Interview: In the Flesh motion artist Matthew Bird


In the Flesh Matthew Bird

Writer Dominic Mitchell’s very British take on the zombie lore returns to BBC Three this weekend for a new six part series. To support the show’s first run, a series of animations were commissioned. These took the form of public information films warning of the dangers of zombies and provided a much wider sense of the world of In the Flesh, and perfectly setting the darkly humorous horror tone. To accompany the expanded second series new animations has been commissioned; party political broadcasts for the pro-living party Victus. We spoke to the motion artist behind these works, Matthew Bird

What is it that a motion artist does?

A motion artist brings thoughts and ideas to life through showing movement and change over time. I do a whole variety of stuff from presenting facts and analysis through motion graphics, through animated charts or mapping straight through to animating zombies for the BBC. It’s a really broad range of stuff.

How was it that you came to be involved with the first series of In the Flesh?

I was encouraged to submit a pitch to the digital online production team by a friend who knew my interest the horror genre. At the time I was a civil servant who was producing animated content for the government and they were looking to speak animators. I met the digital production team and we started to develop the idea of public service announcements. They went down well and I’ve been invited back to do a second set for the new series.

Just sticking with the first series, what is the process going from the brief to getting to the final product?

Initially it’s meeting with the team, sitting down and understanding the show and understanding the tone of In the Flesh which is a balance of horror and quite dark humour.  Then working out how something could exist within that universe that could be plausible and fits the tone of the show but could also be used as quite a new way to promote it online. We kicked around a lot of ideas. I usually try to refer back to things that quite scared me as a kit. I think there was one public service announcement with a kite – Don’t Fly Your Kite Near an Electricity Pylon – which gave me recurring nightmares when I was young.

That set the train of research in flow. We looked very much at the ‘Protect and Survive; series of animations which were done in the event of a nuclear attack in the UK in the ‘70s. That really acted as a template. What we wanted the animations to do was to provide a contextual backdrop to The Rising. We thought the idea of doing all these very calm, measured ways to handle to zombie apocalypse was a great way to give a backdrop to what has happened before so when you watch these and then you go into the show you understand or get a glimpse of the gravity of the situation before you get introduced to all the characters in the first series.

Dom Mitchell wrote the first scripts for the first set of animations. Once we got the voiceovers recorded for them we developed the storyboards and built all the animations around those scripts.

In the case of the current set of animations, I met with the script editor Simon Judd and producer Marc Conneely to initially kick around ideas. Following on from the first series, I had a clear vision of following public service announcements to party political broadcasts and working with the team, we were able to develop the storyboards and scripts.

They received an incredible reception. What did you make of that both in terms of the number of views and the reception within the media?

It was thrilling that they got so well received and picked up across a whole variety of websites. It was kind of crazy at one point – it was popping up on websites across both sides of the Atlantic and being viewed as a quintessentially British response to the zombie apocalypse. It was great to be able to contribute to a part of Dom’s vision for the show and it acted not as something separate but as a part of the show as a whole. That was the best bit for me, being part of something bigger.

Dominic Mitchell has spoken in interviews about how he has a series bible which details the wider world of In the Flesh. Since you are building the wider world, is that something you have access to?

Through chatting with Dom, it is clear he has a very detailed vision of the world in which Kieren lives in and through discussing ideas with Dom and the production team I got a real sense of the level of detail that is in that world! The second series goes into a lot more depth but it has been great to hint at the wider scope through the animations.

With the first series because there were only three episodes, it had to be very focussed and almost that world in a microcosm. With the second series, you’re going to get a much bigger and better glimpse into that world because you’ve got more episodes and they’ve got a greater scope to explore so you get introduced to a much bigger world.

Tell me a bit about the brief for season 2. These are party political broadcasts.

In the first series, the idea for the animations was to try and promote calm in a situation that really didn’t merit it. With the second set, it’s almost the opposite. You have this new party in the second series, the Victus party. They’ve got extreme beliefs about PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferers and their view is that they’re second class citizens and they’re dangerous. So these party political broadcasts are all out to try and incite hatred and violence against the PDS sufferers. In that way, it’s the complete opposite to the first set where these are trying to create chaos. So I’ve been encouraged to go hell for leather on that in these.  In the first one that’s been released, it goes out of the way to demonise PDS sufferers.

