How to be an animator – an interview with Barry JC Purves

Barry JC Purves is a busy man. It’s a wonder we managed to pin him down at all. Fortunately for us, he’s very generous with the spare nine hours he has a day when he isn't directing ‘Toby’s Traveling Circus’ or rehearsing a play. Purves’ tour-de-force ‘Next’ hit our screens in 1989 and, 24 years later, he hasn't sat down once. Director, writer and puppet animator, we talk to him about his varied career.

Well firstly, do you still have a job in a CGI world?
Thankfully! Stop-motion does not need to compete with CGI anymore – it can’t, it’s a very different beast. Many audiences enjoy puppets being puppets. Just look at the overwhelming reaction to the puppets in the stage production of 'War Horse', compared to the indifference to Spielberg’s CGI horses in the film. With graphics getting so sophisticated, we still enjoy artifice. A puppet will always look and behave like a puppet, and so it should.

How did you learn stop-motion animation?
I've not had a day’s training in animation, but my instincts as a performer have helped me. The performance of the puppet is always the most important thing.

How did you get to where you are today? Do jobs lead into other jobs?
No, you don't collect the equivalent of brownie points with each new film. You really are only as good as your last work. I still have to go through a sort of audition process with each new job. Experience and history don't necessarily open many doors! Much of my best work hasn’t been seen outside of festivals. My experience didn't throw open any doors on 'Frankenweenie' or 'Pirates' or 'Paranorman', and I still had to go through an interview to get the 'Toby's Traveling Circus' job. I want to work on a feature, to be able to finesse, and reach a standard I know I am capable of, and to have much more complex character arcs. But milestones? Getting the chance to make 'Next' was a big milestone, and a changing point. I do owe everything, though, to meeting Mark Hall and being offered a job at Cosgrove Hall.

What do you enjoy making films about?
Most my films, including 'Plume', are about the creative process. It’s about being watched and judged. I like what the work says about the creator. Animation, as so many arts are, is an externalisation of interior thoughts. Stories that work on different levels interest me, and all these behind the scenes reflections suit that. 'Tchaikovsky' was as much about me as it was about him.

Your film 'Tchaikovsky' is very smooth, is a high frame rate important?
I have tried never to shoot a double frame in any of my work, and I really don't believe double frames work. The brain needs all the help it can get with animation, and by halving the information it struggles. Doubles don't allow you to put any detail or sophistication in it. We are trying to create continuous movement, but with doubles you create a movement, then stop. The movement is full of interruptions - not good! For ‘Tchaikovsky’ and ‘Gilbert & Sullivan - The Very Models’, the shooting rate was twelve seconds a day - this doesn’t allow for rehearsal or reshoots. This certainly keeps you on your toes, and you have to accept a certain amount roughness and spontaneity. Most of my work is very much a one-off performance.

Which part of filming do you prefer?
The actual filming without a doubt. I sometimes dislike the postproduction as you are often full of regrets and compromise, but then you see how a sound effect brings something to life and that gets exciting.

Is it better to lead a small team, or work as part of a large team?
On 'Tchaikovsky' essentially the crew on the shoot was just me and a cameraman, but on 'Toby' I think there are about thirty of us involved on a daily basis. Both options work for me, though I feel uncomfortable when things get too big and you don't always know what is happening. I like to see each step of the process, I want every bit of the process to be telling the same story.

What is your artistic vision?
To tell intelligent detailed stories that give an audience a different perspective of something familiar. I like richness, texture and grand, dark emotions. I prefer to move people rather than make them laugh. Above all, I want to do things that no-one else has done, or at least tell stories in my own voice. I want to bring in other arts. I want to inspire and stimulate and provoke. I want to open eyes. I want to share passions. I want to tell stories. Usually they are about tormented characters, but that makes good drama.

How you divide your time into leisure, work and art?
What do I do in my spare time? I direct and design theatre. This leads to fifteen hour days for much of the year. I don't sit down and vegetate. I wouldn't know how to do that. Being creative is my pleasure.



"With graphics getting so sophisticated, we still enjoy artifice. A puppet will always look and behave like a puppet, and so it should."

Additional Info

Barry JC Purves is an Oscar and BAFTA nominated animator and director.