Earlier in May we caught up with animation duo Eiko & Jody Meredith at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and had an interesting conversation about their journey into animation, their current projects and what keeps them driven. Eiko is the Director of Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival, an initiative that has been running since 2010 bringing the best of Japanese culture and animation to a wide audience in Wales. Jody is a freelance stop motion animator currently working as animation supervisor at Animortal Studio in Bridgend.
For people who don’t know you, who are Eiko and Jody? Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
Eiko: I was born in Hiroshima, Japan. Studied English and International Studies at the Faculty of International Studies, Hiroshima City University. In 2000, I began volunteering at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, where I was later promoted to part-time staff. Whilst there, I learned first hand what it takes to organise a successful animation festival. I then decided to study animation at the Graduate School of Art, Hiroshima City University. I also completed a course on Stop-Motion Animation at The Three Month Bristol Animation Course, University of the West of England, Faculty of Art, Media and Design. Back in Japan, alongside my part-time lecturing in Animation at Hiroshima International University and Hiroshima Art Vocational School, I also taught English to both adults and children. After finally moving to the UK in 2008, work then took priority, with projects including Shaun the Sheep (Aardman Animations, 2008), Igam Ogam (Calon TV, 2008), Fantastic Mr Fox (3 Miles Studio, 2008), Zoo Factor (Calon TV, 2009) and the feature film Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2011). After moving to South Wales, I missed having a local animation festival so much that in 2010 I set up the Kotatsu Festival, the only Japanese-themed animation festival in Wales. Always keen to promote Japanese culture, in July 2017 I gave a talk about the history of Japanese animation at MLANG, Cardiff University, as part of the Japanese Culture and Language Day.
Jody: I am a stop motion animator based in Caerphilly, South Wales and have been in the animation industry for over 20 years working on many TV series, commercials and feature films. I have been based in Wales all my life and have studied, trained and worked here for most of my career.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Eiko: Lots of insects. Behind our house in Hiroshima there is a small mountain, so the garden was always full of insects in the spring/summer time. I loved looking for grasshoppers and acrida cinerea (Chinese grasshopper), butterflies, dragonflies. I especially loved looking for baby praying mantis, they were so cute and tiny. I was always looking for their eggs, but I never found them in the garden, they had already hatched. I only saw them in the books.
How did you two meet?
Eiko: I visited the Calon TV studio in Cardiff while Jody was working there as a stop-motion animator. They were filming the Fireman Sam TV series at that time.
Jody: Eiko and I met I think in 2002 at an animation company called Siriol Productions (now Calon) while I was an animator on the new TV series Fireman Sam. Eiko had studied animation in Bristol and was visiting the studio. We initially began a friendship which over time became a relationship.
What subject appears most often in your conversations?
Eiko: Animated films, especially those based on stop-motion technique, or the animation projects Jody is currently working on.
Jody, how did you get into animation as a profession? What was your journey like?
From an early age I loved drawing and making things. I had a fascination with animation and creating plasticine characters and even attempted to make my own 8mm animated films at home. I continued my passion for anything creative throughout my school years and then studying at University an HND in Art and Design, a foundation course in Graphic Design and then a BA hons in Graphic Design. My main goal was towards graphics but I was left slightly frustrated with the graphic design course and applied for an animation course which I was accepted for. The course was incredible and I was given a lot of freedom to create, unlike the graphic design courses. I realised that creating characters and primarily stop frame animation was what I wanted to pursue as a career.
Towards the end of the course I sent my showreel of work (VHS at the time!!) to the very small amount of animation companies in the UK at the time to try and get work experience. Shortly afterwards I was asked to visit an animation company based in Cardiff called AAARGH! Animation owned by directors Mike Mort and Deiniol Morris. They were rather well known at the time in Wales for a Plasticine TV series for S4C called “Gogs”. I went along and was given 2 weeks work experience. Straight from University this was practically unheard of to get into the industry. I was then to my utter astonishment offered a full time job as assistant animator!! At £100 a week!!!!! As a poor student to be given a job on an animated TV series and be paid for it was a dream come true. I was there for about 6 years working on a number of productions and commercials where I worked my way up the ranks and was promoted to full animator. I contributed to several productions as a designer and storyboard artist. It was without doubt the most incredible and rewarding time in my career.
