This week it was my pleasure to interview William Mather, best known for helping to initiate the Animated Conversations series, which inspired Creature Comforts. In this interview he discusses some of his lesser-known work...
Puppets from William Mather's Magic Roundabout parody
LC: When did you first get in to animation?
WM: 1966, living next to a BBC producer, Colin Thomas, who saw some plasticine characters I’d made. He suggested we make a stop frame film for BBC Bristol. It was a skit on The Magic Roundabout using caricatures of Archbishop Ramsay, Malcolm Muggeridge and Bertrand Russell. After that we made a film called Pawns; this got me in touch with the design department at BBC Bristol where I started years of “short term contracts”. 1969 I was asked by the producer of a kids programme called Animal Magic to make a title sequence; after that animation requests kept coming until that’s all I was doing, but it was all accidental. I never set out to have a career in animation or indeed film.
LC: According to Denis Gifford's book on British animation your first film to be shown in cinemas was a short called Classical Cartoon.
WM: Again, produced by Colin Thomas for BBC Bristol. It was shown for one week at the Arnolfini gallery cinema in Bristol to a “mixed” response.
The Animated Conversations pilot Audition, which can be viewed here.
LC: Can you tell us about the Animated Conversations series?
WM: Colin Thomas and I were at the 1968 Cambridge Animation Festival and saw a film by John Hubley, specifically Windy Day. We were blown away by the use of raw unpolished sound with a highly controlled medium like animation. Colin was a documentary maker at BBC Bristol; he put forward the idea of a series using secret/discrete recordings and Nancy Adele made a pilot film using a chef and a waiter. It failed to get approval but Colin tried once again with Choirboy using my son's audition. This succeeded and we went on to make a series using the animators Phil Austin, Derek Hayes, Andy Walker, Henry Lutman and Pete and Dave (Aardman).
Limo-Land, viewable here
LC: What was it like working with Aardman on the Limo-Land music video and the famous Scotch videotape advert with the singing skeleton?
WM: I think Scotch was possibly the first TV commercial Aardman did. It was a very free and relaxed production although Pete hated animating the large scale model. Limo-Land was tricky: “differences” between Tina and Barry meant they would not meet for filming, hence the need for animation. I scripted two ideas, Tina approved one and we started shooting. Apart from a last minute panic when someone insisted we insert a scene with Antonio Banderas, Wallace and Gromit, all went well. Tina loved it and used it as a mega backdrop for her live show. Barry’s lawyer saw it and immediately banned any showing. It was shown once on British TV then dumped. Later that year it picked up best direction and best animation awards.
Animation cel from 1980's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. The sequence can be viewed here
LC: Want to talk about The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle?
WM: Andy Walker and I had been working together on projects at BBC Bristol. He knew Phil Austin and Derek Hayes (Animation City) from their time together at Beaconsfield film school. They asked us to take on the band arriving at Heathrow and getting sacked to help share the work out. I’ve always done caricatures so I did the overall character designs for the Pistols. It was great fun.
LC: How did you come to make the move to computer graphics?
WM: Derek Hayes and Phil Austin recommended me to Andrew Berend at the Moving Picture Co., who was setting up the UK's first CGI system linked to motion control, and who was looking for a visual person not a programmer. I left the BBC and joined the dark side!
Victor Hugo, from 1973, can be viewed here
LC: Which of your projects would you say you have the fondest memories of?
WM: Animating my youngest son for his choirboy audition, Victor Hugo and The Digger, a weekly 20-second cut–out for BBC's Vision On.
Still from an episode of The Digger, which can be seen here
LC: The Animated Conversations series not only led to Creature Comforts, it also influenced the recent BBC documentary The Trouble with Love and Sex. Do you have any thoughts on that?
WM: I think although much of the animation got better, I regret that the films felt more scripted. Sound effects were added, and the original idea (eavesdropped, raw, minimally edited sound) got lost. We’re not now allowed to record people without their prior permission, an inconsistent mistake and another victim of fear of political correctness. Even when speech is unscripted, if people know they’re being recorded, they “clean up their act”. So all TV drifts towards processed entertainment U.S. style. When people are talking naturally, unscripted and unselfconsciously, set against animation I think is great.
The Trouble with Love and Sex felt like a sitcom. In the first series of Animated Conversations I discovered that the weirdest, most edgy and apparently visual soundtracks didn’t work. The problem was that all the “visual” work was done. The animator was left to either merely illustrate the soundtrack or out-do the imagery which produced a more mainstream effect.
LC: Any comments on the current state of animation?
WM: It’s impossible to overstate the impact of computers. In 1981 it took weeks to build a “wire-frame” high street and fly down it, or a glowing green grid to fly across. Now C.G.I. Rivals live action and if you can imagine it, you can create it relatively quickly. It’s brilliant but I’m glad to see there are still animators doing great things with simple drawing and whether it’s pencil, plasticine or Pixar, it’s still story and character that grabs a viewer.