Creative Lives — Scanners and ‘Stranger Things’: Take a look inside animator Peter Millard’s DIY dreamland
Whether sprawled on a hotel room floor or on location in Vienna, all animator Peter Millard needs to create his films is A3 paper, an oil bar and some paints. Peter’s work – like his DIY production process – feels urgent and spontaneous. Conjuring up dreamlike landscapes, his squidgy characters are subject to lava lamp-like contortions, at once frantic and fluid. He’s happiest in the studio – drawing, painting and occasionally watching ‘You’ve Got Mail’ while waiting for his monster scanner to work its magic. We find out how failing his A-Levels, working at Argos and eventually enrolling on a life-drawing course for the retired put him on the path to studying animation.
Adult Swim, Channel 4, Becky and Joe, Winsor & Newton
Part-time positions at Matalan, Argos, Natural History Museum, various universities in the UK and internationally (including Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons School of Art and Design, Tokyo ZokeI university, Belas-Artes Ulisboa, LCC, Middlesex University, Farnham)
MA Animation, Royal College of Art (2010–2012)
BA Animation, Film School of Wales, Newport (2007–2010)
A corner of Peter's studio
How would you describe what you do?
I work completely independently, funding myself through my part-time job at the Natural History Museum and by giving talks about my work at universities. I occasionally do freelance work for clients; it’s not something I strive for but if if I like someone’s work or they have an interesting project idea I’ll always be interested. I mostly draw with an oil bar on A3 paper, and colouring in with acrylic paint. Although I have also done short films in various different materials.
What does a typical working day look like?
I wake up, have my breakfast, get to the studio for 10am and then leave at 6pm. I have spurts of drawing and painting activity but it’s important – especially with animation – to have breaks or you will fry your brain or damage your wrists and hands. I usually complete around 20 drawings and then have a five-minute break where I’ll make a cup of tea or read a book. I have collected quite a few books from my favourite artists over the years so I always have a nice little scan through them. I try to spend as little time on the computer as possible, and usually do my admin when I’m back at home. I find that if I’m on the computer for too long my brain turns to mush and I get sad, so I try to stay away. That’s why the editing part of animation can be challenging for me; I love seeing everything come together and playing around, but not looking at a screen.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
At my studio for sure; it sounds like a cliché but it’s the only place where I feel I can fully focus on my work, and forget everything else that’s going on in my life. Although things that happen in my life influence my work, it’s nice to get away and have no distractions.
Still from Fruit Fruit, 2013
Still from Fruit Fruit, 2013
How does your project-based work usually come about?
Usually people seeing my work at short film festivals. A lot of my work (especially my later work) needs an audience so it’s always best seen in a cinema. But I’ve also had a lot of people contact me after they have seen it online. Sadly a lot of people try to make you do things for hardly any money, which irritates me considering the amount of work and sacrifice that needs to go into this type of work.
“Sadly a lot of people try to make you do work for hardly any money, which irritates me considering the amount of work and sacrifice that needs to go into this type of work.”
How collaborative is your work?
Not very! But in my last film I worked with the sound designers Skillbard who made a little tune for the end of it. It’s an annoying Magic Roundabout-esque tune. They were great and I definitely want to make more stuff with them. I also did a residency in Vienna last year with the animator Réka Bucsi. Together we put together an exhibition, mural and short film called ‘Don’t know where going’ which was super-fun to work on.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is getting lost in my work and getting excited about making it. I have a lot of animator friends that hate the process of animating – if this happened to me I’d be so sad, so I try and make that the most fun part. If this is what I’m going to be doing all day, I at least want to be having a good time doing it. You only live once and all that. The worst part is scanning the images. I have this big A3 scanner, and it takes ages to scan a short film. While making my last film I just plonked on a selection of films including Armageddon, Stranger Things, You’ve Got Mail and Aliens so it flew by.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Probably my last short film called ‘Six god alphabet Peter’ which (apart from the music by Skillbard) I made completely by myself. I had just moved studio, ended up spending way too much time on my own and started having little conversations in my head that I translated into a film. It’s about six gods talking to me, and forcing me to learn the alphabet faster and faster. They’re never happy about it.
What skills are essential to your job?
