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Interview with “At-issue” Director Drew Roper

// Featured, Interviews

At-issue is the new film from award-winning stop-motion animator Drew Roper. The film follows Bartholomew, an unemployed, clumsy but kindhearted stop-motion puppet who lives in a world of hand-drawn characters. When auditions are announced for a new acting role, Bartholomew dreams of following in his father’s place and becoming a star of the silver screen. In a twist of fate a strange affliction strikes him, transforming between hand drawn, CGI and stop-motion versions of him self every time he sneezes. In a journey of self-discovery our would-be hero realises that unless he learns to be himself, he’ll never achieve what he wants from life.

The production itself is underway at its studio location The Custard Factory, the artistic hub of Birmingham which seeks to bring creativity and animation to the Black Country.

After securing a Sky Arts fund earlier this year, Roper was able to make a start on production, enlisting a full team of talented animators whose credits include Corpse Bride, Chicken Run and Frankenweenie. Having already made puppets, sets and props, the animation is now underway.

To cover production and labour costs this young company launched a Kickstarter campaign in the hope of reaching the financial needs required to finish and distribute the film for the public to enjoy. Skwigly had the opportunity to discuss the project with Drew Roper and see what’s going on up North.

Where did the ideas behind At-Issue originate from?

The idea has developed over a number of years – initially from four years ago with a group of mates on the train back from Annecy’09 – but then essentially the last three years mainly as a result of my experiences, from leaving university, getting my first job in the industry to then…nothing at all, really emphasising the motto of “Never give up”

Why did you choose the mixed-media approach?

Simply because four years ago, whilst traveling (hungover) back from Annecy, we just thought mixing all the mediums of animation together would be so innovative and ground-breaking as it had not really been done before…and now I can kind of see why it hadn’t!

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How did you initially present the film pitch to Sky Arts?

I entered a competition called the Sky Arts futures fund, via IdeasTap (something which I recommend to all young creative from 18-30 to do) and was selected to present the idea, however in front of a panel of 10 very talented and esteemed industry judges, I decided not to mention a film crew – I chose to take in some puppets to showcase my work (at least I had friends as a back up if it all fell through) as well as a USB with my showreel on and then – myself. I had been up for days nervously awaiting “the big pitch”, preparing away with slide cards so I would remember where I was if I got lost…but no one can prepare you for how you feel on the day. I did get a bit lost but luckily as the outlining story is so close to my heart, that’s how I presented it…very passionately and from the heart. I think I actually welled up in there…

Having secured funds from Sky Arts, why do you feel it necessary to raise more, and why did you go with Kickstarter above the other crowd funding sites available?

From the off, as soon as the futures fund was attained, I felt the pressure to get more as I knew how ambitious the project was/is. Essentially, if I wasn’t to bank on SO many favours from industry friends – and some of the best I might add – this project should’ve cost about £100k…so to try and do it on our target of £60k would be a great achievement (but I owe a lot of people). We went with Kickstarter because, after researching into crowd-funding for several months they not only have the biggest following, which is good for a crowd funding campaign, they seemed to really promote some fantastic projects and its something we wanted to be a part of and felt would work for ours.

Can you tell us a little about the team you’ve assembled for the project?

Initially I thought I could make At-issue predominantly on my own with a little help from a selection of industry professionals to really enhance the quality…oh my, how I was wrong.

I’ve been true to my word and managed to attain the help of professionals but if it wasn’t for the team of young professionals, graduates and students who have been in constantly, it wouldn’t be the project it is now (thanks guys).

I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some amazingly talented people throughout this project, professional or not, and they’ve improved the production immensely, and the real mix of their experience and talents has worked so well. Which reflects within the quality of work being produced. A total of around 85 people have helped in some way or another, but currently at the studio we have a good 6-10 people in, week in, week out, doing their bit to take the project further. It’s been a wonderful opportunity not only for myself but for us all to work alongside these established greats such as Suzie Templeton, Simon Quinn, Glenn Holberton, Jim Parkyn, Andrew Bloxham, Nancy Stott, Mike Cooper, Sai Smith, Charlie MacRae, Tim Allen, Andy Biddle, Chris Gough, Marc Silk, Yossel Simpsom Little, Matt Kitkat, Steven Spencer and Chris Randall.

What’s been the most exciting part about bringing all these people together?

Without a doubt, the quality of the work being produced…whatever visions are in my head (a scary place) has now been created in physical form, whether it’s a drawing, sculpt, set or life given to Bart…it’s so exciting and exactly what I had envisioned! It’s breathtaking!

What opportunities are you hoping this film will lead to for your company/crew? Have there been any already?

We’re hoping At-issue will act as a platform to showcase what we can do here in the aim of acquiring other work/investment from other companies and agencies into sending some work our way so we can progress further in the industry! Fortunately, there have been opportunities that have already presented themselves and we’re in talks with several organisations over this. Flatteringly, as a result of being involved with At-issue, a few members of the team have been offered work placements around the globe to gain further experience with the likes of Laika, Aardman, Cosgrove Hall and Factory TM. We’re all friends.

One of your production’s unique selling points is the fact that you’re creating it in Birmingham when many people would’ve taken the opportunity to move the production to a more central location like London. Why did you choose to stay? 

The Custard Factory, Birmingham

I’m a homeboy! I’m proud of where I am from and wanted to keep this ‘home grown’ feel to it – The midlands alone is a cool place, it just kind of gets missed out, and that’s been fitting from what the industry pros have stated upon arrival to the studio, so many have said the same about Birmingham too, being a cool place and all, and as a result, a few have actually moved to the area from hubs such as London and Manchester, which is very flattering, but a tribute to such a cool community especially down here in Digbeth, at The Custard Factory.

What do you hope to do with the film once it’s complete?

Sleep! But seriously…That is a must and then I’d like to try and go on a decent festival run with it if possible targeting the prestigious ones to get us out there, aim high so they say! I would love to get some film distribution so we can attend the screenings and represent the film as seeing the audiences reaction will be worth its weight in gold! It’s what we do it for!

We’re also planning to push Bartholomew into new avenues, perhaps Broadway or a Hippodrome performance…OK I lie. But we are so humbled by how Bart has came across to people, so many have instantly fell in love (not like that, but you get what I mean) which I knew they would all along, it’s just nice to see it happen. So we aim to get together with additional writers to see if we can devise some other production which features Bart in some way.

What are the plans for Yanimation studio’s future?

Well that’s for you guys to decide 🙂 We’d love the opportunity to continue the great work we’re trying to establish here by gaining some commercial work to maintain some sustainability. Not only is our aim to continue with honouring our creativity by making shorts, currently our head of art department Yossel Simpson Little is already developing his idea for our next short film called The Pigeon Boy (working title). We hope early 2014 will be very busy, then in the not-too-distant future we’d love to create our own features and TV series…we can all dream, eh?

Drew Roper with Bartholomew

During this interview the film reached its Kickstarter target but it would still benefit from further funding, so if you fancy throwing a few pounds their way you can go to their Kickstarter campaign page and be part of this wonderful film. Good luck Bartholomew! 

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