The Brothers McLeod: Developing Worlds

BAFTA-winning animators The Brothers McLeod have worked with the BBC, DreamWorks, Tate, Nickelodeon and Disney, and have screened at a variety of film festivals. Their new book, Create Your Own Universe looks at how to invent stories, characters and ideas. 

A: How has your own practice informed this new publication, in terms of combining writing and illustration and taking a project from conception to production?
: Today we are encouraged to think about things in categories. I think one of the consequences of this is that we may try to label ourselves as single thing: I am a writer or I am an illustrator or I am a singer. It’s true that I think of myself as a writer, and Greg thinks of himself as an illustrator. But the truth is we are more than that. And I think a lot of creative people fall into this trap. So in our new book, we encourage people to investigate different skills, to approach finding stories and characters as though you are a writer, an illustrator, a comedian, a comic artist, an actor. It’s about learning to play again and through that play, finding new ways to be creative.

Greg and I work very closely together when we create new projects. I’m the writer but I might have a strong visual image and he’s the illustrator but he might have a strong idea for a character. Creating the initial elements of a world is one of the most enjoyable parts of our practice, precisely because we allow ourselves to be playful, to be non-critical (at this stage anyway) and to allow subconscious ideas to flourish into something more coherent.

A: What do you think are the most important elements to developing animation?
Animation takes a long time. That means it’s going to be a part of your life for a long time. And that means you must love what you create. Because if it’s something you “don’t mind” or think is “just okay” you are going to become very frustrated. So, if you are going to spend part of your life making something, make sure it’s something you love.

Beyond that, it’s important to spend a lot of time NOT animating. By that I mean, preparing. The moment you press the button to actually start animating, that’s when the big money is spent. You want to make sure that when you do that, you’ve worked hard on the story, the characters, the animatic (a kind of rough version of the animation) and that you’ve found the right voice artists for your piece. Then and only then are you ready to animate.

A: How do you think that animation has grown, and is still growing as an art form, one that translates across a range of media, including film, television and comics?
New technologies have opened up new opportunities and new ways of creating. Sometimes you still hear people saying things like, “2D is dead, or nobody wants to watch stop-motion” but that is obviously a load of rubbish. Each new way of animating adds to, rather than replaces the possibilities. The arrival of CGI was a massive moment for animation and the next one is probably going to be VR. As the price of VR head sets come down, more and more of us are going to want to “virtually” visit animated worlds. Our comic artist friend Lizz Lunney recently took part in an art exhibition in Berlin – all drawn in a virtual world. But there’s no need to go to Berlin to see the exhibition. You simply download it and step inside it using your Oculus device. It’s great to have these new places to play, but also refreshing to see how positively people still respond to simple paper and ink drawings too.

A: What do you think this text offers to readers that are looking for inspiration for a short film?

MM: The arts world can be a daunting place. Sometimes, even experienced creative people can feel like they need someone else’s permission to be creative. Create Your Own Universe is a book aimed at breaking that down. We just need to give ourselves permission to create. The book has a particular focus on characters, worlds and stories and about building up a universe. Rather than a starchy book with lots of diagrams and theories, we’ve created a book that’s full of insights and exercises. Our inspirations have come from all sorts of places – films, cartoons, YouTube visual essays, textbooks, comics, even postcards. We share those inspirations with everyone, hoping they will lead to more creativity in our readers. We’ve also included some hashtags (#cyoucreate and #cyoumonster) for anyone that wants to share their creations with others using the book. So hopefully we can connect readers.

A: How does this book tackle some of the formal elements of animation, including narrative, location and backgrounds?
This book isn’t solely focused on animation, but more generally on having ideas, creating characters, developing worlds and writing stories. We look at the ways different media allow you to tell stories, for example how books and graphic novels allow you an internal element to character that’s harder to achieve in TV and film. We consider ways that you can collect ideas, like names of people that you can later appropriate for characters. We examine traditional theatre and ask what we can appropriate to help create distinctive modern characters. We emphasise that words and pictures shouldn’t be doing the same thing. There’s also a section looking at structure in stories – from the experimental through to the highly structured. We try to keep it fun and practical, without getting too stuffy!

A: What types of exercises / advise can readers expect?
The exercises are a generally a mixture of writing and drawing exercises. We’re keen to get writers drawing and illustrators writing to stretch people’s imaginations. There’s an exercise on forgotten places, and another on seeing things afresh, there are some short character questionnaires with unexpected questions, there are stories to finish, and comic panels to fill in. We consider the role of music in inspiring creativity, so we challenge readers to draw to music and create playlists to accompany particular pieces of work.

A: What do you have planned in terms of future projects?
Greg is currently working on a new short film called Marfa about a trip into the back and beyond of Texas. It’s a documentary animation which is a new foray for us. Meanwhile I’ve been in development with two shows for TV, while also working on a novel for children. Our next book is a follow-up to our humorous guide to dogs and it should be out before Christmas. It’s called: Cats, A Feline Compendium. It’s a funny and irreverent guide to cat breeds and cat behaviour written by me and my sister Fenella Smith. Greg illustrates and has had to draw over 150 felines!

Create Your Own Universe is now available from Michael O’Mara Books. Find out more:

Find out more about The Brothers McLeod

1. 365 – One Year, One Film, One Second a Day. Courtesy of The Brothers McLeod and Vimeo.