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Behind the Craft: RSPB – Time Flies


Intro copy xxx

the Brief

It was a company called Catsnake who first approached us with this project. They do a lot of work with charitable organisations and produce pieces with strong narratives and a lot of heart.

The RSPB is an organisation with a proud history dating back over a hundred years. They’ve worked tirelessly with public and official bodies to mitigate damage and habitat loss caused by human activity. They also educate and inspire new generations in ways that are inclusive and future facing. Basically they care deeply and want to protect, preserve AND create new reserves for wildlife that we can all enjoy.

The brief had to communicate all this and remain engaging throughout which is quite a challenge in a 60 second spot. Catsnake came up with the concept of a time traveling bird which was a very rich seam to mine and lent neatly to a catchy title. We chatted about the possibilities and how animation could help a piece of such scope. It was a far ranging conversation that included many subjects like style, time-lapse, symbolism and much more. It was a great way to all get on the same page, share creative ideas and establish a healthy working relationship.

the Story

In the spot we tell the story of a fledgling who, encouraged by its parents, takes its first flight. Desperately trying to keep up with its parents we see through its eyes and the impact humans are having on the world. The landscape rapidly changes as though it’s flying through the ages to remain with its family. These changes provide obstacles and dangers to our little hero. Urban creep, technology, travel and pollution are separating the bird from its home. At last it spies a small garden – an oasis in a hostile world. The garden represents the small things we can all do to help and how the RSPB can offer guidance. Once refreshed the fledgling is able to continue the journey to a nearby future and a home in environments renewed by the work of the RSPB.

RSPB concept art

The appeal

I found this project particularly attractive for a number of reasons. The narrative core being so rich and the chance to play stylistically were hugely appealing, but more than that it’s a cause I personally believe in. As a child I was a keen bird spotter and I’ve an abiding love for nature. The RSPB were an influence on me personally and I enjoy sharing my knowledge with my own family. Now, more than ever, this kind of work is vital. Every time we lose a species or a habitat is destroyed that loss will be felt by future generations. The damage is far more insidious than it may at first appear.

RSPB concept art

the characters

One of the earliest decisions was which species the bird should be. It had to be something easily recognisable to everyone and not just bird spotters. Robins were discussed but their association with Christmas meant that a blue tit seemed more fitting. They’re so familiar, cute and recognisable; they were perfect.

The process

Once we’d settled on a species the next challenge was how stylised to go. It seemed logical to take inspiration from illustrations in the old bird-spotting and Ladybird books of our childhood. There’s a warmth and love of the subject in those images that sat really well with our themes. Many of these used watercolours and that would become a defining characteristic of the whole piece. We let it steer the look of the film as well as our characters.

Initially I was tempted to simplify our characters making them super cute but on reflection a slightly more ‘real’ approach seemed more fitting.

To render the animation we considered the techniques of watercolour artists. Things like large washes for skies, the way colours bleed if the paint is still wet or how masking fluid is used to create clean edges. It’s a media that encourages an illusion of detail because you have to work quickly and let it dry before adding more. If you don’t then the colours can mingle in unpredictable ways. Observing this and other qualities like uneven pigmentation, darker edges and the way the paper grain shows through, we were able to work out how to render the CG.

The texturing of our models was deliberately broad. The few details in them were more like tide marks around blocks of intentionally uneven colour. Most of the look was applied in comp where images were heavily processed. We used some bespoke tools to dial in levels of detail, how flat the colours should be and how much colour bleed we’d apply to the characters. With such an illustrative approach it was art directed much more at this stage than during lighting.

Watercolour process applied to simple CG renders

I don’t usually paint using watercolour but once I started making concept art (with some fancy Photoshop brushes) I quickly realised it’s the opposite to my usual style. I tend to work from dark to light but with watercolour you have to work the other way round. It takes quite a bit of getting used to but the process showed that it would be good to use as much of the artwork in the finished film as possible. We only fully built a few elements in CG using simple geometry to project artwork onto. This meant we could build rich environments without spending months making hundreds of assets and also animate certain elements in 2D.

Next we injected more life by moving the camera and adding atmospheric FX. Finally we ran paper textures through everything and introduced a slight shimmer to approximate real world media. All of this lent a human feel to the spot.

It’s not the first time Aardman has taken a painterly approach to our work by any means. In fact I art directed our first console game ‘11:11 Memories Retold’ for which we developed a real-time shader to mimic the effect of oil paint on glass animation. Each medium you try presents its own set of challenges and watercolour was no exception.

Examples from 11-11 Memories Retold

Although the CG renders were very basic much of the ‘look’ was achieved in comp. We developed a process that took those renders and imbued them with the characteristic of watercolour. This processing and the numerous 3D elements meant our comps could be pretty slow to work with. We ended up pre-rendering certain parts just to keep things moving.

Matte painting projected onto simple geometry

Examples of FX work

A shot with lots of atmospheric effects added in comp

Typical workflow from start to finish

The animation

Because our characters had a semi-realistic design it made sense not to push things too far into the realm of cartoons. Our demographic really wouldn’t appreciate it if we anthropomorphised our blue tit too much and it really wouldn’t be in keeping with the narrative. Instead we decided to enhance the ‘handmade’ feel. We approached it with a 2D sensibility despite it being 3D. Although we used Maya to animate we favoured working on 2’s or even 4’s whilst leaning on elegant shapes to add a sense of fluidity. That did mean we broke the rig a few times by pulling it around too much but were able to update it until the very last minute. It’s a fairly simple CG rig but a nice example nonetheless.

Illustrates controls on our bird puppet


One of the things I took most pleasure in was depicting the passage of time. To show the impact humans have had over the past couple of centuries, we worked on three different levels.

Firstly and most obviously there’s the time-lapse. In the background we show construction happening at vastly accelerated speeds. Most of this was achieved with simple 2D animations but we also used Houdini to create some elements. Blink and you may miss it but as the tower blocks build you can see the insides form before their brick and concrete skins envelop them. Secondly, on a more poetic level we pass through a full year of seasons beginning in summer, passing through autumn and winter before finally returning to spring. It’s the classic ‘pathetic fallacy’ where we use the elements to reflect our hero’s emotional state. The depths of winter nicely illustrate its struggle and the dawn of spring brings a feeling of optimism.

