“I love any animation style that’s got a tactile feel to it”: talking to Harry Plowden, a new voice in British animation

As four of his short films are added to the BFI National Archive collection, we talked to Harry Plowden about finding inspiration in a bowl of cereal, the freedoms of animation and the influence of Michael Haneke.

1 March 2024

By Jez Stewart

All Gucci My Broski (2023)

One of the great pleasures of being a curator at the BFI National Archive is the opportunity to engage with a range of filmmakers from all over the industry and in different phases of their career. As curator of animation I keep a watchful eye over contemporary production and make recommendations for works to be added to the collection. Even for recent releases that are widely accessible online, we try to persuade creators of the benefits of gifting preservation copies to the national moving image collection, so that we can help ensure that their work is still around in its best form for decades to come.

Thankfully, it’s often not a hard sell. The promise of preservation, posterity and having your work rub shoulders with almost 130 years of British screen history has an appeal. Our discussions with those filmmakers (or sometimes their associates or families) often unearths some valuable context behind the creation of their works.

Harry Plowden is one of those filmmakers whose recent animated short films stood out to me, particularly after his film All Gucci My Broski (2023) won the best British animated short film at the Manchester Animation Festival against some stiff competition. He hadn’t come out of nowhere, and in fact his earlier short Violence (2022) had featured at the BFI Future Film Festival. But I was particularly intrigued by his background in live-action filmmaking and the reasons behind his transition into animation. So while working with Harry to add four of his short films to the BFI National Archive collection I took the opportunity to find out more.

What was the background behind your move towards animation?

After graduating from a ‘normal’ film degree at Bristol, I found myself a bit frazzled by live-action filmmaking. I’d made a few films in a row where I wasn’t exactly happy with them, and with live-action you’ve brought in your mates, who’ve given up their time for free, and you’ve got to send them a film you don’t love. Having made a lot of films in those three years, and then having to work out this transition from university to real life, I just gave up on film for a bit. I was intentionally not having film ideas. I paused all the scripts I was writing, and tried to forget about film and live for a bit, which ended up being very enjoyable. Getting rid of that artistic existentialism that you’re not making enough; I was very happy not making anything.

But when lockdown happened [in 2020], and I found myself doing a lot of sitting around, the film ideas started drifting in again. Locked away in my room, all I could really do was animate. And while trying out animation I discovered how liberating it was to only be wasting your own time if it’s bad. If it is bad, you can just change it. It was so fun animating by myself and relearning to love making films, not thinking about film festivals or success or people watching them; just having ideas and bringing them to life. When you’ve finished your film and are happy with it, that’s it, you’re just happy regardless. That’s the thing I’ve taught myself through animation over the last few years, and an important part of why the animations have been more successful than the live-action films.

What have you found are the main differences in writing for animation?

The first few scrappy animations I was making in lockdown, I wasn’t thinking very big at all. I guess I was stuck in the live-action headspace of, “What do I have access to?” So i hope this film isn’t about me is about this guy hanging around his room and scrolling on social media. It was after I’d made that I realised, hang on, I can just draw anything. And even though it was fun making those tiny personal films, that then led to Violence which was, let’s just make the biggest, silliest film ever. I started trying to bang down as many Hollywood ideas as possible. One day I was eating a bowl of cereal, and I had the idea – message in the cereal, big conspiracy… and then we were off. It was so fun writing Violence, but I think it was almost too far in a way, as I hardly recognised myself in it. Hopefully All Gucci My Broski is a balance between the two, with the fun story, the twists and turns but also the more personal element to it.

Violence (2022)

In i hope this film isn’t about me the central character has an awakening moment prompted by a social media post – a survey that 86% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. Was that discovery moment the impetus behind the film?

Yes, having discovered animation in lockdown, I was making this film just as things were starting to reopen, and saw discussions about nightclubs happening in social media and on the news; whether the problems of the past were going to return. That middle section of the film was the start of the whole idea, and then I went back and got the animated part involved in the story.

i hope this film isn’t about me (2021)

All Gucci My Broski is about a character in dire need of an awakening, about his health, about his life. How did the concept of that film develop? 

With a lot of my films there are two places the ideas come from. One of which is looking at the previous films I’ve made and then thinking, what do I want to do next? I was looking for something that combined the personal stuff in i hope this film isn’t about me with the twists and turns of Violence. I came across a statistic about the staggeringly high percentage of rape that was perpetrated by people the victim already knew, whether that was a friend, or an ex, or a current partner. I was really interested that whenever you see a film about male violence it’s always super extreme: serial killers, etc. I wanted to see what would happen if it was the complete opposite. If it was just a normal guy and nothing like that happens, but there’s all these thoughts running through his head that you can almost relate to, but also find a bit creepy. Playing with the line between those two things and watching it unfold. 

