Robin Clifford Ellis

by Edwin Rostron

Pink Shoes (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

Robin Clifford Ellis is a Helsinki based artist specialising in animated film and printmaking. Robin’s animations are playful, tightly crafted bursts of ideas, movement and colour. Imagery is boiled down to fat felt tip-like lines, dancing past almost too quickly to register, creating figures and symbols that might add up to some kind of coded language. Sound and image are fused together to delightful effect, enhancing the sense of the films as solid, well made objects, despite their lightness, speed and sense of spontaneity. These films fizz with the magical joy of making a drawing move through animation, and they are full of the sense of play at the heart of an exploratory engagement with process, whether it be printmaking, editing, using a pen-plotter, or making animated loops on an iPad. I was keen to get an insight into Robin’s work and background, and his thoughts on the wider context of his films, and he generously answered my questions below.

Elephant Music (2019) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Could you tell us a bit about your background, and how you ended up working with animation?

RCE: I’ve taken a very roundabout route to animation. My background is in film and television and later illustration and every now and then I’d have a little play with animation. However, it wasn’t until having children that I really got in to it. I needed something to do with all that dead time that family life entails – that hour or so after the kids are down when you’re too tired to get the paints out but want to do something. So I started to play around with the iPad, making little loops and it went from there. To this day I still get my best work done in the night when everyone else is asleep, although for professional reasons I work during the day now too.

I should also add that my wife studied animation and I’d seen a certain side of animation which wasn’t so appealing to me – basically all the hard graft and planning. I needed to find my own path into animation, one that would allow for more spontaneity and chance.

Holiday Home (2019) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Some of your films are tightly – and very satisfyingly – edited to the music, which is credited to Absolut Sagan. Can you say a bit about how the collaborative process works – does the music come first or elements of the animation? Are you guided more by sound or images in the filmmaking process?

RCE: Absolut Sagan is a friend on mine that I’ve known since University. Kyran and I used to make music together back in the day before my defection to visual arts but he’s kept at it. There’s not exactly a strict process for how it works, but in general I’ll start by making a handful of animation sketches. At some point I’ll try the visuals with some music and see what happens. Often the music takes the work in a totally new direction and will suggest more visual material and so it goes on. It feels very collaborative although it is more an interaction with the music than the person who makes it. Sound always brings something fresh and unexpected. And yes, I’m often guided by sound. I want the sound to be integral to film. The more the sound does the less I have to do too which appeals to my sense of economy.

About the process more generally, my approach is to produce material often without a clear idea of how I’ll use it. Basically it’s raw footage. Often the material has a particular theme or atmosphere but I’m never sure initially where it’s going. It’s only in the edit and with music that it starts to take shape. Typically I’ll start playing around in the edit quite early in the process to see where the material is taking me and this in turn inspires more material and so the process continues.

Ascension/Descension (2019) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: You describe your work in terms of “the field of extended-printing” – can you say a bit more about this and how your animation works relate to your wider print practice working with books and printed editions?

RCE: I use extended is this sense for two reasons. Firstly, it’s extended in the sense that I use printmaking techniques to make work which isn’t typical for printmaking ie. films. Secondly, the concept of printmaking is extended. The pen-plotter is in a way also printmaking although more conservative practitioners may balk at the suggestion.

But printmaking is in all its forms deeply embedded in my practice and I think like a printmaker. Printmaking goes to the heart of my art which is concerned (ultimately) with mediation and transformation. I’m fascinated by the fact that in printmaking there is always at least one extra stage between the artist’s mark and the final artwork. It’s during this stage that something else can seep in; something other and (ideally) a little unexpected.

Images from Pink Shoes (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Your film ‘Pink Shoes’ was made with a pen plotter. Can you tell us more about this device and how you worked with it to make the animation?

RCE: The pen-plotter is a mechanical arm that with the aid of a vector graphics programme can bring ones images into the physical realm. It can pretty much draw with any tool onto any (flat-ish) surface.

One of the appealing things about the plotter (and which I used extensively in Pink Shoes) is that it can draw and re-draw the same set of images. But making changes either subtle (different paper) or dramatic (different pen colour or drawing tool) one can produce a vast array of material from one simple animation loop. This then feeds into the idea of unexpected results and surprises and also has the happy outcome that one’s role in this process becomes a little like a lab technician: prodding and altering the variables and studying the outcomes.

