By Megan Hill
Joe’s childhood was spent obsessing over the latest Aardman animation creations, the brains behind family classics Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
When not engrossed in the tales of the nation’s favourite cheese-loving northerners, Joe let his imagination run wild drawing cartoons and comics. It was the gift of a laptop from his aunt that took his drawings off the page and onto the screen.
At just 7 years old Joe realised “If I put my drawings in a sequence and clicked through them quickly it would appear like my drawings were moving,” – thus the animator within was awoken. Joe soon began photographing stop motion scenes using his toys and from there creating with clay was a natural progression, “it gave me the freedom to create my own characters and it felt very freeing”.
There are no boundaries
Years later, animation is no longer a hobby but a full-fledged career. Joe boasts an eclectic portfolio of work, reluctant to confine himself to creating within one genre. Instead, Joe focuses on the story behind the art, “I have always been interested in art forms that push boundaries and stand out from the crowd. I feel like that type of art says a lot about the artist and their own personality, it’s inspiring hearing about stories and ideas from a unique perspective”.
One thing that does stay consistent is the intense reaction Joe craves from his audience – hence his interest in the niche subculture ‘comedy horror’. The intriguing genre juxtaposition leaves the audience reacting with equal parts giggle and grimace. Although those who still suffer from Coraline induced nightmares may disagree, Claymation is a medium more readily associated with family fun than horror.
However, in reality, clay is the perfect tool for horror. When working with clay the restrictions of reality don’t apply, which opens up a new world of gory possibilities. There are no boundaries: “characters can morph into another creature with ease, even explode with the help of a bottle of ketchup”!
Though Joe has used some frightening possibilities of clay for more graphic films (like Inside the Human Lab), Overload requires no butchery to depict a daily horror encountered by those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Recently selected as part of the BFI future film festival, Overload documents a young man’s commute on the London underground; hounded by crying babies, obnoxiously loud businessmen and gaggles of laughing teens.
The film is indeed stressful to watch, an uncomfortable sensory overload – just as Joe intended: “My main goal with Overload was for the animation to make the viewer understand and relate to how it feels to be on the spectrum. I wanted the sounds to be overwhelming and the train to feel busy and claustrophobic”.
Joe himself has Aspergers and is proud to use his platform to educate the public, “Sharing awareness for autism, in particular Aspergers, is really important to me. I was never taught about it in education but it’s a subject that needs to be spoken about more. There should be more said from the voices of people who are actually on the spectrum, explaining their own feelings and experiences, rather than learning about autism from a second-hand source.”
Although Joe now travels in the comfort of his minivan, he agrees more could be done to improve the accessibility of public transport, emphasising that “there is a definite balance where you don’t want to disrupt the flow of society, it’s more about making everyone feel safe and happy”. After all, “being on the spectrum is a lot more common than people think and it’s something that should be celebrated rather than seen as a problem”.
Films for thought
Overload is not Joe’s only film to spark conversation around social issues, in fact, with 2.3 million hits on YouTube, his film Inside the Human Lab caused quite a stir.
The short film is a stark criticism of animal testing based on disturbing real-life footage, the only difference being that the role of human and animal are reversed. With a sequel for Inside the Human Lab in the works, this time targeting the sinister secrets of the cosmetic industry, Joe reflects on using his art to discuss wider social issues:
“I feel like it gives the animation more purpose and a way to voice opinions and highlight relevant themes and topics, but at the same time I want to keep my films neutral in opinion and keep to stating facts. I don’t always agree with films that tell people what to do as everybody has valid opinions. I feel like making films around debatable topics can be successful in reaching more people and having a bigger impact.”
“With all that being said, there is nothing wrong with making a film without any purpose, a few of my most recent films have been very random.”
It’s the little things
Personally, my favourite creation is a mere five second clip illustrating why face and vacuum will never make a good pairing. It is the simplicity of these mini clips that are so charming, a trick Joe picked up from another Aardman classic, Morph.
“What I really enjoyed about Morph was how it was all set on a table top with a very simple character. As a beginner animator, it really taught me that you don’t need to build detailed sets with multiple characters to create an entertaining film.”
Though intricacies may not be a necessity, Joe has a meticulous eye for detail and understands that “the small details are what makes these fictional worlds feel real and dimensional”. Overload perfectly captures the familiar surroundings of the Tube, down to the advertisements plastered along the walls – where Joe’s subtle piece of self-promotion does not go amiss. “I thought a little promo of Inside the Human Lab would be funny, but I also considered the fact all my films could be set in the same reality” – a Tarantino-esque universe if you will. “I love the sense of depth you can create in Claymation.”
The future of film
Joe’s inventive yet conscious approach to filmmaking is what earned him BFI recognition as a pioneer for the future of film and he is excited about where the industry is heading.
“I think anyone has the power to shape the future of film and I’m excited to see how new technology and skills will change the industry. Your passion for film and your creativity is the most important part of being a filmmaker.”
Reflecting on his whirlwind year of achievements, Joe is refreshingly relaxed: “I’m very grateful for all the opportunities I have experienced and I have really enjoyed being seen as a filmmaker. I am happy going with the flow – opportunities arise when you’re not looking for them. I’m excited about where the future of film will take me!”