, gives them their unique quality, but they do so much more. All the time, they're bringing bits of dolls and papers and flowers and textures and all these sorts of things. They've had a life already and they're full of life. They're full of age and stories. So I think, subconsciously, or probably consciously, you relate to that. You can smell them. You can smell those films. You know what it's like to touch those things. They're all about relating to things in your own life, your real life. I think that's what makes them so rich and that makes them so resonant.
I hadn't thought of this, but it's the same grounding that happens in the Ladislas Starevitch films, with the use on insects and animals.
Yes, completely. I think that's why those Starevitch films stand out. Even though they're very, very old, you still relate to them.
"It was very hands-on and handmade.""We had to be a bit cheeky and improvise."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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