Finally and most subtly we have the seeds of dandelion clocks floating through a number of shots. It’s the sort of symbolism I really enjoy. I like to think this kind of layering rewards repeated viewing.

Shot with all elements


It’s hard to choose my favourite parts of the spot, but I do like the opening as well as the part where we move from the countryside to the city through the autumn and into winter. There’s a pleasing tonal shift as we lose sight of the parents whilst concrete and pollution envelop our poor little bird. It’s little moments of storytelling like these that make animation such a joy and the chance to work with talented people for a worthwhile cause is something to be treasured. When they come along, grab them!

‘Ask Me Anything’ with Aardman’s Tim Ruffle


Aardman director Tim Ruffle joined us live on Instagram Stories to answer a bunch of your burning questions. Read on for a peek into Tim’s creative mind, from his preferred directing style to favourite film festivals…

What is it like to work at Aardman?

Aardman is an inspiring place to work. Full of super talented creatives that can bring your ideas and projects to life, which is really a fun experience.

What is your directing style?

I worked as a 2D animator, designer and compositor before directing so I like to get involved in the production as much as possible. I find that being involved in the creative side of the project helps you have an understanding of the process and the project.

How did you get into your role? What did you study and how did you start after leaving?

I studied Graphic Design at university but did some animation on the course which I really enjoyed.

After leaving university I learnt Flash so I could keep my hand in animation. It wasn’t long after that I got my first break animating on a short film for Peter Peake (another Aardman Director).

Which animation directors inspire you most?

That’s such a good question. I see people’s work all the time and I’m in constant awe of it. I love looking on Motionographer.com and seeing what people are making.

I love all those retro cartoons to like Pink Panther or anything that Studio Ghibli make.

How do you keep up your creative energy?

I find it’s good to have little projects on the side that I can work on or refer to keep up my creative energy.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

I really enjoy the very start of a project where I’m coming up with ideas and designs and what a project might look like. It’s also exciting to see those designs come to life.

What are your favourite film festivals?

Bristol Encounters festival is really great but Annecy is a really fun animation festival.

What’s been the most challenging project to direct?

Special Delivery for Google Spotlight was a technically challenging film to make. It was a 360 degree film that had to run on a mobile phone.

Do you have a good work/life balance?

Most of the time yes… but sometimes a project will demand more attention to get the result you’re trying to achieve.

When did you direct your first film?

I made a little film for the BBC about Charles Dickens… it wasn’t so much directing, more just making it in my bedroom. A couple of other animators helped out with the animation though.


About Tim Ruffle

Tim is an illustrator, animator and director based in Bristol. He has a strong eye for design and loves to bring his characters to life through storytelling and animation. Tim has been working at Aardman for over 17 years. He’s animated and directed on a broad range of projects creating films and commercials for clients such as Google, Tesco, Nintendo, Robinsons, Clipper Tea and more.

Follow Tim on Instagram here.



Los Angeles, CA (July 23, 2021)  MGM’s Orion Pictures today announces casting for Chinonye Chukwu’s (Clemency) feature film, TILL.  Danielle Deadwyler (Watchmen) will star as Mamie Till-Mobley with Academy Award-winner Whoopi Goldberg as Emmett’s grandmother Alma Carthan.  The screenplay about a mother’s pursuit for justice written by Chukwu is based on a previous draft by Keith Beauchamp and Michael J P Reilly. The producers are Keith Beauchamp, Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas K Levine, Michael J P Reilly and Frederick Zollo.  Till will commence principal photography in September in Atlanta.

Till tells the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, whose pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son Emmett Louis Till became a galvanizing moment that helped lead to the creation of the civil rights movement. As Time Magazine reported, “…thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.”  Mamie’s decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral, and to have Jet magazine publish David Jackson’s funeral photos, was driven by her motivation to ensure people everywhere knew what had happened to her son.

Said Chukwu, “I’m honored to be partnering with MGM’s Orion Pictures and an incredible producing team in telling a story that will delve deeply into the humanities of Mamie and Emmett, the love and joy they shared, and the activist consciousness that grows within Mamie as she seeks justice for her son. I’m thrilled to be working with Danielle, a powerhouse of an actor, who will bring a brilliant complexity and groundedness to her portrayal of Mamie. And it is a dream come true to be working with the legendary Whoopi Goldberg, especially in telling this story.”

Said Deadwyler, “It is a gift to learn the legacy and intimacies of our ancestors, those familial and communal, as is the life of Mamie Till-Mobley, a public leader and mother of the movement.  I am charged with humility and great will to embody her life at such an integral moment of personal tragedy and political rebellion, a boon to the civil rights movement, and to represent the joy in the love and life shared between Mamie Till and her beloved Emmett Till.  I am grateful for the women who support me as the one to carry the labor of this embodiment and as an inheritor of such a lineage. Much gratitude for Chinonye Chukwu, Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Alana Mayo, and Pam Abdy, amongst many others, for the undertaking we seek to uplift and transfigure with this film.”

“We have waited a very long time to bring this historically necessary important film to people,” says Goldberg.  “And as we watch the repression of American History when it comes to people of color it makes it even that more important. I couldn’t be with better people: Fred, Barbara, Chinonye, Keith, Michael and Danielle.”

Orion Pictures’ President Alana Mayo said, “Mamie Till-Mobley was a singular voice who led the way for countless others who came after in her fight for justice. Our visionary writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, and stellar producing team of Keith Beauchamp, Barbara Broccoli, Whoopi Goldberg, Thomas K Levine, Michael J P Reilly and Frederick Zollo, have worked tirelessly to bring her story to audiences everywhere and we are incredibly proud and humbled to join them in bringing Mamie’s story to the big screen.”

Till is based in part on the original research of Keith Beauchamp for his award winning 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

Orion Pictures’ feature film slate includes Billy Porter’s What If?, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, Emma Seligman’s Bottoms, and a film adaptation of Michelle Zauner’s NY Times best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart, which Zauner will adapt for the screen.


