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Interview with ‘In the Air is Christopher Gray’ Director Felix Massie

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Felix Massie is an award-winning animator who has worked for Arthur Cox and Aardman, currently working at Nexus animation studios as an animator and director.

His simple and bold animation style allows for maximum comic impact. His animation channel I Can’t Colour In was a viral hit, with his series of short form internet cartoons offering up great opportunities to play with ideas and develop his timing and voice as a filmmaker. 

Felix has worked on a multitude of different projects, both online and for television. Alongside this work he has also produced short films including The Surprise Demise of Francis Cooper’s Mother (2008) and The Ongoing Life of Peter Peel: Can, Can, Can’t (2010).

His most recent film In the Air is Christopher Gray has won Best Film awards at Bristol Encounters, London International Animation Festival and Bradford Animation Festival. The film, while similar to Felix’s earlier stickman animations like his 2007 graduation film Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight, is far more sophisticated in terms of technique while still using his uniquely dark style humour paired with wonderfully clear storytelling. The film follows a young boy’s internal experience of first love which take precedent over the increasingly dramatic situations which surround him. Skwigly had the opportunity to discuss Felix’s film in more detail.

A while back you were responsible for a bit of a viral phenomenon with your I Can’t Colour In short animations. Can you tell us a little about why you started the series?

I had the idea for a little animation called Rising Water where a man drowns in a box and it is just quite interesting to watch him. I used a stickman because they were quick and easy to draw with a mouse and also it was a good way to keep the file sizes down back in the day of 56k modems. After that did quite well online I had a few other ideas of what would be cool to see happen to someone in a box and it just became a series. I don’t know why I wanted to make Rising Water though… I suppose the same way it’s funny to see a cat try and open a door – it’s funny to watch a stickman trying not to drown.

After graduating from the University of Wales, you moved to Bristol and worked at Arthur Cox as well as Aardman, how important was the move for you?

Really important, because I think fellow alumni Holbrooks Films were the only animation studio in Newport! Now they’re based in New York and Budapest so it would be even more important now! Arthur Cox was quite a small studio when I started and so it was a really great way to learn a lot about how things work (because everyone knew what everyone was doing – professionally I mean). Also Aardman was one of the reasons I even started animation, so it was inspiring to have them just down the road and to eventually work there.

One of Arthur Cox’s more ambitious achievements was the BAFTA-nominated TATE Movie Project. To what extent were you involved in the project and what did this involvement entail?

When I started at Arthur Cox, Sarah Cox had pitched on a similar idea called BBC Jam which disappeared for a while. When it returned as The TATE Movie Project Sarah was still down as director and so she got me involved at a really early stage doing designs. I worked really closely with her for that beginning bit, after that I helped write scripts for the animation on the interactive website and direct the voice actors. She was really supportive of just letting me really go for it while she focussed on the movie itself. I think I worked on it for about two years, which is a really long time compared to all the other projects I’d done – but it was a really great and unique project to work on because the imagination of the kids really rubbed off on you and it was great seeing it evolve. There was even a giant morphing bus with my designs on the side of it. A career highlight so far.

Keith Reynolds Can’t Make it Tonight was your first big success and was quite evocative of your earlier online shorts. How did the film come about and what was the main inspiration behind it?

I lived with Joe Paine (who was the musician for the film) and he had written a note to his mum over the summer break in one of his pads. Apparently a man called Keith Reynolds had phoned and he couldn’t make it that night. I thought it sounded like a really good old American film title. We’d done some different types of animation throughout the course but looking back at my old icantcolourin films I realised there was something I really liked about the stickmen so I decided to use that approach. I’d not really written too much before but somehow it all came together. I think mostly from watching The Wonder Years and reading The Big Sleep.

Your new film In the Air is Christopher Gray is doing extremely well, recently picking up the grand prix award at Encounters. Can you tell us a little about the background of the film’s narrative and how the story’s themes were developed?

