Mining the Dreamscape: An Interview with David Firth

For over ten years David Firth has created a series of animated films which are as aesthetically stimulating as they are disturbing. He is the creator of Salad Fingers, Burnt Face Man, Spoilsbury Toast Boy, and any number of other works that confound our attempts at easy explanation. I had the pleasure of speaking to him through a series of email exchanges over the past few months. You can find his work at: http://www.fat-pie.com

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Steven A. Michalkow: I think the first question people may ask of Former People when they hear we are interviewing David Firth is “Why interview an animator for a literary magazine?”  Although, yes, obviously they are correct in seeing you as an animator first, I would argue that your work tends to have quite a literary flourish.  How important is the written component of your work relative to the whole? Is it essential for you to ensure your audience pays attention to the language of your animation?

David Firth: I feel I am more of a writer than an animator. For every animation I produce, there are at least five more that have been written. My production process is littered with almost finished scripts and scrapbooks full of situations and thoughts. It’s only when a script reaches a certain level, where on a single read I can see the whole piece, and most of all like it, will I begin to take it into the next stage of production. With each release I feel I am more demanding of my scripts because the final product, where the sound and the images all come together, offers a feeling that my words alone cannot reach. Before each project goes into production I only have my previous, completed work to compare it to, and therefore each time I worry that my quality may be on the decline.

In several of your series – most notably Salad Fingers – the actual dialogue of your films are displayed rather prominently within the frame. Again, is this an exercise in drawing your audience’s attention to the written qualities of your work? If so, why?

I have mixed feelings about subtitles. In Salad Fingers, the dialogue is displayed on the screen because it completes the aesthetic somehow. I find writing and animating all of that text to be an absolute chore and definitely the least enjoyable part of the project, but it’s always been there and probably always will. Originally, it was because I had to keep the file size quite small for my flash movies, and so I compressed the sound heavily and as a result it could be quite difficult to understand. I also had emails of thanks from deaf and foreign people who found it helped them understand the cartoons better. Additionally, I find that my best voice work comes when I ignore the fact that I might not be speaking clearly, so knowing I have subtitles there eliminates a thousand emails and comments asking what was being said at a certain point. But as for the other cartoons, I actually prefer them without subtitles as I feel it can bring too much attention to the words and distract the viewer from soaking up the atmosphere. Sometimes it’s better if a bit of dialogue goes by unnoticed; it seems to increase the replay value, whereas the subtitles clear everything up straight away and leave less for the mind to mull over.

The culture and particular British flavor of the English language feels like a recurring theme of your work. Diving a little bit deeper into Salad Fingers, you seem to really examine the nuances of a particular period of British language and culture (roughly the era from World War I through the end of World War II and into the 50s). References to the trenches of the Great War are the most obvious, but there are even references to very specific colloquialisms and children’s ditties. How do these echoes of the past appeal to you?  Given the dark nature of many of the Salad Fingers pieces, are you expressing a particular anxiety over this period in time?

I feel Salad Fingers is set in the present day, but his mind hasn’t been exposed to any modern culture for 60 or so years. His ramblings about the war shouldn’t be pinned down to an exact time frame, it could be that he’s been directly affected by it or it could be that the things he speaks of are from scraps of books and old newspapers he’s found. I think it is important with Salad Fingers that I am as much intrigued and confused by his situation as the viewer, and therefore we can explore his life together, rather than me being some shadowy tease, releasing subtle clues to a larger story I have fully developed and locked away in a cupboard. The links to culture of a certain period and children’s fairytales are just areas of intrigue to me. I am very careful not to take the viewer out of his world and into the recognizable modern world, although I don’t think too deeply about what is and isn’t appropriate. I just play it mainly by ear.

Most of your films exhibit a dream like quality, and you’ve said explicitly that several films are attempts to capture moments of your actual dreaming life. Why is it important for you to capture the magic of dreams?

I find the structures of dreams to be very different to the structures of most stories. I find myself getting bored of traditional story structures. I dream more than I watch TV or films so I take more inspiration from dreams.

What in particular about traditional narrative leaves you feeling bored?  Is it something along the lines of the familiarity of typical narrative structures and plots?  How constricting are these forms for a writer/artist in addition to the viewer?

I need to be taken by surprise by a narrative. Even if there are surreal or experimental aspects to a movie or short, if the overall narrative is very linear and following traditional structures it doesn’t seem to stick in my mind. If I find there to be little to think about once it is over, then it will leave my mind completely.

Related to the importance of dreams in your art, I find that attempts to rationalize the meaning of some of your films actively diminish their impact. The Men from Upstairs is a great example. There is a particular reading of that film floating around in the netherworlds of the internet which, on the one hand, is perfectly reasonable and consistent regarding the film, and on the other seems to trivialize the film. Do you think your films can be rationalized or would you rather they be left alone?

