Interview: Lizzie Oxby

Posted: 30th November 2015
Extn.21 L_Oxby Late Noon Sun L_Oxby Lizzie Oxby Lizzie Oxby Film-Strip Manhattan 4.33pm L_Oxby Seawatchers_LOxby Jack Cardiff

Lizzie Oxby is an award winning filmmaker who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. She specialises in creating innovative film worlds, using an atmospheric blend of live action with animation - and combines the dark with the beautiful in imaginative ways. She has won 19 awards and nominations, including a British Animation Award, a British Independent Film Award (BIFA) nomination, and won Gold and Silver Mikeldi Awards at Zinebi – Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Film (FIAPF).  Lizzie is one of six participants on our RISE programme - a year long intensive development programme for female writer-directors based in the UK. We chatted to Lizzie about her RISE journey, being a female in a male dominated industry and her creative identity.

Why did you originally apply for RISE?

It was actually fortuitous timing. I come from a shorts background and have been honing my filmmaking skills for a while. My work had received attention from the States, and I was being encouraged to start writing a feature in my style and tone of work. It felt like the time was right to do it. I had an idea I was very passionate about, so I began writing Tiny Dots – and learning to write long-form as I went along.  I'd finished an initial draft of the script and wanted some feedback, when RISE was announced. It felt like perfect timing and I was one of the lucky six filmmakers selected.

What have been the highlights? Who have you enjoyed working with and why?

There have been so many highlights, I feel spoilt for choice! My films lean more towards visual storytelling (as opposed to verbal storytelling / dialogue), so I’ve gleaned valuable insights from all the mentors. Kate Leys asked pertinent questions on the script. Andrea Cornwell's gave encouraging words on what makes you distinctive as a filmmaker, graciously taking the time to look at my body of film work, and seeing the direct creative line to Tiny Dots. Mia Bays inspired me with her emphasis on keeping authenticity, and prepared us so well for the next stage: meeting producers. I also had a wonderful experience meeting visionary director Paul King (Paddington, Bunny and the Bull, The Mighty Bush), who shares a passion for imaginative, playful mixed media filmmaking. I went into the meeting with Paul, armed with a zillion questions about his filmmaking processes, but instead, he turned the tables round and generously offered to give notes on my project (!). He responded incredibly positively to the visual document I’d created for the film, and said some beautiful things about my work. So the highlights roll on, and I’m really looking forward to hearing Paul's notes on my next draft of the script. 

So you’re nearing the end of your RISE experience, where’s that journey taken you?

I feel I’m in a stronger place with my project to start taking meetings with producers. It’s been a terrific year.

What has been the best/most valuable piece of advice you have received?

I think Andrea Cornwell and Mia Bays summed it up best; Keep the authenticity in your work and keep making work that is distinctively yours – and get the right level of team around you.

What do you think are the advantages of an all- female schemes like RISE? 

I've never been on a scheme before, so I don't have any comparisons. But as a group, we bonded quickly. Maybe it was our first script residential up in York that speeded that friendship along, as we all snuggled under duvets on sofas to keep warm - thanks to Kate Ley's encouragement! It enabled us to talk very openly about our work – and everyone's been incredibly supportive ever since.

Do you think it helps strengthen female networks in a male-dominated industry?

My work was once described as having ‘male appeal, with a touch of lady'. When I told Andrea Cornwell this, it made her smile. My films continue in the same vein and tend to have a universal appeal, so I'm very fortunate to have a lot of male support as well as female. Since uploading my work to Vimeo, it’s also triggered interest from the States too - whereas my work has mostly flown under the radar here in the UK. So I'm really pleased the scheme has enabled me to meet people in the UK features industry, which I'm very grateful for, having worked independently for so long.  

You recently met with Paul King, what advice did he offer you?

When someone as generous as Paul, gives you their time and love on a project, it means a lot to me. Paul was incredibly sweet, funny and very honest. He spoke about the writing process, and how long it takes time to hone a script, even from his experience. But his flattering words and encouragement left me very eager to get back to the script for his feedback.

Which role do you like to work in most and why?

