Being an independent filmmaker can be a terrifying business. It has its highs, its unrivalled sense of achievement, the recognition of your peers… and it has its lows. Whilst making THE HAIRY HANDS I simultaneously managed to animate my way out of a full time job and into hospital. There’s little comfort to be had from an award collecting dust on the mantel when you’re struggling to pay the rent. To believe in something from conception to delivery takes courage. It takes commitment (the kind that can get you sacked). It takes vision.
I was recently part of a retrospective panel that was held at the Exeter Phoenix wherein previous grant winners were asked to reflect upon their filmmaking experiences. It was programmed very much as a way of giving fledgling filmmakers an insight into the consequences and possibilities of the short film form as a way of moving into the industry. I suspect that it was meant to be inspirational…and yet the general tone of the panel was pretty downbeat; frustrated talk of films made yet rarely screened, the cost of endless submissions through Withoutabox, professions that ‘a short film only has a shelf life of about a year’ and how the proliferation of film network sites has saturated the market and made the form disposable.
I sat for much of the discussion, mildly irritated, before interjecting ‘that hasn’t been my experience at all’. I’ve been extremely lucky. My films are always in circulation. One of them was made 3 years ago and is still in demand and finding new audiences. What’s more, films created with small local arts grants directly led me to becoming a writer for Fangoria Magazine and painting for a variety of Horror periodicals, both realisations of childhood dreams. But that’s not because of some clever marketing strategy, ‘unique talent’ or family industry connections.
Ursula Le Guin said that the creative adult is the child that survived. Since I was a boy I’ve had an unalloyed love of the macabre. Whether writing or painting it was always the darker aspects of the fantastic that I was drawn to, sometimes by choice, sometimes via circumstance. I suffered from night terrors as a child. I’d awake in trances, fevered dreams that my parents quite literally couldn’t shake me from – and as I grew older, the only place where I found a recognition of those terrors and – perhaps strangely – relief from them was in horror. Horror became an empowering means to not only fire my imagination but dispel my ‘demons’ if you like. The more I looked into the dark, the less frightened I became, and in time, the nightmares ceased.
But after leaving University I spent almost ten years going through the motions, flitting from one job to the next, trying to figure out how to ‘get in.’ I made the inevitable mistake of ‘doing what I thought I should do to get somewhere.’ Perhaps I didn’t really know what people expected so possibly I made a lot of bad choices, but it was the moment that I just walked away and said, like the little iconoclast I used to be as a child, ‘Bollocks to this,’ that’s when ironically it all started coming together.
After years of circling round the perimeters of the industry, a little bit of BBC work here and a little bit of illustration there, I moved back to my home town, settled down with my childhood sweetheart and decided that I was going to re-connect with those early passions and create a series of animations – with whatever skills, however limited that I’d picked up up along the way, with budgets however small – and make something of all the neglected half forgotten stories that fascinated me as a child. Stories that I wanted to hear.
And that, is where it all begins.
I applied for every local arts grant that became available and was awarded three in 2 years. The three resulting short films – SCAYRECROW, THE SCREAMING SKULL and THE HAIRY HANDS were gothic horrors visually and tonally inspired by the horrors of yesteryear, specifically Hammer horror and the Amicus portmanteau of the 1970‘s. They were made with minimal crew (often as little as 2 or 3) and with the humblest of equipment. SCAYRECROW and THE SCREAMING SKULL were shot on the beat-up family digital camera and was subsequently animated and edited on a MacBook. But the choice of material (rather than the animating ‘prowess’ I suspect) struck a chord with its audience. They were films drenched in Hammer horror atmosphere made by a group who obviously loved them.
But what to do with them? Being completely ignorant of film networks and industry protocol I sent the films to a handful of horror journalists that I respected. One in particular responded very quickly and very clearly – Chris Alexander (now editor of Fangoria magazine). I knew from his delirious columns that this heartfelt cineaste not only loved Hammer horror but was also a connoisseur of Euro horror. He watched them, loved them and did everything he could to get others to watch them too. And then a few months later when he was offered the post of Editor, asked me to join the ranks as Fangoria’s ‘Gothic go to guy’.
