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Our contributor Joseph Norman reviews the animation short Nod. Wink. Horse. by Ollie Magee, now available online.

Zippy Frames caught up with Ollie Magee, director of the acclaimed and visually striking short film, 'Nod. Wink. Horse', his graduation film from the Royal College of Art. Magee’s work deploys an innovative tactile quality, which he explained developed out of his background in fine art painting.

A film behind a horse. Obscuring the narrative. My act of self-destruction. - Synopsis

In his work as an animator, and in making ‘Nod. Wink. Horse’, he explored the mixing of techniques, through shooting photos and adding collaged elements, and used blue tack to add joints to the miniature puppet characters. The tiny figures are made using thick paper with oil paint on top, resulting in a heavily impasto-textured image. The film has a highly textural, grungy materiality, through the gestural paint, evoking an urban squalor. The method of using blue tack to connect limbs results in a deliberately wonky, uneven quality in the character animation. There is a refreshing rejection of slickness, reinforced through realistic foley, giving an edge of menace and grotesque bodily presence to the film. As Magee states, his approach necessitated the development of assets and character puppets into ‘real things, tactile’, and this sense of embedded reality pervades the atmosphere in his work.

Watch Nod.Wink.Horse

Magee cites Paul Vester’s animated short film, ‘Picnic’, as a strong influence. There are clear connections, in terms of setting the ‘story’ in a grungy urban environment, as well as an irreverent play between discordant signifying systems which echo of high Modernist 50s painting. Harshness is tied in with quirky characters. In some ways, there is a sense of the everyday mix of laughter and conflict that you pick up on walking through a city’s localized areas.

As he was making the film, Magee thought back to the work of the American painter Philip Guston, whose late paintings in the 1970s switched dramatically from abstract expressionism to cartoon paintings of a dark and oppressive society, inhabited by Ku Klux Klansmen and simple blob buildings.

The horse character became central to the film’s anti-narrative, blocking the action and seeming to wander in and out of frame arbitrarily. Guston’s influence is strong, in visual terms through textures and compositional devices; and conceptually, through positioning a silent non-character at the center and obscuring the possibility of a readable narrative.

The film is set in a grungy urban environment, with tower blocks framing the action of a man angrily smashing up a car with a ladle, watched by a youth on a bike; and in a café, walls covered in graffiti and grime, locals smoke, watch each other, whilst reading tabloid headlines; everyday life goes on.

Meanwhile, the horse wanders in front of the action, straying in and out of focus. Its legs straddle and subdivide the composition, ears blocking the activities of the locals in the café. Behind the horse, high drama occurs: visceral sounds of fighting, pissing, possibly sex acts occur. A kitchen worker uses a ladle to beat a stray dog to death, as it feeds from refuse sacks outside the cafe. But the concept of a central narrative is undermined by the horse blocking the action.

Initially the film was a much more conventional narrative, a totally different film and one of the central characters was this horse. As the idea developed the horse became more side-lined, and this obvious burden on the story. I've always found pre-production in animation to be very restrictive and stifle any creative ideas I have. So, I found myself getting frustrated with the process. It was a moment of self-doubt. I realised that what was important to me was the wider context of the film, and my own emotional response to it. Hiding the film was almost taking this horse character and letting him win - giving him centre stage in spite of the rest of the film. It was about taking out my frustration on the work itself and allowing those "self-destructive" habits to influence the film. - Ollie Magee

The film is unusual in how it represents a grim urban existence, in an unforgiving and harsh landscape. Magee explained one of the big challenges ‘was how much of the film to show, should a horse just be stood there for the whole film? Could it wonder in and out of shot? I opted for the gradual narrative build up and horse reveal. I like how it turns the film on its head half-way through, with no warning. It makes no sense, which I like. And I hope it gives the audience enough to get invested and want to see what's going on.’

This embracing of nonsense is key to Magee’s creative approach; to deploy nonsense instead of clear narrative involves a radical questioning of the possibilities in contemporary animation.

There was also the question of how the horse existed in relation to the film itself. I questioned whether it should be this Brechtian device that exposed the 4th wall, with the horse blatantly shoehorned in, revealing animation process behind. I toyed with it being a shadow, like a horse head in front of a cinema projection. But in the end, I decided the horse belonged in the film world itself. It was more absurd, more uncomfortable somehow. I also wanted the film to be self-contained, or else for me it came across as too conceptual and academic - Ollie Magee

Regarding intended meaning and how the work would be received, Magee explained that ‘I don't think the film has any real intended meaning, but perhaps intended reactions. I wanted the film to be frustrating, to feel like it was denying you something you were invested in. Awkward laughs are good, as well as shifting uncomfortably in seats. It's quite an antagonistic film, not just to annoy the audience but hopefully to inspire some conversations about narrative, and the relationship between film maker and audience. I think audiences deserve more agency and input. And any interpretations of the film are as equally valid as my own, especially considering I only realised what it meant to me after I finished it!’

On completion, ‘Nod. Wink. Horse.’ was seen by the team at Bonobostudio, who responded to the individual, quirky qualities. They later agreed to become distributors for the film, releasing it to festivals. Recently, Magee has lectured in the Bristol School of Animation (UWE). In the near future, he is planning a move to Berlin, where he intends to start up a new collective with two fellow animators. We will look forward excitedly to seeing his future work developing.

Film Review (Joseph Norman):

‘Nod. Wink. Horse.’ Is a highly unusual film, which confronts the viewer with a nonsensical contradiction at its core: a grimy downtown setting, peopled by locals busy fighting, having sex and pissing in the street. The aesthetic style evokes a dark and oppressive society, framed by council estates and stinking alleyways. Into this kitchen-sink narrative wanders a horse, so close to the front of frame that it blocks the ‘main’ action. Where we could have interpreted the narrative and tried to understand the human characters’ behavior and backgrounds, instead we see a close-up of the horse’s texture, blocking the possibility of readability. The film also deploys a juxtaposition, of what is readable and can be named, versus a refutation of clear meaning and signification. Magee is a singular voice in contemporary animation, in his embrace of Becket-like nonsense, and his work seems to go against the flow of clarity and communication.

Credits:
Nod. Wink. Horse., 4'42'', United Kingdom, 2020 | stop motion, cut out, paint on cel

Director, scriptwriter, animator, editor, sound designer: Ollie Magee | Production Assistants: David Crump, Ciara Kerr, Dermot Lynskey, John Summerson | Voices: Dimitris Armenakis, Camille Gibut, John Summerson | Sound Mix: Mike Wyeld | Music used: Yun Yun - Yong Du Chunxiao | School: Royal College of Art | Distribution: Bonobostudio

About Ollie Magee:
Ollie Magee is a Northern Irish filmmaker. Ollie settled in England to study animation at the Bristol School of Animation, and later the Royal College of Art in London. A background in painting and music. Drawn to ideas around anti narrative and structuralist film. 

Contributed by: Joseph Norman

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