The directors decided to fold the company and I became freelance. I jumped onto several commercials and the TV series Fireman Sam. Maintaining a friendship with AAARGH! Animation director Mike Mort, I was introduced to Andy Fraine who owned the Manga label. He was the Director of Slave Studios based in London who was producing a TV series called “The Spheriks” based on the FIFA mascots. I was offered three 30 minute episodes to direct. The following years included more commercials and TV series, such as Hana’s Helpline, Igam Ogam and Rastamouse. Feature film such as Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox and the recent Nick Park feature Early Man. I was an animation lecturer at the University of Wales and have held stop motion lectures and workshops in Universities and schools in England and Wales. I was also reunited with Mike Mort on his stop-motion feature film “Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires”, where I was animation supervisor/storyboard artist and concept designer on the production. I am currently employed with Animortal Studio in Bridgend with Director Mike Mort developing several new projects which we will be showcasing at Annecy in June.
Is there anything that you find frustrating about the industry? How would you change it?
Jody: The industry is a strange thing. Animators tend to travel around from project to project and you never know where the next job will be. Also you can be on one contract and there might be several feature films happening at the same time, and if lucky enough to be offered a position on say 2 films it’s difficult to choose. Working away from home can be frustrating.
Eiko: It would be nice if more funding was available, but with Brexit etc, that is unlikely to happen. So we have to try to find other funding sources, such as sponsorships etc. It’s important to be flexible.
Jody, what is the most challenging aspect of directing an animation film?
I have not directed a film, although I would jump at the chance, having directed on a TV series I can say that I very much enjoy the creative side, the storyboarding, the character development, the structure of the scenes and developing the actual visuals from a written script. The stressful aspect I don't very much like is in respect to the time schedules that are sometimes put upon you.
Eiko, you are also the director of Kotatsu, the annual Japanese Animation Festival. Can you tell us a bit about the ethos and history of this festival?
I started Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival back in 2010 because I felt it was a shame for Cardiff to have no animation festival at all. Also I was missing the Hiroshima International Animation Festival back in Hiroshima that I used to go to as a student. It was such a great experience, you can watch great animations from all over the world, that you can’t really see on TV. Additionally, if you are lucky you can meet amazing guests, such as Ray Harryhausen, Peter Lord, or Co Hoedeman, all great animators and directors, and they’re all real! Also I realised there are so many people in Wales who like Japanese things, like Anime, Manga, Japanese food etc. Sadly there was nowhere these people could go to get together, unless of course you go to one of the bigger cities like London. These people are like dots, but if they come to the festival, you can connect the dots, to form the bigger picture. They can share their passion for Japan with other people. The festival’s ethos is diversity. I like screening a wide variety of feature films and shorts, from mainstream to independent. In April Kotatsu has presented a special programme of animated graduate films from Japan’s top Art University, Tokyo National University of Arts Graduate School, at Cardiff Animation Festival 2018 in Chapter. I love supporting young talent. Nobody is a great director from day one, so it is nice to screen independent short films, alongside feature films. Sometimes, some short film directors do so well and start making great feature films, for example, Makoto Shinkai. We screened his short “She and Her Cat” back in 2010 and we just screened the super popular “Your Name” in 2017, all tickets were sold out and sadly we had to turn down quite a lot of people. It is amazing to see talented directors doing so well and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
What is the most rewarding aspect of working on this project?
Eiko: When I organise Kotatsu festival, mainly emailing, I mean a lot of emailing. I am dealing with people but not talking very much. It can feel a little isolating. Also organising the festival is bit like putting puzzle pieces together. Sometimes I get stuck, so it’s great to have some insights and different approaches from my Kotatsu staff, and with talented people you can achieve an even bigger goal.
How is Japanese animation received by the Welsh audiences and what can we expect to see in 2018?
