[With Cordell Barker's Runaway screening at Sundance, we present again the interview with Barker I conducted at the Toronto International Film Festival.]
One of the most acclaimed animators in Canada, the only complaint about director Cordell Barker is he just doesn't make very much, his painstaking hand-drawn process guaranteeing gaps of years between his projects. And so a new film by Barker is big news and at the past Toronto International Film Festival we had the chance to sit down and talk to the man about his new effort, Runaway.
TB: In Canada, we're pretty familiar with you: people especially in my generation have seen THE CAT CAME BACK - we watched it in school all the time, and we watched it a lot. People know your work. I don't know how widely it would have traveled, so for our readership outside of Canada, can you tell us a little about your history, how you came into animation, and what your background is?
CB: Well, my background - I don't really have one. I just came out of - in fact, I wasn't even finished high school, and there was a local animation firm and I just went there and introduced myself. While I was completing my Grade 12, I would go there in the afternoons and I wasn't being paid, I wasn't on staff, I was just hanging out and drawing and animating some things, thinking this might lead to something. Sure enough, they asked if I wanted to be hired to paint cells for the actual animators there that were working on little TV commercials - Sesame Street, KTel commercials, that sort of thing - and eventually offered me the opportunity to do some..... I think the first thing was some Sesame Street. Sesame Street was not exactly demanding: it was low-quality in terms of standards. Basically, the first thing I did was really quite ugly, especially at the time I wasn't that great of a drawer, but they took it. Then it was on to a few other things, and when I got better, they gave me some KTel to do. Those were definitely more demanding, but still pretty low-rent. That was pretty much my introduction into the whole world.
TB: Do you still do commercial work?
CB: Yep. There's not as much as there used to be because nowadays, firms that ten years ago would have had animation in their commercials, now have motion graphics. For anyone who doesn't know, motion graphics is just moving images with a compositing program, where they're just being shifted around the screen. That's trimmed away a lot of the work that would have been available. In a way that was sort of good, in the final two years of finishing RUNAWAY. Normally, in the final two years is when I stop accepting work, and when I make that decision: "Okay that's it, I can feel the end is in site, the end of the tunnel is there," and then I launch myself into it full-tilt. I mean there's still some out there, but not as much.
TB: How long is the normal production cycle on one of your films? From start to finish, how long did it take you on RUNAWAY?
CB: That was about eight years.
TB: And you draw it all yourself?
CB: Not completely. I did most of it. I did have an assistant on this one that did some in-betweening for me, a little bit of original stuff. Mostly it's me taking it over because I have a very 90s style - it's what I would call limited animation, and so it can be hard for somebody to adapt to that. It's like Disney, with full moving animation, and another person comes in who knows that whole thing and if they can draw really well then they can flesh it out and take it on. My stuff is a simple, limited style that's particular to me, I guess.
TB: Do you hand draw?
CB: Yep, it was all hand-drawn - everything in this film but the train. Many parts of the train were just a hand-drawn cheat, where I would do a multi-plain of the train coming forward where I would cheat all the elements to simulate three-dimension. I brought on Frantic Films early on in the production to just do a couple of shots where the train is doing a three-dimensional action. There was no way I was going to sit down and animate that train coming around the track, especially in the middle of the film, when the camera is actually moving through the train, through all the cars. It's one thing when things are moving past the sides of the camera, everything's moving more quickly, but that end point, the perspective point where it's are barely moving from frame to frame - that would have been just horrible, trying to animate that. If I would have gone with an even more naïve style and just gone with the crudeness of animating perspective and just letting it be really wiggly and all that....part of me thinks I should have gone that route, and just kept it super raw and super-ultra naïve, I could have told the same story. When I did the animatics for the film, a lot of people thought it was a finished film. It was just this really naïve, black and white kind of thing, but it had lots of movement in it - motion graphics - and people thought it was finished.
TB: You talk about your style being a bit naïve. Tonally, it's interesting how - if you want to look for them - there are these layers of social commentary, and the social ladder within the train -
CB: Right, well this one's a little different. In my other two films, it was mostly the surface lecture - and it has of course an underlying metaphor - but it's the surface of the film that is driving the thing along. For me, on RUNAWAY, the metaphor was really the driving factor. I didn't want to do anything that violated the metaphor, and I just kept on slaving to that. I think that's why this last film - which is less of a lark and more driven by this metaphor - was the toughest thing I've ever done in my life. It was potentially a career-ender. It was so tough and difficult to get through, I was thinking, "If this thing bombs, that's the end of my animation career."
CB: Yeah. I was even talking to a buddy of mine and saying, "Well, I might be doing home reno with you soon." He and I built a house together way back - I'm pretty good with my hands, construction and that - and I was thinking, "If this thing fails, I don't think I can go through this again, with a lukewarm response at the end." If this one had a lukewarm response, I don't think I could face it again because it's pretty torturous.
TB: Yeah, it's a long process, it's a long time.
CB: Yes, it's really long. I did animatics for years! For CAT CAME BACK, I did a very rudimentary animatic and just launched into the thing. For this one, I knew it would be complicated, and so I was doing animatics just one after the other and just getting lost in it. Oh man - I can't even count how many animatics I would have done.
TB: Yeah. At what stage did the NFB come on board for the film?
