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Fear of Flying – Interview with Conor Finnegan

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Every once in a while a special film comes along that makes you realise why you love animation so much. Conor Finnegan’s short film Fear of Flying is undoubtedly one of these films. The story follows a lonely bird with a fear of (you guessed it!) flying preparing for another cold Winter alone. Yet when disaster strikes he is left with no choice but face up to his fear and relocate South like the others of his species. But will he be able to overcome his fear? And would this be enough to win over the object of his affection?

Fear of Flying combines styles and techniques of animation in a new and interesting way, with stop motion used seamlessly alongside 2D and 3D animation in the design of the characters. A similar use of conflicting elements can be seen with the way these cuter than cute character, coupled with the detailed, colourful backgrounds, are juxtaposed with dark, unmistakable humour. This is something which, when acheived correctly such as here, is so very effective and utterly unique to animation.

The film’s director Conor is no stranger to this method of combining styles, techniques and moods with his excellent graduate film Fluffy McCloud, which combines 2D, 3D stop motion and live action, showcasing his talent at animation, eye for colour and above all ambitious nature.

With Fear of Flying being screened at festivals internationally, scooping up awards such as the Winner of Best Animation at both Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland and LA Shorts Festival in America and most recently being selected in the long list for this year’s Best Animated Short Oscars, Conor is definitely one to watch! Skwigly caught up with Conor to discuss the film, its production and its unique combination of animation techniques.

How did you come up with the idea for Fear of Flying?

The idea actually came from having a mild panic attack on a flight home from Finland. I’d been visiting a friend for the weekend and we’d been out late the night before I left… It was a horrible flight from the start. It was a Ryanair flight, it was snowing quite heavily outside and I had the FEAR. Hurtling down the runway, I remember clutching the arm rests and expecting certain death. Babies crying etc. When we took off the plane leaned to one side and I remember thinking that we were definitely going to crash but we never did. Much turbulence and a few hours later I arrived home and started thinking that I’d like to make a film about a bird with a fear of flying.

Can you explain a little about the process of making the film, what was the timescale it was created in?

I was lucky enough to get funding under the Irish Film Board’s Frameworks scheme. I wanted to make it using a mix of live action puppets and 2d/ 3d animation. I did the character designs and then carved the character body shapes out of blue foam before giving them to Rentate Henshke to cover in felt. She did an amazing job! It took about nine months to make it from script to screen. The sets were built by a couple of brothers in Wicklow called the Fallovers. I think we ended up with 13 or 14 different sets/ locations in the film that we shot over a five day period. After that everyone working on the film was working remotely in different parts of the world. There was a 3d animator in Germany doing the lip/ beak sync animation, a guy in South Africa doing the 3d beak composites, a friend here in Dublin did all the 3d tracking/ rendering and I did all the 2d animation, compositing and roto. Meanwhile ECHOLAB were working on the music and sound design. Its weird to think about it but at no stage did any of us meet up- it was all done over the internet.

You tend to use quite recognisable materials in your animations, such as the charming felt characters in Fear of Flying, why do you employ this aesthetic and what inspired it?

Originally I wanted to make the birds more realistic- with actual feathers. There was talk of taxidermy and skinning budgies at one stage but in the end it was working out to be to costly, both morally and monetarily. So we went with felt. I guess I’ve always been more drawn to a tactile approach, probably because I love making things. Theres a real satisfaction in building something or carving something out of something, even driving a nail through a plank of wood has a certain satisfaction. I don’t think FEAR OF FLYING would be quite the same had it been rendered in 3D. There’s a charm and an imperfection in making something real that you just don’t get otherwise.

Were there any complications during the making of the film?

Not really. Everything ran smoothly enough. There were occasional meltdowns and a few sleepless nights/ all nighters towards the end but its part of the process.

The film displays childllike imagination yet has an undercurrent of dark humour. What were your influences for this?

With FEAR OF FLYING I wanted take these cute little animals and put them in the real world. Or at least a version of the real world where they’d have thoughts and emotions just like like us, except they live in the undergrowth. I think there’s something quite funny that happens when you get these cute little guys and put them in weird situations that you wouldn’t normally associate them with. As far as influences I used to be mad into (and still am) Jan Svankmajer. Theres something special about watching the weirdness unfold. I’m not saying FOF is anything like a Svankmajer film but he’d be an influence for sure. Also movies from people like Wes Anderson, Noah Bachman and stuff like I Heart Huckabees and Napoleon Dynamite.

Like Fear of Flying, your graduation film Fluffy Mc Cloud combines animation techniques, using both hand drawn and stop motion animation as well as live action filming. Why are you drawn to this particular method? What do you think it adds to your animations?

I think if its done well, mixing techniques can add a lot to a film. It can result in something unusual and leave a weird and pleasing aesthetic. I love experimenting. Its always nice to try something new. For FOF we made puppets and shot them live action, then the wings, legs and eyes were added along with the beak in post. (you can see some of that here:
The live action filming of Fluffy Mc Cloud was my favorite part- I’d been stuck in my attic for weeks animating stop-motion bit by bit under hot lights. When I got into the green screen studio it was so different- it was just me and my friends basically dressing up and having a laugh. It was such a nice change and again, I think it added a lot of charm to the film.

You studied Animation at IADT National Film School. What is it about animation that appealed to you more than other art forms?

Animation was my last chance. When I finished school I’d studied graphic design but after the first year I realised that I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it so I transferred to a two year Film Production course. I loved that but it was such a short course that when I finished I felt completely underprepared for the world. I got a job in post production place as a runner and it was there that I discovered animation all over again. I’d loved animation as a kid but I guess as I grew up I just drifted away from it. Now all of a sudden, it seemed like this perfect art form of illustration/ doodling and storytelling. When I started the course I knew I liked it straight away. It felt so good to draw something up or design a character and then bring them to life. I still get a buzz from that.

For anyone trying to break into the industry as a freelance animator what are the biggest problems you have encountered and continue to face?

Being broke is a big part of it- or at least it has been for me. When you’re busy you can be rolling in it but when times are tough it can be really hard going. My experience so far has been to keep busy. If I’m not working on something for a client or someone else then I’m working on my own stuff. Whether its developing a new story or putting on small exhibitions with friends, theres always something to do.

What is next for Fear of Flying and yourself?

FOF is going around festivals at the moment and I hope to be able to make it over to
some of them in the new year. Its definitely the most rewarding factor of making a short film, being able to sit anonymously in a theatre (preferably in a foreign country where the weather is nice) and see how people react to it can be amazing. I’ll probably put it online sometime in the new year. Other than that, I’ve been developing an idea for a feature animation set in a similar world to that of FEAR OF FLYING. I’ve also been working on a children’s picture book and I’m doing something for the LATE NIGHT WORK CLUB too as well as writing a new short.

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