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Categories: Interviews

The London-based filmmaker and artist discusses her unique, insomnia-inspired RCA grad film.

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Christine Hooper is a London-based director, artist and animator known for her 2013 film On Loop, which was her MA graduation film from the Royal College of Art. A medium-bending experiment in visual design, it expresses the effects of insomnia on a woman (voiced by Radio 4’s Susan Calman) who experiences progressively wilder visions after waking up in the middle of the night. 

With a unique collage animation style inspired by the work of David Hockney, On Loop is a visual treat, mixing live action and animation to explore the effects insomnia has on those who suffer from it. And it’s got a sense of humor, too, with Calman’s narration continually injecting a lot of fun into the madness.

Since On Loop, Christine has worked on another short, as well as numerous other projects in various media, including a children’s book. I spoke with her to find out more about her impressive film, and how her career has progressed since then.

Tell me a little about your background in animation so far – what first made you want to become an animator? 

I studied graphic design, and within graphic design I ended up doing experimental video. Then, after my degree, I went into working in TV, but I wanted to go back and do more creative stuff, so I went to the Royal College of Art to do an animation Master’s. Live action didn’t really appeal; I was always inspired by people like Michel Gondry and I like the idea of mixing mediums rather than just straight animation, so that excited me.

What draws you to mixed media as opposed to pure animation?

I think I lack the patience to do proper animation. I like the speed of doing live action. I just started doing some illustration work – I’ve been doing a kid’s book, and with that I’ve been doing collage. And I think it’s the same with my film work – I enjoy collaging lots of aspects together. I was always excited by Michel Gondry, and the film Amélie, as well, that you could convey parts of the things that you couldn’t necessarily do with live action through incorporating [animation] in the film. Like capturing someone’s imagination. And I really liked Michel Gondry’s music videos, how he’d use a different medium for each film depending on what he wanted to convey.

I’m just finishing off another short, but it’s actually more stylized live action using sets, and it has got elements of animation in it, but only a few elements, so it was more picking the mediums that fit the subjects well.

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“On Loop” centers on the theme of insomnia – was it personal experience that inspired that theme?

I actually did my dissertation on documentary animation, which I thought was really interesting, and it was off the back of that that I thought I’d do something that was a personal subject  – taking a real-life experience and then using animation to convey that, so I think that’s why I chose it. When I get quite stressed, then I suffer from [insomnia]. So everything in the film is basically my experiences or other peoples’ experiences, but then exaggerated and mashed together, and heightened. I’d gotten [insomnia] during my degree cause I was extremely stressed, but I can go through periods of sleeping soundly and then having periods like that. Interestingly I’ve just started doing meditation and I’ve slept like a baby. It works, it’s been really good.

What were some of the other main themes you wanted to explore through this story?

I wanted to make something that other people could watch and think “oh, I do that too – I’m not the only person who goes insane at four in the morning.” Make something that people could identify with. And in large amounts I’ve had quite a lot of people say “ah, that’s what it’s like for me!” I’ve had a lot of people who’ve watched it and enjoyed it but don’t get insomnia, but it’s more made for people who have insomnia, really, because it’s such a lonely experience, and for me I do feel quite irrational, so I thought if I poke fun of it it makes it a bit easier, and hopefully someone might remember it when they’re going through it and it’ll make them feel better.

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Have there been any specific reactions that have been especially memorable?

My tutor at college was really sweet and said something like “that’s my experience every night,” and he just seemed like he identified with it. And my current job – I think my boss identified with it because he saw it and then wanted to help me develop my work. Another nice comment from someone else who gave me a job was that I’d managed to make light of something quite dark, and that first-time animations often tend to be quite dark, to be about death, so that was something I hadn’t really thought about before.

It’s such a lonely experience, and for me I do feel quite irrational, so I thought if I poke fun of it it makes it a bit easier.”

So would you say you’re more gravitated to more light-hearted stories?

Yeah, probably. I appreciate dark humor, but it’s not really so much what I’m into.

A few images in the film were especially interesting to me and I’d like to hear your ideas behind them. Firstly, what’s the significance of the “woman at the door”?

[Laughs.] She was an exploration of that feeling where you’ve had a conversation during the day, and someone is giving you a “complisult” – an amalgamation of a compliment and an insult – so it was that feeling where I’ll have a conversation and I’ll be replaying it in my mind trying to figure out if the other person was trying to compliment or insult me, and I think that one key word the English use a lot is “interesting” when you mean you don’t actually like it, but you can’t think of what else to say. So it was more reflecting on someone complimenting my work, and insisting “it’s interesting,” and you think what did she mean by that? So it’s that, replaying conversations from the day.

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And there’s a woman coming in and stealing things from inside of the room – what’s the significance there?

That was the idea of the paranoia you get from noises you hear during the night, where you think that someone’s in your room. I’ve had it before, where if there’s a dark shadow in the room I think that there’s a burglar.

What were some of your key sources of inspiration for the film?