‘Ask Me Anything’ with Aardman’s Simone Giampaolo


Next in our ‘Ask Me Anything’ series on Instagram Stories, we invited Aardman Director Simone Giampaolo into the hot seat to answer your burning questions. Read on to find out how he cut his teeth in the world of animation, where he finds inspiration and his proudest achievements.

I love your work! Do you design your own characters?

I love sketching and designing funky and quirky characters (both on paper and digitally), but my style isn’t suitable for all the productions I’m involved with. When there’s a chance, I really like collaborating with character designers who are much better than me! I’m always amazed by the amount of fresh ideas talented artists manage to bring to the project.

Simone Giampaolo sketches

How did you get your start in directing for animation?

After directing my graduation film at Bournemouth University (titled Espero?), I made my first steps in the industry as a junior animator and CG generalist at Blue Zoo Animation in London, where I was given the awesome chance to pitch ideas for original short films. In 2015 my idea for a Christmassy short (titled ‘More Stuff’) won the pitch session and I got to co-direct it! The short did very well online and at festivals, and that allowed me to receive more opportunities to direct shorts and commercials.

What’s your favourite thing about working in CGI?

CGI allows to be extremely flexible by giving artists/directors an incredible amount of control, as well as lots of freedom when it comes to visual style: you can have realistically rendered CG, toon-shaded CG and even stop-motion looking CG (which I personally really like)! The opportunities are endless, but this power has to be used responsibly (one can get truly lost while tweaking and experimenting with CGI, which isn’t good when a deadline approaches).

Also, it allows the team to make iterations and amends very quickly and efficiently (super helpful when working with clients). That said, I truly love more traditional techniques too!

It looks like you’ve worked with loads of cool brands! Which has been your favourite?

The Google project I directed at Aardman a few months back (‘Legends Family Adventure’) was incredibly interesting to be a part of, as it involved several different parties (Google UK, Parent Zone, the agency Toaster and of course our Aardman team) which all came together to make the trilogy of films as engaging, educational and fun as possible in a short amount of time.

Also, I have a soft spot for Lego! I truly enjoyed directing (and animating) Lego commercials when I was at Blue Zoo.

What sequence of events set you on the path to directing animation?

This will probably sound big-headed, but I think that (deep down) I’ve always been on the path to becoming an animation director, even before realising what directing meant!

I’ve always had an insatiable passion for storytelling: I’ve been writing stories, illustrating them and sketching comics since I can remember. Also, I’ve always enjoyed working in teams, organising events, getting people pumped up about original ideas… I think all these personality traits got channelled into my desire to make films and animation once I moved to the UK to study. That’s when I truly realised that all these peculiarities are indispensable if you want to become a good team leader (and director).

Have you ever directed a stop motion film?

Yes I have, some years back I wrote and directed a little short titled White + Black = RED , for which I used a very unusual canvas: the body of two models. Even though it was light-hearted and fun, the short carried a strong message against racism, and was all shot in a couple of days at my parents’ house in Switzerland!

Sometimes (when I’m not swamped with work) I still love creating little stop-motion experiments for fun, which can be found on my Instagram profile.

Anyhow, I hope to direct some more stop-motion in the future, I’d love that!


Where do you get your inspiration?

I’m a night-owl who tends to get my best ideas very late at night, before falling asleep.

That moment when you feel half awake half dreaming, you know (also known as alpha phase of sleep)? That’s usually the sweet spot where consciousness and subconscious meet, resulting in inspiring new ideas. Or horrible nightmares!

What’s your favourite Aardman character?

Gosh, I’ve got so many! But one who really stuck with me is the Pirate Captain from ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’! Maybe because I see myself in him. He’s naïve, silly but never gives up!

What’s your favourite stage of the production process?

My favourite stages are definitely pre-production (including writing, character development and design), animation (well, you gotta love animation when you’re also an animator, right?) and editing. Working with the animation team to come up with the best character performances is something very close to my heart, and I still enjoy animating shots myself when I get the chance.

Also, I absolutely love seeing all the hard work from the team come together in the edit, especially when you start adding music and sound design to the mix. That’s where the real magic happens. In fact, I like it so much that I often end up editing my films myself.


How do you come up with ideas?

I find it easier to come up with ideas when I have restrictions: a theme, a style, a character, a message or… a limited budget (sometimes these restrictions are set by clients, sometimes, by yourself). It really helps me focus on what’s necessary and original to showcase, from what’s not. Sometimes having too much creative freedom can be difficult to handle, trust me!

What has been your career highlight and proudest moment?

I believe one of the things I’m most proud of as a director is the environmental short film ‘Only a Child’ (https://www.instagram.com/onlyachildanimatedshort/), which I finished directing last year. This short gives shape and colour to the beautiful and meaningful speech given by Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the UN Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and combines every animation technique in the book (stop-motion, sand animation, paint on glass, CGI, 2d traditional, puppets…).

The film is currently travelling through festivals, and the recognition we’ve been receiving so far has been astonishing. Seeing people (especially young ones) enjoying my films always make my heart soar.

Follow Simone on Instagram here and tune into our next Instagram Q&A with director Tim Ruffle on August 19th at 4pm.

About Simone Giampaolo

Simone Giampaolo is a London-based director and animator with an insatiable appetite for storytelling and humor. In 2013, he graduated with distinction from the BA (Hons) Computer Animation Art & Design course at the National Centre for Computer Animation in Bournemouth (UK). Between 2014 and January 2018, Simone worked as animation director and computer graphics generalist in the commercial department at Blue-Zoo Animation on a multitude of projects for clients such as Cartoon Network, Disney, LEGO, Nickelodeon, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and BBC. In the past few years he’s been crafting short films and mini-series at Jellyfish Pictures, Ritzy Animation and Aardman Animation (which has been representing him as short-form director since 2018), among other projects.

The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, a road trip through the history of film – Festival de Cannes


Picture of the movie The storms of Jeremy Thomas © Jeremy Thomas

Picture of the movie The storms of Jeremy Thomas © Jeremy Thomas

Movie buff and director Mark Cousins whisks us away on a 1,000-kilometre road trip from London to Cannes, with Jeremy Thomas riding shotgun, in a journey that serves as the setting for an interview. An exploration of the British producer’s sixty-eight-plus remarkable films, and an invitation to delve into the history of film, from the locations used for The Dreamers in Paris, to Lyon, the birthplace of cinema, and finally the Festival de Cannes.

