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Ashley Dean and Broken Pixel

// Interviews

I first encountered Broken Pixel animator Ashley Dean’s work at Bradford Animation Festival last November, where he was showing his latest music video Lost at Sea for the band Cashier No. 9. The animation, which won Best Video at the Northern Ireland Music Awards follows the lead singer of the band aboard a small, but life-size wooden boat, setting sail around Leeds city centre and beyond. The video also features some impressive visual effects of the band performing convincingly in pixilation and disappearing into the floor with a splash, as if they too have been swept out to sea. Oh, did I mention there is a spectacled crab and a harmonica-playing fish?  The idea was simple but genius. And like other great work, I wished I had thought of it first.

The narrative appealed to me greatly, half Michel Gondry and half childish imagination, but it was the aesthetics of the piece that I really loved, created through the props and the cinematography.  Lost at Sea has an unpolished, handmade quality and really gives a sense of how much fun it must have been to create; something which I feel animators are sometimes scared of showing through their work.

Much of Broken Pixel’s animated music videos share this same charm and imaginative quality, as Ashley takes the viewer to cardboard islands, polystyrene ice caps and inside a chalky white snow globe.  It seems as though he fears nothing: be it other animation techniques (Ashley also has experience with 2D and is starting to use more computer animation) or the craziest and most ambitious ideas, that many other animators wouldn’t even consider due to their complexity. It is Ashley’s refusal to put a limit on his imagination that makes Broken Pixel’s work so special. His ambitious ideas are achieved through what is obviously a labour of love, an abundance of talent and a true dedication to animating.

Once part of Leeds based iLiKETRAiNS, Ashley began by producing animated music videos for the band, as well as visuals to accompany them as they played.  This included producing a feature length animation for the bands album Elegies to Lessons Learnt, in which he explored a different famous historical figure for each song.  This quickly progressed to Ashley making videos for friends bands, gaining more recognition and opportunities from higher profile musicians.  Over the years he has built up an impressive and extensive back catalogue, working with Fossil Collective, Lupen Crook and Lone Wolf.  Recently, Ashley’s animation La Campanella, commissioned to advertise the classical music season at Opera North, won the award for Best Animation at the Royal Television Society Awards.  We caught up with him to find out a bit more about this film, why he thinks music works so well with animation and where on earth he gets his ideas from.

Check out Ashley’s latest work, the new video for Beth Orton’s ‘Something More Beautiful’ here.

You don’t come from a conventional animation background, having studied Graphic Arts and Design at Leeds Metropolitan University. How did animation relate to this subject and were there many others on the course that chose to work in animation too?

Growing up I wanted to be a graphic designer and my ultimate ambition was to design record covers. It wasn’t until the 2nd year of the course that I had a go at animation (although I had tried my hand on Deluxe Paint III on my Amgia 500 in the early ’90s). Graphic Arts and Design at Leeds Met is a wonderfully varied course, so one day my tutor Len Grey shut me in a room and, in his broad Glaswiegian accent, told me to ‘Animate a fight!’. I had loads of photos knocking around from another project so I started to push them around and really started to enjoy the process. I went back in the next day with a bit of a soundtrack and made this :

I made it on an ancient Sony Umatic animation machine alongside a fellow student called Tom de Gay who was attempting a much more ambitious animation about a malevolent hamster. When we returned on the second day his machine had broken and erased is his day’s work. He never animated again. I often see this a crossroads in my life, and I’m thankful Tom took the hit, not me! (He’s a very successful graphic designer now so I don’t think he minds…)

You began your career as part of the band iliketrains, making their music videos and acting as a digital artist during live shows, before moving onto creating music videos for other bands. What is it about the combination of music and animation that you feel makes them work so well together?

Certain sounds and imagery create a wonderful psychological fusion. People talk about how well Dark Side of the Moon compliments The Wizard of Oz, but the same phenomenon applies to all manner of sound and imagery, try Watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis alongside Drukqs by Aphex Twin. It’s this bond that I search for in a music video; the moment when the sounds feels like it’s conducting the audio. A project I’m working on at the moment hits every beat in a murmuration of starlings. It wasn’t planned or edited, but we’ve managed to fluke a thing of beauty.

Do you have a specific way of approaching a new project? Do you begin with your own ideas and apply them to the music, or do you find that the music dictates the animation?

From my earliest projects I have let music dictate what I put on the screen. I usually listen to a track 30 or 40 times on repeat, letting the sounds spark ideas and imagery in my mind. By knowing the music inside-out when I’m animating, I can get a feel for the pace, tone and rhythm, then when it comes to the edit, the footage usually just falls into place. I am slightly cursed now however and can’t stop images flowing into my brain. I lived in Japan for a year and visited a Zen temple for a weekend. When we were supposed to be meditating and clearing our heads, the sounds of the trees swaying in the distance and bells lightly tinkling in the breeze conspired to form a Hanna-Barbera style cartoon in my head which wouldn’t go away. Even when the monks beat me with sticks.

What are the main complications / problems working as a freelance animator?

It’s very frustrating to spend half my time trying to bring in the next piece of work when I should be working on the current one. Ideally I’d join an agency, but the amount of time it would take to put together a package to catch someone’s eye would mean I’d never get anything done.

