Before the Royal College of Art, I was working for RTÉ, the national broadcaster in Ireland, putting together title sequences for programmes and doing their graphics. I’d done a BA about seven years before that in Visual Communications, including illustration and graphic design, and the job at RTÉ involved a lot of animation. I was there for about seven years and then, at a certain point, I felt like I had got as much out of it as I was going to, and I decided to leave to do a Master’s degree.
The decision to return to study as opposed to finding another job was, in part, due to a lack of confidence. I knew I had a particular skill-set in the production of things, but I had no track record of making anything longer or bigger or directing anything, and that was where my ambitions were tugging me. A Master’s seemed like a good chance to do that with some degree of freedom, rather than having all the pressures of getting funding for a project.
I thought about other places but the particular style of the RCA really appealed to me. I liked the fact that it isn’t all about training people for a role in industry, but is also about trying to get an artist to create work that they believe in, and bringing out an authorial voice in an animation director, which is fantastic. That is what drew me to the programme and it was probably, for me, the strongest aspect of it. In some way there was a lack of structure that helped you to explore your own process rather than having that process imposed on you. The small class sizes were great, and meant you had a lot of one-on-one time with the tutors, chewing over ideas. It was all about teasing out your own process.
I think making the first-year film helps take the pressure off having just one ‘master stroke’ thing. You do it in three months, it’s short and there is a certain disposable nature to it. Just having done that makes the process of doing the second film so much easier.
The electives were great because you could do a project that wasn’t pure animation, something outside of your own sphere. I worked in acoustic images, with a mixture of sound and video. Every week, I’d make a one-minute film. That pace is impossible with animation, so it allows you to process your ideas quicker, and get an idea of how you would structure something in a very quick way. We also got to know a lot of the Visual Communication students that way; being in the same building, there were great opportunities to share ideas.
The Animation programme has a series of prizes sponsored by production companies in London. They assess your first-year film and your proposal for your second-year film; the prize winners are awarded money towards their project and mentorship meetings to get feedback. I won a prize sponsored by Blink, which not only supported my film but also got me a foot in the door with Blink. In the long run, that was how I got my first directing job.
One piece of advice I’d give to future students would be to do more life drawing. It gets you out of your head and you end up processing your ideas from the day in a completely un-pressured way. Of many, many favourite things about the RCA, that was definitely one of them.
"It isn’t all about training people for a role in industry, but is also about trying to get an artist to create work that they believe in, and bringing out an authorial voice in an animation director."Stephen McNally