Centred around 59-year-old housewife and aspiring artist Beryl, Joanna Quinn and Les Mills’ Affairs Of The Art is up for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar this year. Just after the nomination was announced, Hannah Collins caught the couple, who founded their internationally acclaimed Cardiff studio in 1987, to get their reaction.
This is your second Oscar nomination together. Was it a surprise or were you quietly confident?
Les: You can’t really be confident, I don’t think, all you can do is live in hope.
Joanna: Les is a pessimist and I’m the eternal optimist, but even I’d thought ‘Nah, it’s so unlikely.’ Because we’ve seen all the films and we know all the voters so we’d worked it out. It’s a good choice this year. Sometimes, not great films get through, but this year, some really good things are there.
Les: It’s a tough competition.
This is also your fourth film starring the character Beryl. Why do you keep revisiting her? And is she based on someone you know?
Les: She’s an original character, based on the two biggest influences on Joanna’s life: one, her mother; tough, happy, outgoing, and the other one was a woman in the Refractory at Middlesex Polytechnic, a jovial, big, motherly figure that all the students used to go to. Middlesex Uni sounds very cool and trendy, but at the end of the day they were still young kids with problems and they could talk to this woman at the Refractory over a coffee. Beryl was a combination of those two.
Joanna: That was my first Beryl film that I made in [Middlesex] college, so that’s the connection. It was my graduation film, Girls Night Out (1986). I can’t believe we’re still doing Beryl because we felt that we’d explored her character fully but then we thought what we could do was introduce more of her family and her history. It was fun to go back to when she was a child and see a little baby Beryl. That was new. You’ve got to enjoy it, so for us, it became a challenge to integrate the family into the film.
Les: Yeah, the family characters became much more important. The husband has been there before but he was like the opposite of the usual relationship in a couple where the man is normally dominant in the house. We reversed that totally. I think that’s what a lot of people like about it – Beryl’s a very strong, determined character, doing things that people aspire to do and never get round to doing because of personal or familial circumstances.
Joanna: Everything we do is observational – the situations are based on existing situations and places and characters, even though it’s animation. We act everything out and work out the timing based on everything reacting to everything else, so it’s observational from every angle. I think it’s important for us that the audience relates to it. Animation is usually fantasy and fairy tales, but we’re more like documentary animation. We want to make the audience feel that we create a relatable story and relatable characters. And then once you’ve got them, you can twist and turn it. That’s harder to do in animation because, as everyone knows, in animation, you can do anything. So, you have to create a realistic environment and then twist it, and then the audience gets surprised.
Les: I was very interested in documentaries as a kid, so it’s informed by that experience of meeting actual people and talking to them about their lives.
You probably get asked this all the time but how long do your films take to make?
Joanna: This one took about six years, but it actually started being made before that…
Les: I think the idea was kicking around from after the last film. This one is the longest at 16 minutes. I think the last one was only five.
Joanna: It takes such a long time! And it’s all hand-drawn and then scanned into the computer so the digital side was the compositing and digital colour, but the actual animations are drawn on lightboxes in the traditional way. I did try and animate it digitally on a big Cintiq tablet where you can draw directly onto a screen, which everybody does now. But it’s just a very different way of working because there are different decisions [to be made]. It’s so intuitive when you’ve just got a pencil but when you’re telling the computer what to do, you’re constantly making decisions about the thickness of the line – you really have to think about it. I just didn’t get into that good zone where you switch off and animating becomes natural. I became very ‘present’ and aware and it wasn’t good.
Les: She loves drawing, and I said, “you’re not really enjoying this and your animation is becoming more… rigid.”
Joanna: This is one of the reasons why we’re shocked Affairs Of The Art got nominated because it is hand-drawn and this is 2022, you know? In this day and age where everything’s shiny and perfect, it’s quite nice to have a film full of marks of smudges.
Are many other animators still doing things by hand?
Joanna: There aren’t that many because most people who work commercially work digitally because you’ve got to be fast. You have to really want to [work hand-drawn] because it does take longer. Not the animation itself but you’ve got to take the drawings and scan them all in and testing it is much more laborious. Saying that, there are still lots of colleges all over the place that still teach animation as an art form and students are using all sorts of materials to create them. It’s a big art form. We work one way but there’s a whole other arena of other stuff. We’re just always amazed at how people manage to make films because it’s such a hard thing to do.