What do you remember from your first meeting with Jeremy Thomas?

I was struck by his gentleness. His films are so sexual and so much about power and destruction, that I expected him to be like Cosimo de’ Medici – a controlling movie emperor or mogul. Instead I met someone with great warmth and an almost boyish enthusiasm. But then I saw him at a drinks party, and he was encircled by great directors and actors. So there is the court of Jeremy Thomas!

Before meeting him, how did his films particularly move you?

I first started seeing Jeremy Thomas films – Bad Timing, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, etc- in my late teens. I loved how dark and dangerous they were, the baroque emotions in Bad Timing, the gay kiss between David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto. How exciting, alluring and scary. I hadn’t yet been in love, but they showed me the dark side of love, its electric storm This was some years before I started making films myself, but my determination to try to innovate and not to compromise on form or content is related to seeing Jeremy Thomas films in my teens.

You tell the film in a series of chapters on specific themes. How did you come up with th idea? What else did it allow you to say about Jeremy Thomas?

The chapter structure – Cars, Sex, Politics, Death, Cannes, Endings – allowed me to look at Jeremy and his work in 6 different ways. He has contradictions and so one single storyline would have been too linear. I needed to see him from multiple angles. The themes are also – everyone’s life has political, sexual and mortal elements. Someone else might have made film about a producer by looking at planning, budgeting, shooting, post-production, etc, a that might as well have made a great film. But I wanted to rummage around in the big stuff.

Could you tell us more about the editing process? How did you work with Timo Langer to make this film so immersive?

I write each scene/moment/visual or musical idea on an A6 piece of paper. Then I arrange these 100 or so scenes in orders and sequences which feel right. Once I have that order – the shape of the film – I type it up into a paper edit which contains details of the film clips, shots, etc, and the words I have written to those clips. Then Timo and I sit in a room, him constructing the sequences out of my notes, me at an adjacent desk, looking for other images, etc. Working this way means that we aren’t searching for the structure or the tone in the edit. We have it from the start.

You said the film is also a celebration of radical Englishness. According to you, how does Jeremy Thomas embody the Englishness you referred to?

Jeremy was born into a priveleged Home Counties, cultured family and yet, from the start his films, he has focused on outsiders or the tumult which lies beneath the surface of bourgeois lives. His Japanese films, those he has made about myth, obsession or self loss all challenge the Rule Britannia exceptionalist story that England often tells itself. The real England of philosopher John Locke, sexual modernist Virginia Woolf, painter Francis Bacon impresario Malcolm McLaren, designer Vivienne Westwood and filmmaker Michael Powell imaginatively daring, untamable and outward. Jeremy Thomas’ work is all these things. Boris Johnson does England the great disservice of under-imagining it.

Your films tell the most beautiful story of all: the love you have for cinema. How did this medium come to capture so much of your attention in the first place?

I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I was a nervy little boy, but when I went the cinema, the nerves dissolved. Cinema was luminous, bigger than life, a world shift, a magic casement. I fell hard for it. As I was also much better at images than words, it seem to speak my language. Shots and cuts seemed to echo how my brain worked. And, in a basic sense, since I had almost no money, cinema was affordable. The affordable sublime.

Written by Eugénie Malinjod


The Storms of Jeremy Thomas review – Mark Cousins rides shotgun with uber-producer – The Guardian


Film-maker Cousins joins the great independent film producer on his annual car trip down to Cannes in this rapturous if indulgent portrait

Garrulous super-fan … The Storms of Jeremy Thomas.

Garrulous super-fan … The Storms of Jeremy Thomas.

Ninety minutes at the sweet trolley of pure cinephilia is what’s on offer in director Mark Cousins’s madly – even outrageously – indulgent documentary-riff about the life and career of celebrated English film producer Jeremy Thomas, an elegant independent spirit in a corporate world. Thomas is a veritable auteur of auteurs, the godfather-slash-midwife-cum-creative enabler to some of the most exciting movies of the past 40 years, including Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Cronenberg’s Crash, Roeg’s Bad Timing and many more (though I would have liked a mention of Matteo Garrone’s freaky Tale of Tales).

Cousins affectionately calls him “the prince” in his voiceover, in tribute to Jeremy being Brit-cinema royalty: he is, respectively, son and nephew of directors Ralph Thomas and Gerald Thomas (of Doctor and Carry On fame). Cousins wackily frames his film as something between a home movie and a road movie, riding shotgun in Thomas’s sleek Alfa Romeo as the producer brings him along on his annual five-day car journey down through France to the Cannes film festival. And on the way, he chats to Thomas about life, the movies and everything, while interspersing this with clips from Thomas’s films, and interviews with his many admirers and colleagues, including Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger.

It has to be said this is hardcore, movie-mad immersion and prose-poem free-associating, targeted at the cinema faithful and very much a festival event. And for those who are not used to Cousins’s style and inimitable vocal presence, and perhaps hoping for more talk from the man in the title, it could be a bit too much to take. Anyone coming to this film hoping for some nuts-and-bolts insight into what a producer actually does, and the ever-present worries about money, will be disappointed. This film floats free from that sort of banal consideration. But as always, I find myself considering that in a world where everyone’s a cynic and an ironist, Cousins’s unaffected rapture is unique and refreshing. And there is an odd-couple comedy here, with Cousins as the unstoppably garrulous super-fan and Thomas as the reticent English gentleman, almost like a charismatic Cambridge don on the long vacation, who has picked up a voluble hitchhiker.

Reticent English gent ... The Storms of Jeremy Thomas.

Reticent English gent … The Storms of Jeremy Thomas.

Perhaps Thomas, a model of charm and self-effacement (which of course conceals a hypervigilant creative alertness), is unused to being at the centre of attention, for all his iconic status: normally, he is a couple of steps to one side as the director, a Bernardo Bertolucci or a Takashi Miike, basks in the limelight. But that is a position he relishes. Ironically, film is not a medium that really captures the subtlety and intimacy of Jeremy Thomas’s personality. Showbusiness is full of bigmouth showoffs claiming to be “shy”. But Thomas is the real thing. Possibly radio would come closer.

