Tuesday 06 December 2011

Movable feasts

Still from Sufjan Stevens promo; image provided by courtesy of Grant Orchard / StudioAKA

As we know from mainstream Hollywood cinema, it's easy to rely on computer-generated tricks and techniques to enrapture an audience – no matter how young or old. The increasing sophistication of studios such as Pixar in developing feature-length animation has been a story of technical, as much as creative, development. However, the enduring properties of story, character, and narrative structure are omnipresent, and producing great work with beautiful, creative visuals doesn't necessarily result in the desire to create an all-out sensory extravaganza. When story and character are at the fore of the creative process, the role of the computer becomes one that supports, that realises the idea, rather than one that helps to generate the idea in the first place.

Grant Orchard is perhaps best known for his series of films, Love Sport. They featuring, as Orchard puts it, "... simple graphic shapes that bounce around a lot and do all things sporty." It is, of course, a lovely understatement; Love Sport is a frantic, energetic exploration of sport which evokes Len Lye in its kinetic colourplay.




Asking Orchard to name his influences opens up a box of treats.

"I suppose formative influences were Woody Allen films. Lots of Woody Allen. Comics ranging from Asterix to Love & Rockets. The typical dramatic painters like Bacon, which seemed so easy to relate to at the time. 'He's curled up in a ball and he's bearing his teeth, he's in pain. I too have felt pain.' More recently, in the past decade, it's been the likes of Paul Rand, Jean-Jacques Sempe, and Chris Ware.

"One artist I go back to a lot is Emile Cohl. With his animation, there's a level of pragmatism, of necessity, that I really appreciate. As a student, I understood it from a practical point or view. The dawning realisation that animation was a lot of work, and the ability to minimize that output by using stickmen was attractive. Latterly I look at his work for the joy of its aesthetic and its charm, but also as a bit of a tonic."

Orchard's training as a telecine operator also gave him something of a tonic; he confesses that after colour-grading a job, he would look at the monitor transmitting just the colour grey, to refresh his tonal senses. It's a way to re-acquaint one's self with the most basic visual setting, which is perhaps why Cohl is so admired.

Paul Auster is cited as another strong influence. A Morning Stroll is loosely based on a short story within Paul Auster's True Tales of an American Life, which had a woman spot a chicken walking down a busy city street. It led Orchard to consider in his work where that brief relationship could lead to, with a pinch of absurdity for good measure.

"... I do love Paul Auster's work. What triggers these incredibly moving narratives within his work are usually ridiculous, unlikely events. They are things that you'd believe could never actually happen in real life; then to ground them in emotions that can be related to, is really daring and inspiring." This shift in visual setting and in narrative is evident throughout Orchard's work, although his priority is always character, and whatever world that character would appear to be at its most expressive.

A Morning Stroll, recently presented at onedotzero's Adventures in Motion festival, presents these shifts both in terms of the scene itself (the chicken in downtown New York) as well as the constantly-shifting way in which the visuals are presented.

Of vital importance to Orchard is his collaboration with Nic Gill, also of StudioAKA and in charge of music in Orchard's productions. Collaborating between sound and image from the start leads to neat orchestration that, like the visuals, are free from clutter.

It isn't a cliché to suggest that Orchard's work is beautiful; it isn't over-elaborate, and features vibrant use of block colour. His commercial background may play a role here; clarity, and readability seem to be key influences – not letting too much get in the way of the idea. Here, he joins a wide variety of directors with a grounding in advertising theory and practice, applying it to their own productions. "It's probably not a bad habit I've picked up from making lots of 30, 20, 10 second adverts at StudioAKA. I hate to feel like I'm wasting someone's time, and I'm very conscious that once you've grabbed someone's attention the worst thing you can do is then lose it. That's a crime."

This clear, visual approach to storytelling creates something of a dichotomy in Orchard's mind: he confesses not to like the repetition of design, yet he loves the repetition of animation. A process, such as drawing hundreds of frames, is much more attractive than working with one static image; Park Foot Ball, a film made with the encouragement of onedotzero, started through playing with animated rectangles in AfterEffects. It's the process that appears to strike a chord with Orchard, more than the initial creative act. "My natural temptation with anything is to enhance it, and with ideas I have relating to live action it always contains a process of manipulation, an irresistible urge to add another layer. Basically I can't leave it be."

Orchard's focus on animation first means that live action is only used within his pieces as a way to enhance the animated story, rather than to act as a substitute. For directors with a footing in animation – Gilliam, Burton, Jeunet – there is, as Orchard puts it, a "... consistent lack of restraint in their work." Signing off, he identifies with this abundant, unrelenting flow of creativity: "It's a process of control that I think I understand."

Where this 'process of control' puts creativity first, expect to see Orchard, developing more striking, dynamic, and rich work.


Grant Orchard is an animator, designer, and director at StudioAKA.

The next onedotzero event to take place in the UK will be Sense and the City in February 2012.

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