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Q&A with Chris Shepherd

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews

Chris Shepherd has been celebrating animation’s dark side since he emerged in the late 90s, directing animation for C4 such as The Broken Jaw and the animated segments of sketch show Big Train. During his subsequent decade-long stint with Slinky Pictures his celebrated output included the 2003 short Dad’s Dead and 2006’s Silence Is Golden, both combining live action and animation to fantastic effect, an approach still carried over into more recent projects such as 2013’s The Ringer. In his latest 2D animated piece The Concept , a music promo for Kurt Wagner of Lambchop‘s new outfit HecTA, Chris has returned to the black-and-white minimalism of earlier works such as his David Shrigley collaboration Who I Am and What I Want, combined with the rubberhose design sensibilities of early 1930s animation.

When last we caught up you had recently worked on three quite disparate films in quick succession (Anatole’s Island, The Ringer and Lifeclass). Can you bring us up to speed with what you’ve been up to since then?

I’ve directed a few pop promos since The Ringer. I did one for Holly Johnson which was a laugh, you can see me in that one. I also co-directed with Jocie Jurtiz a section of the new 60 minute film by Roger Sergent for the new Reverend and the Makers album Mirrors. That’s out in October. Then finally I’ve directed two pop promos for new Lambchop offshoot band HeCTA. The first promo is for The Concept and that’s all 1930s style, the second promo comes out in September and it’s for a track called Sympathy For the Auto Industry. I co-directed that one with Jez Pennington. Rather than being 30s retro it’s an 80s CGI fest.

How did your involvement with HeCTA come about?

Ive always been a massive Lambchop fan. I saw them play Somerset House about ten years ago and it was  one  of my favourite gigs ever. So it was amazing when The Ringer was in competition in at Clermont Ferrand as Lambchop’s lead singer Kurt Wagner was on the Lab jury. I got the chance to hang out with him and I got cheeky and said “Do you want me to make a video for you?” and the rest is history.

Were the band involved much with the visual development/events of the film or were you left to your own devices?

I wrote a treatment and ran it by the guys, then we bounced it back and forth.

The film has a strong Fleischer Bros. vibe to it, were there any particular films from that era that it took direct inspiration from?

I’ve always loved Fleischer cartoons. The black and white Popeye and Betty Boop are epic. I love that period of cinema because it all comes off the back of silent cinema where there’s little or no censorship. Modern times we live in are so boring by comparison, but these Fleischer cartoons show violence, drug taking, drinking and all that is surreal and weird in a comic frame. When’s the last time a cartoon character puked up his heart and swallowed it, like in Bimbo’s Initiation? That’s the type of cartoon I like. Full of cruelty and suffering.

Are the band enthusiastic about the outcome?

Kurt, Ryan and Scott loved it. When I heard The Concept I loved the Buddy Hackett sample. Buddy was a legendary New York standup from the 50s and 60s. He was in lots of cool films you would watch on the telly in the 70s like It’s A Mad Mad Mad World. I wanted the film to feel like it was old too. I wanted it to look like somebody had found it in a car boot sale and had it transferred in a home movie centre.

With the networks and shows that more or less originated the art form of music videos having been completely redefined in the last twenty or so years, music videos seem far less about marketing nowadays and more about art and creative affinity. What do you feel the role of a strong music video is for a band in a post-MTV/TOTP world?

The video is still crucial and it can generate huge audiences. Someone like Charli XCX can get 60 million hits so its still has power as a medium. I think it’s still very much about marketing. Promos are released as teasers for albums and build a lot of online chatter.

As well as the overall retro feel the animation and more bizarre visuals are also somewhat reminiscent of your collaborative film with David Shrigley Who I Am And What I Want. Looking back on that project/process do you feel it had a big effect on you as an artist and how you approach ideas?

It’s funny because I gave a Kurt a DVD of my film collection Beyond Animation.  He zeroed straight in on Who I Am And What I Want and said “Wouldn’t it be cool if it was black and white?” I thought Cool, who needs all of that colour? It’s distracting. This is the third black and white project Ive made. Who I Am…, Big Train’s Stareout and now The Concept. When I made this one I drew a lot upon those Slinky Pictures days. I tried to think how I was feeling back in the day when I had a studio in Brick Lane and couldn’t resist working with the wonderful James Newport on the film.

Any future plans/projects/events we should keep our eyes open for?

I’ve been filming a part two to my 2003 film Dad’s Dead. Ian Hart is reprising his role as the Scouse narrator recollecting further memories of Johnno. Cinema is eating itself alive with sequels so I thought it would be a laugh to do a sequel of my own. I’m making that for Arte. I’ve also written a feature which is an extension of films like The Ringer and Bad Night For The Blues. It’s about me leaving home, my mother and Hillsborough. I’ve also started a graphic novel version of that. I might be asking for some Kickstarter help on that one.

You can follow the work of Chris Shepherd on his official site, Tumblr, Vimeo and Twitter. The DVD collection Chris Shepherd: Beyond Animation is available through Autour de Minuit.
You can hear more about Chris Shepherd’s prior work in episode 15 of the Skwigly Podcast which you can stream below or direct download:

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