Dave McKean's Handmade Fantasies

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By Jonathan Marlow

"It was very hands-on and handmade."

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.

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