Interview: Will Anderson on The Making of Longbird

Dingwall-born animator Will Henderson's graduation film, The Making of Longbird, has become a Scottish success story since its first screening in 2011, going on to win awards around the globe including a BAFTA at the 2013 award ceremony for best Short Animation.

I caught up with Will for an interview in the Edinburgh Evening News, a week before the film's BAFTA win was announced, in which we discussed his first foray into animation, the filmmaking process and his future plans. This is an extended version of that interview.

“I went straight from school in Dingwall to Edinburgh College of Art in 2007 and studied animation for four years. This was my graduation film and I feel ridiculously lucky. I didn't even think it would play anywhere.”

Will Anderson is explaining to me how his 15-minute short film, The Making of Longbird, came from nowhere to win a clutch of awards and rave reviews. The film is set in his own Edinburgh animation studio where he co-stars with a Russian cartoon bird, Longbird. The pair argue over the film they're collaborating on.

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Watch the trailer for The Making of Longbird

For Will, it all stemmed from a love of cartoons on TV.

“It was mainly animation on TV that started me out, programmes like The Simpsons and South Park,” says the filmmaker. “It's all very well watching all the spectacle of Disney films but getting to know the characters of TV shows helped. I wasn't meant to watch South Park but I did. They used to cut out bits of paper and filming them, though I think they only made the pilot with paper and then used computers for the series and that's the sort of style I use.

"I made my first four minute film frame-by-frame using my dad's old 8mm camera. I sent it away to be developed, but it came back underexposed, which was kind of heartbreaking. I like to make my animation look like it's done in a certain way. Using computers means I can be a lot more ambitious, make it a lot bigger, have sweeping camera shots and suspend viewers' disbelief more than if I was to just cut out bits of paper.”

Was Will always interested in become a professional animator?

"I was always interested in it but I didn't do much through high school. I went straight from school to Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) to a first year studies course, where I did animation as an elective. It's quite an isolated thing to do but I'd convinced myself I wanted to do it. I had three years studying animation and Longbird was my graduation film. It's a bit surreal and I've been ridiculously lucky."

Will's the first to admit that making the film was never part of a masterplan.

"At the time I was kind of having a laugh and I was pretty happy-go-lucky while making it, though I always took my work seriously. The way I decided to make Longbird meant I could be quite free about it. I had an idea that I wanted it to be a “making of” documentary for a film that doesn't exist. I needed a really strong character and found him in my sketchbook, almost the most nonsensical one in there.

"The format gave a freedom to change things as I could reflect what was happening to me in real life. All those worries that affected me could be added to the story. It's all in the idea really. Thankfully Vitali Sichinava, another animator who provided the voice of Longbird, turned out to be a fantastic actor, he's very sharp and witty.

"There was a script, co-written with Ainslie Henderson, and I deliberately wanted to set up the history of Longbird but a lot of it was ad-libbed. There's quite a long argument that lasts about two minutes, which is far too long, and most of that is scripted, but some of it was thrown in by Vitali."

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for any filmmaker is funding their project, though for Will his place on a college course meant most costs were already covered.

"There was no budget for the film. Well, I guess the budget was studying at ECA for a few years, my cost of living for the seven months it took to make. I do everything on my MacBook and film on my phone. It basically took my time it took to make it. It wouldn't have worked without help from tutors and friends at college."

Awards appear to have come easily for The Making of Longbird, but it wasn't an overnight success for the short.

"The BAFTA Scotland and BAFTA nominations surprised me," says Will. "It had a slow start, which I'm not complaining about, but I didn't have much confidence in it for festivals as it's quite long at 15 minutes. I submitted it to some major festivals and it didn't make them so I thought it was a flop."

Following his degree show at Edinburgh's Filmhouse cinema, The Making of Longbird was selected to be shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it went on to win two awards.

“I didn't make Longbird to win awards, though I appreciate them. As part of the BAFTA nomination they're putting the shorts on tour this year in UK cinemas. More people will see it and it's all about people seeing the work, that's what it's for.”

Up next for Will is a new film from fellow Edinburgh International Film Festival alumni, Jeanie Finlay.

"I worked with Ainslie on a feature called The Great Hip Hop Hoax, we were commissioned by Jeanie to do the animation. Our section is 15 minutes long, the same length as Longbird, and we had six weeks to make it, which was incredible because it was such a huge amount of work. We worked with an artist called John Burgerman, who designed everything, and animation proved a better way to tell some parts of the film's story."

While The Making of Longbird looks like it could go on to win more awards, Will is busy working on more projects.

"I'm writing a short film with Ainslie, I'm writing a film on my own and we're trying to get a TV series on the go with the BBC. I find it hard to switch off but I feel as long as I'm always making something I can be skint and I don't mind."

Find out more about Will's work on his website.

Watch Will's showreel on Vimeo

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