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Interview with ‘The Meek’ director Joe Brumm

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The Meek – created by Joe Brumm and the team at Studio Joho in Brisbane, Australia – follows the story of a miniature heroine as she learns to cut out all the negative addictions in her life, told with a comical and warming sensibility. Currently doing the festival rounds, we first saw the film at last year’s edition of Bristol’s Encounters Festival.

Joho have been behind the animation on some of the most successful College Humor animated gags, including Paperman Threesome and Tinderella: A Modern Fairy Tale. Joe’s career has taken him across the world, including the UK where he worked on productions such as Charlie and Lola and Little Princess, before returning to his native Australia five years ago to set up Studio Joho. The small team have developed a charming film, that speaks to everyone about that time in your life when you choose to quit something that was ultimately bad for you, whether it was an addictive substance, behavior or person.

Skwigly were able to ask Joe a few questions hot on the heels of the film’s win at the Austin Film festival.

Joe Brumm- Director of The Meek

Joe Brumm, director of The Meek

Can you tell me a little about how the style was developed?

A lot of it is dictated by the software we use, CelAction. Myself and Mark Paterson, who is our lead animator, worked on series for ten years in London with CelAction. A lot of it is cut-out with no dimensions, which is what we’re used to. In terms of the visual style, Švankmajer‘s old cigarette ads in the 60s were an influence. I remember one that was all black with oranges and red in it, which I really liked.

The Meek has played in both children’s jury and adult screenings. Did you have a specific target audience when making the film?

It definitely wasn’t intended for young kids, but teens up is fine; 14 is probably right in the zone for it. At that age especially you get into a lot of relationships that you think are the be-all and end-all, but it’s good to be reminded that they’re not all you think they’re going to be.

Screenings of this film over the world have played both with and without narration, why did this come about?

At the moment I prefer the non-narrated version – my producer prefers the narrated version but to be honest I haven’t shown her the full non-narrated one. I’m so close to every aspect of it that it took a couple of months of getting a few people to see it and talking to them to get a decent gauge to see if the narration was too much. So at the moment I love it just being a quiet experience that you can piece together yourself, but in saying that the narrated version just won an award at the Austin Festival, so suddenly I like it again. At the moment I’m going to send it around to get some audience feedback and see if people think it is a little to spoon-fed. From this I have learned just how difficult it can be to get enough distance from your own work to be able to judge whether it is working or not.

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Can you tell me a little about the narrator and the story she’s telling?

Narration or not, the film is about being hooked on something, knowing it is bad for you and trying to quit it, get it out of your life, but you find yourself always going back to it even though you know it’s no good for you, it’s making you sick. It’s about that place you find yourself in, where your brain knows it’s just not right but your body’s doing it anyway. It’s always been a weird experience in my life, the schism between what you know is good and bad but what you end up doing. So it’s about the main character trying to overcome that, she has to try looking at what these things are distracting her from. It applies to the nicotine she’s hooked on and the person she’s hooked on and it’s this rush that’s distracting her from this cold and lonely place she’s in.

The sound was done by The Cat Empire – how did you get them involved and what was it like to work with them?

It’s not the band but it’s the keyboardist from the band Ollie McGill, who is super talented. Our producer Laura emailed him after we had made a list of the people we’d love to get involved and The Cat Empire were up there. He does quite a lot of things like this so we went to meet him and it was awesome. He understood where we were coming from with the theme of the film and it was great.
Normally my little brother does all the music for us, with a lot of input from me, so with The Meek it was a case of standing back, which took a little getting used to. But Ollie knows how to write a good hook and how to score action and, so once we were settled on that he took off with it and I think the piece really suits the tone of the film, a really over-the-top, romantic, almost Love Boat feel to it. So I was very happy with that.

You had a long career in England within children’s TV, what prompted the move to Australia?

I moved to the UK when I was about 21 and got my first job working with Tim Searle on shows like I Am Not An Animal. Up until then I had done a lot of hand-drawn animation using Flash. CelAction was making its presence known and it was a godsend, it had all the things Flash didn’t have, so I’ve worked with it ever since. I went on to work all over the place, ending up at Charlie and Lola doing two series with them, then Little Princess. After that I moved to Africa to work on Tinga Tinga Tales for a little while. Then in 2008 the crisis hit and it didn’t look like there was much coming up on the horizon. I was ready to go home by this point and I had always wanted to start my own studio so, armed with CelAction, we had a good platform to set up our own studio. We’re about five years in now and going strong, we have some regular clients and are no longer in the children’s television world. It was a great couple of years and I learned so much, hopefully one day we’ll get back into it.

What has it been like setting up your studio in Australia?

It’s quieter! The first clients we got – we got two at the same time – were Half Brick who did Fruit Ninja and  College Humor in America. Most of our clients aren’t Brisbane based, but we do work for the Gallery of Modern Art’s kids’ exhibitions and we’ve just started working with Gallery Victoria. So there is local work to be done, it’s just more short term, not like in London. I quite like it, it’s nice to have short, exciting jobs. It’s not easy but we’re doing better than I thought we would – you’ve just got to hunt out the work.

Can you tell me a little about your role within the studio and what your day-to-day work involves?

I deal with all the clients, what’s coming up and all the quotes for work. Then I do the storyboards and animatic, then Mark tends to do the art direction and the build. We also have another guy Francis who helps to design, than myself and Mark will start animating, then I do the editing and any After Effects stuff we need doing and my little brother Dan does all the sound and sometimes music. We also bring in freelancers who will come into a job. So I’m basically storyboards, animator and director. We work within all our strengths.

Could you tell me a little about your work with College Humor, what’s it like to work in those classic styles, albeit stripped back?

It’s only a mirrored approximation of what people like Disney do but it works for these jokes. The College Humor work is great, every script you get is a completely different style, so Mark gets a whole new group of characters and styles to do in every job. We can get the look of the Disney-styled characters more than the animation, but CelAction has come along in leaps and bounds. I like to think we get a good 2D approximation of expensive animation. They’re a lot of fun.

Keep your eyes peeled for The Meek coming to a festival near you, you can see more of Joho Studio work over at studiojoho.com

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