„I wanted to capture real New York“
Andy London is New York based director, writer and animator. With his wife, Carolyn, he runs a production company London Squared Productions (since 1999). They created award winning films: stop motion animated shorts Subway Salvation (2003), The Back Brace (2004), short feature I’m in the Mood for Death and rotoscoped short A Letter to Colleen (both 2007). In 2008, they made The Lost Tribes of New York City, where objects on the street are inconspicuously animated and talk with human voices, representing diversive residents of NYC. This film got numerous awards and was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of the exhibition Talk to Me. Other interesting projects include music videos, ridiculous nonsense stuff and interactive website called eager-to-please.com. In this Skype interview Andy London talks about his stay in the Czech Republic, making of A Letter to Collen and The Lost Tribes of New York City, writing graphic novels, his view on rotoscopy and other interesting stuff.
Czech readers might find interesting, that you spent quite a long time in the Czech Republic…
I went there in 1993 and just stayed there for couple of years and then I came back in 1996. I really enjoyed it. I taught English and I did a graphic novel while I was there. I had a lot of Czech friends, by the time I left in 1996, I was really speaking lot of Czech and traveling all over the Czech Republic. It was a great experience, I would have stayed longer, but my wife had appendicitis and it just got very complicated and in the summer of 1996 we left. I haven’t been back since. I still have friends from the Czech Republic, who visit me in New York and I still talk to them on Facebook and Gmail and sometimes phone calls. I’d like to go back someday, our Lost Tribes of New York City film is going to be at some new festival in Liberec in May. I’d like to go see it, but I don’t think it is going to happen. We had a son year and a half ago, so it’s difficult to travel with him.
And why did you go to the Czech Republic in the first place?
I went to college, a school called Pratt, in 80s. Shortly after I graduated, I became a guard, because when you are a painting major, it is very difficult to find a paint jobs. So, before I went to the Czech Republic, I worked as a security guard at Metropolitan Museum of Art, I met a German ISL student from Bavaria (Schwäbisch Hall) and started dating her. She was studying in south of France in Montpellier and I decided that it was too difficult to date her from United States, from NY, so I wanted to move to France to be close to her. But I couldn’t find a job in France and at that time in the Czech Republic there were many opportunities to teach English. I always wanted to teach, but I did not have a teaching degree. So I moved to Prague and I thought Prague and Montpellier were not that far apart. I did not realize it was a really long train or bus ride to visit her. But I went to the Czech Republic because I did not want to be a guard forever. I liked my guard job a lot, I got look at paintings, learned a lot about art history, but it got kind of boring, so I wanted to escape and have an adventure.
You rotoscoped a very personal short film A Letter to Colleen. What program did you use and how long did it take to make that film?
I used Flash and Wacom tablets and a bunch of laptops. My students actually helped me to do that and we shot a video on a very cheap Sony standard digital definition video camera. We organized the party with my students. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, they got very drunk and very stoned, and my wife, who played Colleen, made out with my students and I videotaped that to make it feel very realistic. And the other part – we shot video footage of my wife and I simulating sex in our apartment on a floor. We had a friend of ours, who was an amateur photographer and videotaped us. That footage we brought in Flash and we traced it frame by frame 12 fps for about a year. It was a long time. I did most of it, but I did have 4 or 5 students in terms of helping me with backgrounds and other things.
If I at that time animated it hand drawn, it would have come up very tooney and goofy and we wanted to do it really serious. And we didn’t want to be live action, because live action would be really expensive to really get the look we wanted and would need to go to deep production. With rotoscoping, we would leave the imagination more open, because you don’t take everything. And what I loved about rotoscoping was we could make it really cinematic. And it was a big dilemma. If I had done it hand drawn, I don’t think I had the style or the ability to get the cinematic quality we’re looking for, those crazy angles and everything. We did a lot of tests. I spent about four or five months trying different techniques and styles for the film.
Then one day I just took a video camera and videotaped myself walking on the floor and I traced that in Flash and my wife said „That’s the look.“ And that’s how we did it. There was a lot of controversy when I did it, because a lot of my animator colleagues feel strongly that you have to do everything yourself and it’s all about skill. Sometimes I don’t agree with them, because to me it’s all about concept, ideas – and whatever technique will make that concept work is fine. To set things straight, rotoscoping is not easy, because a lot of footage was very blurry because we were shooting with standard definition cameras in dark. I had to practice figure drawing a lot, because a lot of it was hand-drawn, to fix things and make things work correctly. So it was a really difficult film.
The subject matter made it incredibly difficult to do, because it was based on a real story. The girl that I had sex with, I had not spoken to her for 20 years and I don’t know where she googled me, just as we were finishing the film, she asked how I was and wanted to talk to me. And she found our website and she saw the clip of the film we were doing at the time – I called it A Letter to Christine, which is her name, and she immediately connected and realized it was a story about that night and she began drinking again, because she was upset by what I’ve done. But she’s fine now, I’ve spoken to her recently, we are Facebook friends and she is completely sober and very high functioning and happy, so it’s OK. It was just a really short relapse. But I felt really bad about that. It was something I needed to do, because it was a story that haunted me for many, many years and I wanted to put it to rest, so I did.
