Deborah Allison talks to The Box Of Delights animator Ian Emes, who looks back at his work on the series and gives us the low-down on his latest projects.
Deborah Allison: One of the striking features of The Box Of Delights is the range of different styles and techniques it incorporates – including, of course, the animations. Before I ask about your particular contributions, do you know who had the initial idea of using animation in the series?
Ian Emes: I would think it was director Renny Rye – but I would also suggest that, economically, the things I did were unachievable in live action. If you’ve got flying birds, and fish, and you’ve got deer running through forests talking, the only way forward was to do it in animation. Of course, in those days it wasn’t digital; it was pre-digital 2D animation, so I suggested a practical solution rather than an imaginative one.
DA: How did you become involved with the project?
IE: I was running one of the top animation studios (it was called Ian Emes Animation and it was called Timeless Films) in Camden Town, and it was very successful at that time. I was working on title sequences and music videos. I’m known for working with Pink Floyd (I did all the ‘Time’ sequence and I did ‘Dark Side of the Moon’) and I also worked with Mike Oldfield.
I had done a lot of work with the BBC previously, doing all sorts of odds and sods for them down in the graphics department, so I was known – but they pitched it out to three people. In those days, if I went for something I went for it 200 per cent. I submitted a lot of designs – I believe there was a dragon involved, and a phoenix, the forests, and so on. I still have those drawings.
I don’t know who my rivals were but I won the pitch. I think they chose me because I could also do some of the visual effects – although they were elementary by comparison with today’s technologies.
DA: I’m glad you did! Can describe for me which scenes and sequences you were responsible for?
IE: Everything that’s animated, and anything to do with a special effect. As I remember, I did the phoenix rising up. I did the scene where they went through a door on to a mountain road with a donkey. I did a lot of backdrops; I painted backdrops which actors are put in. I did glitter-effects, magic effects and, of course, the main sequence was when they turn into deer and then into birds and then into fish when they’re swimming in the river.
DA: What kind of brief were you given? How much freedom did you have in deciding what to include and what style to do it in?
IE: Renny came to my studio in Camden and we talked about it and I did designs and I did a storyboard. As with anyone that does animation there’s a lot of visual material before you actually begin the animation, which then is approved. Because I knew it was a live action series I chose a semi-realistic style. If you like, it’s a bit Disney. Bambi, for example, is such an amazing film; I think I referenced that, really – setting the animals in beautiful, painted scenic environments.
DA: Were there any particularly difficult creative or technical challenges you needed to overcome?
IE: I think when actors are related to the animation, so you have to position the animation to integrate with the actors. There are a couple of instances of that. The thing is that The Box of Delights was shot on one-inch tape (I don’t know what camera was used) but I was given 16mm film, so I’m trying to remember how I did it technically. I think I was given something (maybe a film dupe from the taped sequence) and then I would project that and I would make the animation match with that.
This tape is very specific to the eighties. It’s when people were first using what’s effectively digital material – very early stuff – so it dates, but in a way it dates in a rather affectionate way because we all know it’s from that era. But the definition is not as strong, so it’s quite difficult to marry animation shot on film to something that was shot on tape. I supplied the BBC with the animated material and they put it together with the live action. I guess they did it in some kind of mixing suite they had there.
DA: How early did you become involved? Was it before they even started shooting?
IE: Yes, because animation takes a long time and I believe my production period was about eight weeks, so I was doing the animation while they were out there shooting it.
DA: Much of the other work you’ve done (with Pink Floyd and other bands), is intimately connected with music. Did you know what the music was going to be when you were creating the animal-bird-fish transformation sequence?
IE: I believe they scored the music afterwards because it literally went in as a sequence. I seem to remember the actors (the boy and Herne) sort of dropping down and then my animation taking over, so I had to draw something of the figures dropping down to become the deer. And then I seem to remember in the river there was a kind of swirling water effect, which they came out of. So that sequence simply fitted in – it mixed in and mixed out.
DA: Looking back, is there any particular element of your work on Box that you’re especially pleased with?
IE: I think the sequence that I’m describing. What was great about it was that I had a sort of free rein with all of it, so I was able to make an actual little bit of storytelling within the main body of the series.
For me it’s really lovely that people are looking back at The Box of Delights and it’s becoming re-appreciated; it’s great that I contributed to something that’s got this following. One of the things I’m discovering in my ‘later years’ (though I’m still very active as a director and still pushing new ground, I like to think) is that’s it’s very nice when you can look back at work you probably did under pressure, probably not realising the value of it at the time, and think ‘Well done! We did a good job; we must have done something right there!’
On another level, it’s great to see something becoming iconic because it somehow captures something that we don’t have today. It’s a slice of British culture, I guess, and of that wonderful heyday of the BBC. And, of course, we have a tradition in this country of children’s storytelling and authors; it’s rooted in our culture and I think it means a lot to people, so it’s great that I was part of that.
DA: What have you been up to since The Box of Delights?
IE: Over the years I’ve moved from animation to music videos, then into short films, and then feature films and television. For a while I hit a bit of a tough patch, and because we had four delightful children it just proved too difficult to sustain a regular income in the world of filmmaking – it’s very up and down. I moved into commercials for a couple of decades and did very well at that – all the time working on and off with Pink Floyd.
In the last decade I’ve moved out of commercials into (strangely enough) exhibiting art – because I was in the V&A Museum’s Pink Floyd exhibition, so that kind of kicked off my art career – and then lo and behold my film career’s taking off again, so I haven’t stopped! I’ve been through various mediums but always exploring and always trying to break new ground.
DA: I didn’t catch your exhibitions, alas, but the promo videos on your web site looked great!
IE: What I’m looking at in the world of exhibiting is pushing the envelope in terms of a cinema experience, because now there’s so much towards mixed media events, which are somewhere between theatre, rock concert, exhibition and film.
I’m very interested in creating, if you like, a film that you can walk through; you can walk around it and see it from different narrative strands. What I’ve been doing with my exhibiting is using multi-screen projections and installations with sound effects and music. But I’ve got a few other things on my plate right now, so all of that’s going on the back burner until at least the middle of next year.
DA: What are you working on right now?
I’m directing two ninety-minute murder mysteries, which are going to come out next year. They’re kind of in the spirit of Midsomer Murders but with a twist – shall we say a bit more progressive, a bit more modern. I’ve also been developing a feature film, which I’ve been asked to adapt into a children’s book.
I’ve just been offered a book deal, so I’ll spend the next six months working on the murder mysteries, then I’m going to have a little rest, and then come the new year I shall clear my desk and sit down to write my first proper children’s book. It’s already a well-developed story because it’s a film script I’ve been working on with lots of illustrations – so watch this space on that…
You can find more information about Ian’s work at www.ianemes.com, where you can also watch some of his films and videos including his Oscar-nominated short film Goodie-Two-Shoes.
The Box of Delights screens at selected Picturehouse cinemas on Saturday 1 December 2018. Find your local cinema and book tickets.
We’re delighted to welcome director Renny Rye to introduce the screening at Picturehouse Central. It also shows at The Savoy Cinema in Heaton Moor. A screening at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema has already sold out.