The joy of being on set, directing live-action, is the prize for me. Most my films involve mix media, blending live-action with animation and effects. I love all the prep work that goes into making mixed media films - its labour intensive and precise work. I do lot of prep before live-action filming begins with animatics (a filmed storyboard with sound), which makes the shoot a breeze. By the time I’m on set, everyone knows precisely what's needed, and I get every shot I need. Directing, with a live-action crew, is like Christmas to me, as I can solely concentrate on one job, working with the actor. That’s what I love doing most. Whereas working on animation is a pretty solitary affair – wearing many hats.

How would you describe your personal approach to and style of directing? How do you think being female alters this approach or style, if at all?

I tend to meet with performers prior to filming. Because of the prep, the actors know the entire film, before the shoot – which builds up a lot of trust from the cast and crew. Having said that, I’m always on the lookout for those magical moments on set, where actors do something incredibly special, which adds weight to the scene. Those gems will often make it to the final cut. That’s the delight of working with actors. 

Tell us a bit more about Tiny Dots? What’s the premise?

Tiny Dots is a high concept film - but it has a profound melancholy at its heart.  It's an imaginative thriller, based in a heightened, real world (live-action, with some effects). I love creating worlds with rules - and this one has a very hard rule for the poor protagonist to deal with – but the film should leave you with a hopeful heart. I'm afraid that's as much as I'm allowed to say for now.

At what stage are you at with Tiny Dots? What’s next for the project?                                             

The next stage will be to start meeting with various experienced producers for the project. Here, and possibly in the US. 

Which pieces of work are you most proud of and why?

Much of the work I’ve made have been labours of love, so I’m delighted when they receive recognition. Extn.21 won lots of awards, including a BIFA nomination, but the Daydreams shorts, particularly Manhattan 4.33pm, spread my work globally, having been Vimeo Staff Picked, and then on numerous high profile websites, triggering calls to my studio  from LA from production companies with first look deals with the studios.

I first started making Daydreams as a way to learn new software, and began thinking about making some small films that could raise a smile. At the same time, I was also discovering the Internet as a way of disseminating work. A man from France got in touch with me after seeing them and described them as visual haikus, which I think is a lovely way of describing them. It was really exciting to see how well received they were on the Internet. The work spread fast and prompted people to see my other films too – so it was wonderful to see my work being enjoyed by a much wider audience.

What do you think has shaped your creative identity? I know your mother was a photo colourist and you have a passion for Jack Cardiff’s photography. Is this where the cinematic journey began? 

Yes. One hundred percent. I grew up in a family passionate about photography. There were always cameras around the house. My father was a marine engineer who worked abroad for long stretches of time, and would send me photo story books he’d made of his travels – effectively storyboards.

And as a child, I’d often sit with my mother, watching Powell Pressburger matiness, which left a deep impression on me. We’d watch Black Narcissus and she’d say ‘look at how the lipstick changes on the deranged nun’s lips’ and point outJack Cardiff’s wonderful photography - that’s where my love of Cardiff’s cinematography and passion for heightened worlds began. The Red Shoes has always been my favourite film.

Not only for its exquisite cinematography and magical landscape - but also because I studied classical dance for 14 years, (and, although my dance days are long gone, I still find having a dance background helpful with analyzing movement and timing for camera). Seeing the torn passion played out on screen, moved me tremendously. And I think thematically, that’s where my love of looking for the beautiful, in the dark began. Thanks to my mother, a Greek Cypriot, I also grew up on a feast of poignant tales she’d read to me. I used to find them so touching, I’d picture them vividly in my mind and go off and illustrate aspects of them – and then began sketching my own worlds, based on things that happened around me. Often the quirky or strange things in life, trying to figure them out - or things that moved me emotionally; Sometimes touching on paradoxes – although I was too young to realise that at the time.