Your animation prior to Colleen was quite different, although it was personal as well…
Before A Letter to Colleen we had done The Back Brace and a lot of children’s television networks contacted us, probably three or four, asking us to patch TV shows based on Back Brace. We spent two and half years with my wife trying to pitch these shows and it went nowhere. It was a giant headache, because every time we gave them an idea, they would say it is too this or too that. But they kept on calling us and bothering us, we were very low on money. We were so sick of it, so we decided to make A Letter to Colleen to stop that. We didn’t want to be known as the children’s film animators. And that worked. We did A Letter to Colleen and they stopped calling us. (laugh) It was the end of that. And actually we made money from A Letter to Colleen, we sold it to TV stations and I was very happy with that.
Your interactive website project eager-to-please.com is a lot of fun. How did it emerge?
It’s really been a lot of fun to do. I originally did graphic novels before I met my wife. Graphic novels in the U.S. is no industry, a terrible industry. There’s like 20 people who do it and maybe 500 people who read them. And it’s very aggravating, because I love graphic novels. I did a graphic novel when I was in Prague. I found a publisher and made no money. It was a very frustrating experience. So, when we discovered animation, it gave us an audience immediately, because we would go to show and see people clapping and laughing. It was a really satisfying experience. It did not make a lot of money, but it was also nice, because occasionally we sell something to television, so lot of people can see it. And we began to have videos on YouTube and Vimeo and getting many hits.
But I really, really wanted to do another graphic novel, because it’s a faster medium for telling stories and I have so many stories I want to tell. So I did a graphic novel. And again – I had the same frustrating experience after making it. I could not get a publisher for this one. A lot of my friends are graphic novelists and pretty successful ones, but they just did not help me. My wife and I decided to take that graphic novel and make it into an interactive experience on the web and make it into movies and TV show. That’s what we’re in a process of doing now. We have a manager now in L.A. who is helping us selling a pilot. We are in the middle of doing a pilot now – a 22 minute story about my sister’s boyfriends.
There’s been a very interesting development. A French sales agent, the same who published Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, thinks she can sell it. We’re going to translate it to French. I am very inspired by the web, by YouTube, Vimeo and interactive websites. We’ve been looking at that a lot lately and want to explore it further. We are beginning to work with New York City subway systems. They’re asking us to do video installation for the subway, that’s very similar to Lost Tribes of New York City. It is a direction I want to go. My background is fine – painting, sculpture and installation. It’s nice after graduating 20 years ago to finally start doing the thing I majored in. I’ll always make films, but it is nice to do different things. It is boring to do the same thing over and over again.
How was the making of your original short film The Lost Tribes of New York?
When I lived in Prague, I learned how to teach English as a second language, and that became my trade from 2003 to 2006. That’s how I made most of my money. Teaching at schools and teaching privately. Around 2002 we began making money doing animation as well. For many years I taught English and I’ve had some very interesting students over the years that I’ve got to know very well and I became fascinated by them and I began record interviews with them, from all over the world, collect interviews on hard drive. In fact, in 2007 we did a film called Three Words about New York, where I interviewed lots of my students, ISL students about New York City. And then my wife had this idea to turn it to live action film, where we got actors to play my students. And it was the worst film we ever did. It was a horrible disaster. It was just pretentious terrible 20 minute film. But the material really intrigued us. I kept the original audio recordings. All the interviews were just audio, no video. My intention back then was to animate it cartoon characters with the voiceover of the students, but I did not know how to do it.
Then in 2008, when the economy crashed in the U.S., my wife felt it first, because she works in advertising and I was not working in summer a lot because I teach college. And all of a sudden, there was no commercial job, I was not teaching and she did not have a job. We were in a lot of debt which was funny for us, because for 2 or 3 years, we were making quite a bit of money. We were in big trouble. We were not paying rent and were getting nasty letters from our landlord. And we just got a dog, it was a puppy, and all we can do is just sit in our apartment and get depressed or walk the dog. And it was in Harlem, which is an interesting place, but it is also dirty, disgusting place. So we walked the dog and looked at all the street furniture, because the dog would pee and shit on mailboxes, sidewalks, hydrants… And I had this idea: Why we don’t take these interviews I’ve done and match the voices with the street furniture? And I began the street furniture animation with the voices. My first attempt was very cartoony, I really exaggerated faces and stuff like that and it did not look real. And my wife suggested to make it really settle, so it’s hard to see the street furniture is talking. And we really liked result.
I used a cheap sound recorder Zoom H2. We began to pretend to be documentarians and interviewed people about New York City. We asked them the same questions I asked my students. I followed homeless people at dirty seedy places like Penn Station in the morning and hang out with drunk people to get interesting recordings. At that time I was teaching in Philadelphia one class a week, I had to leave really early, so I took a 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock train. I really wanted to capture real New York. And the real New York is drunk people, homeless people, tourists, residents, it really runs the gambit, the types of people. I wanted to make sure I was being democratic and include all kinds of people. We did it for 5 months and I have tons and tons of footage. There was editing and editing until we found the right street furniture and compositions. And then we made our film.
