Will Anderson on The Making of Longbird

After having his film, The Making of Longbird, selected for dozens of film festivals and winning awards from most of them, Will Anderson crowned off a fantastic year by winning the BAFTA for best animated short. We speak to this talented filmmaker

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 Apr 2013

Scotland, 2011. A young filmmaker named Will is attempting to remake lost Russian classic Long Bird with the film's original star, Longbird, back in the lead role.

“Do you know anything about Meyerhold? Do you know anything about Stanislavski?” says the pompous Russian thespian to his novice director.

“I’m referencing those greats you speak of... that underpins my work as a director,” Will stutters. “I consider myself... I’m potentially a famous actor... director! I meant director when I said actor.”

“You, a director? Ha!” mocks Longbird. “My master was a director. You’re just a silly boy.”

This withering exchange is captured in award-winning documentary The Making of Longbird. As behind-the-scenes tussles go, it's up there with Herzog v Kinski in Fitzcarraldo (as witnessed in that film's making-of doc Burden of Dreams) or Coppola v Brando in Apocalypse Now (as seen in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse). The difference being, though, that Longbird is no flesh and blood method actor with delusions of grandeur, he's a two-dimensional giraffe-necked cartoon character. But don’t try telling The Making of Longbird's director, Will Anderson, that his subject is just a cardboard cutout.

“I think [Longbird has] transcended the film – he’s real now,” insists the 23-year-old director. Since perishing in a fire at the end of Anderson’s short, Longbird has been the star of a promo for Glasgow Short Film Festival, he’s accepted some of The Making of Longbird’s prizes (which include a BAFTA award for best short animation) via Skype and he’ll likely make a cameo in Anderson’s upcoming film. “It won’t be a cringey ‘oh here we go again’ type thing,” Anderson assures me. “It’s just that we spend so much time making these characters feel alive that it’s a shame that it has to stop when the camera does. They have a life of their own, and Longbird definitely has now after all these screenings and awards.”

Anderson’s film – his final-year project at Edinburgh College of Art, which he co-wrote with fellow animator Ainslie Henderson – opens with some phoney, but very convincing, archive footage of a supposed long-lost stop-motion masterpiece called Long Bird, an etherial lantern show about the lanky-necked title character, and a clip from a grainy old doc showing its creator, Vladislav Aleksandrovich Feltov, at work on the film. We then cut to present day, where an animator named Will (played by Anderson) is trying to recreate the character of Longbird using Feltov’s old school techniques. But Feltov, and his long-neck creation, are made up. It’s a slippery set-up so meta it would make Charlie Kaufman's head spin.

“How films were made really interests me, sometimes more than the actual films themselves,” Anderson tells me. “So I knew I wanted to make a film that was a kind of behind-the-scenes documentary. I found one of my characters in a sketch book, which was a ridiculous long bird-type figure, and I thought, ‘Let’s just put these two ideas together.’”

For about five minutes The Making of Longbird plays it dead straight. While watching with an unsuspecting audience you can almost hear the groans of disappointment when they think they’re in for a dry documentary about a hundred-year-old Russian animation. But when Longbird begins to interact with his new director and makes his first sarcastic putdown this dusty doc becomes a riot. “I’m always nervous,” Anderson says when I ask about screening the film to a new audience. “I’m always pretty unsure if it’ll work: certain audiences just don’t get it. But when they’re on the right wavelength it’s pretty amazing.”

It’s not just audiences who have lapped up Anderson's short. Festival juries and award bodies across the world have gone weak at the knees for The Making of Longbird’s whip-smart postmodern hijinks. It’s played at over 50 festivals, and Anderson reckons the BAFTA award it won for best animation marked its 20th prize. It’s all come as a bit of a shock to the Dingwall-born filmmaker: “I wasn’t even sure when I was finished if it was working, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t even know if festivals would take it, so its success is all a bit bizarre and ridiculous.”

One of the film’s chief pleasures is Longbird himself, who’s voiced ever so wryly by Anderson’s friend and fellow animator Vitalij Sicinava. There’s a real tactile quality to his two-dimensional design that’s missing from the current mode of flawless CGI animation. “I love that style, and I appreciate it,” says Anderson. “I learned the traditional techniques before doing digital animation. I can’t promise you that I did a fantastic job with these traditional techniques,” he adds, “but I did learn them.” Despite his rough-hewn appearance, however, Longbird is entirely made of pixels and bits. He wasn’t brought to life on a light-board using paper and scalpel, he was assembled with a mouse and a MacBook. “Digital let me step it up and push it more and have a broader scope,” Anderson explains. “I can shoot it from any angle or composite track in 3D. It basically opens up lots of options that traditional animation couldn’t offer, even though I’m trying to make it look like it was done by hand.”

“we spend so much time making these characters feel alive that it’s a shame that it has to stop when the camera does” – Will Anderson

This is just another level to The Making of Longbird’s playful deception and dizzying self-reflexivity. As the film progresses and the battle of wills between director Will and the disrespectful Longbird intensifies, the director uses increasingly cruel methods to discipline his unruly creation: he nicks him with a pair of scissors, knocks him down using a busy road of animated traffic and gives him humiliating redesign upon redesign. In these moments it’s hard not to think of an exacerbated Daffy Duck becoming incandescent as he’s toyed with by his animator (who's revealed at the end to be “stinker” Bugs Bunny) in Chuck Jones’ meta-masterpiece Duck Amuck.

“I was looking at a lot of the Warner Bros. stuff so it was definitely an influence,” admits Anderson. “I think animation is intrinsically aware of itself, and Duck Amuck does that so well. The backgrounds disappear, [Daffy Duck] gets rubbed out, the frame rips apart, and that’s what I tried to do with the start of the film. The mock archive footage of the lost Long Bird film that was burnt, it’s sort of a bit like that – it’s all alive in the frame and it can contort and rip apart.”

While Jones’ film mines slapstick from this existential battle between animator and his animation, The Making of Longbird goes deeper. There’s real pathos in the relationship between Will and Longbird. It calls to mind Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen's prickliest film, which sees a writer's past characters come back to haunt him in his dotage, or last year's deconstruction of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ fantasy Ruby Sparks, about a young novelist who writes the girlfriend of his dreams into existence. There are even shades of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Is this creator/creation conflict an intrinsic part of bringing a character to life?

“It’s a funny thing,” says Anderson, “maybe there is always going to be that tension. But I quite like the idea that Longbird looks back fondly on his master, the guy who created him originally, but a hundred years later he’s incredibly arrogant and worked-up about working with an idiot like me. I’d like to think that maybe in a hundred years from now a future animator will adapt him in his/her contemporary style and Longbird might look back at me with fondness.”

The Making Of Longbird // Teaser Trailer

Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones)

The Making of Longbird screens in selected cinemas from 12 Apr as part of a feature length programme of short live action and animated films nominated for this year's British Academy Film Awards

Films in the BAFTA Shorts programme

Here to Fall
Dir: Kris Kelly | Ireland | UK | 2012 | 6mins

The Curse
Dir: Fyzal Boulifa | UK | Morocco | 2012 | 16mins

Dir: Johnny Barrington | UK | 2011 | 13mins

I'm Fine Thanks
Dir: Eamonn O'Neill | Ireland | UK | 2012 | 5mins

The Making of Longbird
Dir: Will Anderson | UK | 2011 | 15mins

Good Night
Dir: Muriel d'Ansembourg |UK | 2012 | 28mins

Dir: Lynne Ramsay | UK | 2012 | 16mins

The BAFTA Shorts programme will tour the UK in Apr and May, see website for more information