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Young British filmmaker Mikey Please won the 2011 BAFTA for Short Animation with his haunting stop motion film The Eagleman Stag. Watching the talented Mr. Please accumulate successes, one has the feeling that he is about to revolutionise the dazzling, yet low profile Stop Motion industry. Mélissa Leclézio met him for brunch in London.
Mikey Please was born in Bath into a family of artists: his mum was a sculptor and his dad a writer, as well as a botanist and various other things. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they encouraged him to nurture his artistic talent by replacing TV with a little pot of clay. ‘One day you’ll understand…!’ said his mum prophetically when he complained about being bored. One of his earliest memories involved a box of plasticine and he remembers creating all these characters from clay and thinking, ‘I’m pretty good at this!’. A sort of epiphany happened there and then.
Mikey grew up reading American cartoonist Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes which inspired his own early characters, and Mikey’s enthusiasm for cartoons prompted his parents to send him to an Aardman workshop when he was eight; a place that allegedly produced graphically violent stop motion films.
Against all odds, Mikey suffered from an anti-art crisis at age 12 or 13. ‘How dare you?’ he replied, deeply offended, when his mum suggested he could go to art school. Rejecting the hardship that would entail a career in arts, young Mikey focused instead on academics. That is, until his late teen ‘I love art after all’ crisis kicked in, at which point he gave up his anthropological prospects to enroll at the Wimbledon College of Art. There, he studied fine art sculpture for a while before realising that what really excited him was entertaining and story telling. He subsequently took a technical art/special effects course where he was able to experiment with stop motion.
During his second year, Mikey set up a team to produce his first film, which was a translation from a graphic novel that he had written. However the real breakthrough happened while he was studying for a Masters at the Royal College of Art. In a cosy RCA basement, where he reportedly ate, slept and worked for a year, the magic happened with The Eagleman Stag. It was also the first film he made that he could watch without his toes curling, he tells me:
Indeed, it did: The Eagleman Stag not only premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, but it also earned Mikey a BAFTA and a myriad of other major international awards.
The film is about a man who is obsessed with the changing perception of time. As he gets older, he frantically tries to find a way to counteract the feeling that time accelerates. But this ends up destroying him because he regresses to babyhood, when time has most value. The idea that time is not a uniform experience has followed Mikey since he was little: ‘I think the real solution is to constantly do new things, or to try to do as many new things as possible. Time only looses value because we continually get into grooves, and we end up doing the same thing over again… and again and again’ he says.
The Eagleman Stag, set to the mesmerising score of Mikey’s brother Benedict (pictured here with Mikey at the BAFTA ceremony) and the voice of David Cann, is aesthetically and philosophically exquisite. Mikey used a specific type of foam to create the Eagleman’s world. In fact when I ask what event changed his life, he replies most naturally (I suspect with a hint of humour) ‘Well, finding this foam!’. There were three main reasons for making the film white on white: firstly, Mikey was eager to distance himself from the clichéd dollhouse toys/over-tactile/grotesque aesthetics of stop motion. The white on white and the graphically sleek effects were a way to counteract those clichés and retain what he loves about stop motion: its physicality. ‘It’s absolutely, unflinchingly certain that these objects are there in space’, he remarks. Secondly, the white worked well conceptually because it emphasised the flashback narrative. Finally, white is just easier to work with – and efficiency matters when you have to create 115 sets in 5 months.
Mikey is currently working on his first feature-length stop motion, Marilyn Miller. Initially, the film was called ‘Martin Miller’ but the animator came to realise that women were absent from his works, and more worryingly from stop motion films in general. ‘People probably feel awkward about portraying women’ he suggests. And this is because the animation industry is particularly male-dominated. Changing the gender of his main character thus helped Mikey to challenge that, and it was an easy task: once you have created a moving storyboard in-between the script and the production (his favourite moment), ‘you kind of see the film over time’, which allows you to make drastic narrative and technical U-turns.
Marilyn Miller is a female sculptor whose works are frankly unpopular until she starts destroying them. She subsequently finds a way of acting negatively whilst getting positive results; for instance she stops taking care of her looks and ignores the guy she fancies, which somehow succeeds in getting his attention. But while she is going slightly cuckoo, she’s also shrinking. The film thus chronicles her attempts at understanding why she is shrinking, and how to make amends for her senseless acts. ‘It’s the Incredible Shrinking Woman!’ Mikey says proudly. The HBO series Girls, in which the main character is unabashedly funny and does stupid things, inspired Mikey. In fact this is yet another stereotype he wants to tackle: in films ‘men can be funny and stupid, but women are always rolling their eyes’ or they are ‘perfect and super cool, contrasting with the mentally unstable comedic male role’. That is certainly not true in real life, and on behalf of all the Lena Dunhams and Kristen Wiigs of this world, I solemnly thank Mister Please for bringing this up. ‘It’s not just the Woody Allens who have amusing existential crisis’ he right points out.
Mikey recently changed his middle name to Yes. He explains: ‘There were just so many good reasons to do it. One is that it reminds me to be affirmative, [but] it’s just really funny. There are so many jokes! You know, do you have a middle name?’ Humour is only one of the many qualities of animators: others include mild-mannerism, niceness… (and geekiness?) ‘Well, it’s totally cool!’ he jokes. But they are cool: by the time he has finished his cappuccino, Mikey has convinced me that time gains more value as we do new things, that female characters need to embrace their true selves on screen, and that I should absolutely read some obscure short-stories book called Sum by David Eagleman – the neuroscientist known for popularising the study of time perception.
Instead of parading the British glitterati across London, the Cultural Olympiad should have been celebrating more below the radar artists like Mikey Please: talented, refined, hard working and simply lovely. It is them who make us proud of this unique British spirit of creativity and quirkiness.