CB: Right at the outset. I went to the Film Board - actually, the same producer who was at the Film Board when I came in to do CAT CAME BACK was there - he started it, then left the Film Board to pursue other things, and then came back to the Film Board - and he called me in for a revisit, to see how things were going. He said, "Do you have any ideas that you're thinking about?" And I said, "Well I have this one about a train." And I told him, and he said "Let's do that." And that was it. Then he left. (laughs) He never saw the end of either of the productions.... my first one and maybe my last one, (laughs) we'll see.
TB: Would I be right in thinking the music in the film, you had that piece of music before you started animating?
CB: I know and that's what made it - CAT CAME BACK was simple in that way. I did this really simple animatic, just to give me a sense of the structure, and then basically the musician came up with the music right away and then I used the music as it was. RUNAWAY was vastly more complicated. I heard the music of Benoit Charest for THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE - a fantastic piece of music. When I heard that piece of music, I was like, "That's the guy." Luckily, he was a Canadian and he agreed to do it. But I warned him right at the outset it was going to be difficult because I wanted him to do some musical sketches, but I was using "Rendez-vous" from THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE as my guide. So I was building my animatic using TRIPLETS music as temp music. So I'm then handing it to the musician saying, "Here, here's the temp music, but it's your temp music -"
TB: And you have to give me something different.
CB: Something different that isn't too similar to that. Then he would write a piece of music and do different sketches. And I had a very particular idea of what I wanted so I kept asking him to change it. At a certain point, I got an animatic that was structured the way I wanted and then he would have to write and layer his music on top of - strip out "Rendez-vous" and put in his music. With that in, I could then go in and trigger in onto certain little violin slides or some horn blasts. But then I might say, "That horn blast is coming too early: I need more time to get to that point" so I would restructure my animatic with his music, but then tell him, "Now I need these changes." It would go back and forth and back and forth for something like four years.
TB: Oh man.
CB: I think it was four years. I'm pretty sure. So really difficult for Ben, well difficult for both of us because there was that constant back and forth. I'm sure Ben wasn't expecting anything like me coming down the path and the demands that were required.
TB: It's interesting that you were drawn to him because Chomet is very much a proponent of hand-drawn animation. There aren't a lot left anymore. Miyazaki did his last one that way but he's talking about that it's kind of the end.
CB: I got to admit I'm fascinated by CGI - who isn't? Let's say if I was a real good drawer, then I'd be a real proponent of sticking to the original way, but I'm not a great drawer and I find that a painful process. So as a result, I think it would be great to have a character structured and then you work with the operator, or you can play with the timing. That's my thing: I like playing with timing.
TB: It's hard with hand-drawn because every time you want to play, you have to draw it again.
CB: Yeah, either you have to re-draw the thing again, or - what's sometimes even harder - ask the person who drew it to re-draw the thing. On my films, it's easier because I'm just facing the challenge primarily myself, but when I do commercial work, I'm asking the person who did a really incredible job of drawing this really terrific structure to the character, but if the timing is wrong, then you got to ask them to throw it out and do it again. With CGI, you can endlessly tweak and experiment and evolve your way to the end, not take giant lateral moves and move forward.
TB: It's like in a lot of ways, CGI is more like puppeteering.
CB: Yes, puppeteering with ultimate control. Even with puppeteering, there's a bit of a 2D drawing work ethic there where you hit a certain point where you just can't step back in and redo that whole shot again. It does what it needs to do and let's move forward. With CGI there isn't that requirement; you can just keep on going 'til the money runs out or you've exhausted yourself. That does appeal to me a lot, but I've made no effort to move in that direction. (laughs)
TB: (laughs) It doesn't appeal enough.
CB: It doesn't appeal enough, or I've just had my slate full with the 2D up to this point. I've finished my three films for the National Film Board which was always my goal, and now that I've done that, I'm entertaining different avenues. I'm not excluding anything.
TB: Yeah. So you saw this at a screening in Cannes, I believe? You've had the chance to see this with an audience?
CB: Yeah, that was fantastic! As things evolve at the NFB, you don't get any feedback because everyone has seen it at different stages so there's nobody stepping in and seeing it cold and giving you any kind of large perspective feedback. So to take it to Cannes and sit in a room with a fresh audience in a pretty big room, and the reaction was really strong, really positive. In fact, the director of the category I was in La Semaine de la Critique??? came up to me afterward and said "Wow, you got a really terrific reaction." In fact, there was a reaction where everyone applauded when the credits first came up, and then they applauded again at the end of the credits, which triggered a reaction by the producer of the feature film that was immediately following my film. He was off in the back in a lounge area, and he was like, "What? What's going on? Why are they applauding again?" The coordinator was amused by that because it was puzzling because there was this extra applause prior to their film coming on. Anyway, overall the reaction was far better than anything I was expecting. It was, as I mentioned, it was kind of a dark -
TB: Arduous process.
CB: Yeah, arduous process, where all the life had been sucked out of it for me. No light at the end of the tunnel.
TB: Well hopefully you'll get the same reaction here.
CB: Yeah, different crowds in different places. Who knows? I hope so, I really hope so. Validation, you know?
Thanks to the lady-friend for tackling the transcription of this one.