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Phil Mulloy is one of the UK’s most intriguing filmmakers. His distinctive black ink style has become as familiar as his black humour on the international festival circuit. Over two decades and more than 30 films, Mulloy has managed to carve a creative niche for his acerbically provocative take on politics, religion and society. The trademark tone, simplicity and boldness of his forms allows him to outline human nature, without excluding preoccupations with death, loss and disorder. Terri Dentry met Mulloy at CINANIMA in Portugal where the audience was treated to a retrospective of his recent works.
Header images: Phil Mulloy, UK: Intolerance (2000), The Ten Commandments (1994), The Sound of Music (1993), The Piano Player
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2006
Republished with permission
Mulloy doesn’t see himself as a controversial or political filmmaker and refuses to assume the role of a moral educator, however, in interview at CINANIMA in Portugal in November, he did reflect on his sources of inspiration from film to film and admitted that he basically deals with the same issue over and over “the dilemma of humanity, caught, as it is, between the ‘base’ instincts of the animal, and its almost unlimited potential to become .. who knows? We are trapped between heaven and hell. This dichotomy is explored in relation to the rules and social norms by which we all live.”

Talking with Sophie Tedmanson for The Australian at FLICKERFEST recently, he went on to explain “I think the way society is organised is very strange at times, and what people believe is very strange at times, and somehow I want to record the strangeness and say: “Wow, isn’t this odd,” and then adds with a twinkle in his eye, “So I highlight this oddness with humour”.

The British filmmaker studied painting at the Ravensbourne Art School and, later, filmmaking at the Royal College of Art. He says “I suppose in some ways it was a natural progression. With animation I could both make film and continue my interest in painting. And anyway, making animation is cheaper than making live action and allowed me more control over things”

Of his unique yet hauntingly familiar style Mulloy explains, “While researching a script set in 17th century England, I came across numerous pamphlets written by dissenting puritans. Many had simple black and white woodcuts printed in them. These primitive images, that illustrated the political debates of the times, appealed to me. Their childlike simplicity and untutored line gave them strength of design that retained its power across the centuries. I also remember being influenced by an exhibition of Mexican Day of the Dead art in the late eighties. The stark vision of mankind being exactly the same beneath the flesh really impressed me, as did the vigour and life with which these images of death were made. My skeletal figures try to carry this same vision.”

Mulloy makes most of his films in themed groupings that mimic the stories of Hollywood genre films, from westerns to science fiction. “I do that because animation is fairly short, so if I go to a territory people know about to some degree, then I can rework that and people know the coordinates of it,” he explains. The six Cowboys films made in the early 90’s being his initial foray into this style, have a sardonic, irreverent humour that has changed little over the years. “The audience is familiar with genres and clichés, and I take advantage of that fact. The viewers soon discover their position in the usual scheme of things, and become conscious of their role.”

Mulloy, with the support of BFI, recently released a series of his works and chose to exploit the “extreme animation” tag his films are often labelled with as the DVD title. Anthony Nield, in reviewing this collection for DVDTimes notes “Indeed, Mulloy’s work is serious in the extreme as he tackles what he considers to be the major problems infecting society. The Cowboys films see the beginnings of this idea as he confronts issues of crowd mentality; The Conformist (1992) being the most blatant, dealing with, unsurprisingly, conformity.”

This isn’t to say that Mulloy’s work is in any way difficult however. “He offers each of the shorts in an absurdist manner that proves to be hugely entertaining, not to mention shocking. Indeed, the “extreme animation” tag is fully justified; amongst the Cowboys works we are treated to group sex, bestiality (as the sleeve says, there are “scenes calculated to outrage horses”) and infanticide,” explains Neild.

Visually, Mulloy’s style is best described as the equivalent of scruffy handwriting; he utilises simplistic stick figures and minimalist backgrounds in order to allow the viewer’s attentions to focus on the ideas his films present rather than provide simple pleasures.

His early works were created exclusively with brush and ink on glossy A4 paper, but his recent Intolerance (2000-2004) trilogy, often cited as the best of Mulloys work, and a couple of single works, The Henries (2001) and Love is Strange (2004) have seen a move into technology utilising the CelAction2D suite. The provocative series about a family called The Christies (2005) forayed into another package, Buahaus Mirage 1.5. Mulloy explains, “the technology allows a rapid development of the idea, I can just plug in the dialogue and play around with it.” He does, however, prefer drawing by hand and says “I prefer the quality of the mark. I try to retain the same direct approach to drawing in the computer, but inevitably it is slicker and more synthetic.”

Of his approach to creative development Mulloy maintains, “I like things that move me emotionally and make me think differently about how things can be represented.” He explains, “I like to create structures in which there are possibilities to explore something or create something new for myself to think about. This can be simply in the title of a film for example The Sexlife of a Chair (1998). Many possible images spring immediately into my mind. Or say for example in The Ten Commandments (1996), I had a structure I could work within and a set of ideas I could reinterpret for myself. Similarly reworking and playing with narrative structures creates ways of reinterpreting elements to do with my own thinking about and experiencing of the world.”

The Sexlife of a Chair is often cited in Mulloy’s body of work as one that stands out in style from the rest. Mulloy explains what makes this one different, “.. mainly because it has no narrative structure. I was interested in making a film using highly charged language and playing it off against visuals that were low key and, in terms of animation, ones that hardly moved. I wanted to play with and against the images that an audience brought with them into the cinema and the images (more or less adequate) that I created. And of course I wanted to do this with some humour. Again, the humour is created by a play on people’s expectations and like sex … sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

The multi award-winning Mulloy is in great demand both for his films and his animation workshops and attends a large number of international festivals every year. He says of his inspiration from other filmmakers, “Strangely some of the strongest impressions have been made by the shorter films. There maybe an inverse law at work here. I will mention two short films I liked recently – “Wind” by Ivanyi Marcell, and an animation called “The Red Tree” by Nam-sik Han. The filmmakers whose work impressed me when I was younger were Bresson for his monumental simplicity and Godard for his playful yet committed exploration of the politics of film language. Simplicity and creative playfulness is something I aim for in all my films.”

Mulloy has a simple explanation for the inspiration behind his grotesque, sardonic characters, “My mother dropped me on my head when I was a kid. I owe everything to her. Thanks mum.”

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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The Piano Player (1993), Phil Mulloy
The Ten Commandments (1994), Phil Mulloy
Cowboys, Phil Mulloy
The Sound of Music (1993), Phil Mulloy
Intolerance (2000), Phil Mulloy
Intolerance (2000), Phil Mulloy
Intolerance (2000), Phil Mulloy