The Men From Up The Stairs is a direct response to people looking for an overall metaphor. I intentionally made a cartoon where the whole thing was a metaphor for shitting, yet many people missed the point and just saw this as proof that all my films are deep metaphorical puzzles, which probably made the problem worse. I don’t really mind if they get people talking, but I don’t want people to feel as they are missing something if they can’t make sense of it. That’s when the word “pretentious” starts getting thrown around.

You’ve noted that William Burroughs has had a significant influence on your work. What particular elements of Burroughs’ writing appeals to you?

I like the fact he didn’t really edit himself. His grammar and spelling is all over the place. His books are like homoerotic chopped-up nightmare poems. They are hard to read but the images are striking and horrific.

In this issue we hope to take a couple of different paths to explore the idea of avant-garde art. As someone known for pushing the extreme in his work, do you find yourself thinking about the avant-garde? To put it another way, what does it mean to be avant-garde in the arts today?

I don’t really pay attention to the arts. I just sit in my room and make things that I don’t think other people have made. The only thing I really think about is how I can do something in my own way, without being too influenced by other works.

Let’s dig a little deeper about your interest in creating your art with as little outside influence as possible. What advantages or freedoms do you feel you gain from avoiding all possible influences? In similar vein, what difficulties does that impose on you? I imagine it can be near impossible to ignore all possible influences on you.

I don’t choose to be uninterested by anything on TV; it just turned out that way. I don’t watch enough films, but that’s mainly because I don’t manage my time properly. I can tell when one of my ideas isn’t from me – not usually straight away but I can tell eventually. I’ve gotten better at knowing when I have ripped something off unintentionally. It used to be that I would make a cartoon then months later I would realize where I stole a particular joke or idea from, even if no one else had noticed. It was nearly always a subliminal influence from something like Brass Eye or Red Dwarf. Most people wouldn’t notice or even care that I took it because it just seems normal for everything to rip everything else off, but it’s one of those things that gets under my skin and makes me feel dirty. That was a bit of an exaggeration. If I steal from dreams it is fine, because they don’t have any copyrights in there, and no one seems completely with it.

In a way, this really makes the non-rational (i.e. dream-like) of your work particularly interesting.  Do you find the content of your dreams to be the purest manifestation of your own art or aesthetics freed from outside influence? What of the unconscious influence of the outside artists which find their way into your dream?

One day I played on Super Metroid all day and dreamt about it all night. The dream was an almost verbatim print of what had been occupying my mind, it was just a bit chewed up. That night’s dream offered nothing but a mangled version of my day. Dreams are so child-like with creative, fun ideas but so clumsily executed, and half of it doesn’t make sense, with the continuity all over the place. I suppose another artist’s work could sneak into my dreams but it would probably just feature as someone’s art within my dream, rather than part of a situation that I actually believe I am experiencing. I guess I rarely get involved enough with a piece of art that I actually get sucked into it.

Tying this all together, I tend to think of the avant-garde as specifically that kind of art which is conscientiously attempting to do communicate something new or different, to change the form as it were.  Would it be too wrong of my to assume that by attempting to avoid certain kinds of influences, you are hoping to do something different from anyone else?  Is it too extreme to think in these grand terms?

I just don’t like to see things repeat themselves. It makes me happy to think I have made something that is original. I get excited by the notion of recording ideas and thoughts that have not been recorded before. I don’t think too deeply about all this. I don’t feel so tired of the format that I want to break away from it and do something conceptual. I love animation and I want to create something that I would like to watch, but I want it to be truly my own work and not a diluted version of something else. I spent a lot of time when I was younger thinking “I wish there was a film that did this…or was like this….” then at one point I realized that there was only one way to make that happen.

You are currently working on a feature length animated film you call Meadow Man, and have described it as either your magnum opus or at the very least the best work you will have accomplished to date.  Outside of its feature length, what are you hoping to do in the film which sets it apart from all of your previous work?

I am currently working on getting back to working on my feature film. But it’s hard to get back into something that has been on the shelf for so long. After a rather shaky few years I have been more focused on making smaller things along side larger projects that people shouldn’t expect to see in the near future.

As for the content of the feature, I don’t just want to splatter people with disjointed dream sequences for an hour; I think 10 minutes is enough for that. But at the same time, I don’t want to fall into the trap of making something predictable and filmy, following Hollywood’s done-to-death storytelling structures. I wrote and wrote and wrote and edited something that I was happy with two years ago, but since I have changed in many ways I feel I may have to rewrite the entire thing. Not to mention I have written a series of cartoons that aren’t based on The Meadow Man but have many parallels and I’m not sure if I should officially tie them together or risk running two very similar projects. So my suggestion to anyone wondering about The Meadow Man is forget about it for now, and I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Things were very different for me when I started that project.

Thank you for talking the time to speak with us. It’s always my goal to let the interview subject have the last word.  What departing thoughts would you like to leave with our readers?

I’d just like to let them all know that I spat in their drinks when they weren’t looking.

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