The first thing you see upon arriving at Lee Hardcastle’s website is a warning that doubles as a mission statement: "I make claymations that are not for children." Indeed, some of Hardcastle’s bloody creations might scar a child for life, but adults deserve to know what they are getting into as well. Anyone who might be on the fence about watching non-Aardman claymation should know that these videos have vitality, dark humor, and a sense of homage well outside the boundaries of what might be expected of the medium.
The 27-year-old Hardcastle attended film school at Leeds University in the U.K. Initially, he began his career working for film companies, but soon he grew restless and started working with clay. Many of the pieces he made were short tributes to classic horror movies like The Exorcist and The Evil Dead, as well as weirder fare like Eraserhead. These videos stood out from similar work online because of their dedication to detail, right down to well-placed music cues from the originals.
Hardcastle also makes some originals of his own, such as A Zombie Claymation, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. Earlier this year, his version of John Carpenter’s gory magnum opus The Thing, mashed up with beloved British claymation mainstay, Pingu, garnered a million views on YouTube and props from several publications, including this one, and even Carpenter himself. Ultimately, the director was forced to take the short down by Hit Entertainment, which owns the Pingu brand, although Hardcastle has since remade The Thing with his own character, Claycat (while the original has since been re-posted by others.
Thanks to the partnership program on YouTube, where his channel has received over 25 million views total, Hardcastle is now earning a living from his videos as he transitions into the next phase of his career. He’s also just secured a spot in Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s anthology feature The ABCs of Death after winning the 26th Director Competition with his entry T is for Toilet. Recently, the artist spoke to Co.Create about how he conjures his narratives from clay, his philosophy on gore, and the benefits of claymation over live action.
Stop-motion animation is the illusion of movement created with a series of images. I use a stills camera to create my videos. I used a Lumix FZ50 until recently, when I upgraded to a Canon 5D MII. The still images that I capture are played back at speeds between 12-24 images per second to create the video.
It’s easier to achieve camera movements in stop motion rather than live action because I’ve got absolute control. I can take my time between capturing frames and plan accordingly. The great advantage of stop motion is that there’s no such thing as one long take, because you’re not shooting live video. Instead it’s a series of still photographs.
As an artist, I am very much influenced by many things, ranging across many mediums. It can be something very little or I’ll take away something big. I "accidentally" saw a hardcore porno at the cinema while I was a student—it was a black and white 1970s one called Thundercrack. With the graphic sex to the side, there was something really great about it that inspired me for my graduation film. I based my short in the same setting as Thundercrack and lifted big chunks of black and white imagery from that film and created my own story around it. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
When I have an idea, the narrative is nailed in the beginning with a script and storyboard. It’s important to know what it is you want to achieve before you start shooting. To keep everything in check, though, after a day of shooting I will bring everything I have shot so far into a video editing project and play around—making decisions about whether I need to shoot extra shots. It’s such a big advantage that I have over live action. If I need extra shots I just return to the set and shoot without having to reorganize a cast and crew and waste time and money. And I do use this to my advantage.
The time it takes to make a short film really depends on what is being created. For a 60-second short film, I could shoot a ball of clay rolling around against an empty backdrop and I can do that in 15 minutes; or for the same duration, I could plan out complex sequences and build many sets and characters and props and shoot many different shots, and that can take a whole month.
The scale changes from one production to the next too, but I tend to guess and decide on how small to scale the production based on resources. The smaller the scale, the less material you need, but as you go smaller it becomes more difficult to animate.
The material I use is a brand called Newplast. I believe it is the same brand they use over at Aardman Animations, but I use it because it’s good quality and great quantity for the price (£1.50 - £2.00 per 500g bar). I don’t go through kilos of the stuff at a time but I do have a nice collection of colors. I must have about 20kg worth at the moment.
My favorite scene of Claycat’s The Raid is the whole standoff in the catnip lab, because there was much opportunity to paint the set red. I really had no idea how that scene was going to work; I just knew that I needed to kill everyone on screen and fast. I took note of how it was done in Inglourious Basterds. (Tarantino is my film-making God.) There’s this long intense scene in a bar that ends with everyone dead in the space of 25 seconds, you don’t even have time to register who’s killing who; you just wait for the violence to end to know who’s still breathing! So yeah, when I made my standoff, I made it up as I went along with Basterds in my mind—no pressure, just, have fun and blow out as much plasticine brains as possible. As quoted from my Evil Dead II DVD, "the gore the merrier." I use red paint for blood, I apply it to the victim, and do my best to make it look as gross as possible. I keep the animation going until everything on the set is red most times. The biggest challenge with claymation is not losing interest, as it’s very easy to get bored after a few hours shooting and then realizing you’ve only got two seconds of footage in the can!
When you write down the story and/or ideas, you keep within your limitations of what you consider possible and stay confident that you can nail it. So sometimes, they’ll be scenes or shots that you have to negotiate with yourself about keeping in the video because you know it’s gonna cost time and it might not look very good. You got to take chances and not be scared. Every time I start making a new video and the first day of building sets and characters arrives, I am like, "Okay, let’s get stuck in." I haven’t a got a clue about what I’m doing, but I know if I don’t do anything then nothing is gonna happen! So, the biggest challenge is confidence, believing that you’re actually making something people will appreciate.
My own dad inspires me. He was a landscape gardener with his own business, retired now. I worked for him many times from a young age during school holidays and what surprised me then were the moments when something wasn’t quite going to plan on the job or when the work was getting too tough, I would think "that’s it, we’ve got to call it a day," but my dad fought through it and never gave up; not once while I was working with him anyway. Now I’ve got my own business and trade, I know the difference between hard working and bone idle. There’s no kidding myself and I know that you can never call it a day, even if something bad goes wrong, such as equipment breaking or something. No, you use your head and get around the situation.
When I was about 17, I was in awe of a guy, Peter Spierig, who’d just made a zombie movie called Undead. I emailed him a bunch of annoying questions such as "How can I be a film director?" Kindly enough, he wrote back. One of the things he wrote that made sense and stuck with me was that I should go make video, and go out and shoot. Commercials, short films, music videos—everything and anything. Do it, do it all, just don’t stop. I kept that very close to heart, it made absolute sense because the more you do, the more you learn, the more you create, the more people will see your work. I’ve been solidly making short videos for 10 years and finally it is my day job, and it wouldn’t have been if I’d sat back and thought, "Well, I’ll make my masterpiece when the time is right." No, just go and shoot, doesn’t matter if it’s crap. You live and learn and you shouldn’t be scared. Take on different genres, different approaches, different challenges. Oh yeah, and get yourself a YouTube channel to show off your work and build a fan base—that is key advice for this day and age.