At the end of all this, Cousins makes Thomas take a word-association test. He says “Cannes” and the producer shoots back: “Do”. It is the perfect producer response. A producer has got to make things happen, make connections and see opportunities, and Thomas says that the festival is where he has a “line out” like a fisherman, waiting for a new idea or talent to swim up. It is a pleasure to sit on the riverbank alongside him.

Peter Bradshaw

Sat 10 Jul 2021 14.30 BST


Cannes: Jeremy Thomas On ‘Crash’ Controversy & 50 Years At The Fest – Deadline


Screenshot 2021-07-12 at 08.01.48.png

If there’s a kerfuffle on the Croisette, the prolific U.K. producer is never far away…

Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas knows a thing or two about making waves. The man once described by director Bernardo Bertolucci as a “hustler in the fur of a teddy bear” has lived both at the heart of the U.K. film establishment and as a passionate advocate for counterculture, whether in the novels of authors William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles or the punk-rock anarchy of the Sex Pistols.

But none of the 75+ features the 71-year-old Thomas has worked on has created as much of a stir as David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which debuted on the Croisette 25 years ago. The drama, about an underground subculture of scarred, omnisexual car-crash victims who fetishize auto accidents, became a lightning rod among critics and politicians.

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After landing 18 films in Official Selection, few living producers are more synonymous with Cannes than Thomas, who this year is the subject of a new documentary about his decades-long connection to the festival. The Storms of Jeremy Thomas by Northern Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins will get its debut in Cannes Classics section.

DEADLINE: What sets Cannes apart for you?

JEREMY THOMAS: There’s a particular ambiance. It has something special. It’s a unique combination of business and curation. That sets it apart from most other festivals. It’s very good for a producer like me.

DEADLINE: By my calculations, this edition of the festival marks the 50th anniversary of your first ever trip to Cannes, and you’ve hardly missed any over the years.

THOMAS: Is that right? I first went with Bernard Delfont and his daughter, Susan Delfont, who have both now passed away, sadly. I stayed at their apartment, and I went to the premiere of The Go Between. I was very young because I was at school, working for Delfont.

DEADLINE: Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, 1971… That’s a great place to start.

THOMAS: And I’m not so old. I mean, in my heart, I’m still a child… You know, it’s taken so long to do all this stuff, but it just went by in a flash, boom. But after all these years I’ve still got the same philosophy about the films I make: be a disruptor.

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They said, “Do you like controversial subjects?” I said, “Well, I mainly look for controversial subjects.” I mean, that’s a hard drive for what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something that doesn’t need a huge P&A commitment. There can be a natural interest in what I’m doing because the counterculture area is enough to try and bring the project into the mainstream. I’m drawn to counterculture: Ballard, Burroughs, Bowles. Most of the filmmakers I’ve worked with, they all sit in that sort of area. Yes, I love my cars and boxing, but outside of that, it’s a lot of interests outside the mainstream.

DEADLINE: You caused a scandal at Cannes in 1996 with a counterculture film. David Cronenberg’s Crash famously kicked up a storm. Did you have any idea while making it that it would provoke such outrage?

THOMAS: No idea. No idea. Having done Naked Lunch with David and having seen Dead Ringers, I was very broadminded. I never dreamed that it would create this absolute maelstrom. None of us David, [EP] Robert Lantos or myself—thought that it was going to be like that…

[Novelist J.G.] Ballard was with us on the podium at the press conference in Cannes. He was the only one waiting for it, and ecstatic by it because it had worked. The film had worked, and it really got to people. He told David he thought the film was better than his book. But then the film was banned in London, and I was ostracized by the film community in Britain.

DEADLINE: You really felt completely ostracized by the film community?

THOMAS: Well, among the people who were deciding things, it was a hot potato. My career was impacted by it. You had politicians and cinema licensors on national television talking about the outrage and how everyone involved in it should be ashamed of themselves. The tabloids couldn’t get enough of it, even telling people to not buy goods from Sony because they were distributing the film. One day, I was in the Isle of Man with [director] Philip Noyce looking for locations for a movie, and I heard the people behind me in a restaurant say, “These people should be strung up.”

DEADLINE: What do you think Crash is about—what does the movie mean to you? It’s interesting to try and understand the frustration people had with it.

THOMAS: Well, it could be interpreted as being as simple as, “Wear a safety belt.” But it’s really about the erotic opportunities of a car crash and wounds. It’s about people on the fringes of society. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, the film. When I first saw it, I was so thrilled.

DEADLINE: What do you recall now about the film’s Cannes screening?

THOMAS: Some people left the auditorium. There was a lot of banging of seats, as usual. They had to get a bigger room for the press conference because they couldn’t get all the press in. There were hundreds of journalists in there. It was like an assault.

My friend, the journalist Alexander Walker, was there waving his newspaper at David and he was in a fury pacing up and down the back of the theater. There was reporting of it in the UK press for weeks. It was something else.

DEADLINE: Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail and Walker from the Evening Standard really went after the film didn’t they?

THOMAS: I knew Alexander. I never met Chris Tookey, and I don’t care for his criticism because he comes from a different place, he uses different eyes to watch films with. Alexander was a brilliant critic, and he wrote brilliant reviews, and his review for Crash was very, very good, it was just that it was sensationalized, and we had really offended him. “Beyond the bounds of depravity” was the headline. It crossed a line for him. He really thought it was a sick film by sick filmmakers for sick people. That’s a very strong take from one of the top few critics of the day.

The movie is still not allowed to be shown in central London due to censorship.

DEADLINE: Crash won a special jury prize, even though jury head Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t keen and didn’t want to give it anything at all.

THOMAS: He didn’t want to give the film a prize. I’ve heard from friends of mine who were in the jury that Francis felt very strongly about it. But the jury is ultimately a vote. Jury heads can be very influential, but it’s still ultimately one person, one vote.

DEADLINE: Did all that noise bother you at the time?