But it’s also crossing over skills. So, before, you were maybe an animator but you didn’t do the editing, or you didn’t do the compositing and the sound. But now, everybody is so skilled because it’s all available just on laptops for all those areas – that one person can do everything and make a film. It’s fantastic how things are moving forward and changing. It just astounds me, going to festivals… How many more amazing films can be made? They just keep coming.
Are streaming services having a positive impact on audience accessibility to short and more experimental animation?
Joanna: Especially short film, yes, because where do you see short films or short animations? Film festivals, ads, or little animation programmes that are on late at night…
Les: Where only other animators will watch them! Reaching an audience is quite important. Probably one thing that maybe our films do because the characters are ordinary people is that they’ve got an accessibility.
Joanna: That’s the most important thing to us – getting the film shown. And for me, as a woman animator, it’s particularly important for women studying animation to see strong role models. Beryl is a great protagonist, she’s female, she ticks all the boxes. It’s also important to me to carry on teaching and making films that are feminist, accessible and fun.
On your point there about women animators, is there a better gender balance now in the industry in terms of women in leading roles?
Joanna: I don’t think it’s changed as much as it should have. For instance, it’s been pointed out that in the animation category [for this year’s Oscars], of the 13 directors nominated for Animation Feature and Animation Short Film, I’m the only woman there. And for 2022, that’s not great. It shouldn’t be the case. There were more women in the longer shortlist, but not that many. However, in the bigger studios, there are a lot of women moving into higher positions, not necessarily directing or writing films but definitely positions of power.
Les: When you watch the film you realise that Beryl aspires to things that are not normal situations for women. In fact, that’s a thread that runs through all her films.
Joanna: I’m very aware of cultural biases now – we did a little course on it. And you realise how entrenched it is so it isn’t surprising that the situation is like it is because a lot of the men who work in animation are wonderful but statistics wise… they are men. You do have to make a special effort to realise that actually, ‘why am I going to these people when I should be making an effort to broaden my horizons and use some other wonderful people and change things.’ But unless you’re aware you have a bias, it’s not a negative thing. It’s just the thing that we all do. So, I’m really glad that [this change] is coming and people are becoming aware of their biases.
And it’s nice having an older woman as the star of these films. When people think of animation, they tend to think of things aimed at children that usually star kids or younger people.
Les: What was surprising was when the New Yorker was pushing the film and put it online, a lot of the correspondence was from ex-patriots – Welsh – who were saying, ‘ah, my mother is Beryl’. When you get characters are who not fantastical or heroic, they’re ordinary people, it makes a huge constituency feel represented.
Joanna: And though Beryl is an antihero and she’s unusual, she also isn’t because there are so many Beryls out there. Yesterday, on Instagram, I got a private message from a woman called Karen who’d watched the film with her mum and their mouths were hanging open because Beryl is her mum: she’s 59 [Beryl is 59], she’s got a son with Asperger’s [Beryl’s got a son with Asperger’s], her daughter does taxidermy [Beryl’s sister does taxidermy], she was a nurse, gave up nursing and went to art school… just like Beryl. The connections were uncanny!
It’s true, we all know a Beryl: there’s a specificity about her but a universality as well. Beryl is very clearly Welsh though, and Les, you grew up in Cardiff?
Les: Barry. Well, Barry is symptomatic of what happened to Wales, industrially. Exactly the same as the Valleys: the coal went and it ruined people’s belief in themselves and I’m very aware of all that, even though I left Wales. So the characters [in our films] are based on that idea; they’ve all got Welsh accents so they’re obviously Welsh and that’s quite nice. It unlocks the fact that Wales exists – we are a country with a particular culture. And I kind of use that [in the scripts]. It’s a quality that our films have got that I think a lot of people don’t even think about. Well, you get that in television but not in an animated film. Every other film is based in Hollywood and the areas around it, but what about the rest of the world?
Joanna: That’s what’s really fun – now that our film is in the nomination stage, all the films get voted on by the wider Academy, which is 10,000 voters who all do different roles, it’s not just animators. The thought of George Clooney watching Beryl is just hilarious!
Affairs Of The Art will be shown as part of Cardiff Animation Festival from Thurs 7-Sun 24 Apr, in Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, and online. Tickets: £15-£66 (early bird).
words HANNAH COLLINS
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