Rebecca Manley is an award-winning director, working across commercials, branded content and short film. Her work has been shown at film festivals worldwide, including Bristol Festival of Puppetry in 2015 and 2017. She is currently represented by Aardman Animations.
We caught up with her to find out how her desire to direct began, her work with puppetry on screen and what the future holds.
How did you get into puppetry and animation? Did you always want to be involved in this kind of work?
Weirdly, I knew from the age of eleven that I wanted to work in animation! My mum is a graphic designer and growing up amid the sights and sounds of her studio, making things was woven into my DNA. I was constantly drawing, sculpting, sewing – anything creative really. The world of animation and puppetry in film seemed magical and exciting. But at that time I didn’t really know anything about the individual roles on a production. My brothers and I loved shows like Bagpuss and The Muppets, and films like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story, so acting out scenes from them was not uncommon in our household. I think that’s where my love of puppetry stems from. A few years ago, my short ‘Table Manners’ was requested to screen at the Jim Henson Puppets on Film Festival in New York and that was definitely a career highlight!
So I steered my studies towards theatre and art, through A levels and an Art & Design foundation course, eventually completing a three year BA Hons in Animation at what is now UCA Farnham. It was at university and whilst doing work experience (running and reception cover at an animation company in Soho, London) that I learned more about the industry and that cemented my ambition to become a director. The year I graduated I won one of four places on the MOMI AIR scheme, making my short The Girl & the Horse for Channel 4. Off the back of that, I was signed as a director by Slinky Pictures which kicked off my career.
You’ve screened work at Bristol Festival of Puppetry, and your short films often use real-time puppetry. What’s the particular appeal of puppetry for you? Do you have any further puppetry short films planned?
I absolutely love working with performers and one of the joys of real-time puppetry versus animation is that you get to play and experiment on set a lot more and do multiple takes. Not to mention that it takes a fraction of the time to get the footage in the can! I also love the potential for ‘happy mistakes’ to occur, which animation doesn’t really allow for as it is so tightly controlled. But with either approach, it’s always fantastic to conjure a ‘living’, appealing personality from an inanimate materials. For example, whilst doing research for ‘Table Manners’ I went to see ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ at The Little Angel theatre, where I noted their hypnotic use of little shiny black beads for eyes. I found that fascinating – such a simple but highly effective device.
Currently I am in post-production on my first live action drama short and don’t have any puppetry projects planned, but I’d definitely love to direct a commercial using puppets very soon.
You’ve recently joined Aardman as a director. How did that come about? Does directing for animation differ from directing for live action film?
Yes! The guys at Aardman had seen ‘Table Manners’ a while back and really enjoyed it. So they got in touch and wanted to meet. We chatted in depth about my portfolio of work, as well as the projects I currently have in development, and they asked me to become part of the team. So I was both extremely flattered and excited!
The crew and cast structure, especially on a stop motion project, is very similar to animation (the animators being your actors). But I would say directing animation and live action differ mostly in terms of timeline and order of events. With animation the project is sculpted at the front end in pre-production, from script work, to storyboarding, music creation and the animatic, which is essentially your edit. This is all locked down and, moving into production, the footage you create stays within these strict boundaries.
With live action you start with the script, which you may or may not storyboard, depending on directorial style and preference (and whether or not there are complicated action sequences). It’s then crucially about casting the right actors or live puppeteers. Once on the shoot you need to get as much coverage as possible so that you can craft the story in the edit. This means the editor has a lot of power because essentially they can change an actors performance or the narrative completely with their assembly. With both techniques, post-production mostly consists of any compositing or VFX, the grade and sound session(s). But, as I touched on before, to produce the equivalent length of project, overall production time for animation is much longer than for live action.