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Still Shakespeare interview with Neck and Neck director Shaun Clark

Date posted: 06.04.2018

Commissioned as part of our Still Shakespeare scheme in 2015, Neck and Neck is an irreverent, hallucinatory animated take on Shakespeare's 'Othello'. Using the relationships between Othello, Desdemona and the deceitful Iago as a starting point, the film takes a keen interest in the necks of the characters, a common motif throughout the play. The film went on to screen at film festivals worldwide, including Toronto International Film Festival, FrightFest, and the London Short Film Festival, and has received a number of accolades, most recently Best Use of Sound at the British Animation Awards. We spoke to director and animator Shaun Clark as well as composer Alexandra Harwood and sound designer David Pringle about the film.

Influences through art

Outside of the play itself, what influences did you draw upon when creating Neck and Neck?

Shaun Clark: John Drake Moore's painting 'Othello and Desdemona' was the initial influence for the film. I also spent a long time exploring images in various London exhibitions; one of the first influences was a sculpture by Alexander Calder, 'Antennae with Red and Blue Dots', which provided the concept of creating the hierarchy structure of the play through balance.

Another central influence was the work of Italian Painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani whose work was characterized by elongated proportions within the body. I was especially drawn to these as they reveal an inner life to the sitter through their stylisation. During the animation production period I put together a playlist of music tracks which are associated with the film's emotional arc. I collected a lot of tracks from the Czech new wave period of the 1960s and used these tracks to influence the choreography of the central character's movement.

What lead you to specifically focus on the neck?

In the painting by John Drake Moore, the neck is one of the only body parts which is suggested, but not painted. Filmmaking for me is all about discovery, looking beyond the surface. In this case, reimagining the story through the neck - a central theme throughout the play through its connection with sensuality and also strangulation. Limiting the use of the lower body through the elongated necks also allowed me to explore the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in a new way - through wrapping and twisting the necks together to display their love for each other. 

The character of Iago appears mostly in the abstract here, as words on a telephone, but more strikingly, also through live action. What lead you to represent the character in this way? 

The words Iago speaks are abstract to represent the lies he speaks into Othello's ear, but whilst the words are lies his intentions are real and are very structured. Hence when we see Iago I shot him in live action to reflect the reality of what he is doing to the lovers' relationship.

Sound and fury

Many congratulations on the BAA award for Best Use of Sound. The animation is increidbly striking, and both the sound design and music lend things a heightened surreal, nightmarish quality. What were you looking to accomplish through this, and how did you go about it?

Alexandra Harwood: When Shaun and I first talked about the score for Neck and Neck, he asked that the music play a central role, and that it should be 'bold and to push as the relationship deteriorates between the characters'. Shaun gave me two musical references; the opera 'Lakme' by the French composer Leo Delibes, which has an exotic quality in its score and orchestration, and the orchestral piece 'Nocturnes' by the French composer Claude Debussy. I drew inspiration from 'Lakme' for the operatic opening of the film.

The film score was composed with samples, but I also recorded the soprano Lucy Hall, whose operatic voice carried the impact that the film needed. The orchestration and texture of 'Nocturnes' inspired the sensuality of the seduction scene. I mixed these ideas with jazz elements and other exotic and more contemporary sound worlds to evoke the surreal quality that played against the characters. The music then serves to drive the drama forward until it reaches the climax of Desdemona's murder, which is marked with silence. For me, silence is equally important and powerful as music and sound.

David Pringle: The main drive of the sound design is to convey how Iago's words drive Othello to fits of delusional jealousy. The depiction of a break with reality is very similar to a nightmare in that it lends itself to jarring sounds that feel confusing and frightening.  We layered multiple recordings of dialogue, performed at varying intensities, bringing out particular words and phrases to convey the persistent effect of Iago's vitriol.

As the film progresses, we up the ante by giving the words a more physical presence, so they become underlaid with crawling, scuttling effects; like they are literally crawling under Othello's skin. The next time the words appear, the scuttling has evolved into a swarming. All the while, Iago's words become more densely layered and high-energy, we wanted to leave the audience less breathing space and build the tension to a breaking point. 

The Festival Experience

How did you find screening the film at FrightFest?

SC: I think the horror genre lends itself well to animation, due to the many similarities commonly associated to both genres through the exploration of the 'unknown' both in narrative and environment. The FrightFest short film program captured all the areas horror is transcending into and the film was well received by the audience. 

Were you surprised by the film's success, and how have you found it has impacted your career?

The film has been really well received, screening internationally at over 70 film festivals. Winning the Melies d'argent award and now a British Animation Award is a great achievement for the crew who put so much work and time into the project. Success brings interest and the prospect of new film projects, which we are currently investigating and developing in the form of a long short based on a Greek text.

What have you been watching recently? Where do you go to seek out the most interesting new animation work?

Recently I have been watching a lot of dance performances by the likes of Sasha Waltz. As a filmmaker working with animation I spend long periods of time observing different types of movement and characters across a wide breath of different art forms.  In terms of animation, I attend a lot of animation film festivals which is the best way to see new and hidden gems as well as meeting other filmmakers and colleagues about future collaborations.

Neck and Neck was commissioned by Film London Artists' Moving Image Network and King's College London in association with Film Club Productions. You can view a trailer for the film here.

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