Making Things: Mikey Please & I Discuss Life, Death, Time & God
I’ve been busy lately. Too busy.
I’ve barely left the house. I haven’t seen more than one or two friends in the past month. I feel a little disconnected from my own neighborhood, to be honest. I feel like things are slipping by me. In a broader sense, that’s how I feel about my community. Indie animators are a reclusive bunch. We all huddle in dark rooms late at night and hack away at minutiae. It’s simultaneously very easy to become work-hermits and very difficult to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of community. Twitter helps, of course. It’s been a great comfort and inspiration to me in the past year to get to know so many other animators via Twitter. I’m often up in the dead of night working and there’s a great sense of belonging in looking out and seeing so many other artists up burning their candles. So many of us are up so late every night, making things.
I tend to write a lot about the process of being a creative person who makes things because I’m really fascinated by it. The process of making things is so often about drudgery, discipline and practice but it also contains within its motions something precious, wonderful and sustaining. And so I thought it might be a good idea to reach out to artists I respect and whose work I enjoy, to talk about all of this. To connect. Our little community is so disjointed. There are plenty of places talking about studio animation or agency animation or feature films. Precious little is out there about the independent animators, toiling away into the night on our own projects. And to be honest, what is out there tends to be so press-release-ish, with little thought to any of the stuff we actually talk about when we discuss our work with one another. So I thought maybe I should stop writing only about my own experiences and projects and start some conversations with others. And maybe we can learn from one another, discover new things and better support one another. From time to time I’ll be having conversations with awesome people. It’ll mostly be based around independent work, though we’ll also talk about work issues and commercial stuff as well. We’ll talk about what we do, why we do it, topics that effect people like us, and whatever else pops into our heads. I’ve never done this before, so bear with me. But it might be cool. Sound good? I hope so.
Mikey Please is a London-based stop-motion director and a ridiculously, unfairly talented guy. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever internet-met. I started sporadically talking with Mikey about 2 years ago when we both participated in the Animation Tag Attack. This week marks the release of his BAFTA-winning short film The Eagleman Stag into the wilds of the internet after a good long romp through the festival circuit. I got to see it about a year ago (yes, I’m bragging) and am super excited to see it released as I’ve wanted to talk about it ever since. I really do think it’s a remarkable piece of work. But don’t take my word for it. Watch it and be amazed.
A couple of weeks ago I talked with Mikey about the film and life and making things in general. I endeavored to record the conversation so that you could download and listen to it, but seeing as it was my first time0 the audio predictably came out muffled and garbled. So below you will find a transcription of about 30 minutes of it. But I think it’s a pretty good 30 minutes.
I tend to feel a little weird if I’m not making stuff.
Oh yeah definitely. I feel that.
I was walking through the woods with a friend years ago. It was winter and snowy and the pond was all frozen. We found this dead tree about to fall over and we pushed it down and there was this big crash. And then we stacked a log on top of another and threw rocks out to try and crack the ice. The question came up “Why are we doing this?” and the best answer we could manage is that we could look at the woods that day and say “It’s different because we were here!” I think it’s the same thing when you’re making things, you’re expressing something and leaving a record but also affecting the world and changing things, even if it’s just making someone smile or something.
I suppose it’s kind of this unique interaction with the world. I can very specifically pinpoint, I think, the moment where the decision was made to go down that artistic path. It was around 16 during my GSCEs, I don’t know what the American equivalent is, but like an English exam, and we were asked to talk about a decision we had made recently. And my recent decision was to not do all academic subjects. I think during the course of explaining to myself why I had made that decision… It was about the same age, I think, where I totally stopped believing in God. And so I had this thought like “Shit! So one day I’m just going to die. I’m actually just going to die, and that could be a really sad thing.” (laughs) Or… or maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe we make our plans in other ways. And for me it was an easy choice, it seemed it was the most important thing ever to make something. I think everyone’s different but for me, it just seemed the choice of all the things I could do. So yeah… I think that happiness in making stuff just comes out of a fear of one day being dead (laughs).
I had a similar situation a couple of years ago, where I lost my faith. And out of that came The Murf and a lot of other creative stuff as a way of dealing with the really rough stuff I was going through.
I think (The Eagleman Stag) especially was in part about working out my own problems. I always have this in the back of my mind going “Shit. Shiiiit. Time’s running out! What am I doing with it? Oh nooooo!”
One of the things I really like about The Eagleman Stag is the fact that it has this guy (Peter) who wasn’t dealing with that issue as well as you are.
Well, I dealt with it through him. I made the film and it was kind of like fast-forwarding. I was like “Uh-oh. If I think like this forever, what’s going to happen? What am I going to end up like? So I’ll just do it here. I’ll just do it in fantasy. I’ll put these ideas in the body of someone else like a little windup doll and then just set them off and see where they go”. And he ends up kind of getting what he wants but he also destroys himself.
He treats time with the principle of that each moment we have is smaller compared to the last. So the way we experience the present is in diminishing, smaller value because we’re creating a larger amount of past behind us which we compare it to.
Is that something you’ve experienced?
I think when we’re first born that is how we experience time. Like the very first moment we’re alive. Think of that first minute. It’s everything, it’s a whole lifetime. You can only remember that minute. So you’re like “Whoa! This is forever!” and then the next minute comes and you say “Oh. Actually, I remember that minute I had a minute ago, and that’s only half as much time now.” So every unit of time you’ve got kind of halves in value. And that’s the logarithmic curve that he draws in the beer, this decrease in the value of time. But what happens is it plateaus between 1 and 5, there’s this really step drop and it just flattens out. And I think about how I don’t remember anything between 1 and 5 and maybe that’s because time is just crazy then. You’re just constantly adapting and it’s only after this plateau moment that you really begin to get a handle on it.
