“Most of them are not employable straight away,” he explains, “Companies such as ours who do mainstream commercials require experienced personnel because there are so many professional requirements. No matter how talented newcomers may be they cannot possibly meet the standards. Jerry and I still direct, draw and animate and that is the problem, we simply do not have the time to train them. Having said that, for those with some professional experience we do have a ‘Runners Dept’ where they can get on and do a job, learning more as they go along. I have helped by lecturing at the College, but here is never enough time to spare. I’m married with two children and my family life is very important to me.”
The general policy is development of their own ideas but they are not about to turn down commissioned pieces. The latest was The Forgotten Toys a half-hour special for Meridian Broadcasting for ITV and for Sony Wonder in America, it is due to be shown during this years festive season. More usually, it seems to take 3 years for their trees to bear fruit. Spider was a co-production with the BBC which has taken about 3 years to show a profit and the same can be said of their annual stable of 4 to 5 projects. It is a different way of working compared with commercials but the parent company will always support the entertainment side which is still growing, still finding its feet.
While the market tends to be volatile and unpredictable, Hibbert Ralph has remained international – not putting all their eggs in one basket has proved to be a wise decision. The Americans appear to believe the British have more creativity than their own people, whose thinking seems to be dominated by the Disney approach to animation. “Caught in a time warp,” Graham adds. They see a proliferation of new styles coming out of Britain from Nick Park, Mark Baker, Joanna Quinn, and we must not forget either Oscar Grilo or the Quay Brothers. Graham theorises that the reason for our American cousins lack of invention is due to an isolation factor, with distances of 200 miles and more between studios, whereas here in London there are a hundred and more studios all crammed together in and around Soho, popularly referred to as the Soho Crowd, who bump into each other regularly in the street. Such closeness breeds competitiveness and originality.
“It is difficult to judge mainstream cinema. The Lion King appears to be moving towards the adult more. Parents have already complained about the violence. Both Aladdin and Lion King show a move into the genre of family entertainment and not just for children.
“You know, perception is all to do with communication. When I saw Van Gogh’s ‘Cornfield’ the field was yellow, and the crows were black, and the sky was blue, and yet I saw a guy ready to shoot himself. That is the way he felt, and that was the overriding impression, and why the painting has such an impact. I cannot relate to those people who say, ‘I don’t really want anyone to understand my work, I want them to work hard to discover what I am doing.’ I mean – please!!! You can work on many levels, you do not have to be banal or obscure. Great films often appear to work on an intellectual level and yet still appeal to the ordinary guy. But to be totally obscure by projecting an elitist view is pure arrogance. I get so cross with them – how dare they do that to anyone. I calm down when I realize it usually boils down to a lack of ability, a defence to conceal their inability to communicate clearly. I would have more respect for them if they were able and deliberately chose not to.
“We have established ourselves in the past four years. As I’ve said, Jerry enjoys the commercial work whereas I do not as much, although I do it as a job, as a business. I will continue to develop ideas on the side. I am not just making films for myself, and we are not ‘Festival’ filmmakers. We have a sign on the wall upstairs, it sounds like a cliché but it is worth remembering, it reads, ‘Good stories – well told!’ Which is how we see ourselves – as entertainers. We are not the Quay Brothers, we do not go in for wobbly eyeballs in black and white, deep meaningful films. I want to try, as I did with Spider, to reach everybody. My children and their friends love them. Getting children’s fan mail saying, ‘I love Spider, can you send me a picture of him?’ is more important to me than winning prizes, and a greater reward than having some Bulgarian jury tell me that it is a deep meaningful film.
“Richard Williams once told me, ‘In this business do one of two things: Have a lot of fun or make a lot of money – and if you are doing neither, don’t do it!’ He is right.”
Printed in Animator Issue 33 (Summer 1995)