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Interview with Raymond McGrath, Creator and Animator of Stop Motion Music Video, "Colour" by The Map Room

Across a fleeting breadth of nearly four minutes, animator Raymond McGrath tells a beautiful and poetic story, contrasting a black-and-white world with that of sublime, exploding color, as seen by a young boy peering into a View-Master.

The story of the music video is something of a tone poem, woven together from both the framing story of a young boy and five unconnected vignettes as seen in the View-Master, poetically illuminated by the light from the black-and-white world, bringing to life the stories inside of the toy. The visual story brings to life the music video in its own rite, channeling the music of the song – “Colour” by the indie atmospheric pop band The Map Room – in a similar way to how a View-Master does the light of the the real world. Over before you know it, the marriage between song and animation leave you little choice but to watch it again…and again.

The video employs a technique in stop motion that adopts techniques and a look very much akin to two-dimensional cel animation called the Multiplane camera – a technique utilized to great effect by Walt Disney and his Nine Old Men back in the early days of Walt Disney Animation (although they were not, however, the first to invent this technique). The Multiplane camera is essentially the process of animating on several separate layers at once that are then stacked and filmed from above to composite each of the separate layers into one shot, very effectively creating a depth of field. You can go watch Walt Disney himself explain the technique in this video.

The music video was created and animated by Raymond McGrath, an award-winning animator who has now worked professionally in the business of animation for 24 years. He has, however, explored many other mediums besides animation, such as his work as a storyboard artist, illustrator, musical composer, director, compositor, and writer. Among his most recent projects are two children’s books he both wrote and illustrated entitled It’s Not a Monster, It’s Me! and Did You Hear a Monster, both of which have gorgeous stop motion music videos complimenting the books which you can go watch on his Vimeo channel. He is also the creator and director of the educational pre-school TV series Puzzle Inc.

A very big shout-out to Raymond, who I recently had the pleasure of interviewing about Colour, as well as many other things. In our interview, Raymond discusses everything from his desire to get away from CGI as much as possible with this project to a discussion of his longevity in a creative industry to his advice to creatives. The interview is posted below along with several behind-the-scenes photos from the project that Raymond so kindly shared, so enjoy!

A.H. Uriah: Colour is an extremely beautiful, unique and layered piece of filmmaking. I can only speak for myself, but the theme in Colour that resonates with me the most is the concept of seeing the world through the eyes of a child versus that of a well-seasoned adult. In Colour you externalize this theme by contrasting a relatively mundane black-and-white world with a world full of color as seen by a child looking through a View-Master. Can you speak a little on the creative process behind Colour, from how you first conceived of the idea behind Colour to creating the final film? More specifically, how did the stop motion medium influence your creative decisions down the creative pipeline?

Raymond McGrath: Probably a little annoyingly when it comes to ideas I don’t really know where they come from. I just wanted to make something handmade and as far away from digital as I could feasibly go. Not that digital is necessarily bad, but I like to see craft and sometimes it’s the flaws and charm and spontaneous decision making that is forced on you by using pen and ink, or straight ahead stop motion or traditional 2D cel animation or oil paints that makes them feel and look more organic. Technical and creative limitations or boundaries make you problem solving and you also just have to accept them. I also wanted to shoot every element within the shot ‘in camera’, straight ahead with no compositing (other than the sliding frame changes between shots that were physically impossible with my multiplane rig), because it challenges me to think on my feet and just go for it.

I also wanted to experiment with transparent lighting gels and light in camera on a multiplane to see what I could do with it. The gels also dictated some creative choices and techniques because of how they behave – especially with regards to colours and layering.

I was originally going to make a video for a different song for the band. I firmly believe you should let a project tell you what it wants to be. I came up with a concept and a look but it was all driven by the music. I LOVE music and animation for this reason. If you allow it to, it will paint pictures for you and guide you in both visuals and storytelling. In this case the original track had a wonderful repetitive rolling style and basically it felt like it should be a series of abstract, unrelated repeating vignettes – animals running, a street performer, a kid on a train, the joy of life at an amoebic scale, etc. with no obvious narrative thread; leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the subtle stories in their own way. And I just love how frames look inside my old toy View-master (yes I still have one!) and how you can just roll from one to the next over and over.

