The End of the Street by Adrian Shaughnessy
'Andy Martin and his collaborators demonstrate what can happen when you add narrative drive and filmic intent to animation.'
William Gibson, the author of Necromancer and All Tomorrow's Parties, coined the term ‘Garage Kubrick’. Writing in Wired magazine in 1995, the historian of the post-human future wrote: ‘The Garage Kubrick is a stone auteur, an adolescent near-future Orson Welles, plugged into some unthinkable (but affordable) node of consumer tech in his parents' garage. The Garage Kubrick is single-handedly making a feature in there, some sort of apparently live action epic that may or may not involve motion capture. That may or may not involve human actors, but which will seem to.'
There’s a bit of the Garage Kubrick about Andy Martin, yet there’s much more to him than a nerdish facility with software: he has a love of compelling narrative and a keen appreciation of form, colour and style that elevates him above the level of After Effects whiz-kiddery. Martin trained as a graphic designer - something that shows in the graphic precision of his films - and it was while he was art director of NME magazine in the 1980s that he first encountered the Yorkshire poet, writer and broadcaster Ian McMillan.
‘Ian was an NME contributor,’ recalls Martin, ‘and back then he would post his beautifully quirky short pieces to the paper from Barnsley, so we never met. But I’d snipped out one of his articles and stuck it in a sketchbook, with the idea of one day asking him if he’d like to try collaborating.'
When Martin and McMillan finally met it was to combine their talents on Messages from a Russian Heatwave, a short film about MacMillan’s travels in the former Soviet Union. In 2007 they published the book Ideas Have Legs, a collection of texts and images. And now they have come together again to make End of the Street, an animated film based, tangentially, on the Beaufort windscale.
In his eponymous poem, McMillan echoes the numeric ascent of the Beaufort scale. He starts with a whisper, and ends with a shout as he describes a surreal trip through a street that we instantly recognise from dreams. Martin matches the poet’s delivery with a heady mix of treated live action, CGI, graphics and typography. The viewer is glued to the narrative sweep of McMillan’s declamatory delivery.
‘Ian’s text arrived fully formed,’ says Martin, ‘no changes were made and I was able to storyboard directly to his script. Storyboarding is a new departure for me. All my previous films have been self-produced, but this was different. The process enabled me to refine and edit all the way through to the start of filming. Later it proved indispensable during those long nights where I felt I was losing my grip on some of the trickier bits. The storyboard was always there, pinned to the studio wall, reminding me that I’d actually resolved most of the problems earlier.'
There were other new experiences for the normally self-sufficient Martin: ‘I had to pull in expertise from fields in which I had limited skills, like 3D and live action. Tom Mitchell (3D assistance) and Malcolm Hadley (camera) brought fresh outlooks and approaches – not to mention huge file sizes – and I was reminded how much I used to enjoy art direction.'
Music was another area where Martin enjoyed a fruitful collaboration. Composer Robert Worby used to be in the Mekons. Today he works in film sound and is a long-time collaborator with Michael Nyman. ‘Robert is really the third leg of the milking stool,’ claims Martin. ‘I sent him a weird graphic representation of the way I saw the sound building and initially asked if it could be “woody and orchestral”, wishing to stay away from anything Techno. I wanted it to work as a standalone piece of music.'
Worby set about building some key passages using samples from a diverse range of sources, including fork tines, saucepans and chains. He and Martin maintained contact over the shooting period, with Worby ‘constantly refining and tweaking’ until Martin had a rough cut where all the key visual events were in place.
The end result is a film that avoids the trap that so many of the Garage Kubrick’s fall into: the widely held view that the ‘silicon wizardry’ of the new software is an end in itself. It isn’t. Animated film is a demanding medium that needs to be driven by a higher urge than the compulsion simply to make things move. Motion needs to be harnessed and directed. It needs to be sculpted and given rhythm. Most of all, it needs to be given purpose. That purpose can be obscure, but we have to sense that there is one, even if we can't be sure what it is.
Andy Martin and his collaborators demonstrate what can happen when you add narrative drive and filmic intent to animation. You get a journey.
What does Martin think is film is about? ‘It could be about the weather, or the human response to the weather,’ he notes, ‘or about language – verbal or visual. I’ve already had people respond in a number of ways, everyone translating it their own way. I think it's one of those “make of it what you will” pieces. But I’d be disappointed if the film got stuck in the “Animation ghetto.” Although I don’t suppose there is much danger of that as I never put that cute furry stop-frame squirrel in.'
Martin has dedicated the film to the late Dick Arnall. ‘Dick died in February 2007,’ he states, ‘having only seen the animatic, and not the finished film. But he deserves a special mention in the commissioning of this piece. His understanding of the need for animation to shed its image as cute or twee and encompass all those developments in imagemaking of recent years. He was no stranger to controversy, posting his notorious "Death to Animation" piece on the animateonline website in 2005.'
Adrian Shaughnessy runs ShaugnessyWorks.He has written and art directed numerous books on design, including ' How to Be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul'. He is editor of Varoom, and writes regularly for Eye, Creative Review and Design Week.