If Live Action is Prose, Animation is Poetry – Interview with Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace’s name is well-known in the auteur animation scene by his essentially unique style and exceptional sensitivity in choosing the main topics of his creations. The BAFTA Cyrmu nominated director, scriptwriter and producer has won awards, received Vimeo Staff Picks and his films were screened at festivals around the world. At this year’s edition, we had the chance to talk about the most significant influences on his artistic viewpoint, why animation has an important role in social responsibility, and the progress of making his acclaimed music video for Sparks. We also asked Joseph about his masterclass at this years’ Primanima, in which he takes part as a member of the International Jury.

You mentioned in an interview that you decided you wanted to make animation when you were 3 years old, after seeing the first ‘Wallace and Gromit’ film. Have you ever wavered in that decision?

Other than a brief flirtation with archeology via Indiana Jones, no, I always had a dream to make animated films and have pursued that throughout my career. Being an independent animation director is by no means an easy path but this medium is so unique and holds such poetic potential for storytelling that I never get bored of it.

What are your most memorable animated film experiences? Which artworks inspired you as a child and since you’re an adult?

As a child I grew up on British stop motion series from creators like Ivor Wood, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, Cosgrove Hall and Aardman. As time went by I discovered Eastern European animation which evolved from the puppet theatre and this approach always resonated for me.

I would say my holy trinity of stop motion inspirations are Jiří Trnka, Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers.

When I saw works by these artists they made a huge impression on me, whether that be the storytelling, the poetry, the textures or the use of mixed media. Simultaneously, alongside animation, I have always drawn inspiration from a range of artistic mediums including painting, sculpture, theatre and live action film.

In your creations (short films, video clips, commercials), each character is a unique entity. Do you invent the characters and their appearance/movement first, or are they shaped by the story? What is the first step in the story development?

I think the approach to the work shifts project-by-project. Sometimes I might start with a visual image, sometimes I have a technique in mind, sometimes a theme, a message, or an idea that I want to explore.

I consider the development process as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of ideas; all the pieces are there, I just have to arrange them all in the right way.

The designs of the characters are often linked to how we should feel about them as an audience – are they warm and endearing, or are they spikey and unpleasant?

Have you ever imagined yourself making a feature-length animated film? Or even a series?

I’m in development on my debut animated feature film right now!

In a previous interview about ‘Salvation Has No Name’ you’ve mentioned that “stop motion and animation, in general, acts as this sort of metaphor, a cinematic metaphor. So it’s like a mirror being held up to society.” Do you think that in any case animation’s duty is to take social responsibility? Do you think animation as a genre can represent this idea differently than other film genres? If so, how?

For me, being an artist is a position of privilege; I do what I love and I love what I do. With this platform as a filmmaker comes a sense of responsibility to tell stories that matter, stories that mean something, stories that aren’t often told in animation but can provoke, challenge, and encourage debate. Animation operates in a different way to live action cinema.

If live action is prose, animation is poetry, it can deal with grand themes of war, conflict, the self, existentialism, depression, loneliness etc, in a metaphoric way which enables the viewer to put themselves into the very film they’re watching.

I still don’t believe we’ve seen the storytelling potential of animation fully explored, especially when it comes to animated films for adults, but I believe this is starting to change, and I hope that we’ll see more experimentation and progress in this area in the coming years.

In the same interview, you also said that you could never work on a computer because “with animation, everything is made from the ground up. So you start with nothing and you construct the puppets and the sets and everything eIse.[...] I love how hands-on it is and I love the craft of it”. While working on a project, which phase of the work do you enjoy the most?

Now when I make projects I tend to work with larger teams of people so often my role is leading and guiding artists who are making the practical elements, but I do try to keep as hands-on as possible. For me, animation is particular in that it brings together story and visuals in a very integrated manner. I always write, design and direct my films and these three roles are inseparable for me. I’m not sure I could direct someone else’s script, equally, I’m not sure I could have someone else design one of my films because these things all work together hand-in-hand to create the identity and vision of the work. Personally, I love developing narratives and finding the story of a film and at the same time I enjoy being on set, working with the animators and technical crew to bring the film to life in front of the camera.

In addition to your animated shorts, you have also made several video clips, including ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ for Sparks, which has toured the world and won several professional awards (e.g. 'Best Music Video' at the Hollywood Art and Movie Awards). How was working with Sparks? How should we imagine the beginning of the project, did they contact you with a ready-made concept?

For music videos you’ll respond to a brief from the band which is often quite loose and more of a provocation of tone. For the ‘Edith Piaf’ video there was very little to go on other than the lyrics. I wanted to create something that explored the notion of chasing after something quite exotic and colourful, that you could never quite get your hands on. This theme related to the lyrics but it also gave the video its own visual drive alongside the song.

For video clips how much freedom do you have? What factors go into your decision to take on a job when you get an offer?

I’ve been lucky with the music videos I’ve done that the bands have been very invested in my vision, sometimes they’ve come to me directly because they liked my work. So when the artist trusts your ideas, they tend to let you get on with it and that’s a real privilege. I often consider music videos a real extension of my personal work because of that freedom to use my own voice which isn’t the same with advertising.

You've given a lot of workshops and lectures around the UK, you co-led a stop motion workshop with your friend Péter Vácz at Primanima in 2017, and you're preparing a masterclass accompanied by a screening for this year’s festival. Can you tell us some details about it?

Sharing my passion for animation and my process of making animated films has become a significant part of my career. For Primanima 2023 I will give a masterclass called 'Behind The Curtain of Stop Motion Cinema’. In the talk I will delve into the joys and challenges of creating stop motion animation films, discuss my processes and methodologies, my inspirations and references and give attendees a behind the scenes look at the creation of several of my films.

Joseph Wallace at Primanima 2017 on their workshop with Péter Vácz

In addition to workshops and masterclasses, you have also taught at universities (e.g.  National Film and Television School, Royal College of Art, Central St Martins, Arts University  Bournemouth). Why is teaching important to you?

I care a great deal about the stop motion animation industry as a whole; the films that are being made, the way the medium is taught, how it can be presented to audiences etc. So over the years I’ve worked as a journalist, a curator, I’ve moderated events and interviews at festivals and I’ve produced films by other directors who’s work I liked.

I think for me, these are ways of ‘giving back’ to the industry, of fostering talent and growing the industry in some small way.

It gives me great pleasure if I can manage to equip new filmmakers with the critical thinking, technical expertise and creative confidence for them to make bold new visions in stop motion.

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