How to make Oscar-nominated ‘Sausage’

Oscar-nominated animation 'Sausage'

At Kingston-upon-Thames market I met the award-winning animator Robert Grieves to discuss his festival-winning and Oscar-qualifying animation ‘Sausage’, a stunning tale of love, life and big business versus cottage industry.

Unfortunately like many gifted technicians, he’s almost unknown outside the world of motion graphics. An enthusiastic and entertaining raconteur, Robert and I spent a couple of hours wandering around the market discussing coffee, food, the maintenance of a good digestive system and a host of other topics. Most importantly though, we talked ‘Sausage’ and how a talented visual artist turned his hand to the arcane art of script writing and story structure, and how the distinct sizzle of Oscar buzz has changed his life.

You’ve been an animator for 15 years and have been extremely successful, what made you want to step out of your comfort zone and take on a personal project like ‘Sausage’?
Really it’s about legacy, I wanted something, that if I was hit by a bus tomorrow, I would be able to leave something I was genuinely proud of. Which I know sounds ridiculous but it’s an instinct I have.

Was this the first time you developed a narrative in your work?
Yes it was. It was part of the draw to doing it as well. One of the things I wanted to achieve with the narrative was the challenge of creating a three person structure, and having a three way flow between two romantic leads and a villain.

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The film is set in a food market, any reason you chose to tell your story in that particular environment?
I am very passionate about food, I spent some time as one man band: cook, sous chef and kitchen porter in my student days and so the theme of food presented itself, which isn’t that surprising, if you know me.

One evening I was lying in bed and an image of the market square came into my head. This setting made me start thinking about what the market stall holders might sell or do and kind of characters they might be. Incidentally, a lot of this characterisation came from a single knob gag that was made by a colleague during brainstorming session. That gag really is the foundation of the narrative.

Sounds like you enjoyed the process?
Absolutely, one of the big things I learnt from this project is the difference between writing and storytelling, in all mediums but certainly the visual one. I think definitely with a short animation, someone with a flair for writing can come up with lots of ideas very quickly. And I see all these ideas as a little victories, I can take these ideas and flesh them out, keeping some and leaving others. I created a world and I wanted to it come to life. It’s almost intoxicating, I felt like a god.

There are so many techniques in the visual medium; it’s such an evolved language. I’m not the first person to tell a story obviously. We all grow up surrounded by story, so all audiences anywhere in the world are very sophisticated and you absolutely cannot ignore this. Being aware of that language and being able to manipulate gives me such a thrill. I am now at a point where I can sit in an audience watching my 7 minute animation and know that I am taking them on the exact journey I want to take them on, in a language they understand as a viewer.

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And very successful it has been, qualifying for the 2014 Oscars, what’s the story behind that?
There are Oscar affiliated festivals, probably a hundred around the world but only 40 that deal with animation, and get you considered for the animated short film Oscar. One of these festivals and one that was very high on my list was the Foyle Short Film festival in Ireland.

It’s not a particularly well known festival, but if you are on the scene then you will know it. If you win one of their three awards then you go through to the Oscars, and that is basically how it works. I fortunately was accepted into the festival, made it to the final and to my huge surprise, actually won.

How did that feel?
I was stunned. Especially when the quality of entrants across the board was so much higher than at all the other festivals I had entered. So to win that over other films with a lot of buzz behind them was tremendous. I was told that the decision was unanimous from the judges and that there was no second choice. So I went from thinking I had created the biggest pile of shit to being on top of the world.

So if that Oscar buzz turns into Oscar reality, or even if not, what’s next for you? Will you try developing a feature length film?
Oh yes absolutely. I have a number of projects in my head that I would love to see come to fruition, though not in animation. I adore animation and it has been my vocation for years now, so I imagine I would have strong animated sequences within any live action project I did.

But even if I don’t get that opportunity, this has been a fascinating process; learning about narrative will affect all future work, as will qualifying for the Oscars and I have my legacy. I have to say I am very proud of my ‘Sausage’.

I get the impression he has wanted to say that all afternoon.

‘Sausage’ went online 3rd November 2014. Watch it here/

All pictures copyright of Robert Grieves

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