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Sam Gill interview: “It’d be quite good if we were to get ruled by dolphins”

We talk to the Liverpool artist about his unique stop motion animations.

Like 99 per cent of independent artists, Liverpool animator, Sam Gill, spends his time spinning plates and putting out fires. Sometimes both at the same time.

Gill’s unique stop animation videos are a throwback. Inspired by ’60s psychedelia and loud colours that explode across the screen, Gill’s methods in reaching a logical conclusion require a plethora of patience, an unparalleled attention to detail, and, of course, time. In a world of social media obsession and the yearning for immediacy, these are facets that most these days simply don’t possess.

Having created music videos for Liverpool odyssey, Feral Wheel (in which Gill played keyboards; the band are no longer together), earlier this year Gill teamed up with local fellow animator, Eimear Kavanagh, to collaborate on videos for songs The Wounds of Love and The Pike by Liverpool psych-folk collective, The Ferweh. Both songs are set to feature on the band’s second album, TORSCHLUSSPANIK!, due for release at the end of October.

While Feral Wheel are no longer around to dispense their obligatory aural pummelling, Gill still remains as busy as ever, stretching himself as the drummer for local shape-shifters, Rongorongo, who are currently working on their much-anticipated debut album.

On a Sunday at the end of July, Gill spent the afternoon at Sun 13 HQ where we spoke at length about his animations. A measured, considerate, and just a genuinely all-round top human being, Gill was only too happy to answers our questions.

Constant World: In Conversation with Matt Christensen – Part 1

Sun 13: How long have you been doing animations?

Sam Gill: “Up to about three years.”

S13: What was of the influence behind doing them?

SG: “So, I’ve always done collage-based artwork. Going back to, like, 16, or whatever. I was always interested in art stuff. I’ve been doing that years and making artwork that I just put up at home. The thing about collage is you get frustrated, because you cut something out from a newspaper or magazine. That’s how you find your sources. You only get one go with it, if you glue it down, it’s like, ‘That’s permanent’. And if you’ve arranged it wrong, and you’re like, ‘Well, I’ve used that piece, now I don’t have two copies of that magazine, it’s gone!’.

“So I was looking for a more impermanent way of work in the sense of, like, ‘How can I do it now?’ I guess I realised now I could have just bought a photocopier, which just didn’t occur to me.” (laughs)

S13: I guess that potentially recedes the authenticity of it?

SG: “Yeah. So I got sick of using good stuff and not be unhappy with the result. And so I started working on a scanner instead, so that I could scan the picture, and I’ll have a copy of it and I could rearrange and improve it bit by bit. Then one day I was going through the files, and they are all lined up, you know, these little thumbnails inside of the window on the computer. As I scrolled through them, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s moving!’. You know, it’s like a film. From there, I realised that it would be something interesting to control the motion and do things that make stuff come alive, intentionally.

“So yeah, the band I was playing in at the time had some material that kind of related to the stuff that was in the song. I thought, ‘Well, we’ve just recorded this track, we’re going to have to put it out somewhere’. You know, this day and age, when you’re an unsigned band putting out your own material, you’re not going to be pressing it to vinyl, with the queues at that the pressing plants these days, so where are people going to consume it? YouTube seems to be one of the places where people will look at stuff, so I thought,  ‘Well, if I can make a good video to go with the song, that’d be an interesting thing’. There weren’t many people at that time, or I wasn’t aware of many people, doing stop motion animation for videos. [Most animations] are all done via computer these days, so taking it back to the old handcrafted thing seemed a bit nice and special, a bit different.”

S13: I remember stop motion was quite prevalent in the late ’90s, early ’00s, and then obviously with the progress of technology, that’s when it stopped. So I guess your methods… well I know how much work you put into these animations. The finished article must be deeply gratifying.