David Hockney’s photo montages – I’ve always been a massive fan of his work, and when I was doing my B.A., I did a bit of my thesis about cubism, and he looked into cubism and his photo montages were a different way of linking time up, so I thought that was an interesting idea to explore in my B.A. film work as well. First I did a documentary that was more of an experimental film about my family, and that was sort of filming on the fly, and then [with On Loop] I thought that that kind of split-screen thing worked well for A. having a fractured mind and also B. having that layer of time where it’s all sort of mishmashed and you don’t know what’s going on, and thoughts are going round in your head. So it was quite influenced by him.

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How did you plan out the nine different sections you have connected in the film?

It’s funny, cause I said I don’t have the patience to do animation, but I’ve got the patience to do nine screens and to do something quite complicated. I was in the basement of the RCA and the edit site was one floor up, so I kept going back and forth and dropping loads of footage in, and I had a camera in a fixed position and then I moved it around. But what I did initially was I made a plan, and I’d split it up into nine screens. I was using this program called Dragonframe Stop Motion so I could line the camera up again. So I had this formula, and then I went through every scene and did it again. It was quite time-consuming, but I liked exploring different ways of using things, it was quite satisfying.

Susan Calman did the narration for the film – how did she get involved with the project?

I’d read quite a lot about how she suffers from insomnia pretty badly, and because it was a bit of a sad voice over, I really wanted a comedian to do it so it could get the comic side. And she’s got a fantastic voice – I love her accent – and I’m an avid fan of Radio 4, so that’s how I found her. So I got in touch with her agent and she was super kind and came in for me to do it when she was down doing some other radio work, and it was really great to work with someone who was such an expert at doing voice over.

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The voiceover has a real sense of rhythm to it – was make the narration poetic important to you?

Yeah, definitely. I’d been to a festival – years ago – and when it was raining we stumbled across the poetry tent, sheerly for shelter, and then we ended up listening to loads of spoken word poets, and stand-ups doing poetry like Phil Jupitus, and I just thought that they were wonderful.

[And since], there’s a woman called Holly McNish – I love her work, she talks about being a mother and breastfeeding in public, and she talks about a lot of feminist issues, and I think she’s fantastic. Both her and Harry Baker [another favorite] have a real humor to their work that I think is really powerful.

Originally I asked a poet to help me write [On Loop], but he was too busy so I ended up writing it myself, along with help from a friend, Victoria Manifold. But I wanted to give it that sort of rhythm, because your thoughts are sort of repetitive and it felt like it suited it. I’ve sort of done the same with the next film – for some reason I just find it easier to write like that.

This current film – The Last Time – is about quitting smoking, and with that I tried to write straight first and it just didn’t really work, and when I tried writing it like a train of thought again it fit together. So I’ve started to think I’d like to write a bit more like that. I really like playing with words – there’s words that have very specific meanings, like in On Loop I quite liked using the word “nob” a lot; it’s quite a funny word cause it’s not that harsh, but it reminds me of being young and it feels like a really British word to use. 

What else can you tell me about “The Last Time”?

I’m just in the post part now. It’s live action, really inspired by 1950s cinema, and it’s actually got actors in it this time. Because it’s about smoking I really felt it was important to have people in it, and it’s quite highly-stylized, the same color palette an On Loop, and it’s a comedy again, about the unhealthy love affair with cigarettes and trying to get away from them.

So I’m finishing the sound off for that, and I’ve finished all the visuals for it. It’s exciting cause I’ve worked with a big team this time, whereas with On Loop I was on my own. With this one I had a DoP and a full crew, which was really a great thing to learn. It’ll hopefully be done in the next few months.

Between On Loop and The Last Time, how have you changed as a filmmaker?

I’ve learned quite a lot – I’d been working for a kid’s program for a while, and that really sparked an interest in it. And then I’ve also been working for a company called Blinkink in Soho, who do commercials and have also started doing their own programs as well – entertainment. I’ve learned a heap from them. I probably more specifically know what I’d like to make now, and I’ve learnt a lot more about the industry.   

What’s your most important advice for aspiring animators?

Keep making stuff, and don’t be scared to get stuff wrong – that’s just how you learn. You’ve just gotta keep doing stuff, and you get better. What I realized from looking at people from my B.A. and my Master’s is that it wasn’t so much based on talent, it’s much more based on how much time you put into things. So keep making stuff. And try stuff out – you can surprise yourself sometimes. Don’t worry too much about failing – that’s just working out what you can do and how to get better. And using other people’s expertise is a really good thing; in the film I’m making at the moment it was amazing to have other people who were experts in their field to help me, such as the DoP. But it’s also quite valuable to do some things on your own and work stuff out. 

Don’t worry too much about failing – that’s just working out what you can do and how to get better.”

Do you have any favorite films of recent memory?

Anomalisa. That was amazing, especially because animation can be used so many times when there’s not really a reason for it, whereas he really used the medium to get across the message of the film, and it’s also very funny.

Find out more about Christine’s work at christinehooper.com.  

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Posted on Jul 4, 2016

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