Storytelling in animation

Wednesday 9 October 2019

An interview with George Coffey, Animation Director at KITCHEN on all things animation and storytelling.

There’s been a lot of talk recently (quite a lot of it by us) about illustration-led-animation. How to start animating your work, why artists should do it, the future of it etc. But there’s so much more to animation than just ‘making it move’. To become a fully fledged Animation Director, you’re going to have to learn a helluva lot more skills… but most importantly, you need to be able to tell a really, really good story.

Cue George Coffey, Animation Director at KITCHEN -a multidisciplinary creative studio who blend bespoke styles & techniques for TV and digital. In addition to directing independently, they also co-direct with our illustration talent to craft high quality integrated assets. clients include; Cadbury, Converse, McDonald’s, Specsavers and Bombay Sapphire (to name a few).

We couldn’t think of a better pairing than our UK Executive Producer Sue Loughlin and George Coffey to discuss all things animation and the art of storytelling.

So, we’ll start with the basics… what actually is a story?
To be honest, everything’s a story (although not everything is a good story!)

Haha ok, so what makes a great story then?
Anything that is engaging and that evokes and holds emotion and reaction.

Makes sense! Are there any particular examples you can give of a film  or even just a story that does this really well?
Lets start with books: Michael Chabons book ‘Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’ and Will Eisners ‘Dropsie Avenue’ are examples that I’ve greatly enjoyed.In shorter film form, I loved the discussion that ‘Love, Death & Robots’ evoked. Everyone discussing and debating which their favourite one was. That’s what it’s all about.

Beginning-middle-end, End-middle-beginning… Where do you start with a great story?
Starting at the end and working out how you get there is a great tactic. It can be so unsatisfying watching hours/minutes of something and the conclusion doesn’t live up to the build-up.Saying that, if I want to tell the story of a journey but don’t know how it ends, this isn’t necessarily a problem. You just need to get across what has been learnt at the end of it. It really all boils down to the brief you’re given.

Do you think those films that show you the ending at the start of the film work well?
It’s always fun to see the conclusion of these stories and how you get there. It’s a great tactic of getting peoples interest. Breaking Bad always worked that in well, when it peaked your intrigue but wasn’t eventually about the image we saw at the start.

OK then, so how about Genre – do you lean to any in particular?
I like to think I lean towards comedy but for some reason I end up wanting to pull at the heartstrings when I try to write anything.I like watching anything. Heartbreak/awkward situations/Armageddon/Machine gun yielding Monkeys on horseback (recently enjoyed Planet of the Apes)/coming of age. So, a Blockbuster thriller with indie production starring the Rock is my Favourite genre basically. That would be a dream to make…

And why
Because he’s The Rock!

OK, so The Rock aside, what do you think of genres like Anime, Manga? Or the indie art film?
Honestly? It’s all great. I think genre in film has broadened like genres in music, where it’s all becoming one. A lot of western animation is hugely inspired by the angles and technique of Anime these days. Some of the storytelling that takes you one way then completely flips is amazing. Art films are great ways of trying things that might not completely work but by labelling it an ‘Art film’ means any crazy shit can happen. Nowadays this is something we come to expect in popular animations.

Are there any subjects that you love to work on more than others?
I don’t think so. I really just want to make something – anything – exciting. I’d love to work on something that allows you the freedom to go on a bit of a journey with it, that’s always the most fun part.

Do your ‘stories’ mostly go from the brief? Or are your ‘stories’ original
Generally, given the job position that I’m in, we are mostly given a brief. The challenge we face then, is either to write the story – hitting on points the company wants to get across – or taking the script and applying visuals to it to help convey what is being said. You also have the challenge  of ensuring every subject is as engaging as possible… Even when you’re talking about vasectomies (real brief).

Everything we create is original but just involves a bit of back and forth with the client so everyone is happy.

With imagery, does the image lead the story or vice versa?
At the end of the day a good story is a good story. When my grandad used to tell them, it was a thousand times better than most, because he knows how to engage a pub as opposed to, say, Uncle Colm in Derry Girls.I think they are as important as each other. If you’re adding images to a truly great story then you are enhancing what’s being said. However if you have a brief on something like sales analytics, you’re going to have to rely on the images to keep the audience engaged.

You’ve worked with a lot of illustrators at Jelly, do you like working from different artists designs ?
Definitely. You can learn so much working with different styles and techniques. It’s also a great challenge, trying to change the type of animation so that it best suits the artists style. Some artists don’t want the animation too over the top because it just doesn’t make sense. And others will want huge movements to really emphasise their art style.

How does that work?
By building a good relationship with the artist. Seeing what they envision and talking about how we can maybe push this. Then after that, working out what programme or technique we use to create the best work. A lot of the time, the image can help answer this question. There is so much movement and flow in most of the illustrations that we get to work with, all we want to do is push that further.

Now on to the really important stuff… Whats your top 5 non-animated films?
Obviously constantly changes but:
> Wayne’s World 2
> Watchmen
> City of Men
> True romance
> Blues brothers
> Shawshank redemption
> Band of Brothers (series. Cheat)
> 2001
And top 5 animation films?
> Rarg. Must see.
Quick synopsis: An amazing world run by baby’s on clouds (because they cant walk yet), find out they live in a dream and need to work out how to stay alive! There are also flamingos.
> Spirited Away (totoro, pom poko and moving castle also)
> The first fritz the cat by Ralph Bakshi
> Into the Spider-verse
>Akira

And because I can’t stick to 5:

> ‘9’
> Coraline
> Grand day out

Dream brief?
One with a healthy deadline (you did say dream), not many client reviews, that includes a lot of explosions, magic, surreal worlds that relate to our world and it doesn’t matter if nobody likes it at the end.