I’d recently told a friend I liked them more than that – but it turned out she didn’t like me that much back. So I wallowed in misery about that for a while and all about misplaced affections. I just liked the idea of people doing what they thought would be cause for a happy ending – but it not working out that way. And in fact, if you didn’t kid yourself, you can kind of tell it wasn’t ever going to be a happy ending really.
The metaphor in the film of the bike jump was just from a little drawing I did that popped into my head one day. Then I was in America when I wrote it, which I think suited it really well because I think they’re more projective of their emotions.

man wife child and bike

In terms of your creative process and/or visual execution, how did you develop the script to what we now see on screen?

I usually work in tandem with the writing and the visuals. So I’ll write a bit, draw a bit, write a bit, draw a bit more etc. Some people do a mood board but I find it more fun and rewarding to see the beginnings of it coming together – no matter how simple it is at first. Then when I’ve finished the script I just get going on it. For Christopher Gray I did the animation and then spent a lot of time throughout production trying out various comping styles and backgrounds (but always knowing the characters themselves would just be basic stickmen). It was quite fun having the time to hop back and forth and fiddle about.

Christopher Gray, whilst adopting its own look, manages to maintain the auteur feel of your previous shorts. Do you largely work on your own to create this atmosphere or did you work with a crew/studio?

I started this all on my own, but a lot of it was made at Nexus Productions where I work now. I still designed and animated the whole thing myself but it was great to have the support, help and advice from the people who work here. There are so many talented people at Nexus and a lot of high end CGI stuff is done here, so when I’m sitting at a computer drawing stickmen all day I sometimes feel a little out of place and I was a bit afraid it would be the most useless thing to ever leave the building (swiftly followed by me). So I really worked on making it look as good as possible. I think if I’d been doing it on my own I’d have been too pleased too quickly so it’s nice to have that pressure!

There has been quite a significant change in this film’s style from your previous works like Keith Reynolds or Peter Peel. Has your approach to character design changed organically? Have any new softwares played a role in your visual development?

They’re still stickmen so they’ve not changed much! But as well as being influenced by people I work with I guess I’m always learning new techniques or wanting to try something new. It never feels like I’ve just done something in some wild moment. I usually have an idea of something I want to try next so it’s pretty organic, yep.

A lot of your films – including another successful short The Surprise Demise of Francis Cooper’s Mother – indulge the theme of death in a darkly comical way. As a storyteller why do you suppose you’ve been so drawn to killing off your characters?

Back in the days of icantcolourin there was an online community of people who made “stickdeath” films. So it was definitely a theme back then. I also loved Michael Burke’s 999 when I was growing up. And I lived in the suburbs surrounded by old people who would suddenly die in church, or in the supermarket or something. There is something amazing about doing something you always do (going to work, driving your car, hanging out with your friends) and then someone doing something they will only ever do once in their life: dying. It’s a bit like New Year where you suddenly ask, “What have I been doing all year?”. Except with a bit more impact perhaps.

I expect you’re quite pleased with the success Christopher Gray has had so far, did you anticipate such a positive reaction?

It was my longest yet and so that definitely worried me that it could be the one people groan about when they see it in festival programs. I don’t think you can ever know how things will go down with the public and, like most people, am usually really disappointed with what I’ve made initially and then slowly grow to like it over time. I’m really happy with how it’s gone down generally though – and I can watch it without cringing. As long as there are aspects of a film that I’ve made that I feel I’ve improved on from an older piece of work then I’m happy.

What are you looking into working on next, or currently working on?

I’m working on a few things. Commercials still but also ideas for kids’ books, a new short, some longer format scripts and just generally spreading out and trying a few different things, both long term and short term so I don’t get too bogged down in one project. I must have drawn about 50,000 stickmen last year, it’d be nice to do 50,000 of something else instead!

In The Air Is Christopher Gray is currently nominated for Best Short Animation at this year’s edition of the British Animation Awards. For more on Felix Massie’s work visit

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