interview with Barry Purves part 1: in the realm of the birds

Pre-production photograph of the winged-man from Barry Purves’ film Plume.

This is the third post of a week at the Artlog dedicated to contemporary puppeteers, and is the first of a two-part interview with the great animator Barry Purves, whose six minute film name-checking all the plays of Shakespeare, Next, I wrote about here recently.

C.H.-J. Barry, I’m going to start with the fact that you and I share a common passion for one of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds. It’s my default film when I need something to comfort me. I’ve been watching it since I was about sixteen and I never tire of it. Tell me why it rocks your boat.

Avian elegance: Tippi Hedren in a posed shot for Hitchcock’s The Birds.

B.P. I love Hitchcock as every element is so considered; every shadow, every colour, every camera angle, every note of music is all there for a reason, each contributing to the story or character. I love the often twisted sexual tensions in the films, and the choreography of the set pieces. Favourite moments are the heads of the crowd in Strangers on a Train – all turning back and forth save one. In Marnie the theft from the safe by Tippi Hedren is unendurably cranked up by the presence of the cleaning lady who turns out to be deaf. But probably my favourite scene has to be the one with the jungle-gym in The Birds. The off-screen song of the children is evocative, contrasting with the unnerving silence of the gathering birds. Just watch Tippi as she constantly but elegantly flicks her cigarette and nervously looks to the skies. Everything is so right about that scene.

But most of all, the tension of the film is extraordinary and unsettling and Hitchcock does not explain anything in the end.

Melanie Daniels and the children pursued by crows.

 …

I have long wanted to do my own tribute to Hitchcock and have three short films all ready to be shot about him, but I’ve met with such indifference. This story will shock you but I went to a rather high profile TV station and acted out one of my film ideas in which Hitch performs The Birds from the perspectives of the female characters. I gave a good performance, and the trendy young commissioner behind the  desk politely laughed and explained that he didn’t really know who Hitchcock was.

 …

CH-J. Oh, for crying out loud. The barbarians have taken over! How could anyone worthy of the name ‘commissioner’ be ignorant of Hitchcock? That’s damned shameful!

The location work in the film is enormously improved by the great Albert Whitlock, and I’ve seen his name in a list of your favourite artists. You admire him greatly.

 …

B.P. The matte paintings that enhance the topography and the weather conditions of Bodega Bay turn the location into one of the characters. Even clouds become part of the story telling. But oh, the layers on that final shot of the film – breathtaking even by today’s standards.

C.H.-J. Have you read Camille Paglia’s BFI critique of The Birds? That woman is head-over-heels in love with Tippi Hedren. She describes with an admiration bordering on worshipful the sexual charge when the actress crosses those endless legs clad in impeccable hose, or lights a cigarette. It’s almost Birds porn! Sometimes I just read it for the buzz it gives me from the way Paglia evocatively describes the scenes. She’s great on Suzanne Pleshette too, who plays Annie.

 …

B.P. I have to confess I’m supremely jealous that Paglia got to write it. I could certainly fill a book or two about the film. (And if the BFI are reading this, I’d happily write about Jason and the Argonauts for the series.)

The Birds is an undeniably erotic film, and in Hedren, Taylor, and Pleshette, Hitchcock had three astonishingly beautiful and sensual actors. I recently noticed that Rod Taylor has his shirt off in the distance in a scene on the farm, contrasting nicely with the overdressed Tippi.

 …

C.H.-J. Of the many magnificent achievements in the film, for me the bird attacks are standout in both the visuals and the sound design. The grating of electronic crow cries and the mad flapping and shrieking of hundreds of songbirds plummeting down a chimney couldn’t be bettered. Though Hitchcock didn’t have todays CGI at his disposal to layer the elements of his film, the attack on Bodega Bay, starting with that high Albert Whitlock-enhanced shot of the fire at the gas station as predatory seagulls glide into view, is a masterpiece from beginning to end. High art of the cinema.