SG: “Yeah. It takes a lot of patience and to have the ability to tolerate repetition. To do something repetitive, you’re moving stuff a tiny amount, and repeating essentially the same tiny action lots of times. That kind of capacity for repetition is something that I have in me. I mean, I play drums, which is essentially the same thing. The way I play drums is to find the beat and repeat it. It’s kind of more like a human drum machine than a responsive drummer, so it’s like an extension of that; my endless capacity to repeating something over and over again.”

S13: Do you find that aspect therapeutic?

S13: “Yeah, it is a bit. You know that you just have to make a very small difference and by accumulation it becomes something. The way I do it, with cuts out, I don’t need to paint the same thing perfectly another time, I’m just moving something. It’s a very small act then it becomes something that’s worthwhile at the end. The satisfying bit is when you get to the end of the sequence, and then you can play it back and you see it in motion where previously you’re just kind of guessing what it’s going to look like, and then suddenly when you press play, you see this thing come to life.”

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S13: So the idea with the music videos. Like The Fernweh video, The Wounds of Love. Do you have you have an idea after listening to the song, or does the band ask you what they want? What kind of licence do you get?

SG: “Yeah, I think with The Fernweh one, I worked with Eimear Kavanagh on that. She approached me initially with the idea, because we were already talking, we’d been talking on Twitter just kind of looking at each other’s work and talking about maybe doing a collaboration, and then by chance she bumped into Ned [Crowther] from The Fernweh who was looking for someone to do a video.

Eimear hadn’t done full animated video before she asked me to collaborate on it, so that we could both kind of bring ideas together. So as far as The Fernweh goes, they told us about the inspiration for the song. The first one we did, The Wounds of Love, [was] inspired by an Oscar Wilde short story, The Selfish Giant. We both read the story and kind of came up with the ideas from that and then brought our own kind of take on it. I mean, Eimear wanted to get the giant character in the video, and I was struck by the way the song was strident and kind of brought to mind kind of war-like stuff; it talks about borders and things like that.

“Also working over lockdown on that one, although we were able to meet up right at the very start of proceedings, then soon we got locked down, and we found that we basically split a narrative. I could work on my sections on my own and she could work on hers and then at the end we brought them together. So her elements will lead to my elements and I think that worked out about as well as you can do in a collaborative effort in a lockdown.”

S13: I was going ask, because there is a political undercurrent with that video. And then obviously The Dolphin Way with Feral Wheel, which had environmental themes attached to it. Do politics play a role in your animations?

SG: “Yeah. It’s difficult to ignore the world around you completely, although you are trying to create another world within the animation. But I think… yeah, it’s something that’s on my mind a lot of the time, you know? I stay updated with the news and I know what’s going on.

“Yeah, I really liked the The Fernweh song; [there are] quite subtle hints of it in there. I think maybe we made it a bit more… I know I had tanks and stuff in the video, which kind of made it a bit more overt. I think it’s set within that fantastical world, though. It’s a bit removed. But yeah, there’s definitely an undercurrent there.

“I love the Feral Wheel song. Both of those videos really [The Dolphin Way and Death to the Humans]. There was like a third song, as well, which we did record, and then I don’t know what happened to that. But I always imagine those two songs and this third one like a ’70s rock album with a conceptual suite on it, and that was all kind of very environmentally based. I can’t really speak for Huw‘s [Roberts, Feral Wheel singer/guitarist] lyrics, but yeah, definitely with Death to the Humans. It’s like, ‘We’re fucking everything up, man!'”  (Laughs)

S13: Absolutely.

SG: “It’d be quite good if we were to get ruled by dolphins that get to teach us the dolphin way. Yeah, just fuck us all off and get us back to some peaceful living.”

S13: You’re a drummer as well. How do you separate the two art forms? You obviously have to employ a discipline for that because you’ve also got a young family, too. How do you get the time?

SG: “Yeah. A lot of my animation takes place late at night, after everyone’s in bed. I’m a bit of an evening person, really. It’s really strange, because you have kids and you have to be up in the morning and be there straight away. But really, I find I always get some kind of weird energy boost at 9pm, and if I can get in the creative zone, then that’s when I can do my animation; it doesn’t impact on anything else too much, unless I have a particularly long session, and then I’m tired the next day, but that’s something you have to do if you want to get stuff done. It’s very time consuming. You just have to, sadly, kind of become a scheduler; where you’ve got your day and you know how much time you’re going to get.”