Eiko: When I started Kotatsu festival in 2010, Anime was still regarded as a niche market and I am sure people thought there was not enough of an audience to support Kotatsu in Wales. But over the years, Anime and Manga have become much more popular, and it is just amazing, every year Kotatsu is growing. People are travelling not only from Wales, but from Bristol, Cornwall, and as far as Brighton to attend the festival. In 2018, I am hoping to screen more of the latest releases and some classics. We are also looking into the possibility of having a guest from Japan again. I can’t tell a lot yet because it's still early stages, but I am sure Kotatsu fans will enjoy our 2018 lineup! Also, this year Kotatsu is lucky to be a part of Anim18: A Celebration of British Animation. We received a grant from the BFI through Chapter, Film Hub Wales. For a small festival like Kotatsu which only screens Japanese films, it is ground breaking to have a grant from BFI, even a part of it. We are so honoured! Thanks again to Chapter, especially Sally for supporting Kotatsu Festival. Anim18 launched on the 20th April at Chapter, and to celebrate British Animation, Kotatsu is planning to screen some of the Japanese films which are based on British novels.
How does a typical workday in your lives look like?
Eiko: Emailing, have some tea and bit of chocolate and more emailing. Sometimes have a meeting to have a spark.
Jody: As an animator before actually animating a shot, you will discuss the shot with the director and then prepare to shoot a test of the actual shot so that the director/Director of photography/motion control (if any) puppet department/sets, etc, etc, can see all the aspects of the scene and make changes. If everyone is happy then you will prepare to shoot the actual shot. When everyone has finished setting up, final checks are called and every department will come in and check everything and then you start animating. After the shot is completed the shot is shown to everyone for technical and creative approval and then, if fully approved, you can relax and move onto the next shot.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Eiko: Don’t forget to enjoy. In the early years I would get a bit too stressed organising the festival. Recently I try to relax and enjoy what I do. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Somebody said this to me when I was looking for a job in the animation industry in UK. It is hard to follow this advice, it sounds a bit like you have to be lucky.
Jody: Never listen to anyone that says what you are doing won’t work and just give up. Just keep going. Even if you fail. Because you will learn from your mistakes.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Eiko: You don’t get what you want unless you ask. If I didn’t ask Sally, the Director of Cinema in Chapter in 2010 to hold Kotatsu Festival, I would never have achieved so many events over the last 8 years, and the Kotatsu audience would never have benefited from that! I am so glad I asked and so grateful that Sally gave me a chance. I’d organised some events in the past but not a festival in UK!
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Eiko: Yoga and watch films including Anime, and lots of comics and books. To get inspired, I simply meet my Kotatsu staff. Organising the festival is a bit like putting all the puzzle pieces together. Sometimes I get stuck, and quite often they know a different approach.
Jody: Anywhere quiet. Watching movies, especially at the cinema. Which I loved as a child.
What objects or creatures appear most often in your dreams? Do you ever have animated dreams?
Eiko: Can’t remember any dreams for years, too tired I think.
Jody: Not so much animated dreams but I do have the most bizarre, vivid dreams that make no sense? They are sometimes very long, like films even.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue a career in animation?
Eiko: Just try to get work experience at an animation studio first. You have to show what you can do but remember, you don’t have to show off. Apply for jobs and see what happens. You never know.
Jody: You have to put in as much effort and hard work as possible. The animation industry is very difficult to get into. Keep contacting all the main companies and try and get your foot in the door.
What are you currently working on?
Eiko: Kotatsu Festival 2018 ‒ currently discussing which films to screen this year.
Jody: I am currently working at Animortal Studio based in Bridgend. We recently completed a stop-motion feature film called Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires which has its premiere at Annecy Animation Festival in June. So we are in the process of promoting this feature and developing several new projects which is very exciting.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
Eiko: Expansion of the Kotatsu Festival to more venues across the UK. Make my own film when the right time comes.
Jody: To continue working on more projects, continue being creative and have fun doing it, which is highly rewarding.
And now a Max Frisch question: What do you need in order to be happy?
Eiko: A positive mind I guess. Stop complaining. Stop comparing to others. Thing is, we are already happy, because we exist in this world.
Can you recommend us:
Eiko: “Tonio Kröger” by Thomas Mann. “The Castle” by Franz Kafka.
Jody: I prefer to read non fiction and love autobiographies, usually film industry based, and primarily actors. The most recent one I found was “Star Trek Movie Memories” by William Shatner.
Eiko: “Cappuccino” by Shiina Ringo. “Orion” by Mutant Monster.
Jody: I love anything 80's. Depeche Mode: “Enjoy the Silence”.
Eiko: “Isle of Dogs”, “Early Man”, “In This Corner of the World”, “Paprika”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Colorful”.
Jody: I would say Terry Gilliam’s film “Time Bandits”.