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Simon Pummell
Bodysong, Simon Pummell

Bodysong, Simon Pummell

Simon Pummell tells APEngine about how he got started, working across animation and film, features that don’t get made, and how everything’s transmedia now…

You came to film relatively late didn’t you? You didn’t go straight out of school and train?

No, absolutely not. I went and did an English degree, which I guess was partly just to do with my family. There was a real feeling that there was a big push to have someone in the family go to University. And that was different to going to Art School. It was a sort of a big deal to go to University.

So I did that for three years and when I left, I knew I didn’t want any of the jobs that were available – I thought I would maybe do something creative. And I’d started drawing – mainly kind of hostile cartoons – and people liked them.

And I started going to life drawing classes. Real classic sort of autodidact stuff, going to St Martin’s in the evenings. And I talked my way into a job as an Art Director at an ad agency, which was very consciously done because I thought I could get a crash course in graphic design by doing that.

I did that for three years and then I went to the Royal College of Art. I had put together a little reel of animation by sort of begging. By going to Oscar Grillo’s Klacto Animations, which was a big commercial studio at that time. I went to show him a portfolio of still drawings and designs, and he’s very forthright: he gave me this massive pile of animation paper and basically said, “Piss off and do some animation, when it moves, then I’ll talk to you.” And then I came back with a big pile of drawings. I think he was impressed that I was so impressible!

I did animation at the Royal College, though there was no Animation Department then, it was part of the Film Department.

And when you came out did you describe yourself as an Animator. Is that when you thought you were?

My graduation film was sort of 50% animation, 50% live action. I saw animation as a way of making images I couldn’t make any other way, particularly certain kinds of exaggerated, grotesque figuration that I was interested in.

When I did my English degree, I was very interested in the work of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean prose writers, such as Greene, Nashe, Dekker. Which is quite violent, grotesque writing. It could have taken me into horror films or something, but didn’t. It took me into animation in a funny way, generating very particular kinds of images, but the films were always a mix of live action and animation.

You made a number of short films, and you were writing and developing features too – what kind of features?

There was a sort of an evolution, in that after I made my Royal College of Art Graduation film Oscar Grillo gave the tape to The Quay Brothers, who really liked the film. They were really supportive and said, “Oh, you know, maybe you should make a short film within our company, with Keith…” – and they introduced me to Keith Griffiths, their producer, which was, of course, amazing. I had a quite complex live action and animation project that was very long. And Keith said, “Why don’t you focus and do one short piece.” And that was completely drawn animation.

That was Secret Joy of Fallen Angels, commissioned by Channel Four’s Animation Department, and it used very traditional animation techniques. I was really engaged with drawing at that time, I spent a huge amount of time life drawing. And I was very obsessed with the idea that an animation film is really like one single drawing evolving through time and what that might be about, and how would that work.

But when that film got finished it actually did rather better at film festivals than it did at animation festivals. And lots of animation festivals hated it. Then the Independent Film Department at Channel 4 supported a film that was a mix of live action/animation, going back to that hybrid that was already latently there. That definitely confirmed me as seeing myself as a filmmaker who used animation.

Circumstances pushed me in that way too. I made a quite fast run of short films – there was that moment in British television where you could do that. And also because I was someone crossing between animation and live action, there were more doors open to me – so I made experimental pieces for the Arts Council that were primarily live action, and could still go to Animation at Channel 4.

Then there was a point where I started thinking about the making a feature and my first thought was how to retain this hybrid quality but move into longer forms?

I got interested in Science Fiction and I first worked with a British writer, Simon Ings. He has become more of a literary novelist, but then he was writing quite hardcore cyberpunk type science fiction.

We developed a couple of films for the British Film Institute. One – Rose Red -that got made – that was about half an hour long – but a feature length version of the same film didn’t get made.

That was the beginning of a learning curve about some of those things.

What’s that process like – writing scripts that don’t get made?

Extremely soul destroying. It’s one of those things that people talk quite glibly about – ‘development hell’. But it really is extremely unpleasant, because an unmade film project really has very little sort of existence, yet can represent years of work. It’s quite a debilitating process.

And this new space was a big difference from the Arts Council and Channel Four context I’d come from, which had been primarily artist driven, and really interested in idiosyncrasy and unusual imagery. And they were not too hands-on in terms of pushing the scripts, and really interested in idiosyncrasy and unusual imagery. Narrative script development was much more normative…

And then Bodysong, the feature film that does get made, is a film that doesn’t have a script for anyone to mess with – it’s stripped right back to a concept.

Absolutely, and I think that was an incredible sort of breakthrough for me. First I’d developed this project based on a William Gibson story – Dogfight, a short story I totally love, and still do – and because he is so famous, that just went to everyone, and went through a very complex development process involving big film companies, and small film companies, and American film companies, and German financiers. And everyone was having their say so and… you know, those kinds of projects can get incredibly bent out of shape. And I had one of those “Why am I doing this?” moments.

