R.E.M. by Danny Nichols
My name is Danny Nichols and I have been drawing and painting all of my life, primarily as a comic book artist. Growing up in South London, I am fascinated with grime as well as beauty. My previous comics include an Inspector Morse parody Tales of an Alcoholic (Fig. 1) as well as a book about the British unemployment system called Creeps & Underdogs, for which the great Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, Watchmen) wrote a foreword. I have also produced a self-published picture book called Insomnia (Fig. 2) as well as doing bits and pieces for magazines and comics like Viz. However, in this blog post I want to talk about the making of my first animated short film R.E.M, which is perhaps the most interesting production I have been involved with to date. Animation and fantasy have always intrigued me, so I set out to make an interesting, amusing film that engaged with both areas that was perhaps thought provoking too. I also wanted to do something different to everyone else who is doing comics, so I thought it would be good to set myself out from the crowd and do a moving comic instead!
I had wanted to make an animated film ever since I found this fabulous app called Stop Motion Studio. I became instantly obsessed with its capabilities because it works exactly like an old overhead camera squeezed into a little space the size of a mobile phone. With Stop Motion Studio, I made a tiny 20-second film of a syringe drawing blood. The blood then morphed into a skull. It was pretty easy to do and I really liked the end result. Until I discovered the app I didn’t really know how I was going to go about making an animated film, I thought I needed an overhead stop motion camera! It didn't seem likely I would ever get one of those in the near future, but the app works in exactly the same way.
R.E.M. (or Rapid Eye Madness) is my first serious attempt using this Stop Motion Studio technology. At first, I found working with the digital technology something of a struggle. I like the comic book style achieved through paints and pencils and wanted to try and incorporate that into R.E.M.’s design and movement. To me, there simply isn't any other choice but real, organic art materials. They have something that computers lose, a sense of expression I suppose. I found I lost interest in album covers when real artists were replaced by graphics and computer imagery. I'm certainly not against computers, I just think they're for other people and certain kinds of animated visual styles. I like to keep old traditions alive, and so I individually coloured each background to create an effect known as ‘boiling’ (see Torre 2015); the images always seem like they are moving, and I wanted the animated effect of constant movement. Saying that, I'm sure I will be seduced by digital technology more and more as the labour involved in producing the ‘boiling’ effect was quite intensive. I prepared myself because I knew how much work it would take to get even a few minutes of animation. Drawings have to be repeated, with a little bit of movement on each one. I used a lot of ink and paper, having to replenish stocks more than once. With experience you learn ways of lightening your workload, but that's another topic of its own.
A major influence for R.E.M. was a film by Gerald Scarfe called Long Drawn Out Trip (1973). It was made to document Scarfe's impression of the USA, but it was all done with such flair and often violent imagery it was like no other cartoon I'd seen, aside from Tom & Jerry which of course had a fair bit of comic violence. What inspired me about Scarfe's film is that seemed like something I could work out how to do, because it was drawn with conventional art materials. If a computer had been involved in its production then I perhaps wouldn't have entertained the idea any further. I also loved how it made me feel, so much more exhilarating in its movement than simply looking at static pictures.
I also took inspiration from the old Sinbad films made by Ray Harryhausen, as well as Jason and the Argonauts. I saw the smooth-enough (rather than seamless) motion created by the Stop Motion Studio app as similar to those earlier animated films, creating an old-fashioned effect that I rather liked. I tried to utilise this process to my advantage in R.E.M. For instance, there is a scene where an animal turns into a Stealth Bomber, allowing me to not only experiment with creating movement but also with morphing one image into another. I also felt inspired by this technique, and began to employ more fantastical imagery that came from my dreams as well as reality, incorporated everything from gritty back streets of London to exotic creatures from around the world. When driving through any inner London suburb, the colours of neon lights and general imposing concrete construction (alongside trees and some greenery) all inspire me, and fed into the production and formal style of R.E.M. The noises, smells and sense of urban chaos seem partially to be almost dreamlike, so I wanted to try and communicate that throughout R.E.M. Usually when very tired, I close my eyes at night and see lots of images constantly changing and melting into different shapes.
To create this dreamlike imagery to accompany the depiction of my animated urban landscapes, I mined the imagery of the fantasy and science fiction of my childhood. Having been brought up on Star Wars, it is far from surprising that some of that imagery will always stay with you and be an influence, perhaps without realising it. There's a part in my film of a pilot in a spaceship navigating through some asteroids which was likely inspired by the scene in Star Wars, where the Millennium Falcon is hazardously trying to avoid an asteroid belt. I've dreamed about UFOs for as long as I can remember, and used to take part in 'U.F.O spotting' as a youngster. So I thought I'd insert a few clunky, spinning discs of my own, riffing on old science fiction B movies like Fiend Without A Face (1958) and They Came From Outer Space. Dinosaurs too were a mild obsession, perhaps due to my love of Journey to The Centre of The Earth and the King Kong movies, especially Peter Jackson’s King Kong representation of Skull Island, and of course the first Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). All these images become locked in filing cabinets in your mind from way back as a child, and when the creative process is beginning you get a key to unlock them and bring out that stuff. Fantasies emerge from the sub -conscious to the conscious to the hand that tries to replicate it. However, creativity always comes out slightly or very different to what you expect.
With R.E.M., I wanted to create something similar to these kinds of experiences. This is what animation is great for: bringing ideas to life that don't normally get a chance, but instead fade away like a dream and are forgotten. Animation as a creative medium therefore allowed me to memorialise and remember. The relationship between fantasy and animation is therefore a complex one in my work. Animation is the perfect tool to make fantasy a reality because it allows ideas, no matter how abstract and extreme – ludicrous even – to become a living, breathing reality. Yet at the same time the bridge between the two is difficult to cross because to make that idea live means that you have to translate it into a work ethic, which can be to the death of ideas.Having been creating comic strips and comic books previously, I had come to the conclusion that they probably only entertained me and no one else, so I had an urge to do something more attention grabbing. Moving pictures are always more interesting to anyone, so it was the next logical step really to making a moving comic, and this time with technology a lot more accessible than it was 20 years ago it's easier to achieve. It is available more readily too, and you don't have to spend thousands on complicated software and camera technology, it can be done with paper and ink (and of course the imagination), so it's also a flexible relationship. I like solid imagery but you need the patience to work through the ideas with discipline, a bit like working on a production line in a factory. But at the end it's worth all the effort when you see the images take flight. Then you can clock off and have a pint!
Torre, Dan. “Boiling Lines and Lightning Sketches: Process and Animated Drawing.” animation: an interdisciplinary journal 10, no. 2 (2015): 141-153.
Danny Nichols is an award-winning artist who has experimented with watercolour, written and illustrated comic books and stop motion animation , accompanied by his own music, usually involving guitars. He is looking to continue with motion graphics as it is one of the most intriguing art forms. His work has been compared to those of Robert Crumb & Ralph Bakshi. Danny also has a blog called rippeddream.blogspot.com, and can be found on Twitter (@CreepsDn8810).