If you do not know of animator Ant Blades by his name the chances are you will have come across his work under Birdbox Studio.
With his unique “scribbly” style and comedic choreography the hilarious sketches have lit up online video sites and blogs for the past few years with both commercial work and personal films. With over 18 million views (and counting) on his own YouTube channel the popularity of the personal and commissioned work seems to be growing. Whether it be an inept guard, dopey Dad at the park, a car driving crustacean or a Christmas hedgehog all the work combines the right amount of humour and style that has brought equal success to the likes of internet animators such as Simon Tofield and Jonti “Weebl” Picking.
Starting his creative career in comics writing and drawing “Bewley”, a strip chronicling a family of birds for the Express in 2008, Ant moved on from comics to a series of jobs including working for Tandem films before setting up Birdbox Studio and concentrating on his own short films and work for a broad range of clients.
We went to speak to Ant Blades at his studio in London to find out more about his career in animation and what lead to him becoming one of flash animations success stories.
Did you always want to become an animator or graphic artist?
Yeah I think I did, its one of those things I have always been doing. I think I remember storyboarding animation at an early age, even though I didn’t know how to make it I still knew what I wanted to happen. I have a lot of ridiculous stories from when I was twelve, I enjoyed coming up with the ideas.
Your work has a very comedic edge, do you have any particular heroes from the world of comics, comedy or animation?
Getting into comics I had a few favourites like Bill Watterson, so Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield, I loved all that stuff and I think I tried to mimic a lot of that comedy in my early cartoon strips. I think cartoons was what I really wanted to get into but more and more I wanted to take it as a career and animation seemed to be a better career choice than scribbling cartoons.
You debuted ‘Bewley’ in 2001 after winning the competition with the Daily Express. Can you tell us more about your big break?
Yes I was at Bristol studying civil engineering at the time, it was the final year of the course and I won the years contract and thought there’s probably a future here, I may as well give my passion a go instead of what I thought was a very safe job. So once I left I continued the strip and took a 6 month intensive course in animation at St Martins college. Bewley ran for 7-8 years before I threw myself into animation fully.
Do you miss working on the Bewley comics?
Yeah a little bit, I do not miss trying to come up with the idea but having come up with the idea I miss finishing the strip and proudly sending it out. I am trying to fill that void by coming up with little animation ideas instead, but I do miss the characters a lot I think I would probably try bring them back and animate them somehow.
Do you believe the appeal of the comic style could translate to animation?
I think with a comic you can have a small space to tell the story, if you animate that some of the gags can be gone in a second so you need to cram in more. If you were going to cram in more you will use up a lot of ideas in a very short animation. I do think they translate and with my shorts I try to come up with are very short for that reason, so instead of seeing a weekly cartoon you can see a weekly animation instead.
So family in I’ll get ice-creams could be the Bewley family?
Exactly, that kind of thing, so instead of reading the comic in the paper you log online and view an animation.
Where did you work before you set up Birdbox Studio?
When I started cartooning I did some freelance animation at Tandem and Prism entertainment for a while. After a while I got a bit disheartened and kind of moved away from doing the hard graft of other peoples animation and moved towards online design and ended up working at Google for five or six years as part of the YouTube creative team and although I enjoyed the environment, especially part of YouTube, I became very aware that some funny short animations that are a big hit on the site, things like Simons Cat made me realise it was some thing I wanted to do again so I set up Birdbox Studio and started trying to produce these films, the commercial jobs came along and things just kept going.
YouTube has been quite a key to the success hasn’t it?
It’s a great advertising platform and a good reason to make the shorts, even if they are just for the studio it’s a good reason to show people what you can make.
Do you have favourite of your own short films?
Weirdly the very first one I did which was “Guard” even though it doesn’t look very professional, its still supposed to be in a sketchy style, I think in terms of the idea it felt like a very strong idea and I think I liked that the most. I also liked the sketchy ice cream one, which again looked like it could have done with more work but it was about getting the ideas out there. I think that’s what brought on the sketchy style, it was less about trying to make things look beautiful it was more about trying to make people laugh and get the idea across, so it wasn’t about showing off amazing animation or visuals it was just trying to get something out. I think that brought about the style.
Although your style has a very controlled stylish sketchiness to it do you work in rough before refining it?
Once the idea is formed it’s the initial stage whilst its still fresh in my mind then I try sketch out as much as possible and for a lot of them I have not had to do much, just cleaned up. So there is a rough version underneath but I don’t have to do a lot to clean it up. I try to keep it sketchy so that it looks like a sketchy idea. When you start adding more colours it begins to look like an unfinished piece rather than an intentionally sketchy piece.
When working on commercial works are you given free reign? For example on the “Three Olives” work were you approached because of your own style?
I was approached on the back of the style and humour of my shorts, but they already had one idea that was quite firm, they were hoping I would work around that and fit around their views, which was kind of frustrating because a lot of the gags, which I thought would work very well didn’t match their audience. They wanted something with a bit more edge to it. It was frustrating because some of the ideas I thought worked very well were rejected and then some of the ideas they came up with I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. I think some of them work but some of them don’t work. It’s a case of trying to please everyone and coming up with the best fit.
Do you take a different approach to your commercial work than your personal work?
I tend to have around 10 personal works on the side at one point. I have an idea; quickly sketch it out in flash, which is a very easy way to sketch out an animatic of the idea. I normally have other work on so I will spend the morning working on it, show it to other people and leave it for a month. I know that if people are after something I have a few things to one side that can be used.
What other programmes and equipment do you use?
All the stuff is done in flash and after effects if needed on a Wacom tablet, which is suiting me fine at the moment but I might be moving onto a Cintiq. One of the things about a Wacom tablet is that it is hard to get precise lines, which is fine in my style because it is all so loose, but as soon as I start getting tighter with designs it makes it harder to control where the lines are going, I think I may get a Cintiq.
Can you tell us a little more about the making off “Chop-Chop”?
It would be hard to say how long it took to make I came up with the initial idea about 4 years ago, I liked the idea but it wasn’t quite right. It was one of those that I kept going back to and fiddling a tweeking, even things like the beginning on the rooftops, that sort of thing came later, it had to be added because without it you wondered why he didn’t notice that her head hadn’t been chopped off and you need to feel that he had missed it because he was doing something else. I kept tweeking and tweeking it until I got fed up with it and decided it was finished, then looking back at the earlier versions, pretty much the first one I did worked better than the others. I think I got so caught up in polishing and tweeking animation that didn’t need tweeking I think I was delaying it because I wasn’t sure about it, but since it has gone out it seems to be doing alright!
There is a lot of precise Choreography in the films, which is key to the humour, how do you time it all?
It is all done in the animatic, I find that bit quite fun, well it starts off fun but again and again trying to look at it with fresh eyes and adding two frames or taking away two frames, there are loads of different variations and loads of constant tweeking but also trying to see it fresh and see if it is working, but yeah the choreography is something I quite enjoy, trying to make it all work and trying to make your eyes go to the right spot at the right time. For “Chop Chop” I think I trawled YouTube to see what sort of moves people had. It was a bit of a challenge to say I had six characters that I had to deal with them all in a fairly exciting way. I think it could have been quite boring because it is one shot, and in a feature it would have had about 50 cuts.
You tend to have next to no cuts in your films, any reason?
I don’t think they are needed, they are all so short anyway. They are all set scenarios, even before you see them you know what they are about, you don’t really need to see anymore from the stories I am telling you watch them as a voyeur.