And it was a success…
We didn’t think it would be very successful, as it was such a strange new project, such a departure from our films. And I have put it in a very small competition in the Animation society of New York City, called CEPA, and it went really well. One of our colleagues, a writer for Cartoonbrew, was in the audience and he saw the reaction of people in the audience and posted about it. The film was online already and the article led to hundreds of thousands of hits. That led to a show in the Museum of Modern Art. We had a prominent partner’s show called Talk to Me and now that is leading to working with the MTA, which is New York City transit. We are beginning to do similar kinds projects for subway and for Grand Central Station. It is something I want to continue doing.
Other reason I like teaching is I like to meet people, I find people very inspiring and interesting. This kind of project allows me to both animate, make films and to meet and talk with people, which is great, because animation can be a very lonely experience. You just lock yourself up in a studio and you spend hours and hours drawing frame after frame. That was nice about The Lost Tribes of New York City, is its all done outside or its done with people. Whether you’re interviewing them or shooting furniture. There’s something very immediate and satisfying about it. Most of our films take a long film to do. But The Lost Tribes of New York City, you can animate 10 seconds in one afternoon.
Your short feature, black humor I’m in the Mood for Death, has really great acting from Sonya Rokes. Could you tell me more about this piece?
Sonya Rokes is a friend of ours, she’s a really talented actress. She actually was the photographer for the sex scenes in A Letter to Colleen that I rotoscoped at the same time as we did I’m in the Mood for Death, because she is the only person that wouldn’t be uncomfortable watching my wife and I naked. (laugh) We did that film in her apartment at midtown Manhattan, a two day shoot, her apartment is really small. I love Sonya, she collects a lot of stuff and it was pretty crazy experience. My wife directed that piece and it is her story. It is about her OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), where she has to touch things and every night we go to bed, she checks the lock five times, check if the stove is off and It drives me crazy.
Sonya is a theatre actress, but she has really good timing and every time she would do a different take, she gets the exact same timing. She does it in beats. I love that film. It’s our only live action film. We want to do more live action films, but the problem is, they are very expensive. And they are hard to program and send around. But that film did really well. It went to many festivals and got whole bunch of awards.
On the other hand, my wife works as a creative director for Nickel Odeon. She directs live action commercials and projects like that. But back in 2007 she wanted to explore live action more, because one problem she has: we would do everything together, but she does not animate. And the animators in NY City are kind of prejudiced. They think if you don’t animate, you shouldn’t get the directoring credit. It’s stupid, because my wife is far better director than I am, in fact everything we’ve done, she’s directed, I’ve animated and designed it. So she was getting frustrated in 2007, so she wanted to make her name in live action and it was our attempt to do that and the film certainly helped her. She doesn’t have that problem anymore.
What is your opinion on rotoscoping?
I think you have to be very careful in the animation world with technique. A lot of schools and companies are very strong about technique. They are always about technique comes first, about making it really interesting crafted film, but they forget that the point of any film, whether it is animated or live action, is to entertain people. If something is very short and you have a really cool technique, it is going to entertain people. But if it goes longer than a few minutes, you have to have some kind of narrative structure to keep people’s attention. Features that rely heavily on technique like a rotoscope feature can be really dangerous, because nobody’s going to watch an animation experiment for hour and half. I’m not a big fan of rotoscoping, there are some films I show my students and watch all over again, but they are all animated shorts that use rotoscoping. But I’m not against it. I think rotoscoping is fine. I personally like people who draw things themselves. You know what’s really cool, though? What’s his name? Joseph Pierce! Did you see his film A Family Portrait? Holy shit! (I’ll send you a link later.) He has a new piece called The Pub. And it’s really something. He takes live action footage, makes it black and white, then he rotoscopes it and then he adds animation to the rotoscoping, exaggerating expressions, mouth, tongue… It’s just breathtaking, it’s gorgeous stuff. That’s cool. I think a lot of it is not about technique. It is a great evolution of rotoscoping. It really delivers a punch and that’s very exciting. That’s rotoscoping I really like.
I like all kinds of animation. I do a lot of teaching of animation now. When I teach animation, I never stick to one technique; I always introduce to students everything imaginable, so that I can see where their strengths and weaknesses are. I love stop motion, I love pixilation, I love 2D computer, I love Maya… I’m a big fan of David O’Reilly. He’s amazing. I used to hate Maya. My favorite Maya films are the ones that let you know it’s Maya. They don’t try to hide the fact it’s done in 3D. I hate when 3D films try to be stop motion. Because it’s not stop motion, it’s 3D. And they have a certain look and feel to them. If you can just let that show, it’s very cool. I think it is very important to show process, as the way I feel about, whether it’s a painter or musician or a filmmaker. I don’t want there to be an illusion of what it is. I like to see the actual paint or the medium they are doing it in.