THOMAS: No. When you make films like that, you think: it wasn’t made for you. Not everything can be made for everyone. I was at the center of the maelstrom. To be in that center, for someone like me, it doesn’t get better than that, because you know you’ve made an impact.

It was like that on the film I made about the Sex Pistols [The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle] and even as a teenager going down to Powis Square where they were shooting Performance with Mick Jagger, James Fox and Anita Pallenberg, it was always about trying to reach the center of the maelstrom.

Screenshot 2021-07-12 at 08.16.03.png

That’s just one day in Cannes; your story goes all over the world. You can’t buy that. That’s the whole point of being a disruptor. You disrupt.

DEADLINE: And how did David respond to all this? Did he take it in stride or was he upset by it?

THOMAS: No, he took it in his stride. He was on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, and they tried to animal him, but David just dealt with him like the super brain that he is. He wiped the floor with Paxman.

DEADLINE: How did you feel about the film’s box office? It didn’t exactly rake it in.

THOMAS: Good in the U.K. It made around £1.5 million. There was no need to take out advertising because it was on so many front pages. The movie had some champions at Sony in the U.K., unlike its experience in the U.S., where Ted Turner had seen the film with Jane Fonda and they were very offended. It really got hammered.

THOMAS: Good in the U.K. It made around £1.5 million. There was no need to take out advertising because it was on so many front pages. The movie had some champions at Sony in the U.K., unlike its experience in the U.S., where Ted Turner had seen the film with Jane Fonda and they were very offended. It really got hammered.

THOMAS: Good in the U.K. It made around £1.5 million. There was no need to take out advertising because it was on so many front pages. The movie had some champions at Sony in the U.K., unlike its experience in the U.S., where Ted Turner had seen the film with Jane Fonda and they were very offended. It really got hammered.

DEADLINE: By that stage, you were well steeled for Cannes’ unforgiving side. You were on the Competition jury in 1987 when Maurice Pialat won and was booed by the audience even while accepting the Palme d’Or. Yves Montand was jury president that year.

THOMAS: I was only 38. I had built up a good bond with the festival already, especially after Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. They really were happy with that film. It was quite a memory for me to be on that jury with Norman Mailer, Elem Klimov, Jerzy Skolimowski, Theo Angelopoulos, Nicola Piovani, Danièle Heymann… That was a jury. Fuck. Very strong people. Klimov was very heavy.

DEADLINE: And Pialat defiantly got up and gave the audience as good as he got.

THOMAS: Yes. But I’m very happy with that choice. There was no influence on us. It was an excellent film.

DEADLINE: More recently you encountered Croisette drama with Terry Gilliam’s film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which you were very involved in over the years. It was pretty dramatic. I was there at the impromptu press conference called by producer Paulo Branco in which he laid out the legal issues facing the film on the eve of its premiere.

THOMAS: It was very sad for Terry. I didn’t produce the film. I owned some rights and tried to help him get it made. In the end, the film was damaged, heavily damaged by all that malevolence. The distribution deals that were in place dissolved, and so the film was torpedoed at Cannes.
DEADLINE: Johnny Depp’s movie The Brave, another one of your movies, also had a bumpy ride in 1997, didn’t it?

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THOMAS: The Brave was a heartfelt and very fine job from Johnny, which we maybe shouldn’t have taken to Cannes. Maybe it wasn’t ready. It’s very enticing to go to Cannes, of course. The film had Marlon Brando and Johnny and wonderful collaborators on set. I think it was a sensationalistic moment, it got lost a bit, and I’m sad for Johnny. I hope he makes another film. After that sort of Cannes experience, it never really got a proper life afterwards, and it’s a little bit of a… I suppose, a hidden gem, in a way.

DEADLINE: One last question on Cannes as a crucible, and disruptors associated with the festival. What have you made of Lars von Trier over the years, and do you think he should be welcomed back to the festival?

THOMAS: He has been a magnificent filmmaker. His films have broken ground and that’s not an easy thing to do. EuropaBreaking the Waves, these were brilliant films. His work has morphed into many different things over the years. I think there is a place for Von Trier at Cannes, but he should understand that he took the jokes too far.

DEADLINE: In that sense, has the #MeToo movement caused you to reappraise what’s acceptable?

THOMAS: It’s very hard. I don’t really want to discuss it a lot, but I’ve been through a lot with filmmakers over the decades. I have been on film sets since the age of 10 and I’ve seen some very dominant people. I have worked with very extreme people. I’ve seen directors get performances in incredible ways. Look at Hitchcock. But life has changed, the game has changed, relationships have changed. That said, how many crimes can we pull up from our ancestors? Are we to take books off shelves, and ultimately burn them? That’s not very appealing either.

DEADLINE: What’s taking up your time now? Mark Cousins has made a film about you and your connection to Cannes.

THOMAS: Well, I can’t say too much about that just now but there’s plenty more to come on that soon… Bernard Rose has made a film called Traveling Light, which I’m helping on a little. It was shot in lockdown and stars Danny Huston, Stephen Dorff and Tony Todd.

DEADLINE: I’m sure you’ll want to work with Takashi Miike again after making multiple films with him, including Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the first 3D film in Competition at Cannes.

THOMAS: If I can. I love going to Tokyo, but I haven’t been able to get there. And I love Italy, of course. All my old filmmakers that I can work with. But I can only do so much.

DEADLINE: Given your close connection to Ballard, I was quite surprised to not see your name listed when I reported on a new series adaptation of his novel Super-Cannes, with Brandon Cronenberg directing.

THOMAS: Yes, years ago, I developed a script of that novel with John Maybury aboard to direct. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with the central theme of the book. There are some very controversial moments, including underage sex, and I couldn’t deal with that. But this will be an adaptation, of course, so it will have its own rhythm, I’m sure.

Ballard was my good friend, and I knew him well, for more than 20 years. I spoke at his funeral. I managed to make two films of his novels, but he died just before we started the third, High Rise. There are a number of books of his I’d still love to make into films. But time is limited.

