Tomorrow, Edinburgh International Film Festival celebrates the careers of animation directing duo Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson. We take a look at what makes them so special, and hear news of their future plans
What if Michael Powell had never met Emeric Pressburger? Or Mr and Mrs Coen decided to not have any more children after their son Joel was born? The world would have been robbed of two of the great duos in film history. Similarly, if chance hadn’t brought Dingwall-born animator Will Anderson and Edinburgher Ainslie Henderson together as students at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2011 and 2012 respectively, the animation world would be without one of its most exciting and innovative filmmaking teams.
“There is an element of luck in terms of the timing of Will and Ainslie’s meeting,” says Edinburgh International Film Festival’s animation programmer Iain Gardner. “That’s not to say that they wouldn't have done something amazing individually, but the combination of their talents and the chemistry between them, is like the happenchance that gave birth to Monty Python or something. Without all those people being around television in the late 60s, that combination wouldn’t have come together and produced the legacy of comedy in the same way that there’s just been a really fortuitous gathering at the ECA five years ago that led to Will and Ainslie just hitting it off, just having a really good connection with each other.”
Gardner is marking this bit of kismet with EIFF's retrospective Five Animated Years of Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson, which brings together the filmmakers' short films in one single programme. There’s Anderson’s tragicomic The Making of Longbird, a mockumentary about an animator and his uncooperative animated character; Henderson’s I Am Tom Moody, about a musician going through an existential crisis; and their co-directed Monkey Love Experiments, about a monkey test subject who dreams of escaping his sterile cage and rocketing to the moon, as well as many more collaborations. We ask Gardner what makes the work so special?
“Both technically are very natural in terms of how they observe, understand and interpret movement,” explains Gardner. The key ingredient to their work, he reckons, is its emotional honesty. “They’ve got a very clear focus on what it is that concerns them and interests them and what they’re passionate about, and that translates immediately into what they do. They’re not shy, they’re not hiding any of their feelings or thoughts. That’s not to say they’re doing confessionals, but they’re using those kind of emotional keys inside them without any fear, which I think makes the work very emotional, engaging and strong.”
How do Anderson and Henderson feel about the upcoming retrospective? “It feels a little daunting, but it depends how you look at it,” says Henderson. “We’re not pretending to be ‘masters of animation looking back over an illustrious career’ like these things often are. We’ve just had a pretty eventful first five years, and we’ve done a lot in that time.”
Did they ever consider turning it down? “We couldn’t refuse,” says Henderson. “Plus, it does feel good to look over everything and take stock of it all.”
Gardner agrees that it’s the perfect time to look back over their short careers. “There was a nice circularity to them both winning EIFF's McLaren Award [EIFF's annual prize for animation, which Anderson won in 2012 for The Making of Longbird and Henderson won for Stems last year]. In addition to that, they come out of college and they both win a Bafta. There aren’t many people in our practice, even after many years, who’ve got a Bafta on their shelf. It’s quite an accolade to have achieved so early in their careers.”
It’s also a good time to look back on the duo's work as they look set to be evolving their practice, with a feature on the horizon and talks of doing some TV work. “I think it’s just an interesting time to see what they’ve been up to, and to try and get them to talk a little bit about what they’re going to do next,” says Gardner. “I’m sure that there’s always going to be these little gems that they make, but I think their careers will be changing from this point forwards.”
Henderson confirms that there is a feature film in the works. “Will and I have always talked about trying to make something low budget, using new technology and innovation in order to be creatively unburdened by other people’s expectations,” he tells us. “I know we’re both interested in making films with spontaneity, unusual films that defy genre.”
Anderson gives us a bit of background, revealing that the new work blends documentary with fiction filmmaking, with the Scottish Documentary Institute’s Noé Mendelle producing. “It’s called Dom,” says Anderson. “He is a small animated cat that manifests out of a cancer scare. It’s a grassroots story talking about cancer, how it shakes a family, how you can internalise your feelings, and how art is used as a form of escapism.” A move to documentary might seem a strange one for these vivid fantasists, but Anderson doesn’t see it that way. “I think when working intensely with animation I’m interested in drawing attention to the process of making, and that’s something I believe is intrinsic to documentary filmmaking.”
Anderson's well aware that making this jump from shorts to feature length will be no picnic. “I think it’s hard no matter what, but making a film that dances between documentary and animation playfully, cross-referencing each other, is a film I am interested in making, no matter how hard it is,” he says. “We are lucky to be working with such an experienced producer in Noé, and she has enabled our ideas to be developed with an open-mindedness to the real life side of things for our film, while we can develop more fictitious scripted content that runs in parallel with and blends with the documentary footage.”
While slightly embarrassed at the fuss that’s being made about them (“It feels strange. I feel like a charlatan. I also feel honoured. I feel like an honoured charlatan,” says Anderson) they also seem buoyed by the prospect. Gardner, though, is slightly anxious. “Will tweeted a response to the announcement that the retrospective was happening,” he says. “Will said he and Ainslie have been practising some dance moves for the event, and I wouldn’t put it past them.”
So anyone attending the screening tomorrow can expect 120 minutes of first class animation followed by a Q&A told through interprative dance. What a prospect.
Five Animated Years of Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson, 24 Jun, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 3.45pm
EIFF runs 15-26 Jun http://edfilmfest.org.uk