Thursday, 2 July 2009

Interview Extract

Rendering Nature: An interview with Richard Bell, Background Artist on Watership Down

Based upon Richard Adams best-selling novel Watership Down (1972), Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation (1978) is a remarkable achievement. As James Clarke suggests, “Watership Down is a seminal moment in British animation, building on the tradition set by Halas and Bachelor with Animal Farm as well as, in more general terms, showing that classical animation could be produced in Britain.” (2004, p.103) Part of the film’s sustained popularity lies in its ambiguity towards the audience: although one expects a film about rabbits to be aimed at children, the narrative and animation combines to create an ‘adult’ world, one which projects brutal images of violence and bloodshed alongside a commentary on the value of the landscape and humanity’s inherent need to destroy it.

Production on the film began in 1975, with producer Rosen employing Disney veteran John Hubley as director. Hubley worked on the film for a year but his desire to move away from animated realism contrasted with Rosen’s idea that for Watership Down needed to be as realistic as possible. By the end of the first year, Hubley had left the production and Rosen took over as director. Regardless of this early departure, commentators have suggested that Hubley’s approach is evident in the mythical prologue that opens the narrative as well as in the final scenes where Hazel is confronted by the rabbit’s harbinger of death, The Black Rabbit of InlĂ©.

In effort to explore the depths of this production, I contacted Richard Bell, one of the film’s Background Artists. Working as an artist with a considerable interest in natural history, Bell seemed like the ideal choice in relation to the film’s inherently realistic depictions of nature.

How did you come to be involved in Watership Down?

A painter friend of mine who had graduated a year ahead of me at the Royal College had gone to see the Watership Down people. She didn’t want to do it but she referred them to me. So I went to an interview with John Hubley. That was about a year after I’d graduated from college. They liked my work.

Once you were offered the job, did you visit the real Watership Down?

When I heard I got the job, I said, right, what I would like to do is go and see the place for myself and so they paid for my expenses. (Richard reaches across the table and picks up a sketchbook. He briefly leafs through it and then shows me a drawing of the landscape near Sandleford Warren.) I thought this is the sort of thing I should be drawing because I know they [the rabbits] have to cross this stream. Of course in the film its more of a river than that – you have to add a bit of drama. I actually found a lad who had caught a rabbit down in the valley here and I kept that in a homemade rabbit hutch but I felt so sorry for it that I soon let it go back down in the valley. (Richard flips through his sketchbook and finds the pages he is looking for, the spread of line drawings of rabbits.) Those are my versions of the main characters from Watership Down. The problem with making the rabbits naturalistic is that it is difficult to tell the difference between them so they had to be humanised to some small extent: if Bigwig was a big rabbit then he really was big and if Fiver was a little rabbit he really was scrawny.

Can you tell me about your interview with Hubley?

John Hubley looked through my sketchbooks and he said “I can see how we could use that” and there was a picture of May blossom and he said “I’d like to use something like this so that it would just be cut to white like a sketchbook page and you would have my shaky pen and ink drawing of this May blossom and then the rabbit would come in below.

So the rabbit would enter from off-screen onto the sketchbook page in order to step into the imaginary world of the drawing…

Hubley obviously had this playful sort of way he would have liked to have done it but I suspect that he could see that Watership Down was part of that English tradition of natural history illustration and he could obviously see that I was part of it too. He took me on. A couple of my painter friends came for interviews but, although I was accepted, by the time it came to decided on my pals working on it things had changed a lot at Watership Down. It became a different film…. It’s quite remarkable what Martin Rosen did with it but there’s this kind of lost film there that was never made, a concept film that never got made.

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