By Andreas Wiseman

July 9, 2021


‘Ask me Anything’ with Aardman’s Rebecca Manley


Last week, Aardman Director Rebecca Manley joined us on Instagram Stories to answer your questions about her life and career. Catch up on the conversation below to get an insight into Rebecca’s directing style and creative influences.

Which animation director do you find more inspiring?

I was very influenced by Tim Burton’s work at college and lucky enough to have a mentoring session with Michaël Dudok de Wit whilst making my sand on glass short ‘The Girl and the Horse’. I also love Wes Anderson’s approach to animation – although of course he is primarily a live action director!

Have you directed an animated music video? Is this something you would consider?

No, I have not directed an animated music video. And yes, I would love to, especially for an artist whose music I love!

Do you have a favourite film festival?

I am a big fan of Encounters Film Festival in Aardman’s home, Bristol, UK! The films are so wonderfully curated and the people are so welcoming. Last year, my first live action drama ‘Of Thread and Almonds’ won Best Drama at Bristol Independent Film Festival and two awards at Cambria Film Festival California – so I have a soft spot for those two! The film also played at Hollyshorts and Short Shorts amongst others and they were amazing to be part of. I also love attending Pictoplasma in Berlin and can’t recommend it highly enough if you love characters and animation!

How did you start your journey? I’m starting this career and feel lost.

Ah, bless you! Everyone feels lost at some point when they are starting out, so do not despair! I graduated with a BA Hons in Animation from UCA Farnham, then applied for what was then the Channel 4 Air Scheme. I managed to win one of four places that year and made the film ‘The Girl and the Horse’. I was then signed as a director by a company called Slinky Pictures off the back of that. But I did work experience in my summer holidays – runner and reception cover at an animation company in Soho whilst still at university where I met all the wonderful people that became colleagues and friends over the following years. It’s really important to reach out to others in your position. Join animation groups on social media and beyond and things will start moving in the right direction. Good luck!

What is your favourite part of the pitch process?

I do really enjoy pitching, so there are many aspects of it that I like. I am a writer as well, so that part comes quite naturally to me and I love taking the core brief and finding ways to inject some of my ideas into it. I also like finding beautiful imagery to illustrate those ideas, often get carried away on Pinterest and have to rein myself back in! Sometimes I make a test puppet or model for a pitch as well and that’s something I particularly enjoy.

What do you like most about directing animation?

I like that you can pretty much do anything, so the sky is the limit for ideas. Animation people are generally very friendly and enthusiastic, so one of my absolute favourite things is working with a team of professionals who are each so good at what they do they you are constantly surprised and inspired every day on a job.

What’s the best way to get noticed or even into the industry?

That is a really tricky one! There are so many artists out there these days vying for attention and a multitude of difference platforms saturated with content. But I would say that it always comes back to the work and also you as an individual. You are what makes you different, so use that to your advantage. I completed an online illustration course called ‘The Good Ship Illustration’ last year and the first lesson was to ‘answer’ (draw answers to) questions about yourself om what they call the ‘Quirk Excavator’ – I think all artists should complete it. It really helps to excavate your artistic USP!

Do you have a directing style?

I think there are definitely aspects of each of my projects that are recognisable as mine but I would say that I don’t really have a fixed style. I work in lots of different ways in animation – sand on glass, chalk on board, stop motion, 2D and CGI. And I also write and direct live action now too.

What’s your most important personal interest?

Hmm. Well, I have lots of interests from reading, to theatre and fashion. I also love children’s book illustration – Maurice Sendak, Dick Bruna, Jon Klassen, Dahlov Ipcar and may others. Oh, and going to the cinema is one of my all time favourite things to do, or used to be before the pandemic!

What’s your favourite Aardman movie?

I have got a particular soft spot for Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers!

What’s the trickiest thing you’ve ever had to animate?

I don’t tend to animate my work these days, I leave it to animators whose animation is far superior to mine. When I was directing ‘Little Big Planet’ for PSP, we needed to pixilate animator Andy Biddle’s hands holding the console, so I had to sit under the set with the control pad and assist him. That was pretty tricky as it was P.O.V (point of view) – so he had to wrap himself around the camera to do it.

Little Big Planet

I did however animate ‘The Girl and the Horse’ and a ‘Carte Noire’ coffee advert myself in sand on glass. I shot them the old fashioned way on 35mm under a rostrum camera. I had to slide each frame of paper animation (that I had created by hand) under the glass before art working in sand with paint brushes and orange sticks. It was a painstaking process that took agggeeesssss and I had to wear back and knee supports to make sure I didn’t break myself during the shoot!

Any advice for recent grads?

Advice for recent grads would be a version of one of my previous responses I think – build a network around you. It is quite easy for animation people (especially animators) to become hermits, working away on their own in a dark room, but that is counter productive is you want to work in the industry. When they open up again, attend festivals, join animation groups and put yourself out there in person. It’s about who you know as well as what you know sometimes.

Why did you get into animation? What drove you to study it?

Weirdly I knew that I wanted to work in animation from the age of about 13. I know! Odd! My mum is a graphic designer and my dad worked as an advertising exec at Leo Burnett for years (although in management of creatives rather than the creative side himself). I have three brothers, one is a graphic designer, another a children’s book writer and the youngest an actor, so I think a creative path was pretty much laid down for me from birth! I am so lucky to have always been encouraged and supported by my family in that way.

What’s your current creative tool of choice?

I am not a big ‘new technology’ kind of person, so I would say just old fashioned model making. I have always made models ever since I was a young child. I loved learning how to needle felt to make the orangutan puppet for my environmental short film ‘Now You See It’, so I’d like to do more of that in the future. I also just love a good ink pen and a bit of water to smudge it with!

Now You See It

The work you’re most proud of is…

I am proud of the majority of my work for many different reasons, even if the end product wasn’t quite as good as I imagined. I am proud because I completed it, learned a lot and it took me forwards another step. ‘The Girl and the Horse’ fills my heart because it is dedicated to my horse who sadly passed away in 2011. And I am super proud of my live action puppet short ‘Table Manners’ which played as part of the Jim Henson Puppets on Film Festival in NYC. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman came and congratulated me and co-director of ‘Breaking the Mould’ after a Q&A we did at the New York Children’s Film Festival, which was a stand out moment. I am also proud of my latest short, live action drama ‘Of Thread and Almonds’ as it took me out of my comfort zone and taught me a great deal.


