Interview with Barry Purves part 2: in the realm of the senses

Animator Barry Purves and his puppet for Plume

This is the fourth post of a week at the Artlog dedicated to contemporary puppeteers, and is the second 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. OK, yesterday we talked about the fact that in your stop-motion films you’ve not balked at stripping characters naked, and in Plume you made things even more difficult for yourself by having nudity and wings. In fact I can’t think of another animator who has elected to create so many artistic and technical challenges as you have done in the matter of eschewing garments. There’s a flash or two of nudity in Screen Play, in which I sense you were trying it out, and a great deal more in Achilles, where you push the envelope even further with man-on-man action. 
B.P. The nudity isn’t particularly meant to shock, though it certainly pushes animation to the extremes. What excites me is a puppet in a pool of light telling a big story, which essentially is what we have in Plume. It excites me too that budgets have become smaller and smaller, because I like the creative challenges this presents. While I enjoy the richness of lavish costumes, budgets no longer extend to that. The puppet without clothes is the puppet at its most honest and open. And here’s an interesting observation: there are a lot of animators and artists who work naked. This is not about exhibitionism, but getting rid of any clutter, like sleeves that can get in the way. For an animator it’s cooler under the hot lights. I come back again to the sense of being open.
With Achilles the question was whether it was possible to bring eroticism into stop-motion, or would technique get in the way. I think it worked. There’s been little serious eroticism in animation. A lot of films poke fun at sex and flesh, but it seems to me that animation is an interesting medium for exploring our primal urges. I suppose you’re right, I do enjoy pushing animation into unchartered territories, and I certainly make the films that I would want to watch. 
Achilles and Patroclus
C.H. J. Your’e clearly an artist who takes no hostages in the pursuit of his vision. I’m reminded of Derek Jarman, whose homoerotic sensibility was the bedrock of his films. Has your commitment to taking stop-motion animation into previously uncharted realms meant that you’ve had to look harder for supportive producers? And was there any cost in terms of broadcasting the films, or showing them in festival? (There shouldn’t be, but it’s something that I’d like to hear your experience of.)
B.P. It’s a fact that the flesh on show in Rigoletto caused some concern from those who seemed to ignore that the opera is about an orgy, a rape and then a violent revenge. The gold nipples on the chorus upset various people, as did Gilda exposing her breast. (Just take a look at Renaissance art and you’ll see that exposed breasts are not exactly unusual.) But apparently the worst offender of all was the Duke with his gold codpiece. Rather than being seen as a status symbol and a piece of practical costuming, someone’s secretary remarked that it looked like a penis. (Not a penis belonging to anyone I know.) After that there was much consternation and much digital repainting, which in 1993 was pretty tricky. I guess the story points up the narrow-mindedness associated with animation. If I can do anything to break down such barriers and widen the field of subjects, I will.
While I have to rely almost exclusively on festivals for screenings, several of my films have been rejected/banned on the grounds of religious or cultural taste, which I guess is fair enough. However one of the joys of animation is that puppets can speak for those who don’t have voices, and can express ideas that live action cannot. It’s a frustration that my work isn’t better represented in the world. Naturally I would prefer to have the films seen by more people.
Ray Harryhausen and one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts
C. H.-J. I saw Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts many times when I was a kid. I guess we all did. I went back to the cinema over and over again and sat through the programme repeatedly. (Remember the days before separate programmes?) I was in heaven not only because of that skeleton fight… and all the other amazing creatures Ray conjured… but because I thought Talos was pretty hot. When I watched your film Achilles for the first time, I thought ‘Wow! It’s as though someone has sneaked onto the Jason set after hours and shot hot sex scenes with Talos!’ 
Talos the Giant in Jason and the Argonauts
B.P. I was always impressed by the details in Jason and the Argonauts. On the shields, the tunics and the boat, everywhere the design is beautiful. It once worried me that the temples and other architecture shown were prematurely in ruins, but restoring the sites or building new ones would have been far too costly in the pre-digital age. There’s a moment too when someone cuts the ropes of a net to capture the harpies, and a big chunk of masonry flies off. That worried me at the time.
I think much of the eroticism of Achilles is down to the staging, the lighting and the masked chorus standing watching the action. It would not have worked if I’d used a more literal approach. I originally had the idea of using the Orpheus myth, but that was too straight, and in many ways too familiar. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has always been denied or circumnavigated by teachers, but you only need read The Iliad, or Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or listen to Tippet’s King Priam to recognise whats happening. The story seemed a good metaphor for illustrating the confusion when love betwen a couple is both expressed openly and yet simutaneously hidden away.
I had trouble trying to place the main sex scene. A part of me wondered whether it would be more tragic if it was only after the death of Patroclus that Achilles realised how much he loved him, expressing as much in his intimate handling of the body. There are details in the funeral preparations in The Iliad that suggest this, and the animation challenge of showing the difference between a dead body and a living one could have been exciting. As it stands there are a couple of shots where the dead Patroclus looks plausibly floppy and heavy in Achilles’ arms, and I often get asked how I made that happen. I think some people expect me to say I loosened the joints of the armature, but of course I didn’t. No tricks. It’s all in the animation.
C.H-J. Something similar happens to me regarding painting. People ask how I produce this rich colour or that soft light, as though there’s a shop I can give them the address of so that they can go and purchase the tube of paint that will do the same for them. I suppose when a quality looks as though it would be rather difficult to achieve, they find it easier to believe it’s just a trick. Sometimes I toy with the idea of telling them there is a trick, just to mess with their heads! Talking of trickery, you clearly relish sleight-of-hand in staging terms, and enjoy using diverse story-telling techniques appropriate to the cultures you’re exploring. I loved the Japanese stage-effects of Screen Play, with the wonderful use of sliding and revolving panels.
B. P. I’d always wanted to do something with a Greek chorus, and I suppose the film is quite bold in having the main characters acting on a suspended stone arena in a black void, while a chorus witnessing/narrating the story looks on. There’s minimal use of props and settings.
My films can be hard to read until you’ve understood the storytelling conventions. For all my lofty ambitions they’re just animated shorts, but then again animation can tackle these big ideas, and the fact that we are having this conversation, suggests something positive in what I’ve achieved.
Achilles and Patroclus
I’m indebted to Barry Purves for his cooperation. He’s been endlessly patient as I’ve showered him with questions. I hope one day… when he’s recovered from my having mercilessly pestered him… to make a post about his work on Screen Play, which is a film I’m full of admiration for.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Barry Purves part 2: in the realm of the senses

  1. What a terrific post, such a treat reading your conversation with Barry Purves. Every word he says gives a great insight into his approach and how he works which is fascinating; Inspiring too, how he relishes the challenge of stepping outside the comfort zone and into more difficult areas. Gets me thinking about my own practice. Wonderful stuff.

    • He’s been a lively interviewee. I’ll ask one question and he’ll answer three. Not at all precious and admirably straight forward about his craft in a way I recognise from talking to people who really know what they’re doing. I’d like to see him in action in front of the camera. Barry is lively in conversation, with topics tossed around like juggling-balls, but I bet he’s completely focussed when he’s animating. You don’t create a film like Next without having complete focus for long periods of time.

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