Congratulations on winning the Royal Televison Award! Can you explain a little bit about the film and how it came about?

The film was commissioned by Opera North last autumn. It was a nice brief as it gave us free rein with design and an opportunity to work with a genre of music I’d not tried before. I had worked with Graham Pilling before on ‘We March On’ and ‘Garden Grow’ and was excited to bring some more of his illustrations to life. I bought the sheet music for La Campanella (the staff in the music shop were very impressed!) and we colour coded each note of the music (thanks to the dedicated work of intern Solomon Honey) and built the design around the patterns it created.
The whole awards thing was a bit of a whirlwind. My Mum helps me out by entering my films into festivals, and I had totally forgotten about the RTS awards. During the England match that evening I got a series of panicked texts from a friend at the awards who said that it would be in our best interests to get down there… Me and my wife, Lydia hopped on the train in York (after England had limped to 1-1 draw with France), called Graham and headed to the Queens hotel. The staff kindly arranged a table at the back (it felt like the kids table at a wedding) and we sat, shellshocked, as the night unfolded.

Most of the awards seemed to be for hard hitting news items on Look North or Calendar, so it was quite bizarre to hear cheers go up when a clip announced ‘The man’s leg was found by a dog walker…’ Thankfully we didn’t have to make a speech and we only got a bit of stick for being late from the host (the skinny one from the Full Monty).

Broken Pixel’s back catalogue of music videos shows an impressive range of stop motion styles and techniques. What is it about stop motion, opposed to other forms of animation, that you prefer? And what materials are your favourite to work with?

To be honest, I love all forms of animation. I’ve been working a lot in 2D (pencil and After Effects) this summer and I’m a big fan of pixilation. I’d probably even give CGI a go if I had time to get my head around some new programs. But I suppose the thing that keeps bringing me back to turmoil of model stop-motion is the texture and tactility of the models and sets. I love to build worlds, and I find immense satisfaction in constructing sets, props and characters that you can prod and poke into life. I find that corrugated cardboard is the most compliant and abundant material available.

My most ambitious stop-motion video to date ‘Let it Go’ is a love letter to the possibilities of paper (and Desert Island Discs and Minecraft.)

I particularly love your video for Lone Wolf ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Road’ which is an impressive homage to the legendary stop motion music video Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel. What inspired you to re-create such a famous animation? And what are some of your other favourite animated music videos?

Thank you! I was always fascinated by the video growing up, especially the bit when he turns into plasticine. I thought a while back that it would be a great challenge to recreate the video with another solo artist, as a homage and a showcase of all the animation techniques I had learned over the years. So I teamed up with Lone Wolf (real name Paul Marshall), and put him through a week of hell.
There were so many different processes to manage and things to make, but I had great help from my long term collaborator Kevin Roper, my Dad and the gang of friends who turned up for the group scene at the end. At one stage I managed to glue Paul’s eyes closed with latex, and he almost got DVT from squatting down for one of the 4 hour takes. I felt empathy for Nick Park during the chicken dancing scene; I only had one slippery, decomposing carcass to manipulate instead of the two he had to deal with. I managed to turn that shot around in 45 minutes, the smell drove me into a spectacular (slap dash) stop-motion blur.

As for other animated music videos, I really love the work of David Wilson, he’s like a British Michel Gondry. He did an incredible piece of work using a table full of praxinoscopes…

I have series of favourite lists on my YouTube channel (I like to make lists!) This is my current top 10 animated music videos…

Of your own work, what has been your favourite to animation to make so far and what are you most proud of?

I still reckon the 6 year old iLiKETRAiNS video ‘The Beeching Report’ is my most satisfying piece of work. The song is about Dr Richard Beeching who closed down a huge part of the British railway system in the 1960’s. His report estimated that 40,700 workers would lose their jobs as a direct result of his proposal (in reality a lot more people than that were made redundant). I thought that this was such a disgustingly incomprehensibly large number of people, so I tried to illustrate it on screen. Myself and Guy and Dave from the band spent 2 months rolling 40,700 balls of plasticine on our lunch breaks at work. It was heartbreaking to think that each one of these little balls was a person or family whose lives had been wrecked.

I also built a life-sized Beeching from chicken wire and plasticine and took him and the endless trays of plasticine to Coulonges sur L’Autize in France to animate over the Christmas Holidays. I spent 5 solid days on my hands and knees shifting those blobs around, and I was satisfied by the end that I had fulfilled my brief as closely as possible.
Chicken Wire Beeching is still sat rotting on a shelf in my studio. The bastard.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

It’s due to be a busy summer in the Broken Pixel studio! We’re currently working on a video for a folk-electronica pioneer, best known for her work in the mid 90’s, then I’ll hopefully be teaming up with Graham again to do some opera work. I create a treasure hunt for Green Man festival each year and this time we’ve had it going all around the country ( I’ll be heading over to Wales for the festival in August to run a tournament of Woodsense; an ancient Welsh board game. There’s a pixilated video in the pipeline for a Leeds band called Stalking Horse and I’ve a couple of short film projects that might get off the ground soon…!

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