An Interview with Pete Mellor-Peepshow's animation director

He's the man in charge of our animation department, Peepshow's Pete Mellor with a Q&A he recently completed.

I graduated from the same illustration BA from Brighton as most of the rest of Peepshow, and went on to the RCA to do an MA in animation. I was often around on edges of Peepshow activities - and was even present in the pub when the name Peepshow was decided upon (over the two other options: 'Steve' and 'Big In Germany'). I was working as an animator and compositor at design company Intro prior to joining Peepshow full time.

Beside animation and moving image what other duties do you have within Peepshow (do you really run a small tuck shop behind the studio)?

No, I do not run a tuck-shop. But that's the dream. A lot of the work we do as a collective requires lots of ideas and I am always glad to be a part of that process as that is the most fun - although there is a 45 min time limit on the sensible ideas before the crazy ideas start and you end up with bears in a bin or Brian May on a Toblerone.

Can you describe a typical day in the studio alongside your peers, are there any ‘set procedures’ you all follow?

We are all freelance within a collective - so there is no guarantee of who will be there on any one day. Suffice to say the coffee goes on first and then you try to get your head down and get on with some work... until the phone starts to ring or the emails start to come in and interrupt you. Working in an industry like this you can have very stressful days where there is a lot of frustration and you can have very fun days where everyone is in good spirits and it doesn't feel like a job at all.

I read somewhere that there are only 2 ‘qualified’ animators in Peepshow, does this mean that you have complete control over art-direction on animation projects or is there a mixture from outside clients and other members?

Jenny and I both studied animation at the RCA but both Luke and Andrew are very good animators too. As far as animation direction goes I pretty much have complete control but when it comes to art-direction I will only really have some suggestions, as the rest of Peepshow are such talented image-makers. I suppose I often have an idea in my head what the job will look like but part if the joy of being in a collective is that those preconceptions can change or made better by the involvement of others. I personally think there is a lot of well animated but ugly work out there because not all good animators are good designers. I am lucky to be surrounded by brilliant illustrators and designers.

Is it difficult working as an animator in a busy studio environment with other art disciplines?

People often describe animation as a lonely business but I have never found that. It is good to be surrounded by busy people and although it can occasionally be distracting it is often good to be taken away from the computer for a moment as you will come back to a scene with fresh eyes.

What impact did the establishment of the studio have on achieving Peepshow’s success? Do you think it is possible to rely on purely digital communications for a collective to succeed?

I think if there hadn't been a studio then Peepshow would not have lasted this long - or would not be what it is now. We are quite spread out with members now living in Tokyo, Stockholm and Stroud - but as we have a strong foundation as a collective this works out fine. The studio allows us to come together to work on a Peepshow project with relative ease - although it can still be quite difficult to get more than a handful of Peepshow members in one room at the same time. I am not saying it can't work relying on digital communications but we would not have had the ideas or created the work we have without face to face discussions and debates.

The style of imagery varies throughout the Peepshow animations- how do you decide on the appropriate working style and is it a collaborative decision?

Normally the brief or the idea will immediately inform the style. So even if everyone has been involved in creating the idea or writing the script we all know who will do the best work for the job - it's a very generous room in that way - probably because no one works in a similar way so no one steps on anyone else's toes.

You have worked with a variety of clients, some larger and more established, does this affect the creative control you have with the brief?

All clients and all jobs are different. So you can have a big client who wants endless, seemingly unnecessary changes and tweaks but you can also have a big client who has done so much work that they are experienced enough to know that they have selected you for a reason and leave you alone to do what you do best. Likewise you can have a small client with no money who expects the earth. It keeps you on your toes so we rarely have a dull day.

Do you think illustrators should all have some reasonable technical knowledge with animation skills to collaborate with animators?

Most illustrators have a knowledge of storytelling and are natural communicators so those are really all the skills necessary to work with an animator. The other aspect of animation (which can be quite frustrating for an animator) is that everyone can have an opinion on the way something moves - should it be quicker, slower, lighter, heavier. It's all physics. So it can be a very inclusive medium regardless of technical know-how.

In some of the animations/moving images there is a combination of animation techniques combined with filmed material (in particular the CBeebies Tadpole), what techniques are used here?

In the original CBeebies films we used a combination of moving artwork in After Effects and also some stop-frame animation and some photographed elements. A lot of the artwork comes through Photoshop so can be imported easily (with some tweaks) to make it animation ready, and other elements were printed out, cut out and photographed to match the camera angles from the shoot. As it is all coming from the same hands all the elements work well together and don't feel too collaged.

