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An interview with Canimation winner Chris Butcher

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Chris Butcher’s Red Bull Canimation entry recently won the prize for the stop-motion open category. With an inventive take on the brief and a firm duality of traditional and modern visual styles, the Švankmajer-esque proved to be a deserving winner. Skwigly recently caught up with Chris for a chat about his work and enthusiasm for animation.

I studied at the University of Bedfordshire. The animation course had just been added when i was looking at Universities so i decided to stay at home whilst studying. I’d have to say in all honesty that the three years at University were the best of my life. There’s a real sense of wanting to prove yourself when everyone is given the same brief and it’s amazing to work with people as enthusiastic about animation as yourself, staff and class mates alike.

What brought about your interest in stop-motion as opposed to other forms of animation?

I can remember the moment I saw something and thought “I want to be able to do that” was at about 10 years old and seeing the bit in ‘The Golden Child’ where an animated Pepsi can dances to “Puttin’ On The Ritz”. I had and have never seen any other animation so fluid and perfect in anything else. What I love about stop-motion above any other discipline is that there’s something tangible about it, you know that you’re seeing something thats real and acting in a way that it doesn’t normally.

What was your process for coming up with your Canimation concept?

I had just over three weeks to make something before the deadline and because the brief stipulated it had to contain a Redbull can, I decided to play around with one and see how malleable it was. So I ended up crushing one and thought it looked about the same width as a tyre. I realised the correlation between the can and the Redbull race team and thought I could build an idea around it. My original idea was going to be that a scale model car pulls into the pits for a pitstop and the crew realise that there aren’t any spare wheels so they use the crushed can in its stead. I probably would have persevered with the idea if it weren’t for the fact that i couldn’t get the wheels off of the scale model car I had.

What were the major challenges you faced along the way?

I shot everything fairly chronologically, what with the car’s development being integral to the piece, and I knew that I wanted four cans crushing simultaneously which could only really be shot at the pinnacle of the piece. What was difficult in that shot was the cans needed to be ‘tied down’ (nut and bolted through the can and table top) so as not to move drastically. What made it all the more difficult was having to animate the cans getting to the point where they would be tied down and then crush them each incrementally every frame. What’s interesting from an animator’s point of view is knowing what I did to get the shot – and other animators I’ve shown also know – but to any audience member the cans are just crushing. I kinda like that, it makes it universally appreciated. Animators see it for the work that has gone in and non-animators enjoy it because it’s something out of the norm.

Is there anything you’d be tempted to go back and change or do you feel it came out as you envisioned?

There was one shot that I was adamant would make the final cut but I kinda ran out of time, which saddened me. The shot was two ring-pulls in the foreground (there’s a bull on the ring-pull, so if you flip one over it looks like the bulls are facing each other) and I’d positioned a can in the background too. What I wanted was a focus shift through the ring-pulls so that they matched up with the two red bulls on the can. I think that’s the only thing I’d add if I revisited the piece, other than that I’m really proud of it and it turned out better than I had envisioned.

Did you find participating in the competition to be a valuable experience?

Absolutely. My friend originally saw the advert for the competition and when she told me I instantly thought “This was made for me!” – in fact, on reflection, I probably did say/shout that aloud! I hadn’t worked to a specific deadline or brief since University and it made me realise that I am capable of delivering when needs be. I’ve loved the experience of creating work, answering people’s comments and questions and meeting like-minded people along the way.

Having won, what are your future plans?

I did some networking at the awards’ show, talking with some of the judges and exchanging cards. Ultimately I want to get into making adverts, there’s something about being concise and only having a short amount of time to convey an idea that I find really appealing. So yeah, I’ll continue to add ideas to my showreel and send it out to production houses hoping to be picked up. Kinda hoping that ‘Award-winning animator’ will carry more weight than just ‘Animator’.

Outside of Canimation can you talk a bit about some of the other animation projects you’ve been involved with?

My final major project at University was a piece called “Rewind”. It started just as a ‘One-in-the-morning-can’t-sleep’ idea, whether or not I could animate a roll of tape spinning down to a table top like a coin. So I tried it, it worked and then I thought “Okay, I can’t make a film just about some tape spinning, so what else do you use tape for?”, and the ideas eventually snowballed into what became the final film. I’m an absolute purest when it comes to my work, partly because I can’t get a computer mouse to do what my hands can – which infuriated me when I had to learn Maya at Uni – but moreover because I firmly believe that if you need to use green screen or compositing then you shouldn’t be doing stop-motion. One of my main strengths is problem solving, I strive to get the shot I can see in my head onscreen for an audience to see and will not stop until it’s done. I really feel that using computer aid cheats the audience, which I’d never want to do. One of the things I’m most proud of is in my showreel, I animated a glass of wine ‘swilling’; everything you see is 100% real.

What would you cite as your major animation influences?

Other than the Pepsi can from “The Golden Child”, I’d say my biggest influence would be the work of Jan Švankmajer. There’s a part in “Jabberwocky” where a pen knife is being animated on a tabletop like a gymnast traversing the floor; the movement and character coerced from the object is stunning and something I strive to emulate always. What I really like is that in his work the objects are often non-anthropamorphised, in that they retain their rigid nature and move as if of their own volition rather than seeming to be manipulated. Stop-motion should be magical in its aesthetics, the audience should always be mesmerised at seeing the inanimate animate.

Given the large number of major stop-motion productions currently in the works, do you feel there is a strong future in store for it?

I really feel that stop-motion has an endless longevity. Anyone can appreciate, however subconsciously, that what they’re seeing is physical and real. Not to downplay any other medium – I know the level of work that goes into any field is unenviable and should be applauded – but I feel that stop-motion just looks better. Given that I want to make a career in stop-motion I certainly hope that myself and it have a very long and fruitful future.

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