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Artist Q&A: Leo Crane

23 Apr 2020

In 2016, artist Leo Crane was invited to animate a work The Lovers (the Dustmen), kindly lent to us by Laing Art Gallery for our Stanley Spencer: Of Angels & Dirt exhibition. Leo used Spencer’s own writings and animation to bring the painting to life. Leo has gone on to establish his own studio and artist collective Figuration in South London. Here he talks to us about his inspirations and creative techniques.

What first attracted you to animation?

I’ve always been fascinated by the friction between traditional craftsmanship and new technology. I had a brief period making ceramics, combining ancient techniques with chemical experiments in glazing. I also considered architecture, where digital technology can reveal new ways of using wood, stone or metal. But with animation, I can indulge my love of storytelling and performance, using increasingly sophisticated software to manipulate paintings and drawings. Animation also satisfies my social side: it’s a collaborative process, so I’m constantly bouncing ideas around with a range of creative practitioners. Right now, for example, I’m working with a poet, composer, four life models and a feminist clown.

What was your path to becoming an animator?

I came to animation relatively late. Aged 33, I took a summer course at Central Saint Martin’s before quitting my job, moving to Bournemouth and studying for a full-time Masters in 3D Computer Animation. After three years immersed in digital projects, I met the artist Maggi Hambling and became her student in drawing and painting. Maggi opened my eyes to a visceral, instinctive connection with a material, the way it feels to smudge charcoal, the push of a painting knife through thick paint  – sensations that are impossible to replicate digitally. The producer Abigail Addison gave me the chance to bring this fine art practice together with my Bournemouth training. Abigail runs Animate Projects, an agency at the intersection of animation, film and art. I made my first charcoal animation with her, followed by my current project, a film painted from life in watercolour.

What is your creative process? Do you storyboard your animations before you start?

It really depends on the project. For a commission, I would expect about half the time to be dedicated to preproduction: developing the idea with the creative team, testing some animation techniques, writing a script, drawing a storyboard and timing it out as an animatic. For the Stanley Spencer animation, I started with Spencer’s own words, editing them into a short narrative. The animation and music responded to this. But when I’m on my own in the studio, I may just decide to try something out with no planning at all. My recent watercolour parakeets happened like that.

Are there any particular apps or technology you would recommend to someone trying animation for the first time?

It’s amazing how accessible animation is today. When I run animation workshops, participants bring their own smart device and download the app Animate It! It works on iOS and Android and has a free version to get you started. It has an ‘onion skinning’ feature which allows you to see a ghost of the previous frame as you set up the next one. There are several other apps that work in a similar way. If you don’t have a smartphone or want something more traditional, there’s always a thaumatrope (spinning disc) or flip book. They’re easy and cheap to make and come with a 200-year track record of entertaining children and adults alike.

Where do you get your inspirations from?

By collaborating with others, I find all the inspiration I need. Whether it’s an organisation, community or an individual, there’ll be a story to unlock that is both deeply personal and universally relevant. In my first animation The Library, I pitted library etiquette against carnal urges after observing the way readers interacted in the London Library. Nude Triumphant, which I’m working on now, is inspired by the life model experience. It is written by Roy Joseph Butler and tells the story of finding a moment of stillness and quiet in a relentless urban existence – strangely prescient in these days of lockdown.

Where can we see your work?

I have a portfolio website for animation and painting. For a more rounded understanding of process and collaboration, there’s Figuration, the studio I run with Roy Joseph Butler. I use Instagram as a kind of scrapbook for developing ideas. You can also catch me on Sky Arts in the terrifying/exhilarating ordeal of painting singer Ricky Wilson live for Portrait Artist of the Year 2020!