Wandering into the Phoenix with expectations of the same bar where I'd come to see a friend perform spoken word a few nights previously, I was surprised to come across some kind of giant, nostalgic playground. Lined up inside were tables of play-do blobs, bursts of squashed colours, and parents making grave attempts to stop their toddlers running about.Yet though child-friendly, this was clearly no child's play. Animation is big business – the UK has dozens of such festivals, many of which were founded in the last decade. More to the point, no less than six of the top 50 highest grossing animated films were released in 2012 (Brave, Wreck-it Ralph and The Lorax to name a few). Unsurprisingly then, Animated Exeter is attracting some big names, not least in the form of Tristan Oliver, a cinematographer whose rap sheet reads like a bucket list of great animated movies – Chicken Run, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Wallace & Gromit, amongst others. He's also one of several notable cinematographers who got their break working in advertising; his mixed-media commercials for Becks and Sony stood him apart in an era before animation was seen as financially viable or artistically important. And now, over two decades later, he has the unusual position of being, as he puts it: "at the top of a very small tree". Cinematography is niche at the best of times, but in animation it's practically miniscule. The result is that certain studios, directors and writers will often form partnerships with individuals they trust to best deliver their vision. In Oliver's case, it's with Nick Park, the groundbreaking co-founder of Aardman and one of the instigators of the animation renaissance. Oliver has worked on four Aardman films in the past, a process which involves becoming familiar not only with a script but with the precise visual "feel" of the story, from resizing models and costumes to plotting where the colour and tone of the picture will change. Later collaborations have clearly been less satisfying; Oliver grimaces when he is reminded of working with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, at a time when Anderson wasn't even in the same country. His squeamishness betrays how personal the process of creating an animated feature is, perhaps even more so than on a "regular" set. Add to this the innumerable technical challenges of shooting in miniature and you have what is obviously an extremely complex and protracted mode of filmmaking: from fabric looking too creased, to lights being too "snappy". Oliver attributes his understanding of these processes to his original training as an actor at Bristol, soon after which he had a supporting role in 1984's Another Country. Having worked with "real" people, he claims, has given him the ability to relate the human quality of live action to animation, a trait by which his work is most identifiable. Particularly, his ear for sound and dialogue lends films like Chicken Run an easy coordination between visual quality and character, a clarity that contributes to the film's humour and candour. It is this ability to make the audience forget they're watching something animated, he says, that is the key to a great animated feature. There are ghosts hanging over the discussion, however. Not least, the matter of cinematography in a culture of digitisation and 3D. You can his sense the frustration when Oliver discusses converting to 3D for his latest film, ParaNorman, which often makes the visual quality "a bit shit". When asked if he sees 3D assuming the place of stop motion in years to come, he is evasive, putting the medium's success down to a mere fad. But even if 3D dies an explosive death, change is happening, and I wonder whether this niche industry can go on unhampered. In a viewing culture that is as fickle as it is fast-paced, where do small studios and individuals who would commit years to creating a labour of love stand? Some would say on shifting ground. All I know is that Oliver's passion for the worlds he creates is inspiring, and I'd like to believe that audiences will wait – and pay – to see truly exceptional film.
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