My main cinematic influence is Michael Haneke, and my favourite thing about him is when he just shows truth with no moral judgement, and that being the story. People often call him cold or clinical, but I find simply watching his characters live truthfully so exciting. I felt this linked to what I wanted to do with All Gucci My Broski, which made me excited to develop this script, and is why a lot of my film is in these long, wide takes.

You are very prominent in your films through your voice.

I’ve found with animation, in comparison to live-action, that you are in such control of the rhythm of a film. And although it might be fun to have an actor go off and improvise what they are doing, I’ve fallen in love with getting such a tight rhythm in my storytelling. I guess that’s also part of the reason why I’m doing it with my voice; although I know better actors, there’s something important to me about getting the rhythm spot-on more than necessarily hitting the right emotions in the performance. 

I’ve always started my animations with the audio as a way of testing the rhythm, and I think if I ever went back to live-action I would keep doing that, as it’s so useful. Often if I’m on the tube or whatever, I’ve got my headphones on just listening to my films to get a feel of the pace and the rhythm – which bits are slow, which bits drag – in order to keep the audience hooked in at all times.

We Laughed is such a sweet little snippet of a film, and where your voice fits less naturally but still works. Is that something we can expect more of, and where did the film come from?

The few films before We Laughed were all based around socio-political themes, and before I started to make All Gucci – which was going to be the longest thing I had ever made – I was really curious to try making something that really isn’t political at all: more character-based than ideas-based. When you’re a filmmaker you’re sometimes thinking “I’m gonna change the world” or whatever; you’ve got these big ideas. But with We Laughed I just ignored all that and had a nice little time with some cute old ladies. It was also a style test for the painted look in All Gucci, as well as a warm-up to remember how to talk to actors again.

We Laughed (2023)

Can you talk a bit about coming to grips with animation, moving from a cut-out style to that more painterly look?

The very first thing I did in lockdown was just paper and pencil, and the animation is actually pretty bad, but it was a fun little story. And that was where I fell in love with any animation style that’s got that texture of the paper, a tactile feel to it. I really like the balance between fantasy and reality, in that you have this animated world where you can draw anything, you can do anything, but instead of it being a super polished 3D model that’s removed from our human world, you can see the paper, you can see the mistakes, you can see the little rips on the cut-outs. You’re constantly reminded that what you see is still based in our real world – I don’t want you to forget that when you’re watching it. 

Harry Plowden

The first film was just scanned in, and being badly drawn was part of the story. Like in i hope this film isn’t about me, it became about the person that was making the film. Then I started watching a lot of tutorials on YouTube when I wanted to make this big, silly, adventure-y film with Violence. But I still had that safety net where it’s a story from a child’s perspective with a child’s drawings, which made the animation a lot simpler and more forgiving when an audience is watching it. 

We Laughed was an attempt to do something a bit ‘artier’, especially as each animation I’d made had got into film festivals, but I’d never got into an animation festival and that suddenly became the goal. I was really working on styles and my technique, and then All Gucci finally got into an animation festival in Manchester.

And won best British film! What are you working on now?

There’s a couple of scripts I’m trying to make at the moment, hopefully in the next month or so. One of them is a similar vibe to All Gucci, but it’s about fatherhood. Depending on how the next few projects go, we may even be worrying about the ‘feature’ word. I’ve got a loose script idea at the moment, so when I’ve finished these two new shorts the next job is trying to write a big one. Ignore the short films for a while and relax for a bit and see what happens. Because I’ve heard from friends making similar transitions that they just had to drop everything shorts-related as it’s a whole new way of thinking in terms of writing something so long. 

That’s the next goal, and the current plan for that is to go back to the cut-out style, although I’m really interested in taking my own photos of actors acting and turning that back into the collage style.

What does having preservation copies of your work added to the BFI National Archive mean to you?

In the last year or so I came across a Twitter account about eastern European animation, and there was a film highlighted from around 50 years ago [Péter Szoboszlay’s Hé, te! (1976)]. I remember watching it and thinking that I’ve made films in a similar style, and even the story isn’t a million miles away. It was so inspiring for what I’m doing, and so interesting to look back at how people are just making stuff all the time and trying to express themselves. I’ve stumbled across this Hungarian animator from the last century who made something similar to what I’d made. 

So, when you emailed me, that’s where my mind went to: that in a 100 years’ time maybe some random person might be writing an essay about the 2020s UK animation scene; or they’ll be making something similar to mine. That’s funny in terms of the ecosystem of art: that I’m nothing without all my inspirations, but it’s the unique combination of inspirations that makes me who I am. It’s just interesting to think that my films are now in that ecosystem, and who knows what will come next?

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