There’s a Freshers’ Week bustle about Manchester’s HOME on a late Monday afternoon cast in all the confusion of an unseasonably balmy winter twilight.
Groups of lanyard wearers, layered up for Novembers as they once were, rub along politely, clustering in knots of coloured hair and oversized clothes, before snaking patiently backwards from Screen 1, their hubbub attracting others on to the tail end like some half-forgotten playground call of ‘all join on’. Ushered inwards by a welcoming committee in yellow t-shirts, they divide up the seats in this makeshift lecture theatre, clustering according to the indistinct nuances of a generation rejecting the borders laid down by its predecessors, defining their own safe spaces.
The draw that brings them together is Hamish Steele, the creator and showrunner of Dead End: Paranormal Park, a Netflix animated series, named in compromise after Steele’s Deadendia graphic novel series. But like Heartstopper, another, albeit more grounded television show owing its origins to the art of comics, it is uncompromising in its quiet commitment to representing the full, brilliant breadth of the human rainbow. Helping him to do the presentation justice is the show’s producer, Jen Coatsworth. There’s an obvious fondness and mutual rapport between the two, forged, then deepened over the months when the Covid pandemic called so much into question, forcing them to find new answers.
For the outsider, it’s a crash course in the complexities of animated television, the clear outlines and block colours of its character designs beguiling the eye while effectively drawing attention from the iceberg of effort, formed over many years, beneath the immediacy of the colourful surface.
The unfortuitously-acronymed D.E.P.P. began to take on motion with a YouTube short back in 2014. Its subsequent gestation process, even after its acceptance by Netflix, was a protracted one. Steele shows an initial animation, “wobbly” in his eyes, near fully-formed to mine, in which he makes a fair fist of voicing all of the characters. It’s from this point in 2019 onwards that the role of Coatsworth, as producer, begins to take on recognisable importance, in effect enabling Steele to work with a wider pool of creators much as he might once have done with pencil and ink, while still remaining faithful in spirit to that first vital spark of inspiration. In the realm of the producer, it seems, the spreadsheet is regent.
As well as the surprising usefulness of perhaps the least prepossessing of Office tools, what also becomes apparent is just how important music is in pulling the disparate elements of the cartoon together, from storyboard to layout, from the visual effects to the voices, some of them acted in pandemic isolation against a background of Californian leaf-blowers. A gorgeously-observed Love Boat pastiche by series composer Julian Guidetti is, perhaps, the prime exhibit, but his score accentuates the mood in every snippet that’s shown.
With such an engaged audience, it’s little surprise that the Q&A rounds off the darkening evening in an enlightening fashion. A question about representation prompts Steele to reflect on his own initial self-censorship, second-guessing a network which was, in fact, as supportive as he might have wished. And it’s on the subject of wishes, appropriately enough, that the final curtain is brought down. Advising a questioner that it’s best to start from scratch, while musing on how he himself progressed from pen and ink to YouTube, from showreel to short, Steele acknowledges how, in the process, “your dreams change, and you get more ambitious”.
It may not be Disney, but, from the gutter upwards, you can still learn to wish upon a star.
For more information about the Manchester Animation Festival, please click here.