Patience – animation takes ages. Also not thinking too much about what other people are doing. I wouldn’t say it’s an essential skill, but you should focus on doing what you want on your terms.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
I’ve just completed a trailer for the Ottawa International Animation Festival which has been really fun. I got to experiment with my new keyboard a lot. I’m also making little things with clay.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use quite a ‘traditional’ approach to animation. I use paper (all recycled), oil bar and paint. Then I scan it in with my monster scanner and dump the images into After Effects where I can size them up before using Premiere Pro to edit.
Peter’s desk and light box
Stack of finished frames
Peter at work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A chef. I have no idea why. I think I thought Jamie Oliver was cool.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
Massive. I come from a small town called Malvern which is really lovely. I was quite a slow child; I was always in my own thoughts and other kids picked up on this, especially during my first few years of high school. I made some good friends in my later school years, but I feel those early years messed me about a bit. I was really shy throughout school. I studied A-level business studies, word processing and ICT which I completely failed (I got all Es). I ended up on a one-year, part-time life drawing course in Malvern for mature students, which consisted of mostly retired people, and the rest is history.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Thanks to word processing I can touch type.
Preparing for an exhibition in Italy
An exhibition of Peter’s work in Italy
What were your first jobs?
I did one day of work experience at Arthur Cox in Bristol while I was still in Newport. I met some brilliant directors who were there at the time, like Felix Massie and Matthew Walker. It was so important meeting these people, as they talked about the industry and the pros and cons of getting involved in it. I then did idents for Gorilla film magazine and Le Petit Néant. These were small independent publications so both jobs were unpaid, but it did give me the opportunity to experiment with the way I was animating. It was fun, and the people that made both publications were friends so they were super-flexible with what they wanted, and let me get on with it.
“Doing work for free or ‘for the exposure’. Don’t do it. The exposure does not exist and it slightly destroys your soul.”
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
My teachers at Newport and the RCA, in particular Matthew Gravelle, Peter Blegvad, Will Bishop-Stephens, Martin Morris and James Manning. Not that my other teachers weren’t great as well, but these were the ones who really pushed me. Without their encouragement – but also their criticism and knowledge – I’m not sure what type of work I would have ended up making. Also, career-wise, the film festivals that took a punt at my work: Ottawa, Pictoplasma and Nobuaki Doi who gave me my first retrospectives across Japan. I owe a lot to these people and festivals.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I made a film in my first year of RCA called ‘Christmas tree sales invoice’ which I hated so much. I felt like I had completely repeated myself and was thinking too much about what I was doing. I went to a low place. I ended up going to the drawing studio at the RCA a lot and attended the drawing classes of the life drawing teacher, Martin Morris. It changed my whole approach to drawing. I made my short film Hogan after that which was the first film that had a big run of festival appearances.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Well I’ve kind of stuck to my guns with my approach, which I’m sure has put a lot of companies off. But equally, I’ve got to meet a bunch of people that do like what I do and have offered me work. In a way I haven’t adapted at all; I just keep doing what I enjoy. If people like it, great, and if people dislike it that’s also great. I try new things with each project, that’s what keeps me excited.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Doing work for free or ‘for the exposure’. Don’t do it. The exposure does not exist and it slightly destroys your soul.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Pretty much. It was never going to be sex, drugs and rock and roll doing animation. But it’s pretty good.
Some of Peter’s clay faces
What would you like to do next?
I’ve just done two little exhibitions in Italy and Germany, I’ve started making more things out of clay and am doing some sound projects for installations. So I would like to get in contact with some small galleries in London and do some more exhibitions. I’m making a new short film called ‘Blue Orange Yellow Green Red Dog’ and some illustrations for a publication in Italy. I’m also planning to do a bunch of talks and workshops at universities, which will be fun. It’s always nice talking to students about their work.
Could you do this job forever?
I try not to think too much about the future like that. Just go with the flow and whatever happens, happens.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I guess some sort of part-time teaching work or getting picked up by a production company that digs my work. It’s different for everyone. It isn’t so black and white.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become animator?
Be prepared for low points. But the highs will outweigh them as long as you stick to what you love doing. It’s not all about who or what can offer you the biggest pay cheque.