The many obsessions of author/illustrator Steven Appleby made compulsive viewing for students and staff at Bradford School of Arts & Media on 6th March 2012, when he delivered a fascinating talk and workshop. Deb Singleton, Director of Bradford Animation Festival, had arranged Steven’s return visit to College (which had been eagerly awaited since he first visited as part of BAF 2008 - you can read all about it here ) and she acknowledged that the College’s support as main sponsor of the festival for the last six years had enabled it to become the UK’s leading animation festival attracting high profile participants. Deb’s introduction explained that Steven’s work has appeared in many press publications; currently the Loomus comic strip in the Guardian.; he has written over twenty books, the latest being The Coffee Table Book of Doom; his work has been seen on stage with the musical play Crocks in Frocks and has been animated as the TV series Captain Star. He is currently working on an art installation and his first novel. Deb added that she had commissioned Steven to design the ident (the design used for the catalogue, website etc.) and graphics for BAF 2011, which were animated by (his cousin and collaborator on the Small Birds Singing films based on his cartoon strip) Linda McCarthy.
Steven discussed his work and career in the context of his personal obsessions which had fed his work from the outset. These included early influences such as science fiction, which began when his mother introduced him to the chaotic worlds described by Philip K Dick, and personal preoccupations, such as secrets, sex, transgender, the meaning or pointlessness of life and doom. While such introspection might be dreary when shared by most people, Steven’s surreal comic genius made it an absolute treat and in a presentation packed with cartoon strips, storyboards and TV/film clips, he showed how his fixations translated into unexpected and hilarious drawings and animations.
Steven said, “I always felt the world was deceiving me. Things aren’t what they appear on the surface as a huge part of us isn’t apparent. We all have hidden layers.” He described his characters as vehicles for his own obsessions, for instance “Spandisman (in the Unbelievable family, Spandisman is the brother of Consommé and Delphinium in Small Birds Singing) had loads of my obsessions – fear of death and wanting to stay young.” Although he invested so much of himself into characters by making them vehicles for his own obsessions, he was not afraid to discard or edit them if they did not work. Discussing Freddy Unbelievable, Steven recalled “My original intention was for him to be the main character. He was a stage illusionist with extra fingers but it never worked, so he was walled up inside a statue with only his eyes visible.”
Steven suggested that far from self-indulgence, following personal interest could make commercial sense. He recalled how Captain Star grew out of his daydreaming about aliens landing in the garden when he was a child and that “I did what I wanted to read myself and it turned out to be thing I have had published in most countries and media.” While commissioned work was more restrictive, newspaper cartoons allowed a freedom to express his own thoughts. He continued, “One of the things I have found is that my work is about ideas and inventing worlds. It doesn’t have to remain as drawings – it can be a stage performance or an animation.”
Following his presentation, Steven held a workshop for second and third year degree students on the BA (Hons) Graphic Design, Illustration & Digital Media degree programme. During the talk Steven had shown one of the four short films he had made for the Discovery Channel, How to Destroy the World and he asked the students to devise their own storyboard. Their course tutor, Paul Holmes, said, “Steven told them to visualise the ways that humans are affecting planet earth. The task was about imagination and how to sequence narrative. They had fifteen minutes to brainstorm ideas and produce their visuals. He then went round all the students individually, to discuss what they had come up with and how to really push an idea to its nth degree. He then did the same thing on obsessions. His feedback was so positive. His unique character really engaged students and he made them realise how hard they have to work to achieve success. He brought home that it was no good having a fantastic illustration or flashy animation without a good idea. It was a real insight into the creative process. It was about invention, pulling ideas apart, building them back up and most of all, not being afraid to try.”
Steven’s visit made a huge impact on students. Third year student, Carly Surrall, who hopes to work as an illustrator when she graduates, found Steven’s visit “brilliant and inspiring. He showed us how to think outside the box and that it was important to have the foundation to get a good result. The idea is the essential thing.” Farah Shah, also a keen illustrator in her final year, added, “Going to Steven’s lecture gave a lot of insight into his career and showed how he used his personality in his work. It made you realise that it is good to put more of yourself in the work rather than being behind the work. The workshop showed how you can rethink and take your ideas further; progressing from one idea into so many more levels than you would normally. I also liked his style of working in long format and getting out of A4.”
A perfect postscript came the following day with news of recognition for Steven and Linda’s BAF commission. Deb Singleton explained, “The BAF sting has been selected for the Trick festival in Stuttgart which is great news for BAF and also for Steven and Linda. We just found out last night so it was a great way to end a really enjoyable day.”
You can watch it here :