A conversation with the lecturer/animator/illustrator.
Professor Peter Parr is a lecturer at the Arts University College at Bournemouth: “Professor Peter Parr is one of the most renowned teachers of animation in Britain. He stresses the core skills of drawing and visualisation in his work with students, pointing out the relationships between character, emotion and dramatic movement. He has been a juror and on the selection panel for Zagreb, Hiroshima and other international animation festivals.” We hear that he is retiring this year and his students are honouring him with a tribute book. See the end of this post for a couple of examples!
To view Peter’s most recent sketches, visit his visual blog. All images in this post are taken from AVA’s Animation titles.
It seems as though recently there has been a huge surge in popularity for stop-motion – with films such as Fantastic Mr Fox and Coraline. Why do you think this is? And what is your favourite form of animation?
We all recognise how trends shine bright for a season, but leave us wanting more until we are compelled to search for something that will return us to our roots. Audiences begin to yearn for connection with the hand-made. Stop-Motion appeals to our most fundamental yearnings from our childhood: toys that live! The art of animation can allow us to see and believe in this lost world once again.
My selection always relies on certain truths: ideas expressed through an appropriate technique.
Page taken from Basics Animation: Stop-motion by Barry Purves.
Watch a wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ video about Fantastic Mr Fox here.
Can you give us some examples of your favourite animation films and animators?
My taste has always been eclectic, so to ask me for my favourite films or animators, is a question impossible for me to answer as my answer will inevitably exclude many films and animators which I have enjoyed, learned from or referenced in my teaching. I like to be entertained in the broadest sense of the word.
Where do you think the future of animation is heading? What has CG contributed/taken away from traditional techniques of animation?
Animation is, by nature, an evolving art form, therefore I have no doubts that its future is assured so long as we have tenacious and talented people who will keep it ever changing, ever refreshing and ever searching by experimentation to express thoughts and ideas that will reach out to communicate with audiences.
The development of Computer Generate (CG) animation over the past couple of decades is astonishing. It has meant that animators have had to re-evaluate their skills. When I taught students studying CG I shared their enthusiasm for their 3D modelled environment but saw that they had no notion of the basic principles of animation or cinematography. One reaps the whirlwind if one ignores the fundamentals of animation and performance.
When did you first get involved/interested in animation? How did your career really begin?
I am of the generation brought up on spoonfuls of cinema fed animation and where my tears were shed at, you guessed it, the loss of Bambi’s mum! How can anyone forget that experience? As a child I drew on any paper available to me.
At Art School I trained as an illustrator. My work was deemed cinematic by my tutors who encouraged me to apply to the newly formed Film and Television School at the Royal College of Art. It was there that I developed a life-long interest in staging and performance to support my method of drawing.
After graduation I was employed as a junior assistant on animated film title sequences and TV commercials in animated Soho, London, of the sixties. My employer, Roy Pace, generously allowed me to do some part-time teaching. Throughout my career I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching “hot from the press”.
You are the Founder and Leader of Bournemouth’s award-winning BA Honours Animation Production course. What are the main areas covered by the course? And why do you think it works so well?
The course aims to develop extensive and highly refined animation skills in traditional drawn, computer generated and stop-motion animation, underpinned by a focus on observational drawing. This combined approach, using a variety of formats in a supportive and collaborative team-based environment, fuels students with a desire to produce work of a high professional standard.
It is important for me to be on hand at a moment’s notice to troubleshoot ideas with my students. Responsibility for their work is not just theirs alone, but mine also.
What does a usual day’s work involve for you?
Trying to maintain a sense of humour!
I have seen some beautiful murals that you have designed. Do you think of yourself primarily as an artist or as a teacher?
I work in a cross-disciplinary way, so my approach to teaching is through art and performance-based thinking. I have always drawn to keep my skills fine tuned for whatever my project may require and it is my insatiable eye for observing people, objects, art and architecture, cultures, design, dance (the list goes on) which is all important, all necessary to being who I am, an artist and teacher in equal measure. This gives me a special enthusiasm for what I do and gives me more fun.
Have you ever had any disasters when working on sets for film/television/theatre? Or when animating a film?
Fortunately not, but I do remember learning a very hard lesson as a junior assistant. I was asked to design and paint a background for a scene in an animation, so I went out with “all guns a blaze” to impress my boss. After three days of intensive work I proudly presented him with my finished masterpiece. “Far too expensive: it’s taken you three days to produce a background for a 4 second shot!”
What are the main events in the animation calendar?
There is a continuous yearly cycle of festivals around the world. It’s wonderful that animation is generating such interest these days, but also daunting that there are so many festivals each month – we find ourselves spoilt for choice.
You obviously attend (and judge) a lot of animation festivals; what do you think students can get out of attending these festivals?
Festivals provide ideal opportunities for students to network and with animation artists to discover back stories at first hand. They offer dedicated screening venues for animation production and consumption. They are the places where students can “pig out” on other students’ work, latest releases, animation classics, retrospectives and exhibitions to encourage and inspire.
Students have to be specific in making their choices. If they expect everyone to come rushing to welcome them, then the very big festivals can be demoralising. At the small festival it is easier to rub shoulders with animators. One has to work hard to engage!
What are your tips for aspiring animators?
I believe one has to nurture a curiosity for the world around, and a passion for recording and archiving it to inform one’s work.
I set out my Ten Top Tips for animation related drawing, amongst other examples of my work, in Paul Wells’ book Basics Animation: Drawing for Animation (2008) published by AVA. My contributions cover subjects such as line and volume, thro’ Movement and Narrative to Perspective and intense observational study; but a word of caution! Reading books are no proof of one’s ability; to progress one has to participate!