S13: I guess with the animation side of things, you’re always working in a sense, because you always have your eyes peeled for source material. That in itself has its own mindset?

SG: “Yeah, right. Because it’s collage, anytime you read a newspaper, you’re looking for the pictures that might pop out with your magazines, or even just kind of walking around, you pick stuff up occasionally.

“I haven’t got around to using them yet, but I’ve got big stashes of stuff at home. Like a huge bag of keys that I picked up over the years, house keys, door keys, any kind of keys. I never get rid of any old clothes to kind of look for the fabric that you’re trying to bring different textures to the animation. Some of the wave scenes in the Feral Wheel videos, some of the layers you see, that’s denim from an unused old pairs of jeans. I’ve got a folder full of feathers, and if I ever find an old photograph in a book, things like that, you know? People use them as bookmarks, and if you get one from the library, or whatever. You might find a weird picture of people doing stuff and these things.

“My mum’s quite good at giving me source material, actually. She does car boot sales, so she’ll, like, find an old book for photos and things.”

S13: It just seems like an endless thing. In terms of the source material it’s limitless…

SG: “Yeah. I mean, I’ve used quite a lot different materials. In The Ferweh‘s The Pike video, I went to the fishmongers and had to ask whether he had any fish bones, then had to take them home and boil the fish. It took three days to clean the bones off. Nobody in the house thanked me for that, the house stinking of fish, bringing all the neighbourhood cats around.”

(Both laugh)

SG: “But it was it was worth it, even though the sequence was three seconds long, because that’s something that not many people are going to get or use that.”

S13: Like you were saying about repetition. The attention to detail is just as vital.

SG: “Yeah. It’s really important to keep your eye on it. It can be difficult with the long sessions. I was reading this book about animation, I really loved it; this guy had this jacket on, and there’s a picture of him from behind. So he’s working, animating on the back of his jacket that was kind of like the old school ’70s lettering, and it just says, ‘Animation is concentration’. That’s kind of what my mantra is. That’s why I end up doing most of it late at night, because if you get interrupted, it not only stops your flow, if you go back to it and you haven’t looked at the previous page properly, before you set the next one out, you can make an error. And that’s the thing about animation –  it’s destructive. If there are bits of paper that have been wrecked, or when it’s just going off the side of the frame, you have to cut it. And so you have to be really careful that you’re not… if I’m using the last dolphin, or the last whatever I’ve got, and I cut it off before I’m finished with it, you can really dig yourself over. So yeah, you do have to concentrate a lot.”

S13: That’s the fatalistic approach to stop animation, right? That must be the thrilling aspect to it.

SG: “Yeah, yeah, there’s some of it. It’s a bit like… I always think about those big Hollywood movies, you know, where they’ve got explosion rigs and stuff like that. And like, that must be the same kind of thing for them. I mean, mine’s a very small, homemade version of that, but if I’m scrolling a piece of paper over the scanner, it’s got to work because if there’s going to be creases I can’t go back and reuse it. If something’s going off the edge of the frame, because of the way the scanner is, you need to cut it to keep it flat, otherwise you get the kind of edges where the papers not quite flush with the scanner. So yeah, if the car’s driving off screen or anything like that, you need to cut every bit of the car how it goes off. You might even get the wrong angle of the car and will go up in the air like that [motions diagonally].

“So yeah, there is a little bit of creative tension where you think it’s going to work, and that’s the other thing, as well; you can stack up a lot of shots, you can scan it or shoot it all, but until you’re watching it back, you’re not sure what you’re going to get. You’ve got an idea, but until you see it in motion, it’s quite difficult. You don’t really have a preview option, you just do it in a sequence and then you load it in, then you make a series of stills into a film. So you don’t see it as a film until you put all those and that particular section together and watch it, so you’re kind of hoping for the best outcome. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you spend a couple of hours on something and it just doesn’t work.”