Don’t miss our next Instagram Q&A with Aardman Director Simone Giampaolo on Thursday 15th July, 4-5pm BST.


about rebecca manley

Rebecca Manley Aardman

Rebecca grew up in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, an excellent training ground for the hermit-like existence of an animation director and writer. Her narratives often tackle love and interpersonal relationships in a surprising or unexpected way.

In 2020 and 2021 Rebecca’s debut live action drama ‘Of Thread and Almonds’ won Best Drama at Bristol Independent Film Festival as well as both the Heart Award and the Audience Award for Favourite Short film at Cambria Film Festival California. The film was also long listed for the 2020 Best Short Film BAFTA and screened at BAFTA and Academy Award qualifying festivals Hollyshorts, Short Shorts and Asia, Foyle and Cambridge amongst others. Her previous shorts have picked up various awards over the years including a Vimeo Staff Pick, Best Animated Short Film at Kino Fest and the DepicT! Audience Award at Encounters.

In 2017 she directed actor Ewan McGregor’s voice performance for her short film ‘Now You See It’, an artistic piece about environmental damage. Rebecca often receives complementary messages from audience members who have been touched by her stories, which she is always chuffed about. Over the years her shorts have been presented at such prestigious venues as The National Gallery London and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre LA. Her short film ‘Table Manners’ is set to be screened by Centre Pompidou Modern Art Museum in Paris, Summer 2021.

Alongside her shorts, Rebecca has helmed and designed multiple commercial spots for some of the world’s top brands including Starbucks, Hersheys, Google, P&G, Sony, Kraft, and FIFA.

CANNES 2021 Mark Cousins • Réalisateur de The Storms of Jeremy Thomas – Cineurope


(© Mark Cousins)

Dedicated to the producer behind The Last Emperor and CrashMark Cousins’ gentle Cannes Classics documentary The Storms of Jeremy Thomas turns into a road movie as they both embark on a five-day journey leading to Cannes.

Cineuropa: Most stories about producers, like The Bad and the Beautiful, tend to be quite tragic, whereas this one is very warm.
Mark Cousins:
 Before I met Jeremy Thomas, I had this image of who a producer is – someone who has a big ego, narcissistic. I expected a Cosimo de’ Medici-like figure. When you look at his films, they are about the darker side of human nature. But actually, he is a very gentle, boyish man – the more you know him, the more you get a sense of his nurturing quality. That’s why he is so admired in the film industry. The cliché is, as you say, this aggressive, money-grabbing producer. It’s nice to challenge that stereotype by making something not about money or business, or contracts, but about ideas. His ideas.

It almost feels like he is one of those people you don’t really see around any more. Is that why you refer to him as a “prince”?
He is a mythic figure. What he is saying in film is that we all want to live a good life, but in our imagination, there is something dark and extreme. If you take Angela Carter, a hero of mine, this is her big subject: the fairy tale as the big, bad wolf. I say at the beginning that once upon a time, there was a prince. And then we end up in the forest.

It’s hard to imagine making films like that, in that way, today. The industry has shifted in the direction of corporations, but Jeremy didn’t shift with it. He stayed still. That’s why I use the word “sentinel” here, to talk about this idea of being a kind of a lighthouse, someone who stands up for punky counterculture. Of course, there are loads of great films being made all over the world, but to have a figure like Jeremy is pretty rare.

Quentin Tarantino was on the Marc Maron podcast recently, and he mentioned that 2019 was the last year of movies as we know it.
Tarantino is looking in the wrong places. Now, cinema is being made by a wider range of people, from a wider range of countries. So Tarantino is quite wrong. There is a danger about nostalgia and thinking that the past is behind us, when in fact cinema is really, really young. It’s only 120 years old – it’s still in its childhood, compared to other art forms. It’s precocious, figuring out what it can do – just like a child. It’s hungry – just like a child.

Films by Mati Diop or Kira Muratova, whom I have been going on and on about, are still not seen by many people. I would say to Tarantino: “How many Kira Muratova films have you seen?” People who say that cinema is over, or that it’s going to be all about streaming now, are under-imaging it.

Sometimes, when you ask people questions, it seems like you are looking for the same answers yourself. Like when you say: “Do you think that you love cinema too much?”
This is a film about two freaks [laughs]. Jeremy has a freakishly intense love for cinema, and so do I. Tilda Swinton talks about it as well – we are all aliens from the planet Cinema. For me, cinema has been a passion, but it’s also related to questions about mental health. When you are a nervous person, like me, cinema eases you. When you are an adventurous person, like me, cinema takes you places. If affords so much.

Jeremy has made so many films, and one expects the anecdotes to start pouring out. But instead, you show him driving, for example. And smiling.
Anecdotes are entertaining, and sometimes revealing, but they are also told quite a lot. Decades ago, I used to interview people on TV, great people like Lauren Bacall and Jack Lemmon, and they would tell me these anecdotes they had already told before. I wanted to get beyond that a bit. I wanted to rummage around in the big themes in life: sex, politics and death. That’s why there aren’t many interviews in the film. I wanted to stay closer to his own thought process.

The thing about cars is that you are both looking forward – it’s like listening to somebody on the radio; they just happen to be next to you. That kind of intimacy, or discipline, is something I really like. I had heard that Jeremy used to do this pilgrimage to Cannes every year. I love pilgrimages; I was brought up Catholic, and Tilda Swinton and I did this thing in Scotland called A Pilgrimage, when we pulled a cinema from the west coast of Scotland to the east. There is this unravelling of self that happens in road movies. The further you go, the more you open up. I have this tattoo here, which says: “The Oar and the Winnowing Fan.” It’s from Homer. Ulysses has been on the sea, using an oar to move his boat, and then he meets a wise man – just like Jeremy Thomas. He says: “Where should I go?” And the old man says: “Take the oar and walk inland until you arrive at a place where people mistake it for a winnowing fan. There you should live your life.” The message is: live in an in-between place. I love that. This drive was an in-between place for us.


Marta Bałaga

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