But that single was being released too soon and I couldn’t make the video in time, so they gave me the choice of another track – and we chose ‘Colour’. The original ‘idea’ visually worked really nicely for the new track as well, but the song was completely different – both lyrically and musically – and it just felt like it needed to have a narrative thread tying it together where the other did not. Abstract visuals alone weren’t going to work. So I developed the boy and the subtle story line based on my own experiences, and it seemed like a good direction to take…and the end result is what I made. I chose black and white not so much as a statement on the real world but as a visual contrast for the coloured shots – although that’s up to the viewer to interpret as well. I love your perspective on what impression it gives you and I wasn’t consciously trying to push or pull it conceptually one way or another.

A.H.: I’ve interviewed very few animators and creatives on Stop Motion Geek who have been working as professional animators and artists as long as you have. Simply looking at your portfolio, there’s no doubt in my mind that you are a creative polymath, seeing that you’ve worked in everything from music composition to animation to illustration to writing…the list goes on and on. My question for you is broad but also very specific in how it relates to the lives of each individual artist – feel free to answer in whatever way you find most resonates with you: Being an artist is something that spans an entire lifetime, so how do you approach your lifestyle – from a broad 20-year scope to the everyday – that you find gives you the energy, emotional and intellectual, to pursue your creative passions full-time? How do you sustain a career as an artist?

RM: I don’t really call myself an artist. I don’t think it’s a title I have earned yet. Mozart was an artist. Picasso was an artist. I just make lots of stuff and am creatively curious. But I do work hard, try new things and I’m stubbornly persistent. The commercial world can be tough. That’s where you have to roll your sleeves up and do what you have been hired to do – even if that is something you don’t particularly enjoy or find creatively bland.

I use my personal projects like books, illustration, music, music videos, etc. as a creative release valve. I’d explode I think if I didn’t do things that. I use them as a chance to do the things that I wouldn’t be able to do in a commercial sense. I like to test myself, learn new things and try to do things in a way that most people do not because of time or budget or clients. This keeps me inspired and I also pick up some unique skills that can be useful in other situations. They are an opportunity for me to just be myself which is where I am always happiest creatively.

A.H.: Being a 20-plus year veteran in animation and having worked in practically every medium in animation – from CGI to cel animation to stop motion – what advice do you wish that you had known starting out as an animator – specifically relating to the craft of animation – that you would give animators who are either just starting out or who have the desire to begin a professional career in animation?

RM: I don’t know if I have any real advice that is even useful! Hehe! But here goes…

I guess the first thing would be to remember that it is actually work. It’s fun sometimes, but it is a job. Take it seriously and put the time and effort into it.

Learn everything you can from everyone you meet. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to assume that you are the only one with a good idea or that you are always right just because you have a job title. Listen to people, respect their ideas and work with them.

Finish what you start. Having an idea isn’t enough. You have to actually make it. See it through to the end. It’s only when something is finished and you can stand back and look at it or share it with an audience that you can truly tell whether it is any good (or not). And have faith in your ideas. Trust your instincts and persist. Learn from your mistakes. Then when you have finished, and the creative cycle is complete – do something new and try again…and again…etc., etc. …

Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you. Show them how good you can be. Prove it to them by doing. The most rewarding work I have ever done has been in my own time with no budget or even clear goal – just a hare-brained idea that I couldn’t resist trying out.

And remember that if you don’t push yourself to do things you are unsure of how to do, then you will never develop into more of an artist than you already are.

You can explore more of Raymond’s work in animation, children’s books, television, and many other mediums by visiting his website, Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram.

You can also go listen to more songs by The Map Room and find out when you can next see them by visiting their website, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

You can go watch Colour by going here.

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