Constant World: In Conversation with Matt Christensen – Part 2

S13: Are you always on the lookout for updating computer software that could enhance things?

SG: “Yeah, you’re looking for ways of making your life easier. You know, ‘Can I do this faster, or can I use different things that programmes have?’ Once you take the animation to whatever software you use, you can apply things to it. You can have effects, you can run it backwards, you can change the speed, you can do all this. So there’s another kind of creative aspect in that. It’s like working on several levels, you’re doing everything, you’re choosing the assets, you’re moving the assets around, and then you’re having to kind of edit the end result of that.

“So there’s a lot more to it than I initially thought. When I started animation, it was a lot more to take into account, but you’re looking for new techniques. I mean, things like… I’d love to use a traditional top down stop motion camera with the glass panes. I just don’t have room for them, so I’m sticking with my current method, but there’s certain kind of tricks that I learned that can make things easier. Like using a lot of nice transparent layers, things like that, to keep things separate. And yeah, always looking out for new ways of doing things.

“I’ve got backgrounds, painted backgrounds; I really want them to be liquid, like a way to be able to do that. Like the kind of ’60s light shows, the kind of psychedelic oil paint. I’ve been working on it, but I’m a bit scared to use it, because if it goes wrong, you’re going to get paint all over your scanner glass. But yeah, you’re always trying to get new techniques and new ways of doing things. Just to keep it visually interesting.”

Sam Gill (photo credit: Simon Kirk)

SG: How much does the music that you listen to and that you’re influenced by feed into your animations?

SG: “While I’m animating, I mainly listen to the song a lot more during the preparation stage. If I’m making a music video, I’ll listen to the song a lot and gather all the ideas that come with them. Then while I’m actually making I tend to listen to stuff, weirdly, for someone who plays drums, without a beat. It allows me to work more at my own pace, because music’s such a big part of my life, it influences me when I’m doing things.

“I like to have kind of ambient stuff on when I’m animating so that it doesn’t push me to any particular direction. It’s like any creative thing, there’s kind of like a flow state, where everything else has melted away and you’re concentrating on the creative task at hand. Like when you play music, what you get then is if you think about it, you’re dead. When you’re playing, you have to kind of enter the flow state, and if you think, ‘What am I doing next? What am I doing to get to the chorus?’ Or, ‘What am I doing to this?’ That’s when the trouble starts, so if you can enter the kind of flow state, that is all you’re doing. It’s almost automatic. Like, I set the scene up, close the scanner, open it, move it, just repeating that action. If you start to think about, it takes you out of that, you need to kind of just go with that. So yeah, while I’m animating, maybe a pulse but not a beat. That’s what I avoid.”

S13: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

SG: “I’m talking with Eimear about doing another collaboration. We haven’t really started yet. We’ve got an idea in mind. Of my own stuff, I’ve got several ideas on the go that I’m working on. I’ve got a few like little short film ideas based around different moving collages and a few different bits of music I’ve made, so I’ve got those. I don’t feel any kind of pressure to work quickly. Also, [there are] a few old ones I’d like to finish off. One about the royal family being lizards I really want to finish; I did do a version of it, but I’d like to get that completed. Just this kind of visual gag stuff, really.

“I’ve got one I’ve been working on for ages which is based around this weird piece of music I made. There’s like a remix of the Everly BrothersCrying in the Rain lyrics to the scene of this woman with an umbrella and strange things happen. That’s what I’ve been trying to finish for a long time. Finding the time to do it. Also in a weird warm format, but I always find it strange that you’re working in sideways, with the widescreen and people always turn their phones and stuff like that. And then now a lot of social media seems to be vertically oriented videos, so I thought I’d give one of those a try. So that’s what this Crying in the Rain is on this portrait rather than landscape, which I’ve not really done before. I’m quite interested in seeing things from a different perspective and how to frame it.”

Visit Sam Gill’s website here.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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