 …

The birds descend. In this photograph taken on the studio set, the characters are being terrorised by a very few attackers. In the film hundreds of birds were optically composited into the scene to create a shocking maelstrom of wings, claws and beaks.

B.P. One can nit-pick about the effects today, but any obvious process shots do not get in the way at all. The sound, with that metallic edge to the birds’ calls is still so unsettling. Among all the noises are some feather ruffling and shaking – the calmness making the atmosphere even worse.

C.H-J. Bernard Herrmann did a magnificent job on the film, creating a soundtrack of genius.

Tell me about the time you saw the green wool-suit that costume designer Edith Head dressed Hedren in for the film.

 …

B.P. The suit was included in the recent Victoria and Albert exhibition of Hollywood costumes, and this item above all else was the one I wanted to see. There was little sign of any distressing in the suit, so I assumed it was either one used early in the film before the birds attacked, or was a stand in suit. There was an irregular patch on the left thigh, a little raised ‘bump’ which I figured was down to recent handling. However, in a film-still showing Hedren wearing the suit, the same ‘bump’ appeared. In a flash I realised it was her suspender pressing through the cloth, its impact still there today. This was my Turin shroud moment. Strong tea and cake were needed after that.

 …

C.H.-J. I’m not surprised. I would have needed a lie-down in a darkened room!

Now let’s talk about Plume. I haven’t seen your film about a winged man, though I’m definitely going to seek it out. Might I be right in thinking that your love of the artistry on show in The Birds was an influence on your choice of subject? Maybe I’m being fanciful here.

 …

B.P. Wings have been a recurring image in all my films – flight is probably about liberation, or about transformation. My favourite image is of a naked body with an animal or bird head, or with wings.

CH-J. You chose to take on what have always seemed to me to be two of the most difficult animation challenges to pull off: wings and flight. Many an animator has stumbled at that hurdle.

 …

B.P. Maybe – I would have liked more time with the wings, but in all my films these wings are never realistic representations of how birds would use them, but are more symbolic in tone. In this way I feel free to create stylised movement. In Next, Shakespeare appears wearing gold wings in a reference to Cymbeline. In Screen Play the woman has a vision of her lover transformed into a bird and being shot down – again all very theatrical. In Rigoletto the bird masks and costume elements are there to convey an instant hierachy. In Achilles we get naked men as horses and bulls, though not birds. In Gilbert and Sullivan the characters wear fairy wings referencing Iolanthe. In Hamilton most of the characters are birds. Plume sees the central character raped for his wings, and finally in Tchaikovsky he echoes the movement of a swan and Swan Lake itself, suggesting an alternative life/escape as a swan.

C.H.-J. I’ve always felt that manufactured wings in general leave a great deal to be desired, whether as parts of costumes worn by actors, or attached to stop-motion puppets. The anatomy of wings is so complex, as is the motion. However the wings of your puppet in the pre-production photographs look gorgeous, and you’re such a consummate artist and animator that I’m betting you got the best movement out of them in the history of such things. I’d like to discuss this a little. Were the feathers real or manufactured?

 …

B.P. Wings are to me what spirals are to Tim Burton. For Plume we used a pair of wings from a duck and managed to remove the bone and insert an armature without damaging them. My producer suggested that as part of the narrative the wings should be the source of the light and should glow, and we all assumed they’d do so under UV. They didn’t, so we had to wash each feather in Daz with a toothbrush. We managed to preserve the texture and keep all the barbs intact. But on film the UV effect rather muted any appreciation of the delicacy of the feathers, and for the most part the wings just looked like white shapes. The UV did have a fantastic effect of reflecting light onto the other characters, but I did miss seeing the texture of the feathers themselves.

 …

C.H.-J. Birds fold and wrap their wings so that they become one with the shape and texture of their bodies, but wings springing from human anatomy are always, to some extent, going to look grafted on. However I see that in this photograph they’re folded across the chest, arranged more the way a bat holds its forelegs in that strange, praying-mantis-like position. That’s a fascinating and creative solution, and gets around the fact that bird and human anatomy are not a good fit.

