Martyn Pick
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Martyn Pick

PLAZA, Martyn Pick, 2000, UK, Short Film, commissioned by Channel 4 Animation

PLAZA, Martyn Pick, 2000, UK, Short Film, commissioned by Channel 4 Animation

APEngine caught up with filmmaker and digital artist Martyn Pick to discover how he came to be directing the new feature for Games Workshop.

Where in the World are you, and what are you doing there?

I’m in Montreal where I’m directing the motion capture feature Ultramarines: The Movie which stars Terence Stamp, Sean Pertwee and John Hurt. Its a new venture for Games Workshop who have created the hugely popular Warhammer universe. The filming of the actors was done in London at Abbey Road Studios, the pre and post-production is done in Cardiff, the translation of the acting into mocap (motion capture) was done in Santa Monica and the animation is done here.

It’s the first feature on which I am the overall director. Just before I started on this film I was animation director on the hit indie documentary, The Age of Stupid where I approached the design of the combination with a similar painterly cinematic look.

You’re a long way from home..and quite a way from how you started – you studied fine art film at Central Saint Martins. What got you started, prompted you to go to Saint Martins, rather than, say, a more mainstream animation school? What kind of films, artists and filmmakers inspired you?

I was on the foundation course at Saint Martins doing oil paintings, etchings and charcoal drawings with an expressionistic London feel (influenced by Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, William Blake and JMW Turner). I got the chance to shoot some film under a film rostrum camera where I stop framed some of my charcoal animation coming to life. The results were very interesting and it felt as if I’d stumbled upon an unexploited medium. To me, though I loved the act of painting, the fine art world at that time (early 80s) appeared alienated from mass culture and bogged down with a lot of elitist self-referential theory. Animation was very much associated generally with traditional kids cartoons but because it was a pop medium I saw fresh opportunities within it to develop my work as an artist and make a living.

And film was my real passion. Directors I liked were cinematic very visual storytellers with strong iconic imagery like F.W.Murnau, Josef Von Sternberg, Sam Peckinpah, DW Griffiths, Max Ophuls. Michael Cimino and Sergio Leone. Even at school I’d shot Super 8 but I had no idea of how to break into the industry. But with my distinctive approach to animation I had now had some leverage. I was not interested in the courses that offered traditional studio animation training as my aim was to work outside of it, preserving and developing my own work.

The Film/Fine Art course at Saint Martins seemed good because it approached film with more experimental freedom and you could use that space to play around and develop your voice.

Filmmakers such as Derek Jarman, who lectured there, had a resourceful original approach. By turning the hand-held camera movements,  smeared colours and grainy textures of cheaper formats like Super 8 into a definite advantage they created extraordinary subversive images that were years ahead of what you saw in mainstream TV or film. It imbued an indie attitude that has stuck with me. Use what you can get your hands on and make something of it.

Something else that inspired me at Saint Martins was learning about the auteur theory. The way that writers such as Jean-Luc Godard (when he was a critic) looked at Classic American cinema and saw value in the work of  genre and pulp movie directors like John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Edgar G.Ulmer and Howard Hawks. They were interesting not because they made a film with worthy subject matter or that had a very self-consciously arty or autobiographical approach. It was because they worked within the rules of gangster movies/westerns/thrillers and could actually be more free to make personal statements. They could let their conscious or subconscious personal obsessions find a focus in the discipline of the genre. This is why, although I’m known for fine art live action/animation I am drawn to genre projects such as Ultramarines.

When you graduated you made several independent, experimental films – what kinds of concerns/ambitions did you have as an experimental animator?

The idea was to be an artist and filmmaker (but not necessarily an animator) and be a distinctive one. It was about creating an identity that could open up interesting possibilities. For example with my 1987 film, Taboo of Dirt I purposefully went against the grain of either traditional animation or the middlebrow good taste of short film animation culture. I wanted it to be much more difficult to swallow: ruptured, jagged, filthy, primal and wildly expressive. I even liked the fact that the film didn’t gel. It seemed to break apart at the seams unable to solve its contradictions and therefore in some way seemed to me more alive than the nicely turned out neat short film.

I never particularly had a specific ambition within the heirarchies of UK animation. I saw it is a young medium, always mutating its form and creating new opportunities which could lead anywhere. This is what attracted me to it rather than it being a fixed classical medium with specific universally accepted standards.

When I first left college I was an assistant editor working in corporate films and advertising animatics. At the same time I determinedly stuck to doing my short films keeping my own work alive. Now I have done quite a few ads as a director and its been very enjoyable and I’ve worked with great people. I’m not really a commercials director but more a filmmaker whose work gets picked up periodically by ad agencies.

Every now and then, if my work has had a run of being used commercially I feel the need to do something that pushes the work and suggests possibilities beyond what I have just been commercially defined by.

Was ‘animator’ what you called yourself… it’s a term that’s changed such a lot?

I did used to call myself an animator although I really did not work as one in the traditional sense. I had my personal way of doing things which was my identity as an ‘animation director’ or ‘filmmaker’. As soon as I could, I started to bring live action, CGI and digital compositing into the mix. This made me a ‘mixed-media director’ or more simply just a ‘director’. It was important to avoid being pigeonholed as a hand-drawn charcoal animator. Its a trap because very often production companies represent animation directors the same way they would an illustrator with a very locked specific look. This does not give you the freedom to grow and diversify as a live action director can.

Being a director is ultimately about giving a project an overall tone and sensibility. The tools are totally changeable. You can be in your back bedroom, drawing every frame of a 20 second ident or you can be working with a hundred people on a long form project. What should matter is your tone and voice at the center of it.

Your work has, in a sense, shifted substantially – not stylistically maybe, but in technique. You still seem very interested in the painterly and textures, but the techniques you’re using now are so different from that charcoal, thousands-of-drawings approach.. What kind of ‘journey’(!) has that been?

When I worked on my early films I did loads of drawings. I often worked fast and loose which created a raw abstract expressionist spontaneity and flow- at odds with the very tightly storyboarded process of commercial studio animation.

This speedy ‘action painting’ approach is one I still employ to rough out swiftly the big picture of of a project but it is now fleshed out by a big team.

An interesting transitional film was PLAZA in 2000. Before this I had begun to incorporate live action and CGI into my work but it was always in a post-production house where there was limited and very expensive time and you did not get enough time to experiment or really get your fingers dirty.

For PLAZA I had  to composite, grade, retouch and animate the film myself on a PC. As I was integrating live action and animation, having to do it myself made me really work through my ideas with the physical materials in hand like a painter would. And as my early films like Taboo of Dirt created a style which I could then direct with teams of artists, so the process of doing PLAZA on my own generated ideas for the digital combination of live action, CGI and animation that I have been working on over the last 10 years.

These include the Budweiser commercial, the ADM commercials, the BBC EURO 2004 commercials, the Age of Stupid, the Ultramarines features and the short film London commissioned by Film London and the London Development Agency to promote the London 2012 Olympics.

And similarly, you’ve gone from working in your bedroom kind-of-thing to what you’re doing now – how different are the experiences… how easy to adapt? Similarities?

By the time I entered London’s Soho studio system at the start of the 90s it was as a director. This was because I’d made the early short films and promos on my own, maintaining my personal touch like a painter. I did everything on those films and therefore by default was also the director even though I was directing myself! Within the animation studios as a director I learned to delegate that personal touch and that’s a matter of casting the right person. If you get that right,and they understand the intention and feel you are after, over time they intuitively will do what the film needs without over prescriptive direction. Good casting is everything.

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