Greenpeace animation - interview with animator Daniel Bird

One of the biggest environmental battles Australia has ever seen is unfolding. The problem is, few are aware of it. Greenpeace's beautifully crafted new short animation 'Welcome to Coal World' is the animation every Australian must watch. This creative masterpiece manages the perfect balance of entertainment and education.

This newly-released animation is produced by award-winning film maker, Daniel Bird. Daniel won Best Animated Short at Slamdance in 2010 and a prestigious Golden Drum award in 2011. Based in the Czech Republic, he has carved up the scene in Europe and now lends his talents Downunder.

We caught up with Daniel to talk about his work.

Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got into animation?

I started stop-motion animating and filming on super 8 at about the age of twelve. I was introduced to Jan Svankmajer's short films in my late teens, which turned my interest in surrealism and animation into an obsession. After slowly losing my mind with boredom in film editing rooms for a year or two in London I ran off to knock on his door in Prague. He happened to be filming Otesanek (Little Otik) at the time. I was entrusted with guarding the lighting van on location for the first day, but became sucked in as model maker and animator, as well as working in the cutting rooms. I stayed in Prague and worked on subsequent Svankmajer films, but also became involved with other productions and started making my own animations.

You have done a lot of work with Greenpeace over the years, can you tell me a little about how this came about?

I happened upon an advert in a film news bulletin for an in-house film-maker and animator for Greenpeace International, and once again became obsessed with getting the position. The threat of moving into commercials was looming and it seemed the antitheses of what I wanted to do with my work. Who wants to sell more stuff when we're killing ourselves with consumerism? I was lucky and got the job, spending a life-changing year in Amsterdam before coming back to Prague and continuing to work for Greenpeace as a freelancer.

A lot of your work is based on Climate Change, Coal Mining, Deforestation etc. You are obviously very passionate about the environment. How does this affect your work?

It's clear we're entering a dangerous moment in the history of humanity. My own children may not survive the results of what's being done to our planet, so there's an element of selfishness here. If there was an asteroid approaching Earth and only a few people knew about it while the rest laughed it off, what would you do? The fact is that climate change will have a similar level of consequences, but it's still not being taken seriously enough. Other than painting my arse bright green in front of parliament, all I can really contribute is by making films. If those films can make a dent in individual cases that's obviously good, but hopefully also they'll add, in however tiny drips, to the changing tide of consciousness. 

Your latest work for Greenpeace 'Welcome to Coal World' is a fantastic example of animation used to raise awareness of the environmental impact of coal mining in Australia. Can you tell me how you went about creating this?

Thanks! I was contacted by Greenpeace Australia, who basically handed over the facts, gave me a couple of examples of what they liked and generally let me get on with it. The first script was about a foul-mouthed piece of coal who just wanted to be left in the ground, but a quick look around the internet showed that swearing coal isn't particularly original. The title of Australia's national anthem, Australia Fair, was the main inspiration for the Coal World film. The idea of the super rich using the country and the world as their personal funfair isn't really that far from the truth. 

How long did it take to produce? 

A couple of weeks to get the script right (always the most painful part) and then just over a month for the design and animation. Nick Purser, a designer I want to work with more regularly, did most of the design in one week, and the great Jarda Mrazek (blessed be his name) the animation, with me handling direction, the edit and most fun of all, the sound. It's the usual path of script to storyboard to animatic, but adding details and improvisations along the way. There's no agency being precious, so it's an enjoyably freeform process. Jarda lives in the flat above me, so we can have regular cups of tea together without getting on each others' toes.

A lot of your work outlines the negitive impact us as humans make to the environment. Are you seeing a shift in attitude from clients wanting to talk about the more positive elements of what we can do for a sustainable future?

Greenpeace is always keen to point out the alternatives, and ways we can change things for the better rather than being purely doom and gloom - which I hope always gets across in each of my films. One thing I've noticed about pro bono work for Greenpeace is that agencies will generate a fancy-looking bleak message about our future with a Greenpeace logo bolted on the end. Having said that, though, the only positive solution you can propose for a certain problem is 'Just ****ing stop!'

Otherwise, I do have clients that use film to propose detailed solutions. I'm just completing one right now for a collaboration between WWF and the European Union which does just that.

Can you tell me a little about the practical side of what you do. How do you run the business side, is it just yourself or do you have support with the day to day?

I work from home, in my office, and collaborate on most aspects of work with Jarda. Other contributions are handled over Skype. We're lucky to live in a time when you can direct a voice-over in South Africa and then collaborate with your composer in Berlin whilst still in your dressing gown. If it's a lower budget animation job, Jarda and I tend to handle it ourselves, but bigger projects are handled by Savage, the production company that represents me.

What advice would you give to businesses / organisations that want to explore using animation / video?

Know generally what you want to say, and to whom you want to say it. You'd be amazed how many just have this aimless idea of making a video. Be ready to think about the budget, especially if you have big ideas. Again, you'd be amazed how many don't. Also, don't provide a ready-made script, because although you may find it amazing, I'm sorry to say it probably isn't, and you'll either scare off the film-maker (unless they're desperate) or end up with something rather less than perfect. Coming with an open mind is best, and handing over the facts and your requirements so you can work out the message you want to convey, and how it'll be conveyed, together with the film-maker.

What about the future? What is next for you?

Working freelance is like walking across a magical stream where the stepping stones seem to pop up just before your toe touches the water... if you're lucky. I work closely with a fine Italian agency called Latte Creative, who handle work from NGOs and provide me with a lot of opportunities. I also get commercial work from Savage. In the medium term though, I'm collaborating on some books with a talented friend, and I have two feature scripts I'd like to see through. Since the Coal World film, though, Jarda and I have just completed an infographic film for WWF, Friends of the Earth and the EU called Notes for a Better Europe.

Last question... if you were starting again, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Everything is for a reason, even if only to teach you a lesson. So I'm with Edith Piaf.

Watch Welcome to Coal World
For more details on Daniel Bird visit:
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Created: 11/10/2012