Black Ship Books Interviews Robert Morgan

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Robert Morgan is a visionary film-maker. His short films have garnered international acclaim and won numerous awards. His work breathes new life into a genre, avoiding the easy scares of contemporary horror. Instead, he forces his audience to confront the darkest corners of their own psyche.

Black Ship Books had the opportunity to interview the mind behind such films as Bobby Yeah, The Cat With Hands and The Separation.

1. In addition to being a film maker, you’re also a painter and you have a background in animation. Do you create the storyboards and concept art for your films?

Robert Morgan: It depends on whether I’m applying for funding and/or working with collaborators. Concept art is essential if you’re trying to communicate to collaborators or financiers, as are storyboards, but if I’m working on my own (eg in the case of Bobby Yeah or D is for Deloused) then I tend to sketch out rough storyboards for myself but that’s about it. I enjoy winging it when I’m animating, just seeing where it goes without too much planning. But that’s not always the most sensible approach!

2. I believe that Bobby Yeah was created without a script or synopsis. What are some of the advantages and pitfalls of working in this manner versus a more conventional approach?

Robert Morgan: The advantages is it’s a lot more fun. I had no idea where the story was going as I made it, and it was exciting to not know. Sometimes having a clear story can box you in, and Bobby Yeah was the most fun I’ve ever had making a film because I could just do whatever I felt like doing and not worry about where it was going. But the disadvantages are that you can get lost very easily and it takes longer. Also, you risk making something that’s nonsensical, but I tend not to worry about that. I just like to entertain myself now.

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3. Your stop motion figures are something very special. In an age of slick computer graphics, they stand out as the work of a craftsman. Can you take us through the process of creating one?

Robert Morgan: The first step is that I grab a lump of clay and start sculpting. I don’t draw designs first because my drawings are shit and never look like what a sculpted thing will look like so I find it pointless. Instead I just sculpt the head of the character, particularly the expression, until it feels right. Sometimes I’ll get the idea of the story out of the expression on the character’s face so its very important to get that right. Once I’m happy with the face of the character, I make a plaster mold of the head, then use silicone rubber to cast it, with the armature inside. It’s kind of hard to describe in words and its quite complicated, but its essentially sculpted in clay, then cast in rubber. Then I paint, add hair, eyes etc and that’s it. The armature (metal skeleton) inside the puppet dictates the shape of the puppet’s body.

4. Would you ever consider using a different animation medium at some point? Will we ever see a full 2D or 3D Robert Morgan film? Or even a comic based on one of your ideas?

Robert Morgan: I’ve dabbled with 2D stuff. Actually I have a very basic, half-finished 2D film sitting on my iPAD, which I need to finish at some point. I made it with the NFB’s McClaren app. Never worked in 3D, its not really my thing, although I do like the idea of digitally enhanced stop-motion. I like comics and I do have an old feature length screenplay that never got made, which would make a great comic. It’s just a case of finding the time. There’s only so many hours in the day!

5. How do you go about marketing your films?

Robert Morgan: Film festivals are my chosen way. Getting a film out there in actual cinemas in this day and age is important to me, I don’t like the thought of them only existing on youtube, that’s a bit depressing. But Vimeo is good. Anyway, I’ll try to get the film out to lots of festivals and garner some publicity that way. If it wins some awards that helps. And then I guess it’s a case of putting them online and trying to use social media to spread the word. I’m not great at it, but I have faith that if you make a good film, eventually people will notice it.

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6. Consequence seems to be a reoccurring theme in your work. While one can’t blame the victims for what happens, the horror often occurs as a result of their poor choices. Even in The Cat With Hands, the victims engage with the monster and this leads to their demise. At any point in your films, could the victims have changed their fates or do you believe it was predestined?

Robert Morgan: Good question. I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about it in that way. It’s a bit of a Film Noir idea, this fatalistic outlook. I guess in the back of my mind, I’m aware that all life ends in decline and death, so we’re all predestined for an unhappy end. Ha ha, that’s a cheery thought. So it doesn’t really matter what choices you make from that narrow perspective as you’re still doomed. Not that I’m a complete pessimist or anything but it makes good material for a horror film!

7. I found the cat in that particular film oddly sympathetic but then I’m a cat person. There’s a tendency for the audience to project human values onto monsters. Did you view your monsters as evil or simply too alien to be judged by human morality?

Robert Morgan: I don’t think in terms of good or evil. I think there are good and evil deeds and ideologies but no such thing as wholly good or evil people. I think the cat with hands has a very human and understandable drive – it wants to better itself by evolving into something else, but ends up not quite getting it right. Plus it’s sort of cute too. I think audiences do project complex emotions onto puppets in general, even if there’s not much nuance in the puppet’s expressions, which is whats so appealing about puppetry.

8. There’s an authenticity to your horror that reduces most audience members to scared children. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who slept with the lights on after watching your films. How do you successfully evoke this level of fear?

Robert Morgan: Personally I think stop-motion animation is inherently uncanny, and I try to accentuate that uncanniness as much as possible, so people are creeped out before anything has even happened. It’s all about creating an uncertain atmosphere where the audience isn’t sure how to feel. Most horror films telegraph its intentions too clearly, which can also be fun. I’ve been guilty of that too in the past too, but I try to make them less clear cut now.

