Creating BAFTA-winning animation with Myles of the Brothers McLeod
The Brothers McLeod are a BAFTA and Webby award winning production company. Greg is the illustrator, Myles is the writer and together they direct animated shorts, TV and web series, commercials, books and even comics. Exit 6 contributor, Darren Barker, had a virtual sit down with Myles McLeod and discussed, well, pretty much everything – including the weather.
I had met Myles before at a writer’s meet in Stratford, so I knew about his company and the outstanding work that he and his brother, Greg, produce. So, we briefly caught up on projects and in a very British way, talked about how windy it was outside – which I can assure you it was!
Catch up complete, I was really interested to find out how the brothers got started in this side of the industry:
“Originally I decided to study sciences at university. I studied zoology and paleontology. Greg on the other hand took cultural and media studies. I also worked as a Software Programmer. I did a lot of feeling around for what I wanted to do. I'd always wanted to be a writer since I was 16 really. It’s always been one of the things on the list. Greg in the meantime was still drawing and he was doing comics and things. Actually, one of the first things we really collaborated on was a comic strip called Highlights which was a part of a pirate radio station. We did about 60 comic strips and that was the first thing we had published together.
“Then, BBC Talent came along. We made an animation for one of those and we used all our mates to voice it. It started with just two brothers playing around like we had always done. Greg hadn’t any formal training in animation and I didn't have any formal training in writing so we just started playing around. We weren’t doing it for anyone just doing it for laugh and entering competitions. Then eventually we had made a website where we would put up some of our animations and send newsletters to our friends -– it was quite homespun really, to begin with.
“At the same time, we were working in a family business doing other things like e-learning, and stuff. We were doing that for about six years before it really was any good. Although we had written something together – I guess even earlier than that but really it was all six years we were playing around. Then I took a screenwriting course at Bournemouth.
“In 2005, we made Fuggy Fuggy which was non-dialogue – it was very physical humour and it was hand animated by Greg and Tracy Bartlett who were working with us at the time. Then Aardmann found us. We slowly got better and eventually got a big enough contract that we were able to set up our business. Since then we've just been busy.”
With Myles the writer and Greg the illustrator and both directing, I asked how they worked together.
“Normally, at the top of the project, we'll sit together. If it's for someone else we'll read all the materials and brief and then we'll just discuss it between us. If it's a new idea often that starts with one of us coming up with an idea, it might be just a story idea or Greg has drawn some characters that we find interesting.
“Then, we just basically go somewhere in Stratford like 'Susie's Café' and we just chat. We talk about ideas and usually a lot of the stuff we create is funny – we hope. If we start making each other laugh we just start making notes and it develops from there.
“If it's for someone else, there's usually quite a lot of things they've already set in motion or quite a lot of we need to take into account. Often we just go off and if we need a spark we just go away and watch something that feels relevant. We recently did something for Disney – I’m not sure I can talk about it – but I basically I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy because that's the feel of this particular project.”
Myles and Greg also look to take people on, on a freelance basis depending on the size of the project. But ultimately they are a two man team.
“We employ people on a freelance basis, but it's always only ever been, two employees, which is Greg and myself but we have had crews of like, I don't know maybe 25 people a couple of times and they have all been freelancers and most of them not in our office, most of them were remotely working. Most are in the UK in which we try to use UK animators rather than pushing it abroad because it's already quite a small industry so we just try to support it.”
Myles has written for most types of media, including books, which we’ll get to later – if he had a choice what would his preferred media be?
“Yes, it's interesting. I went to a summer school run by Alan Ayckbourn in 2003, which was really good. I remember him saying he'd been offered work for radio and he just said no because what he liked is writing plays and he wrote one play a year. I have always wanted to write novels, I’ve still not got around to doing that but I do enjoy the collaborative process. Obviously sometimes when you're doing commissioned work it can be fraught with all kinds of difficulties because you're trying to please lots of different people.
I think if you put a gun to my head I’d just write prose books because that's what I wanted to in the beginning. But I love variety and I love doing silly voices for audio stuff for the animations. I really like it when I have the time and the right headspace to write a poem and then go off and do stupid voices as well. I think what I like is definitely variety."
Sometimes it’s not good to concentrate on one project, sometimes ideas pop up and then you are enthused about something new and exciting.
“Yes. Sometimes an idea comes to you. I wrote a poem after my grandfather died and I immediately thought after what I have written would make a lovely short film. You get that spark of enthusiasm but it also has a direction and you have just to follow that direction.
“I remember Neil Gaiman saying when they were making Neverwhere as a TV program he kept annoying the producer because he kept coming up with new ideas and the producer would say, ‘We can't film that Neil. That will be too expensive’, and he would say, ‘I’ll put it in the novel then.” That would just really annoy the producer because he was basically saying the novel is going to be better than the thing you will make on TV.”
We then took a giant leap from Neil Gaiman to silly voices – I was interested to know how much voice work Myles has done.
“We started doing everything ourselves. In the beginning, when we made an animation Greg would illustrate and animate it and I did some lip sync on some of the early ones. In the beginning, we did all sound effects, the music and the editing and everything like that. Yes, we also do the voices and Greg has done it a couple times. He is in The Turkey and The Pilgrim which is our Disney one. A lot of the corporate work we do for stuff like museums and galleries, I often do that as well. I am, rather strangely, the voice of Billy Shakespeare for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I can say I play William Shakespeare for the Royal Shakespeare Company...that's quite nice."
