Simian Stop Motion: Interview with Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson

With their respective debut short films, Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson seemed to pick up more silverware on the festival circuit than the US team do at the Olympics. They're both in the director's chair for new collaboration Monkey Love Experiments

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 06 Mar 2015

It’s a crisp February afternoon in Edinburgh and Will Anderson is showing The Skinny around fellow animator Ainslie Henderson’s compact Summerhall studio, while its owner is off making a round of tea. Henderson’s work space has been a hive of activity recently – he’s been working on a two minute stop motion piece for PopUp!Scotland – but Anderson himself hasn't been having the most productive of weeks.

Will Anderson: “I’ve just lost my computer. It broke, so I’m, like, lost. I don’t know what to do.”

While Anderson uses a MacBook and a mouse for his animations, Henderson’s preferred tools of the trade are plasticine and puppets. Has he ever thought of turning his hand to the old-school analogue techniques?

WA: "I’ve tried."

Ainslie Henderson (bringing in the tea): "He always does a frame. You did one in I Am Tom Moody [Henderson’s award-winning graduation film]."

WA: "I did one in Monkey Love Experiments too – or did you take that out?"

AH: "No, it’s in there."

Still from I Am Tom Moody

The Monkey Love Experiments they speak of is their latest collaboration, a hybrid of stop motion animation and live action that sees them sharing the director's chair. Set in the mid-60s, and based on the kind of work performed by controversial psychologist Harry Harlow, the film centres on Gandhi, a lab monkey who believes he’s destined to travel into space after seeing news reports on the USA-USSR space race on TV. Gandhi, a wire and silicone puppet, is also present for the interview. He’s perched on the windowsill next to Henderson’s BAFTA Award, which is in dire need of some Brasso.

Henderson won the award with Anderson (who gave his to his mum) in 2013 for their collaboration on Anderson's graduation film The Making of Longbird, a delightfully meta mockumentary about an animator struggling to take control of his film’s paper cutout character. Why did the pair deside to collaborate?

AH: “We met at Edinburgh College of Art. Will was in his final year and I was in my third. He’d just started making the Making of Longbird and I quite liked what he was doing, so I piggybacked on to it, basically.”

WA: “I don’t think you ‘piggybacked’. I think we realised pretty early on that we shared similar interests and we were both thinking a lot about story and how that was the most important thing. And I think you really helped with the writing – stuff that I just couldn’t get my head around at the time. It’s a very all-consuming thing, trying to make your first film, you know, and the pressure’s on. I think I enjoyed it more not having to work on my own all the time.”

AH: “That’s definitely how we first became friends. We discovered it was really helpful to have someone that you see eye to eye with, to discuss what you’re doing. It really helps clarify what you’re trying to figure out.”

WA: “Especially with animation. It’s so time-consuming. It’s like making a film in slow motion.”

AH: “You’ve got a lot of time to get lost and go round and round in circles and lose sight of what you’re doing.”

WA: “So you’ve got a lot of time to think, so being able to speak to someone else is pretty important.”

“For me Monkey Love Experiments is still a story about a relationship between a parent and a child. It’s about dreaming of things, about being deluded” – Ainslie Henderson

Throughout the interview the pair talk in this rat-a-tat fashion, finishing each other’s thoughts. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine you’re listening to one of their online cartoon creations, the scrag-puffing pigeons from Scroogin on a Greg or the menagerie of bird characters in their TV Licensing ads. You’ll find less of their personalities in new film Monkey Love Experiments – on the surface at least. This new film breaks from their wise-cracking MO to form something altogether more austere and heartbreaking.  

AH: “We wanted to make sure we weren’t repeating ourselves. And it has worked against us in a lot of festivals. I think a lot of festivals were like...”

WA (jumping in): “'What are you doing?'”

AH: “Yeah, ‘This isn’t Longbird! This isn’t Tom Moody!’ But it made it interesting for us.”

WA: “I remember being at a festival and someone who had seen our previous work said to me, ‘People are wanting to see something by you, but you’ve kind of went off the rails a wee bit.’”

AH (emphatically): “There are no rails!”

One of the most “off the rail” decisions in Monkey Love Experiment is that the central character, Ghandi, wasn’t going to speak.

AH: "We had dialogue to begin with. We had a voiceover with the monkey imagining things, and then as we were writing it I remember that day where we went, ‘Let’s cut the dialogue.’ It seemed like such a huge thing at the time."

WA: “When you give something a physical voice and you’re saying all these things that you’re wanting to say, it’s kind of interesting to go, ‘Right, OK, we want to say that, how do we do that without any words?’ That’s kind of difficult.”

While Monkey Love Experiment isn’t a directly personal piece, like I Am Tom Moody, in which Henderson mines his own past as a singer and songwriter (he appeared on the first series of Fame Academy and his single Keep Me a Secret went to number five in the UK charts), or Longbird, about an animator’s creative crisis, the pair do feel a strong affinity with its central themes.

AH: “For me it’s still a story about a relationship between a parent and a child. It still has that in it. It’s about dreaming of things, about being deluded. There’s still stuff in it that I can really relate to. I remember being really conscious that, having made Tom Moody, which is so me, which is so like my own stuff, I wanted to try and make something for everyone else now. I wanted a universal thing. That’s probably what drew me to man landing on the moon, because it’s like everyone was there for that moment somehow.”

WA: “Yeah, our monkey was there and he got it wrong. I’d agree, though. It’s exhausting doing a totally personal film – I know with Tom Moody, you put everything in that, of yourself. It is nice to make something that’s slightly distanced.”

AH: “I don’t think you can ever take yourself out of it, though, because you’re always going to get tangled up in there somewhere, even if you’re trying to write about, oh I don’t know, a Swedish waitress.”

“It’s exhausting doing a totally personal film” – Will Anderson

What’s most pleasing about Monkey Love Experiment is its tactile visuals, which completely embrace the 60s setting. First of all there’s its intelligent use of a period-appropriate 4:3 aspect ratio, which seems to enhance our protagonist's isolation.

WA: “The actual [Harry Harlow] video is on YouTube – you know, a sort of greenish black and white, sort of very mid-tone thing. I was looking at that and going, ‘Right Ainse, this is all in 4:3,’ and we also liked the idea that he’s in these black bars and it’s almost like he’s boxed into this 4:3, because it pulls out and then squeezes back in at the low moments.”

AH: “When he’s looking out at the moon the aspect ratio actually changes.”

WA: “It opens out twice.”

AH: “And then when he’s panicked and despairing the frame crushes him in.”

WA: “I was getting horribly excited about that.”

Also lending the film an emotional weight is the delicately rendered stop motion animation. The Gandhi puppet was made using real fur, which shifts restlessly from frame to frame. The herky jerky motion accentuates his vulnerability and reflects his anxiety.

AH: “To begin with we were thinking, 'should we try not to make the hair move?' It’s impossible obviously, it jerks around when you touch it, so we just decided that at every frame we’ll just ruffle it a little bit, and everyone who saw it was like, ‘Oh, it looks windy.’”

WH: “But that’s fine, that’s cool. It makes him more hyperreal in a way. He’s a real thing and he’s boiling about the place. But very possibly there is a fan on in the lab.”

More from The Skinny:

Will Anderson on The Making of Longbird

Skinny Short Film Competition Winner Rory Alexander Stewart

Monkey Love Experiment screens at Glasgow Film Festival (11-15 Mar)

Monkey Love Experiment is also part of the BAFTA Shorts programme, released in cinemas from 6 Mar