Can there be difficulties in working when three parties are involved, for example with the Toyota animation – Peepshow, Toyota and BluBlancRouge where involved?

Most projects will have a set-up like Toyota - a client, an agency and us. For example the CBeebies films: CBeebies was the client, Red Bee Media was the agency and we were the production company. It is a little simpler when there are fewer parties involved - such as The Culture Show or DDB - where we were working directly for the client - it simply means there are clearer lines of communication.

How does a collaborative animation process work (like the Kantar Montage, Van Marcke/ Unicef, or Artificial Noise) from ideas generation (and storyboarding) through to completion?

It's quite a simple process really - once we have the brief we will sit down with whoever feels interested in the project (or is available to work on the project) and start to generate some ideas. At this stage the art-direction naturally starts to happen too - as people think visually. Lots of ideas are formed, rejected, re-worked and some decisions are made. The most important decision is what direction the look of the film will take as this allows me to tailor the storyboarding process to fit with the style. Once the treatment and storyboard have been approved the artwork creation begins while an animatic is timed out to make sure all the ideas will fit into the screen time. Then the process starts for real. At all these stages the look and feel is refined, ideas are tweaked and changed and the animation takes shape - with everyone involved throwing in their feedback.

Differences in decisions and delegations must have occurred, how do you overcome these?

To be honest it rarely happens. Once a project starts to go down a particular route it is quite clear who will be involved and who won't. The only difference of opinion arises at the ideas stage - as you can become wedded to an idea that the group doesn't feel works.

I particularly thought the music worked well in Kantar Montage and Unicef, how does that get selected?

We often have a certain musical style in mind when the job starts to come together - so we brief our good friend Simon Keep / Holkham to do what he does best. He almost always gets the music right for our animations. And sometimes we make the music ourselves - Andrew is a very talented multi-intrumentalist and enjoys getting the opportunity to make music for the animations - he did the music for Chesapeake, Secret Santa and for the 2010 animated Christmas Card.

Collaborating with Luke Best and Andrew Rae, who I see as illustrators who have different working styles, do you generally find you need to adapt different animating methods to styles?

Absolutely. And that is what keeps the job interesting. Although it has been observed that all the characters I animate - whether created by Andrew, Luke, Spencer or myself - move a bit like me. So I suppose that bit's always the same.

What noticeable difference is there between animations produced in the collective and individually?

Generally speaking the work I might do individually is not as pretty. So I try to involve someone from Peepshow even if it's not a job for the Collective proper.

Are fees for projects still being divided, with 15% returning back into the collective for promotions and similar costs?

Not any more. Since then we have set up as a limited company so the benefits from that allow for money to be spent on promotion and investment.

Has working together for 11 years been all smooth sailing?

I think it has been very important that Peepshow were friends with mutual respect and admiration for one another before Peepshow existed. That way even if you have a dispute (which is rare) about something at work you can't hold on to it for long as you will be having a beer together at the end of the week. And it must have been pretty smooth sailing as 2 members are married and 2 others have a baby!

Can the Peepshow Collective continue to grow, in an industry which is seeing a huge increase in collectives and collaborations?

As Peepshow matures we would like to take on bigger projects - but there are only so many of us and that won't change - so we are quite happy with the gradual and organic way that the Collective has worked so far. Continuing to do good work that we enjoy is still the main reason for keeping it going. Although there is a growing need to do something more enduring though - a book, a group film, a TV show, a graphic novel - something less throw away than purely commercial or editorial work. That's because we are all getting older.

Animation itself is naturally a multi-disciplinary practice, one quite unique in the Peepshow collective, what role has animation had within the collective and is there potential to develop and with the impact that technology continues to have on the industry, will Peepshow place more emphasis on animation and moving image?

Animation has definitely been an enjoyable part of what Peepshow does. I think it is one of the few avenues that allows the illustrators to break out of what they do on a day-to-day basis and try something a bit different or bend what they do to work in collaboration with one another. And apart from group shows and installations it is one of the best ways for different members of Peepshow to work together and hopefully create something surprising and different. That desire to do something different will keep things moving forward.

Can Peepshow still be described as ‘the strength of 10 brains, twenty eyes and one hundred fingers’?

While it is definitely harder to get all 10 brains, 20 eyes and 100 fingers all working at the same time the working method and reason for doing this have not changed. And until every possible combination of Peepshow artists working on a project has been exhausted there is still the opportunity to be surprised by what we produce.