As you’ve read, the brothers have worked the giant of animation, Disney. Not only that, but they worked on a programme that my daughter loved when she was a mere little dot.
"The first thing we ever did for Disney was work on Jungle Junction. We got to work with them through our short films. Greg made a film called 365 in 2013 which had the tagline, ‘One film, one year, one second a day.” He animated one second a day for a year. At the end of that, he did lots of film festival runs where he did really well. He got a few awards and it did very well online when we launched it there. It was seen in the US by an executive there and he showed it to all his colleagues. Then they wanted us to do a little sting and that turned into some other promos which eventually ended up in The Turkey and The Pilgrim. That led to us being introduced to the shorts department.
Now, we do work for people and work for hire but we always try and do our own stuff as well, even if it doesn't make us any money:
A – because it's ours, we can do what we like with it, we're the bosses of it.
B – because actually, often when we do do something it does lead to work, because people go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That’s different.’"
Myles and Greg have also attended the BAFTA’s, on more than one occasion for both the Children’s BAFTA’s and the film awards. Personally I would be very overexcited!
“We won a Children's BAFTA for Quiff and Boot, which was a lovely little project, all about maths for primary school kids. That was enormous fun, because the remit was, ‘Can you make something for preschool maths, but make it a bit like Yellow Submarine?’ It had a kind of psychedelic universe and it needed to have two female leads because they didn't have enough female characters. That was great fun to make. We worked with the actress and voice artist Lucy Montgomery and also Lu Corfield, it was fun, she played the character 'Boot'. It also starred David Holt, he was very funny, we've used him several times. He can do about a million voices – he's got funny bones.
The BAFTA ceremony was lovely. We've been to the children's one a couple of times. We were nominated before but hadn't won. People there are lovely and there's always someone recognisable. We were nominated for the film awards one year for Codswallop, so that was a bit more swanky I suppose. You did wonder why we were there because you're walking around, there's Daniel Craig and Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep and Mickey Rourke and Sharon Stone, Emma Watson. Terry Gilliam was there as well, I wish we'd gone up to him and said hello, but we didn't. That was very bizarre because you were just in a room with all these astonishingly famous people. Then, of course, when you get people on stage presenting the awards I actually remember thinking, 'Who is the most famous person here? I'm not sure.' I was thinking maybe, 'Is it Brad Pitt?' Then someone came on stage to present an award, and it was Mick Jagger. I went, 'No, he's the most famous person here.' He wins."
I think everyone reading this will aspire to reaching the giddy heights of the BAFTAs. I know I do. But we’ve all got to start somewhere and Exit 6 is a great place for new filmmakers to showcase their work. We’ve heard how Myles and Greg started out, so what sort of advice could they share, oh and did Myles have any books to plug?!
“First of all, I'd advise to buy my new book, Create Your Own Universe. [laughs] I'm really proud of it. It's not just like a notebook to fill in. It's got exercises, but it is full of things that we picked up along the way about how to create characters and worlds and stories and so.
“What we did, which worked for us, was just to keep making things, and to watch them back. I remember hearing that Johnny Depp doesn't watch the films that he's in, and I remember thinking, ‘How can you improve if you don't watch your own stuff?’ Actually, an interesting test is to watch the thing you've made in a room full of people, like at a screening. Because there were times in the beginning when we would just cringe, we were just thinking, ‘Oh, God, please stop, everyone stop watching this.’ It’s because you feel slightly embarrassed about people seeing what you've made.
The more you do it, the better you get. We did that, we might try working with a musician or a composer or the next time we might try working with voice artists instead of doing our own sounds. Or the next time we try a different style of animation or we might try something much longer. We're always creating little exercises, aware that as a creative, that you are on a journey. If you don't produce a golden egg at the beginning of your career, that's not a problem. That's normal. I think there's also a myth of, this is something I talk about in the book, the myth of the genius. I think maybe there are geniuses in the world, but most people who are successful are not geniuses, they're just people who haven't given up."
I had been so engrossed in talking with Myles, that I just realised I had been plunged into darkness as the night drew in – Myles was talking to a shadow. So, with lights now on we moved on to the brother’s future projects.
“At the moment, I'm working on some more animations for other people. We're working on a series for Disney and I‘ve just written another Hey Duggee for series two, The Spooky Badge, that'll be out at some point. We're hoping to get our preschool show off the ground, which has CBBC on board, but we need to find a few other partners. Hopefully, we can start making that later this year if things go well, but these things are at the whim of the gods.
We did this show for Disney last year, but I'm not sure if they're ever going to show it. Greg is still working on his short film, Marfa, which is a kind of documentary animation. It's about a trip to Marfa in Texas, but we've been making it quite slowly over a couple of years.
Later in autumn, I have another book out that which – because of the Create Your Own Universe is kind of a follow-up to our first book: A Book of Brilliant Ideas. The first book we ever had published was Breeds: A Canine Compendium, which is a fun book about dogs, from A to Z. Random House Penguin have ordered a follow-up, which we've written, which is inevitably about cats. It's nice we’re doing books. I've really enjoyed writing those, actually. I’d definitely like to do more books."
Whether it's an Disney animation, a BAFTA animated short, or a book, keep up to speed with the latest from The Brothers McLeod by visiting their website, and following them on Twitter.