 …

B.P. I animated them not as bird wings but more as a dog would use his tail to portray his emotions, so they could be contradictory, perky and then limp. They had a lot of character.

CH-J. Were you as creative in the ways you used them in flight? When I’m painting wings on angels I always work on the principle of not necessarily making the splice look real, as much as making it plausible.

 …

B.P. My idea was to give them as much variation as possible, so they start the film spread out to their maximum and are proud and erect. As the violence happens the wings get tattered and then ruined, until they hang limply and heavily from his body. They have no use and he makes an horrendous decision. That moment, combined with a great peice of music and the right sound effect, has most audiences crossing their legs in discomfort.

C.H.-J. How did you go about the matter of a rig to keep your puppet suspended? There are various ways you could have done it.

 …

B.P. The character had a rigging point in his back and on one side, but he was a heavy beast I have to say. That he was naked meant there was a lot of silicon flesh to add to his weight. For the whole film he is against black velvet, which is forgiving when it comes to rigs and shadows. Nevertheless I had to employ a degree of ingenuity in the flying sequences, particularly in a shot where he completes a 360 degree circle.

 …

C.H.-J. OK. Let’s now talk about nudity. No animator chooses the easy route by stripping a stop-motion character naked, but it’s something you regularly take on.

B.P. Yes, I’ll admit that if I can get a character naked I will. There are many reasons for this. There’s the pure delight of naked flesh and the sensuality of two naked puppets together. Then there’s the fact I want to test how little I need in order to tell a story. For me animation is all about the performance of the puppets, though the schedules that my budgets enforce are ridiculous and sometimes legislate against performance. I usually have to shoot about twelve seconds a day and I never feel I can get the what I need and that a more relaxed schedule would allow. I always feel my work is a decent rehearsal.

 …

C.H-J. Having myself laboured recently to get 12 seconds per day of relatively crude animation into the can, I can’t imagine how you achieve movement of such quality working to that schedule.

There must be a great deal of wear and tear on a puppet when there are no clothes to hide the damage.

B.P. Pale skin gets dirty very quickly through the constant manhandling, and I tend to push my puppets into large, open, bold gestures, which can cause splits in the material. We got through three penises on the Plume puppet, mainly because the skin was stretched in these big poses. I animated the penis as he fell from the sky, and then the wire in it would snap and so from time to time we had to replace it. If only real life were that easy. In Achilles, with the puppets suggesting Greek statues and acting out some overtly sexual scenes, I made the decision not to animate the penises. It’s odd when you have to have such discussions.

C.H-J. In the male characters of Achilles and Plume I see affectionate echoes of Talos the Giant from Jason and the Argonauts by one of your heroes, Ray Harryhausen. I’m assuming his films were your introduction into the arts of stop-motion puppets?

 …

B.P. Jason and the Argonauts is of course up there with The Birds (along with Cabaret, King Kong, Shakespeare in Love, Mary Poppins, Singing in the Rain, Les Enfants du Paradis and Some Like it Hot), and I can watch it time and time again. I just hear those opening phrases from Herrmann’s epic score and settle back. The film never disappoints. This of all Ray’s films, delivers most completely.

 …

C.H.-J. I agree. He nailed it in that one, though there are some standout sequences in The Valley of Gwangi that enthral me to this day. (I love the scene of the cowboys on horseback lassoing the dinosaur.)

Barry, I don’t know of a stop-motion animator working today who handles human movement as gracefully as you. Your Shakespeare in Next is a smorgasbord of refined animation. He moves like a dancing-master. Do you see yourself as a choreographer? (I once asked the same question of Ray Harryhausen, and he said “No, not really.”)

