Experimental animator Suzie Templeton’s mantlepiece is groaning with awards, including a Bafta and an Oscar. It’s quite an achievement in a trade that can be rather solitary and obsessive, says Nick Smurthwaite
A film about an elderly man in love with a giant cabbage is unlikely to set the high street box office alight, yet in the weird world of experimental animation, Suzie Templeton’s 1999 graduation film Stanley scooped 12 international awards.
Two years later, after graduating from the animation course at London’s Royal College of Art, she made Dog and cleaned up yet again on the animation festivals circuit, notably landing a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best animated short.
Now Templeton’s latest film, a 30-minute animated version of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, has bought the former English teacher to the pinnacle of international recognition by winning an Academy Award, more commonly known as an Oscar.
All three films employ the stop-motion method of animation, made famous by Nick Park and his creations, Wallace and Gromit. The difference is that Templeton’s approach to her subjects, certainly in her two graduate films, is grittier and more grown-up.
A late developer, Templeton didn’t even start to watch animation until she was in her twenties, and enrolled at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design at 28, having spent a number of years teaching English at a women’s refuge and orphanage in India. She then moved to the RCA’s highly respected animation course, where she made the unrelentingly bleak yet compelling Dog, about the relationship between a man and his young son after the boy’s mother has died. While at the RCA she had the opportunity of working with established masters of British animation such as Phil Molloy, Ruth Lingford and Tim Webb.
Templeton says one of the things that attracted her to animation as a form was its solitary nature. ‘I used to be quite shy and seeing someone like Molloy producing amazing work entirely on his own appealed to me. I couldn’t see myself working with a huge team of creatives.’
However, her shyness did not stand in the way of taking on Peter and the Wolf for Breakthru Films, a particularly ambitious project compared to what she had done before. It required her to work with 200 people, many of them non-English-speaking Europeans, in a Polish studio over a five-year period.
Two years of that were spent working on the script and storyline. ‘I found it really difficult working to Prokofiev’s music. Every phrase of the music inspired the storyline, the characters and their emotions. Prokofiev’s story is quite sketchy, it’s the music that tells the story. I had to fill in the gaps.’ So Templeton made a rough storyboard on Post-It notes – ‘they’re easier to swap around’ – and then translated that into three-dimensional animatic form on the computer, which took another year.
What was the most difficult thing about working on her first professional commission? ‘The biggest learning curve for me was making decisions ahead of time, rather than making them as you go along. I used to work in a very organic way, but you can’t afford to do that on a big project. Sometimes you just don’t feel ready to make a decision, but you have to force yourself because other people are depending on you,’ she says.
‘I felt I was over-reaching myself all the time. I was reaching for the stars on a very limited budget, but I had a brilliant talent base, including a Polish model-maker who didn’t speak any English. Luckily, we had a brilliant translator who was a director herself and so understood where we were coming from.’
One of the great challenges of animation is its obsessive and protracted nature. One Russian animator greatly admired by Templeton has been working on the same film for 30 years. ‘You have to have a clear vision of what you want and be absolutely sure you’ve chosen the right project to sustain a high level of commitment. If the subject matter is shallow it might undermine the whole thing. It has to work on all levels.’
Templeton recently moved from London to Amsterdam to be with her partner, and she is still busy promoting Peter and the Wolf. She knows that her next project will be a short based on Lauren Child’s children’s book, That Pesky Rat. After that, she is hoping to immerse herself in a full-length stop-motion feature, although she declines to reveal the subject or the possible backer.
The problem for independent animators is raising enough money to keep the project going and provide some acceptable level of subsistence for the creative team. ‘I don’t know anyone who works in animation who is reasonably well off, let alone rich,’ says Templeton. ‘I still haven’t worked out how to convert the love and energy and creativity you put into these films into hard cash. You do it because you love it.’