My mother, a talented artist, had won a National drawing contest back in Cyprus. But being the youngest of six in her family, she was deprived of an education from 13, so she encouraged me to pursue my dream. So I have a lot to thank her for – and went on to study for a degree in illustration at Chelsea College of Art, a really open-minded course. Where I’d always be experimenting with different techniques and mediums, from photography, to illustration to creating models to bring ideas to life – and quickly gaining a reputation for wanting to do everything! So when we were set a task to read one of Isabelle Allende’s magical realism stories from ‘Eva Luna’ – and the rest of the class were searching for the one iconic image that summarized the tone of the story - I found myself storyboarding the entire story, (as if  from the eye of a camera).

It was then an astute tutor pointed out, ‘no wonder you can’t decide what you are –  you’re a filmmaker’. And that was it. I discovered what I truly loved. Making films.

I then went on to do an MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art. I always knew the look of the world I wanted to make – and part of the joy of animation was having the ability to create it. I would light my own stop-frame sets and planned the shots on a dope sheet (a plotting chart for animation), pretty much frame by frame. All effects were created in-camera without the use of post-production. Then the cross-fertilization of blending animation with live-action began on my Channel 4 film Extn.21 –  where I needed the subtle nuances of human, facial expression. The central character in the film felt trapped. So I made him into a hybrid character; a man with an actor’s head on a stop-frame animated puppet body, which echoed the theme of the film and his state of mind. Whilst the entire stop-frame was shot on the S16mm Bolex, the live action was shot against blue-screen on a DigiBeta camera. Despite reservations about shooting the footage from two very different sources, the end result looked very pleasing, thanks also to a very talented compositor, John Taylor who seamlessly blended the two together and also added digital effects to the film. I have continued collaborating with John on all my films. That’s where I discovered the joy of working with wonderful actors like Richard Leaf (Hannibal Rising, Harry Potter, The Fifth Element) and began shooting actors against blue-screen, and compositing them into miniature physical sets – effectively creating my own cinematic worlds for the story to live in.

Who are your filmmaking icons?

The filmmakers that impress me most are those who create visually inventive, distinct strong cinematic worlds, with characters that engage me emotionally – and a personal view of the world.

Which pieces of cinema have had the greatest influence on you?

 I’m passionate about many films, I’m not sure where to begin - so here goes!

  • David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Lost Highway
  • Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks (New York Stories)
  • Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique, A Short film about Killing/Love
  • The Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles, In Absentia
  • Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love
  • Park Chan's Wook’s OldBoy, I’m a Cyborg
  • Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth
  • Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind
  • Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich
  • Mike Cahill’s Another Earth
  • Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie
  • Jean- Jaques Beineix’s Betty Blue
  • Hal Harley’s Amateur
  • Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko
  • Sam Mendes’ American Beauty
  • Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix (I)
  • Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto the Hero
  • Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth
  • Powell Pressburger’s The Red Shoes

I’ll stop now… 

Which piece of work do you wish you had made or written?

Another Earth is a very special film. It's quietly haunting and beautiful.

You work across many different media, how do you manage to balance this?

I’m mostly known for my film work, but having a multi-discipline background in illustration, photography, theatre and film helps bring a diverse range of work. A lot of commissions I’ve been approached to do in other creative fields have served as useful experiments or testing grounds/techniques for my film projects - which keeps enriching what’s possible, and keeps me thinking laterally. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to take my film work to the theatre. The last piece I made was a 4-screen film for the stage. It was a tightly structured piece called ‘Late Noon Sun’, which premiered at the ICA in London. The story unfolded on the 4-screens arranged in a cube, with the audience watching from the center. The screens effectively created the set, with the actors’ performances live on stage interacting with the film to tell the story. I’ve always wanted to work with aerial performers and that project gave me the opportunity to do so. Directing corporate work has also allowed me to test cameras on shoots. I’ve often found that being somewhere between live-action and animation, is a very interesting place to be. Albeit, more live action with a tad less animation these days – but having a mixed-media background enables you to see the world in interesting, innovative ways. And now, having honed my filmmaking skills for a while, I’m really pleased to be focusing on developing my debut feature, Tiny Dots and I’m delighted to be getting some lovely feedback on it.

To find out more about Lizzie, view her short films and read more about her work, please see lizzieoxby.com and follow her on Twitter . You can keep up to date with all our RISE participants via the project site.

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1st October 2015

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