The premise and content of DN should make it pretty evident that we’re enthusiastic advocators of online film. Even in the brief six years that DN’s been running, we’ve witnessed the world of short/independent film become somewhat revolutionised by the new distribution channels the internet now provides. Yet, the film festival still plays a massive role in what we do and without our continuing attendance at these annual gatherings, our discovery of new filmmaking talent would undoubtedly dwindle. It was at one such festival in 2008 that I stumbled upon the work of talented animator Joseph Pierce – the distinct style and dark humour of his debut short Stand Up sticking with me for some time later. Four years and Three shorts later, with Pierce’s career taking confident strides since that first encounter, I thought it was finally time to find out more about his films, inspirations and production techniques.
Like Hisko Hulsing, who kicked off our TheyAreAnimators series, Pierce’s journey into animation has been anything but conventional. Having first tried his hand at acting, before realising “he didn’t have the unrelenting energy to go all away”, Pierce found himself inspired by his new found love for the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajeris to make the transition to the other side of the camera. With his newly discovered passion for filmmaking, the aspiring director found himself enrolled on the Directing Animation course at the The National Film and Television School, but again this was a journey which was to include a pretty big diversion along the way.
“I actually only went to the NFTS after being rejected by the Royal College of Art. Through my bitter tears I asked what was wrong with me and was told I lacked originality (I was still aping a certain Czech master). This transpired to be the best thing that’s happened to me as I took the criticism and got into the film school. At the NFTS you’re inspired by your peers and work to an industry standard.”
Pierce may have encountered a few detours enroute to his chosen path, but his experiences along the way have help mould the filmmaker he has become today. His time at the NFTS in particular helping him focus more on storytelling and giving him inspiration to develop the “rotoscoped technique that was bouncing round” his head. This rotoscope style would serve the filmmaker well in his upcoming productions, with his first three shorts all employing the style with rib-splitting effect:
Grabbing my attention when it won Best British film at the 2008 London International Animation Festival, Pierce’s first short Stand Up was created as his graduation piece whilst studying at the NFTS.
Told through a single stand-up comedy routine, John J Jones performs to an unforgiving audience. As he loses their interest, his body rebels against him, and the truth behind the one-liners leaks through the cracks. This is car-crash comedy at its most compulsive.
Carrying on the the impressive introduction Pierce had made into the world of shorts with Stand Up, his second film A Family Portrait builds on the outstanding groundwork his debut production had laid. Once again showcasing the animator’s unmistakable rotoscope technique, A Family Portrait not only sees Pierce honing his visual skills, but also the flair for storytelling he developed during his studies and exposes the dark sense of humour that runs throughout all his films.
A family portrait goes horribly wrong as jealousy and suspicion bubble to the surface under the photographer’s relentless gaze. As the session reaches a disturbing conclusion, it’s clear that this truly will be a day to remember.
Kemi lives and works in the murky slipstream of a North London pub. As the booze flows the line between who belongs behind and in front of the bar becomes increasingly blurred.
“The first two are very much about repressing emotions, bravado and that ‘stiff upper-lip’ culture that is still very British. The Pub is in part a work of self-loathing, living above a pub in Camden as I did at the time delivers some of the more extremes in our culture.”
Citing “The Dogme movement (esp Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen), Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Aubrey Beardsley, Martin Parr, Ken Loach, Bad comedy, social awkwardness (my own and others) and of course other indie animators” as inspiration for his work, Pierce is obviously an artist with a love for his chosen medium (as well as those that gravitate around it). With three shorts complete, the style developed in his films has become almost his personal brand. For those familiar with Pierce’s work, the offbeat appearance of his films has become as recognisable as an unexpected dance routine in a Hal Hartley movie. But was this an intentional signature or something which developed more organically?
“It kind of happened by accident, I’ve always wanted to draw but can’t really draw, um well. So I cheated and traced over the top. I soon realized this was incredibly boring until I started exaggerating and distorting. From there, yeah it was quite organic. I tend not to script the ‘animated’ elements too heavily and really take inspiration from the live-action frame infront of me. For me it is a happy medium between the reality of live-action and the surreal nature of animation.
I use the live-action as a security blanket, the animation veers off on tangents but always snaps back to reality. I shoot the live-action as close to a normal shoot as possible (albeit with less lighting) with thought out camera angles and (hopefully) strong performances. 5 – 9 months is a long time to draw over a poorly acted or shot shoot so it’s worth nailing that day of filming as much as possible.
“On a more technical/geeky side I’ve used pencil, Wacom, printouts and a Cintiq to complete my shorts. In that order.”
Pierce is more than familiar with the festival circuit around the world, with his first two films picking up awards in Spain, Poland, Germany, Japan and the USA as they made their way around the globe. Like many filmmakers now, Pierce lets his films enjoy a festival run before releasing them online, but how does he feels about the two very different lines of distribution? Does he prefer taking his films round the festivals, so he can meet like-minded people and discus his films face to face with others or is the instant feedback provided by a network of fans and peers on Vimeo more appealing?
“I think about this a lot, and although I question it I’m no film festival-denier. To be so would really be biting the hand that feeds for me, both financially and in career support. I mean there’s a fair amount of bullshit around some festivals, a lot of posturing, an air of exclusivity, entrance fees etc. but on the whole I can mostly say nice things. You get the chance to meet people from the other side of the world who are in the same boat, get personal feedback AND free drinks.
I think it’s changed a bit since I started in 2008 and I know many filmmakers argue that online is a way forward but I think there’s a way for both to exist alongside each other.
I love Vimeo and the community it creates, some people say it’s poncey or people are too nice but it can be accessed by everyone and the videos look great (ironically it’s higher quality than a lot of fests show). Releasing a film online is a fantastic rush and it’s important not to leave it too long but you know animation takes a long time, you might as well milk it.”
With his first two shorts racking up almost a quarter of a million hits on Vimeo and his latest The Pub just released online after making an impression on the festival circuit, what’s next for Joseph Pierce?
“I finished work on the Olympics Opening ceremony, working for 59 Productions, expect the DVD to have even more of our work on! I’m working on getting an adult animated feature to see the light of day and hopefully starting on animation for an exciting new theatre piece.”