Home Road Movies
Home Road Movies

Director: Robert Bradbrook (UK)
2002 Grand Prize Winner



On the Road
Essay by Keltie Duncan


It’s 2002 and, in like a lion, CGI animation techniques arrive on the festival circuit. Starting off the coming digital avalanche on the right foot, Home Road Movies by Robert Bradbrook, a loving look at a son’s memories of his father, took the 2002 OIAF Grand Prize for Best Independent Short Film/Video.  Using a newly accessible medium that would become known for its propensity toward a stiffer and more sterile representation, Bradbrook created a skillfully warm and tactile portrait of his father, making conscious uses of CGI’s strengths, and deliberate work-arounds for its weaknesses.


Home Road Movies immerses viewers in the chronology of a relationship between a man and his father, rooting the story in his father’s attachment to the family’s prized baby blue Peugeot Citroën. From the first family road trip through to his father’s final motorized voyage, Movies does much credit to the medium of 3D computer animation and sets the bar very high for a new, sometimes distancing, and seemingly boundless technique that would become increasingly accessible to independent filmmakers; arguably to a fault.


Bradbrook found his inspiration for Home Road Movies while he and his siblings sorted through their late father’s estate, going through boxes of family photos and keepsakes. At the suggestion of producer Dick Arnall (who oversaw Bradbrook’s previous film, End of Restriction) Bradbrook approached acclaimed British broadcaster Channel 4 with his idea for the film. Under the guidance of the legendary Clare Kitson [i], Channel 4 animation was producing its own short films as part of a stimulus initiative in cooperation with the Arts Council of England. The program was part of a decades long legacy of thriving British animation in which independent animators like Bradbrook received unique opportunities to create a film in a professional environment with a guaranteed broadcast audience at the end of it all. Other projects from Channel 4’s fruitful production era include Dianne Jackson’s The Snowman and Creature Comforts by future fellow OIAF Grand Prize winner, Nick Park.


By the time Bradbrook was ready for his new project in the late 90s, independent British animation was approaching a turning point. As Bradbrook recalls about the commissioning system, “it turned out that we were one of the last independent animations to get proper funding by Channel 4. After Clare left, things completely changed and making short animation films in the UK was really hard. We were super lucky that everything fell into place at the right time.”  [ii]


The timing, though, was not so “right” in terms of traditional broadcast distribution. According to Kitson, by the time the film was complete in 2001, Channel 4 no longer had prime broadcast slots available for animation. [iii] Home Road Movies eventually found its greatest successes on the festival circuit, winning twenty-one awards that year.


Kitson, a fervent champion of the auteur film in Britain and force behind the Channel 4 animation commissions program, wrote British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, a book about the films created during her tenure at Channel 4, including, of course, a chapter on Home Road Movies. In it, she mentions Bradbrook’s background as a geologist and cartographer before enrolling in his MA in Electronic Arts and Graphics with Coventry University[iv]. She recounts memories of the production process, which took two years due to what Arnall describes in the book as ‘hanging round for perfection.’[v] In the book she recounts that the ideal narrator for the film, actually hired to replace Bradbrook himself, wasn’t available for many months, and so production waited patiently for the right voice.


Bradbrook’s website documents more of the technical details around creating the film, which also involved shooting a live actor, in this case Bill Paterson, against a blue screen in 4:3 and compositing him in After Effects onto the CGI scenes, in widescreen. The computer-generated components were made up of actual family photos and completely modeled environments, but the casting of a live action protagonist helped root the ‘constructedness’ of the film in an emotionally recognizable place. On his techniques, Bradbrook has said:


“I worried that people would find the cut-out family pictures a little cold. I considered making them talk but decided it would look too cheesy. I like to see what the computer can do but never feel obligated to go in that direction. It’s strange but now that I teach (computer animation at Coventry) I’ve noticed that a lot of students who can draw beautifully seem to lose their way on a computer. They are sometimes overwhelmed by the possibilities. I feel like saying ‘You already have a gift, use it’ but other people are totally inspired by computers. To me, the computer should be invisible and you should just view the film. I absolutely love Shrek and Toy Story because they are using computers to tell stories and each character is an individual, whereas Final Fantasy just made me think ‘What’s the point?’. Why use computers and motion capture to make actors into animated characters?”[vi]

 

The aesthetic of the film translates two-dimensional memories in the form of photographs into a three-dimensional simulation from the past. Movies blends together sterile, structural elements of 3D computer modeling (Form-Z), the texture of old photographs composited into static photographic tableaus, a live action human being, and sequences of incredibly plastic representations of 1960s products eventually aging and rusting beyond function. The result is a vivid representation of memory and emotional sentimentality that uses the materiality of something like a car, starting out so brand new you can almost smell it and eventually rusting almost as Father does, to connect the vivid feeling of familiarity; this could easily be one’s own distant family on the screen. It is specifically the use of computer animation that perfectly unites what seem like opposites – a rusty old car and a son’s love for his father.


The CGI landscape of Home Road Movies is a perfect canvas for the plastic world of the 1960s or stone jungles of European cities, but wrapping the blank forms warmly in the grungy surface of an aging car or the faded memory of a family picnic adds that tactility that makes the film realistic as an emotional experience. Where many 3D computer films coming after Movies draw upon the inherent sterility of the medium to add nuance to the story, such as the films of David O’Reilly which are inconceivable as anything other than CGI, or some which seem to not give enough conscious thought to the use of computer in general, Home Road Movies has a remarkable anchor in the long legacy of the analog techniques and ‘real life’ texturality that almost exclusively preceded  it in independent filmmaking. It is the very third dimensionality of the space in which this story is told that is the catalyst for a true understanding of an entire lifetime of feelings and memories between this father and son.


Adding spatial depth takes a method of documentation that is inherently about the past, like a photograph, and gives it agency and immediacy as though it is a current experience. Through the intentional mimicry of the real world, rather than translating ‘cartoonish’ designed characters and backgrounds into CGI, Movies takes learned connections to photographs and live action filmmaking – home movies! – as a nostalgic experience and evokes this response in viewers to effectively tug at heartstrings and communicate a very personal story in a moving way.


It is this considered application of the CGI process and its inevitable tendencies toward a certain aesthetic that make Home Road Movies so worthy of note; not only the production techniques surrounding the film, but also that Movies has aged so well, and in an environment notoriously quick to evolve and render itself obsolete in the blink of an eye. Home Road Movies stood out on the 2002 festival circuit as a shining example of familiar benchmarks found in great cinema presented in a new and interesting package. These are the standards still at play when selecting a Grand Prize film after forty years, and will continue to be so down the road, regardless of any further new techniques independent animators will employ next.

  


Keltie Duncan is the film and technical manager of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She also drums for local pop stars, Bonnie Doon.

 



[i] Email between Robert Bradbrook and the author of February 2016

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kitson, Clare. British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor. London: Parliament Hill Publishing, 2008. p 187. Print.

[iv] Ibid. p 183

[v] Ibid. p 187

[vi] Williams, Nick. “Estate of the Heart.” Imagine. Date unknown. 28-30. Print.