At age 30, when I look back on high school, which good or bad tends to be this point we look back on as a big period in our lives, and I’m just amazed that it was only 4 years long. 4 years is still a lot, but my experience of it is contextualized completely differently. Now I think 4 years, and it’s like…
In the future I’m sure I’ll have projects that last 4 years. I’ll have projects that last as long as I was in high school. And then I think about the classes and the friends and the girlfriends and the bands…
Your experience of that time is just so much denser.
I’m not particularly nostalgic. I like my adult life, and it is far richer and happier than my childhood and teen years, which were often very unhappy. So much of youth is spent just waiting around, not being able to do the things that really fulfill you or just not knowing much about yourself and the world. But that knowledge and ability and context you have as an adult is offset by the idea that time is in a very real sense running out. Like you were just in Japan and that experience is something you couldn’t have had in your youth, but there’s also this nagging feeling of “How many trips to Japan do I have left?”. And I really admire Peter because he just decides to go all carpe-diem on it, but I guess the flipside is that he eventually reacts so violently because he couldn’t grab it and hold it. I really identified with that feeling of urgency, to get out and do something positive and constructive, to learn something, to be proactive.
Yeah, the story’s designed so that Peter starts out believing this, that there’s this inevitable decrease in the value of time. No matter what he does he’s just going to slide down the curve of this graph and he’s just going to constantly be losing substance. So what he does at one point, and this is kind of a redemption that happens quite early, is that he decides “I’ll never do anything twice again”. And he becomes an explorer of new things and kind of rejects monotony. It’s not quite as overtly expressed in the film as I would have liked it to have been. I think if I were to do it again (which I never will, because it’s a pain in the ass) I would have made a much bigger point of that – he does find redemption through doing that. I think one of the reasons that time goes quicker and quicker is that we do more and more of the same things. We get into grooves. You don’t need to make new memories of stuff because you’ve already done it. You’re like “Oh, I won’t bother making a memory of that” and so when you look back you’re like “Whoa. There’s nothing in my memory box from last year”. So that’s the counter-argument. He understands this for a moment. And then he loses it, has this breakdown, he relapses and finds this alternative solution which is this beetle and it can physically wipe all of his memories and reset him back to that zero point again.
There’s a great scene at the end with him and his friend with the glasses..
Phillip seems to have such a better handle on life.
Yeah, Phillip is the guy who, contrary, doesn’t weigh time like that. He’s more about how you spend the moments. It’s quality, not quantity. It’s not where you are at a place in your life, it’s what you’re doing. And I think that’s the winning attitude.
That final shot is great where Peter is looking at this worm and Phillip, who is a grown adult with all of these memories, understands what’s happened to him and can still appreciate the worm. He has this wonderful look of understanding. I found that to be this really touching moment because Peter has essentially voided his life experience in order to not have to deal with the fact that he is finite and he’s standing next to a man who has lived his life and is okay with that. It’s such a contrast.
Yeah, I mean Peter’s thrown away all of these things, and for what?
That decision he makes, is it a cop out? Or is it kind of another redemption, allowing him to go back to this idealized state?
It’s both of those things. He gets exactly what he wants. It’s my favorite kind of ending, this happy sad ending. Peter himself is happy. It’s exactly where he wants to be. But we can see it’s actually rather tragic. It’s a tough thing to put a value judgment on, because it depends where you’re standing.
That idea definitely stuck with me. The question that if you could take an easy way out, where you would lose a big part of yourself but it would make things in some way easier would you do that? Is it better to be someone who is cognizant, knowledgeable and thinking of more things but possibly unhappier for it? I’ve met people who aren’t really very internal, analytic people and many of them seem quite happy, able to bounce along through life in ways I sometimes can’t. And once in awhile I think about that.
Yeah. Shit… that is a tough one… I don’t know if I know the answer!
No. You must solve every problem. Solve it, sir.
Yeah… I mean ignorance can be nice, right? But no… I think it’s always better to know stuff. I’d much rather know something and it bother me than ignore it and be happy about it. Yeah. Definitely. Better to know things. Because then you can work around it. I mean, we can go back to the God subject. I mean it is deeply comforting but probably not the truth, really. I think that, knowing the truth, you find something else. Well, I guess after all I shouldn’t use the word truth…
The colloquial definition of truth. We can go with that. Truth with quotation marks?
Yeah, the “truth” in speech marks. That kind of inspired me to do something else. It may have not been the easy thing but I think… I think it’s just better. I mean it’s a really hard thing to express and this is not a very articulate way to say it, but it’s just better, because it’s true. Or, you know “true”. In speech marks.
Mikey Please spontaneously crafted this uncanny effigy of yours truly during our chat. What a swell guy.
Mikey is in the process of making a new short. From what I’ve heard, it sounds big and crazy and just the best. He’s set up an Indiegogo campaign to help fund it and I, for one, think you would have to be some sort of terrible person I don’t want to know if you didn’t want to help him make it. So click away, skip some trips to the pizza place and put that money to better use. People, we need to take care of our own and support artists we believe in. I would love to see this method of making independent animated shorts become commonplace. As a community, we can fund the art we want to see instead of depending on giant media companies to maybe hopefully find something cool, give it money and not irrevocably screw it up.