Initially I had to ‘pimp’ the films in much the same way that anyone does, paying the fees and sending off the DVD in the vague hope of an encouraging response (in some cases any response at all). Now the films sell themselves. Festival organisers contact me for them, which is a wonderful position to be in. Every time that I have been offered a new opportunity it’s been because of a shared enthusiasm. After an interview on Rue Morgue Radio the DJ (Stuart ‘Feedback’ Andrews) put me in contact with Glenn McQuaid, who had just finished making ‘I Sell the Dead’. He was working with Larry Fessenden gathering writers for a Glass Eye Pix Radio series called ‘Tales From Beyond the Pale’, and after seeing my work (because I sent it to him) and sharing my obsession with Hammer invited me to come on board. As a result of that script (THE DEMON HUNTSMAN) Larry and Glenn are producing my next short – ‘BORLEY RECTORY’ which is due Winter 2012.
What am I trying to say here? It’s so difficult to gauge sometimes what will press peoples buttons. You could potentially spend the rest of your life trying to divine a formula. I’m not for a second saying that I’ve found any answers. I still feel as if I’m making this up as I go along. But I would say this: I believe the main advantage I’ve had over other filmmakers who have struggled to get their work seen is ‘focus’. My films were made by a horror fan for horror fans. I chose a genre that I love and the films were made without any detached entrepreneurial concerns to get formula’s right. I am the target audience. Everything I do, whether its Brit-horror-centric interviews for Fangoria, oil paintings of Peter Cushing or animations inspired by Dartmoor legends, has my mark on it. I wear my passions on my sleeve.
I’ve still got a very long way to go. Still learning my craft, as a filmmaker and as a writer. Still just about keeping my head above water. All I can say is that I spent 10 years chasing media tail, but the moment that I started making something honest, something that I truly wanted to see as well as make, something ironically not made to necessarily impress anyone but certainly made for an audience, that’s the moment it all started to gain momentum. And with a new short on the way, a feature in development and a Devon based Gothic horror festival on the horizon, this is just the beginning…
Best advice I can give: Look to what you love. Make it personal.
Ashley Thorpe is an animator, writer and painter. So far there have been four ‘Penny dreadful’ animations inspired by neglected aspects of British folklore: ‘THE VAMPIRE‘ 2002, ‘SCAYRECROW’ 2008 (winner of the ‘Project Green-light’ bursary), ‘THE SCREAMING SKULL’ 2008 (winner of the Digital media bursary awarded by Exeter city council in association with ‘Animated Exeter’) and ‘THE HAIRY HANDS’ 2010 (Winner of the Digital Shorts bursary). In 2011 Ashley started work on another short film entitled ‘BORLEY RECTORY’; an animated documentary about ‘the most haunted house in England’. The Carrion Film / Glass Eye Pix co-venture is due for completion in 2012 and features narration by British actor Julian Sands.
The films have been screened internationally and have won a number of awards including a Best UK Short Film nomination at Raindance 2009, the Media Innovation Award 2009 for Best Independent Film, Best Animation at ‘Horror UK’ 2010 and Best Animated Short Film at ‘A Night of Horrors’ Sydney Australia 2010. In November 2010 the Director was also presented the ‘Visionary Award’ for the animated series at the ‘Buried Alive Film Festival‘ in Atlanta USA.
2011 saw Ashley’s first foray into radio – ‘THE DEMON HUNTSMAN’ written for Larry Fessenden’s / Glass Eye Pix’s ‘TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE’ – a series of horror radio dramas. The play has received exceptional press including notice in Entertainment Weekly and a spread in The Wall Street Journal.
His first feature – SPRING HEEL JACK – is currently in development.
The Demon Hunstman