Typical (2019) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: To what extent is there a concept in your mind when you begin your films? How much are the films planned out before animating / Is there an improvisatory aspect to your animation process?

RCE: There’s always a concept but it can be pretty nebulous. Ideas which are always floating around are concepts of home and domesticity, animals and our relationships with them, change and transformation, the occult and humankind’s more general idiocy and vile ways (greed, abuse of power and hubris being favourites). Those and then just pure silliness. It’s a balancing act.

But with regard to the process, yes, there is improvisation. I’m constantly working on ways to bring chance and randomness into the process and as mentioned before, the opportunity to work spontaneously without too much planning.

Box Dinosaur Man (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: The images in your films often seem like symbols, do they (and the relationships between them) have particular meanings or relevance to you? 

RCE: The images are to an extent symbols. I gravitate towards them partly because I’m flashing up images which need to be instantly recognisable when viewed for a split second. I guess I’m drawn to those near-neolithic sets of images and concerns that we’ve been scrawling onto cave walls for millennia. I’m also interested on an almost behavioural psychology level in the ideas and emotions that can be generated by playing around with these symbols. Meaning isn’t necessarily explicit in the images but rather their relationships and this hopefully forms in the mind of the viewer.

Midnight Thoughts 2 (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Am I right in thinking your latest film ‘Midnight Thoughts 2’ was made since the lockdown was enforced? You have said in relation to the film that “lockdown allows for a slackening of schedules and loosening of mind” – can you talk a bit about this new work and how it came about – and how environmental / external conditions affect your mind state and process and help or hinder you in getting towards the kind of work you want to make?

RCE: Yes, Midnight Thoughts 2 was made in the first week or two of lockdown here in Finland. I’m no fan of the structures and schedules that society imposes on us with regard to work and especially when one has a family. Lockdown allowed for a loosening up of our timetable – no longer up at 7 and in bed by 11. So I could burn the midnight oil without being punished the following morning. Late nights are when the brain becomes uncoupled and like many artists I’m seeking out those moments when you catch your unconscious self off-guard and something magical occurs.

About the film more generally. It’s part of a series of pieces that are made as quickly and impulsively as possible. It can be frustrating working with the animation form when you realise that there simply isn’t time to develop all the ideas one has so these films are an attempt to get some ideas down in the heat of the moment. For better or for worse I just put them out there.

GIF from Midnight Thoughts 2 (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Are the any particular other animators (or filmmakers, artists etc) who have informed your work – in what ways?

RCE: Well there’s a whole bunch of filmmakers and artists I like and admire and whose’s work might have had an influence. Robert Breer is one. He’s kind of an ideal for me in terms of what you can achieve with filmmaking on the single-practitioner level. The richness and playfulness of his work just bowls me over. On the other end of the spectrum is Bob Godfrey. I think he’s like the punk rock of animation in the sense that seeing his work makes me want to have a go myself (which is not something I feel when I watch Fantasia – although I love that too). On a contemporary level, I really like the work of artist Ann Course. Her films make Bob’s look like David Lean. I mean that absolutely as a compliment – they seem like animation in it’s absolute rawest state.

Image from Mother (1993 – 2001) by Ann Course and Paul Clark

EoF: Yeah, I really love Ann’s work too, it was quite formative for me as a very refreshing and liberating kind of approach to drawn animation.

RCE: Ann’s a good friend and I realised doing this interview what a big impact she’s had on my work. She had a great interview in an animation book years ago where she was asked about her reaction to the word animation and she said “one of revulsion” which was just so funny and honest.

Image from Midnight Thoughts 2 (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

EoF: Im interested to know your thoughts on making experimental animation at this moment in time and how you see this field of work right now. Do you feel part of any kind of artistic scene or community – animation or otherwise? and generally how do you see your work’s context in the current cultural / animation landscape? Also how is it to make this work in Finland?

RCE: Like Ann, I’d also say I’m ambivalent (though not revulsed). I’m still looking and wondering what my place might be, but I don’t give it too much consideration. I’m quite the lone wolf really and in many respects like it that way as I find input and opinions often cloud my judgement and doubt my work and doubt is the enemy of creativity. Finland’s always been good for finding one’s own space without to much interference because there just isn’t any – and with the current crisis even more so.

Image from Pink Shoes (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

Robin Clifford Ellis on the web:

Absolut Sagan on the web:

Image from Midnight Thoughts 2 (2020) by Robin Clifford Ellis

© 2020 Edwin Rostron