The first things you’re likely to notice when you sit down to watch one of Arts University Bournemouth graduate Daniel Spencer’s bright, brash, and brilliantly funny 3D animations are a pair of glossy and googly eyes and a set of plump red lips.
Inspired as much by the Marx Brothers as Ren and Stimpy, Daniel is an artist who just wants to make his audience laugh. When asked what he thinks makes a really funny animation, he reels off a tonne of names before telling us that, “what these mainly have in common is they are quite intensely bonkers. I’m a big fan of bonkers.”
For all its oh-so-cutesy visual panache, Daniel’s creative world is fraught with semi-surrealist danger. In Daniel’s videos, you’ll find anthropomorphised presents meeting their grizzly, handsy maker on Christmas morning; Icebergs bobbin about with pained expressions as explosions rumble behind them; or a wrecking ball meeting a skyscraper in a lip-locked and ecstatic union, before doing what wrecking balls naturally do when they find themselves face to face with skyscrapers.
Disturbingly funny, funnily disturbing — that’s Daniel Spencer.
It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study illustration rather than animation?
Daniel Spencer: As the end of sixth-form approached I found myself greatly torn between illustration and animation. While perhaps the most sensible of course of action there would have been to do a foundation, I was sure I didn’t want to spend that extra year in education. As I had virtually no prior animation experience, illustration eventually won out. I did, however, make sure to apply to courses that had a very broad definition of the subject so that I could try everything. Just as well, really, as animation has since become a core element of my practice.
INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?
DS: Without question, it was the freedom to experiment. Over the past three years my work has taken on a great many guises and it wasn’t until final year that I began to develop a workflow and visual identity that clicked. The worst aspect, I suppose, was that my quest to find that unique style took over my life somewhat. I saw a lot less daylight than I ought to have done. That being said, I do think the projects turned out the better for it.
INT: Humour seems central to your practice – what made you first realise that good animation could be really funny?
DS: Picking out a particular eureka moment is difficult because I pretty much grew up on a steady diet of bonkers animation and surreal humour — everything from Chaplin to Ren and Stimpy, the Marx Brothers to Gogs. I also love the more ludicrous martial arts and samurai films and I think all of these inspirations have seeped through into my work one way or another. Animation is great because it offers opportunities for gags that couldn’t exist in any other medium, and allows you to dial the absurdity factor up to 11. I have made plenty of projects over the years that weren’t funny, but it has always been the ones that were which have been most successful. It seems I work best when I’m laughing, and others (hopefully) are laughing too.
INT: Tell us a little about the those big eyes that dominate your work!
DS: The big eyes and bright lips I use for all of my characters serve two purposes. Firstly, I think they reinforce the innocent, childlike personality that I try to imbue my characters with that forms the basis of a lot of my comedy. It may come as no surprise to those that know my work that I am a huge fan of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean (I thoroughly recommend his documentary series Laughing Matters’ to anyone interested in humour). I also discovered that by shrinking the eyes I can make a character feel much older when needed, such as in my short Moon Landing. The second function of this face is more unintentional, as it has become somewhat synonymous with my identity and brand as an illustrator. It seems to be the thing that people remember my films for beyond any specific joke or punchline.
INT: Can you describe a project you’re most proud of and why?
DS: It’s a very close call between my two final year projects. One the one hand, I feel that the outcome of the major project, the Oh Dear film, is easily my strongest work to date, but on the other hand, it was was during the preceding project that I made the majority of the creative decisions that have come to define my visual identity. If I have to chose, then it would be that final major project. It encompasses a lot of the comedy, cynicism, and playfulness that are integral to both my practice and to myself as a person.
INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience or creative outlook?
DS: Whilst all of my tutors and technicians were frankly excellent, perhaps the one that has shaped my creative outlook most distinctly was Vincent Larkin, who throughout first year and beyond continually encouraged me to question my definition of illustration, and how I measured its value and quality. That opened my mind to illustration’s possibilities and enabled me to reflect more meaningfully on my own work. I definitely consider myself an illustrator now, but had you asked first year me if that was the case, I’d almost certainly have said no. I’m glad my opinion has evolved since!
INT: If you could create your dream project, what would it be?
DS: As of right now, the dream project would be making a video game, though precisely what form it’d take, I’ve no idea. Maybe just a world to explore, populated with my characters, and once players find them they’re used to trigger jokes or interactions, a bit like in my shorts. It might be hard to make that engaging, though. I don’t know. In any case, as a 3D illustrator and animator, it almost feels like a natural progression to make a game one day. Especially when you think about how the likes of Julian Glander and David O’Reilly have proved it’s possible to make the jump.
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