9. You once described your characters as simple organisms who evoke complex emotions. I was fascinated by that description. Can you elaborate?

Robert Morgan: Yes that’s very important. I think of them as existing in a basic state, like new born things but at the same time they feel like they’re decaying, which is a contradiction. I think its why I like maggots so much. Maggots show up in lots of my films, either literally or as some kind of character trait. Its because maggots are extremely basic organisms, yet still big enough to be visually interesting. I love them. Also, maggots simultaneously evoke associations of birth and death at the same time, which is another trait my puppets have. I think people will always project emotions onto puppets, and so it allows you to create a sort of symbolic shorthand for dealing with complex emotional ideas in a non literal way. These films wouldn’t work in live action because actors bring too much nuance and reality to it. In animation you’re already in a metaphor before you’ve even started.

10. The Invocation was terrifying. It reminded me of why one should never trust teddy bears. In some ways, the childhood motif made me think of The Company Of Wolves by Neil Jordan. But The Invocation focused on birth rather than adolescence. I interpreted it as a story about the consumption of the creator by their work. What inspired this film?

Robert Morgan: It was just an idea I had about the process of stop-motion animation, and how you could look at it in a procreational sort of way, with the camera being the womb and the frames going into the camera being like sperm and then the camera will eventually have a living thing growing inside it. It’s a bit of a weird idea I know! Also, I got pneumonia while making Bobby Yeah and I thought that stop-motion animation is bad for your health. So it was those two thoughts glued together. Personally I think it’s a completely silly film, more of a comedy than anything else. But a comedy that’s not very funny…

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11. You filmed the eerie Over Taken for the 48 Hour Film Project. What were the challenges of creating a complete film in that time frame?

Robert Morgan: Challenges were: no sleep, no script and no time. It was just a great fun adventure with some friends and was a laugh to make. It’s not exactly a masterpiece but it was terrific fun. Marcus, the DP who shot it, created some fantastic images in it.

12. Can you tell us some of your biggest inspirations when it comes to film making?

Robert Morgan: It depends from film to film. When I got the film making bug in my teens I was really into 80s horror films, plus I had terrible acne as a teen at that same time, so I gravitated towards body horror. David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly felt like it was about me! Then later I got into David Lynch, and then later still I got into arty films. But I was never into animation though. It was only when I was at art school and decided I wanted to get into film, but didn’t know how, so started getting paintings and sculptures to move, then ended up discovering people like Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers. So its all a mixed amalgamation of that stuff. As for other artists, I’m also influenced by Francis Bacon, Hans Bellmer, Tod Browning, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor, millions of other things too probably.

13. There’s a strong element of body horror in your films. They often explore the theme of metamorphosis and deformity is frequently used as a metaphor. Does working with stop motion make it easier to treat deformity as purely symbolic?

Robert Morgan: Yes it does. It reduces the characters almost to living sculptures rather than human beings, so you can work in metaphors more. If The Separation was a live-action film it would be ridiculous.

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14. The Separation struck me as a fraternal love story. It dealt with a primal anxiety – that of separation – but offered no trite solutions. Like many of your films, there was a sense of inevitability. This heightened the tension and made the horrific outcome more satisfying. How do you manage to successfully fulfill the viewer’s expectations in an unexpected way?

Robert Morgan: I’m not sure really, so much of planning a story is instinctive. You just try to surprise yourself. In that particular case, I just imagined what the worst thing that could happen could be, and came up with the idea of a massive sewing machine. But again, it would only work in animation. In live-action that would be completely unfeasible. Anyway, The Separation also hinged on this childhood memory of a doll that the brothers share, and the smell of a flower in that doll united them, so when the stronger brother is maimed, he sort of becomes like a doll and so it gives the other brother the idea to go back and relive that moment before they were separated, so that fulfills their goal to be reunited but in a horrible way. But I like inevitability in films. People put too much emphasis on the notion of surprise in storytelling, but when you watch a film like The Shining or The Tenant – which is my favourite film – it’s the sense of inevitability that gives it this power. You’re not watching to find out what happens, but HOW it happens.

15. The Separation struck a deep chord in me. I interpreted it as a sympathetic portrayal of a dysfunctional family relationship. Was it intended to be one?

Robert Morgan: I was intended to just be about the feeling of separation that most (maybe all?) adults have. Whether you’re a twin or not, most people can relate to a feeling of incompleteness that’s lost from childhood. It’s not even necessarily about separation, but the idea of lost childhood simplicity or something like that. People have asked me if I were a twin, but I think its not really about twins, its about childhood.

16. Finally, what are your plans for the future? What are your current and upcoming projects?

Robert Morgan: Got a feature length project that mixes live-action and animation, plus another long animated project, both subject to the rough, unpredictable oceans of film funding. So nothing solid to report just yet. Working on a third feature idea too and in the early stages of planning another puppet short. So, nothing imminent but things are afoot…

LJ Phillips
About LJ Phillips (81 Articles)
LJ Phillips is an ex-bodyguard and professional artist who has had three solo exhibitions. He has also published numerous articles and pieces of short fiction. His interests include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, over-analyzing pop culture and staring into the abyss. Currently he lives in SA and spends his free time working on his various creator-owned comics.

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