Some of Peter’s tips from Basics Animation: Drawing for Animation by Paul Wells, Joanna Quinn and Les Mills.
What resources do you recommend to your students?
A well stocked library of books and films from which to draw inspiration cannot be underestimated. To animate, technical requirements depend on personal needs, aspirations and funds!
You obviously have a very personal style of teaching – your students seem very fond of you, and I understand you often keep in touch. I know your wife Astor is also very involved in the animation community, and together you have helped set up a student placement and program. What is it that makes you so passionate about your work?
I relish the concept of engaging with my drawings by adding movement then taking control by facilitating the dimension of time, thus giving an experience linked to performance. Very few art forms stimulate our senses in quite the same way as the art of animation.
Astor’s voluntarily and consistent support has been played a pivotal part in my work with students. We have worked closely together for many years to enable student work placements in Europe and the China. We have built up friendship and trust between ourselves and our company partners, providing valued industry experience and cultural opportunities for our students. That has been very rewarding. Amusingly, when visiting our students in their placements, we have been taken for their proud parents!
Is the world of animation a tightly-knit community? How can someone become involved?
The community may seem tightly-knit, but no. It’s just a world of animators who are genuinely interested in each other’s work. Again, the festival circuit plays a great part in bringing everyone together from far flung animation communities around the world: get involved by being there with them: be seen!
Is the ability to work as part of a team an important quality for an animator? Is this reflected in your course?
Many think of the animator as an isolated practitioner. This is not true. There are parts of the film-making process that require one to work alone, but the completion of any work relies on other practitioners. It is therefore a must to learn how to work as part of a team on our course at the Arts University College at Bournemouth.
What are the most important skills for an animator, and how do they compare with the skills needed to be a great teacher?
I think people skills are very important; being able to work as part of a team. Every team is made up of a variety of skill sets; therefore one has to respect this balance by learning to integrate into the mix.
Animating and teaching require a simple direct approach. I take my profession as an artist into my teaching which requires me to be open to new challenging ideas and circumstances with a practical ability to demonstrate. To gain immediate results, I prefer to explain my theories with a definitive drawing, rather than clogging up the atmosphere with “a thousand words”. Visual clarity is my only mission.
Page taken from The Fundamentals of Animation by Paul Wells.
Who do you most look up to? Who do you think has had the greatest impact on your work?
I can’t pin-point any one iconic figure-head. It’s has been my good fortune to have worked with many influential directors, artists, designers and academics throughout my life who have inspired me. I think the connections one makes in life inevitably influence one’s development as an artist, teacher and as a person; all supplying elements of inestimable value.
What is your favourite stage in the animation process?
There are so many from beginning to end but I have to say that it has to be the development stage where confluences of extreme ideas fuse to make magic!
Do you prefer drawing human, animal or fantasy characters?
I love to morph one with the other to celebrate drawing! My observational drawings taken from nature, whether human or animal, will ultimately inform fantasy giving it credibility.
What is the achievement that you are most proud of and why?
I think it has to be founding an award winning animation course that has helped so many of my students to discover the depths of their potential and led them to more fulfilled lives.
You contributed to Basics Animation: Drawing for Animation by Paul Wells, Joanna Quinn and Les Mills and also The Fundamentals of Animation by Paul Wells; have you had a chance to look at AVA’s latest animation book by Barry Purves, Basics Animation: Stop-motion yet, and if so what did you think?
Barry’s new book provides a wonderful opportunity to share his thoughts and ideas. His writing style is so accessible and inclusive, speaking to all levels from beginner to professional.
Definition of Stop-motion by Barry Purves, taken from his recent book.
Animation has had attention drawn to it recently by animated documentaries such as Persepolis. Do you think there is a place for politics/ideology in animation? Will we see more animations in the future that are dominated by current concerns – i.e. politically/socially/environmentally activated?
Of course there is a place for politics/ideology in animation as there should be in every art form. Persepolis is a wonderful example of how to get a point across. Is it a documentary or simply entertainment; classic questions for a classic film. The medium of animation can meet many needs in a way that other art forms cannot and when presented as powerfully and beautifully as Persepolis; then yes, let’s see more.
You can see the trailer for Persepolis here.
AVA books now include an ‘Ethics’ section; in Basics Animation: Stop-motion the case study concerns Fritz the Cat, created by Robert Crumb, and how the film of it (directed by Ralph Bakshi) became the first ever animation to be X-rated, in spite of Crumb’s objections. Can you imagine having any ethical concerns over a project you were working on? Would you consider being involved in an ideologically-motivated project?
My professional work has never involved me directly in ideologically-motivated projects; however, my work with students has sometimes required my input in animations with such issues. Then it is my purpose to work with them to enable them to present a balanced view and to succeed in getting their point across with everything that animation can offer. As an example I would recommend “Dying of the Light” (2008) by Amer Shomali, my MA student’s graduate film, a film on which we work closely together, for a take on how to tackle a contentious issue. This film is simple in design but manages to convey a powerful universal truth.
If you hadn’t become involved in animation, are there any other paths you might have gone down?
I could dream but I really wouldn’t want to change things from the way they have turned out.
Do you ever have a quick look at the ‘Peter Parr Appreciation Society’ on Facebook (set up by your students)?!
I don’t have a Facebook account. Sometimes ignorance is bliss! However I must say I’m flattered by their attention. Who wouldn’t be?
Check out this animation on a student’s blog drawn for a tribute book for Peter. It emphasises Peter’s mantra – have your sketchbook with you AT ALL TIMES! And another great image here featured on the blog of another student.
Many thanks to Peter for answering our questions.