B.P. Sorry to disagree with Ray here, but oh yes, definitely. The animator is a choreographer and performer at the same time, without a doubt. He is the choreographer in the sense that he is creating the movement for the camera, using the body to tell the story, alongside timing, staging and rhythm. And Ray was a brilliant choreographer, even if that isn’t the word he used. The skeleton fight in JATA is beautifully staged. But I like that word choreography as it implies that our movement is not following realism but more rather enjoying the freedom of movement, using it creatively to tell a story. Shakespeare aims to move like a dancer in Next, as does Tchaikovsky. I’m consciously pushing movement away from realism. I can get a bit too elegant at times, but somehow it suits me.

 …

C.H.-J. My friend, I can’t tell you what a pleasure this has been for me. I should wind things up now, but I’d like you to say just a little about Screen Play. It’s a work of staggering invention and elegance.

Beautiful details in the film Screen Play. Screens painted with a peacock kimono and a wig, draw back to show a woman dressed in them.

B.P. Ah, Screen Play. What I thought would be a technical exercise still seems to move people. I wanted to make a film about visual communication and to do so included many narrative forms: theatre, film, dance, Kabuki, puppetry, mime, sign language, graphics, and so on, though despite all that it does seem to hang together well. Audiences and animators brought up on CG won’t understand the effort involved in the nine and a half minute take without a cut. It might seem indulgent, but it was my way of contrasting theatrical story telling with a more filmic approach. I’d like to reshoot and get the technical aspect better. The lighting is a little overbright and you can’t see the details on the sliding-screens, but there’s no going back now. That’s it. As with many of my films, I would like to stage this for real one day. It couldn’t be done exactly as it was in the film as there are too many unique animation tricks going on, but I could nevertheless do something quite impressive on stage.

The stage turns red with blood in Screen Play

Opinions vary as to whether I should have pulled back the camera to show it was a set, but without that the result would have been just a rather charming film about thwarted lovers. As it stands there are all manner of layers and acknowledgements of the creative process, and as you’ll see from my  list of favourite films above, I like art that acknowledges the artifice. Drawing this conversation full circle back to Hitchcock, the old master revelled in artificiality. Those puppet love birds swaying in Tippi’s car for a start. Animation is at its best when liberated from having to pretend to be realistic.

Part 2 tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “interview with Barry Purves part 1: in the realm of the birds

  1. What lovely puppets in the two interview segments!

    I don’t think it matters if Ray Harryhausen said he was not a choreographer. If he is, he is! Modesty is a grand virtue.

    The Birds is wonderful–really enjoyed the sections talking about puppet wings and birds in general. The business about the duck, removing the bones and inserting armature: what a fiddly, tedious business than must have been.

    • It was strange when the great man replied that he wasn’t a choreographer. He looked genuinely puzzled and then went on to another question, so the moment passed. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding, and he’d thought I’d meant the term literally.

      It was fun discovering that Barry loves the Hitchcock film quite as much as I do. Bit of a fan club!

  2. Wow, this is wonderful , I’m such a huge fan & I have only known “Achilles”-which is a heart stopper. Such a powerful influence, must look into “Plume”. Thanks for letting us listen in.
    LG

    • I’m pleased to be able to still spring the occasional surprise for you at the Artlog, Leonard.

      I’ve yet to find a copy of Plume, but I look forward to seeing it.

      • I have had the same lack of luck locating “Plume”. If either of us have any luck, let’s let the other know. It looks gorgeous. I love how he fully embraces the gorgeous in general.

        I was studying late into the night last evening for a final exam this morning, but found myself endlessly distracted by researching Purves’ work. I suppose since the course is a survey of art of the ancient world, “Achilles” was appropriate.

        I regret not popping in more frequently. School has really taken a large chunk of time. I’m committed but so much is compromised. But I look forward, now that summer semester is over, to visiting more frequently.

    • So pleased to hear that you’re here eavesdropping! That’s what it’s all about. Thanks, Lesley.

  3. I love Achilles so much I posted it on my old blog! Interesting and insightful interview, looking forward to Part the Second. Finding this here was an unexpected but happy surprise!

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