Not naming any parties, but were you able to draw on some of the campaigns created by political parties in this country?

When researching it, it’s important to look at what’s gone in the past. Especially the first one, it’s as much influenced by Ray Harryhausen and the face melting bit is a very deliberate nod to Knightmare, the kids’ game show. The face melting is a part of the energy running out for the team and that was something that used to terrify me as a kid and I wanted to try and bring that back in as a way to terrify people about PDS sufferers.

However, vivid imagery is rampant through past party political broadcasts which serve as great inspiration.

This includes everything from the demonic eyes of Labour danger:

The desolate landscapes of the winter of discontent:

And the bizarre magician routine:

How do these animations come together? Does it start with a script or a storyboard?

In this case, Simon Judd, the script editor for the show developed the scripts for this set of three. It’s been a collaborative from the start really where we’ve all come together with our ideas and Simon and then Dom from afar has been able to chip in with views on how Victus should be represented. Then ideas are kicked around on things we’d like to show; things we don’t think have been done before; and good gags and the right level of scares. It’s really exciting to be part of that really, because especially in UK TV shows, there aren’t many shows that are doing things like this.

photo 5
Series 2 preliminary sketch

Is there an added pressure on you, given the success of the first series?

When you do something again, there’s almost second album syndrome where you want to better on your first achievements. It’s been there but it’s been a good and welcome pressure and I’m confident that we’ve done that with this second set.

The good thing for the show is that the first set were videos which could be used in any context, whereas these are really part of the expanded universe of the show. These animations are really for the fans. If you love In the Flesh then you will love these animations because we touch upon a large number of themes which crop up in the show and if you watch these then it will enrich your experience of the show. It’s really part of that multi-platform universe that we’re trying to create with In the Flesh.

Tell me about the voice over and sound effects?

The sound effects are mostly stock sounds and some are specifically recorded and they are laid out in advance of the actual animation. Once the soundscape has been created, I animate to it. With the voiceovers this year, we’ve brought back Harriet Judd who did the first series. She’s been challenged a bit more because she had to do accents for the first one so she’s been put through her paces a bit more. We also brought in Alex Carter (Hollyoaks actor and voice over artist) to contribute his talents to animations. He features heavily in the next animation!

I think if you look at all good quality horror stuff in the past, sound’s such an important part of the whole experience. Horror is such multi-sensory genre which is different to say action. It’s really important to get it right.

In future episodes, an edited version of my dog growling will be used as background zombie moans; baked beans dropped into a bucket and squelched in my hand will be used as a sound effects for dripping bile and guts movement!

How long does is actually take to create one of these animations?

The first one took about a month and a bit from getting the ideas down on paper through to final delivery but they become quicker as you get into the groove of the project and they are produced alongside each other. They’re quite intense periods of time with a lot of weekends spent alone in a room with plenty of caffeine on supply. But it’s usually through these sleep deprived hours in the middle of the night that the best ideas pop into your head.

photo 2
Another of Matthew’s sketches

Obviously the second series is yet to air, but if the opportunity came along, would you like to revisit this world?

The ideas for the party political broadcasts came quite early after the first season because Dom brilliantly created this world where a thousand ideas pop into your head. Obviously it would be awesome to come back again because it’s such an interesting world with so many different angles to explore. I don’t think even juggernauts like The Walking Dead have picked upon angles like this.

What can we expect in the forthcoming series 2 animations?

The next animation is going to come out on the 15th of May and the final one will be out on the 29th of May. The themes of the animations will tie in to parts of the show. They’re going to be going out on the BBC’s YouTube channel as the show goes on.

What’s coming up for you after In the Flesh?

Straight after In the Flesh, I am diving into an animation for a national competition which is quite different but very exciting! I’ve got some really good ideas in my head for that. It’ll be a bit different to the zombies this one.

Thank you for talking to us. You can see more of Matthew Bird’s work on his website

In the Flesh series 2 begins Sunday 4 May 2014 on BBC Three at 10:00pm


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