And, in a kind of response to this, Bodysong just appeared to me as a complete idea. What would I really, in the most unvarnished and direct way, like to show people? And that would be the depiction of a single human life using all the peripheral forms of cinema – which I think will last a lot longer than most of the main canon, but which you don’t see very often in a movie house.

Everyone thought it was a really strange idea, but it was one of those strange ideas that really spoke to people. So, when the project’s producer, Janine Marmot, took the project to financiers, actually, they were like “Yes, we totally get this.” In the end we basically proposed two things to people: “Can you make a film that’s as clear and simple and unvarnished as this and put it in the cinema?” And “Is there a way you can take all these kinds of film footage – that may be more important in 500 years than more mainstream film – and bring them into the mainstream cinematic space?”

Because it chimed with people – I think it was a feeling that people hadn’t really bothered to examine, but actually totally got – things suddenly moved very fast and it overtook the fiction projects. Paul Webster was running Film4 then, and he really came in and supported it, and then the UK Film Council came in. And suddenly Janine had financed the film.

It didn’t go through any kind of screenplay process. We actually made an interactive DVD-ROM to develop that film – so the whole thing was very visually driven.

That was 2003, which really seems a long time ago. And it was a project with multi platform ambitions that seems to have anticipated a lot of cultural things that have happened since then. We don’t have DVD-ROMs but we have the internet. And all that material that was hiding, is much more easily found and defined now.

And that was always part of the project. It was all about cinema not being just what you see sitting in a picture house, both in terms of material that we used and in terms of how we presented it. Janine and I always said when we presented the project that we thought the website was half of the story.

Basically the film presents a vision of a shared narrative, structured on an archetypal life-cycle, using these hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of archive footage. But on the website you can literally fly through the timeline of the film, and click on any single shot, and you find out absolutely everything you can find out about the particularity and individuality of the people in those shots.

The whole project was predicated on the idea that the experience you want from going to the cinema, and the experience you want from being on the internet are actually radically different.

And has that experience changed the way you approach developing narrative projects now?

One of the tricky things was that it was a sort of unique project, so completely of itself – it was hard deciding how to translate what one had learned from it into other kinds of projects. It was quite impervious to that. One’s always hoping that each piece of work will generate the next piece of work. But Bodysong kind of cleared the decks!

I am now beginning to develop fiction projects (and a new animated installation project) that do learn from Bodysong, but it took a while to work out how that might work. Now it’s hard to imagine that I will ever develop a project that does not have multiple platforms. That’s more normal now, but five or six years ago, for film, that was very big news. But you have to think about how you’re going to use those tools distinctively. The fact you’re using them is no longer distinctive.

I’m currently working on a narrative project, funded by The Wellcome Trust, that has a number of platforms – documentary, feature film, a website and a gallery installation.

It has maybe grown out of a combination of the learning from Bodysong and also the mixing of techniques and genres from my earlier Channel 4 work. The feature film mix is in a fairly equal measure of documentary footage, animation and drama – where the boundaries between the three are extremely fluid and hard to identify sometimes. It flips in and out of those different forms.

And a website is again being used to present more discursive material. For example, one of the elements of the film is interviews with psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists, and historians, who talk about Daniel Schreber, the subject of the film, from different perspectives. In a way that’s a classic documentary model – you have experts, and they help you unpick the story. But on the web we are shooting much longer interview films with each of those people, because the complexity of what each of them has to say is not really containable within the single line of a documentary film.

And there’ll be shifting timelines – across Schreber’s personal history, German and European history, and a kind of world history of technologies exploring how the images of his psychotic visions are fuelled by cutting edge technology of his time. So there’s an interactive timeline which is a very spatial, graphic way of presenting this information. And with the installation there’s a much more painterly approach to depicting Schreber’s delusions that also uses anaglyph 3D to problematise a little bit how the gallery viewer relates to the delusions and systems visualised on the screens.

It’s about each time trying to look for something particular in each media.

I wondered if your experience in the advertising industry helps you now, in dealing with people from different ‘platforms’ – and having to perhaps think in a much faster way than you might if you were ‘simply’ making a film?

I think the key influence from working in advertising is that advertising really was the first transmedia industry. You had a product, and you basically spread information and images of that across a whole raft of platforms – that used to be television ads, print, posters, and now is social media, internet, television… whatever.

But advertising has always understood this idea – that’s kind of new to fiction films or maybe new to film generally – that there’s a core content that you then reshape for different media niches. That was just business as usual in advertising, even in the 80s!

When I used to work in advertising, a very simple sort of concept like ‘We have a very nice saucepan’ would have a much more sophisticated strategy towards media distribution than someone trying to make a really complex and beautiful European Art house film.

So the projects have to be campaigns?

In a funny way they effectively are. What advertising is always very clever at is splitting off the best bits of its core content to the different media. And you can do that even if you are doing something critical and poetic. And you increasingly need to, if you want to be heard or seen in what’s a pretty ruthless media ecology now.

Competition: Check out our competition for a chance to win a copy of Simon Pummell’s Bodysong, courtesy of Hot Property Films.

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