Strung together beneath a link to his Twitter account, Scott Benson's email signature declares: "Independent / No Budget / Do It Yourself / Animation." Benson is the ringleader of a band of animators who collectively call themselves the Late Night Work Club, or LNWC for short. After over a year of organizing, planning and production, the group's inaugural episode--a series of short animations called "Ghost Stories"—premiered today on Vimeo.
Films in Ghost Stories include those by Benson, as well as his collaborators Charles Huettner, Eamonn O'Neill, Sean Buckelew, Dave Prosser, Jake Armstrong, Erin Kilkenny, Alex Grigg, Conor Finnegan, Ciaran Duffy, Louise Bagnall and Caleb Wood. There's an air of online openness amongst the group. Many of the members, who are spread across the US and Europe, are actively vocal on Tumblr, Twitter and Vimeo, regularly sharing ongoing bits of work. Some have also become social nodes within the niche of indie illustration-based animation. One member, Alex Grigg, even went so far as to make a tutorial about the somewhat unconventional process of using Photoshop as an animation tool, which is seemingly common practice amongst the LNWC.
The group's internet roots trickled into their distribution strategy: making their work available to the widest audience, as soon as possible, was the priority. They decided to put the films up for free on Vimeo, with the hope that admirers would pay-what-they-want via the tip jar. They'll also supplement this approach by selling HD downloads with special features, as well as limited edition "Mystery Packs" stuffed with physical goods for $30. Earlier this year, Benson penned a blog post entitled, "Support Your Scene"--a "real talk" stump speech that implored audiences to be more than fans, but also savvy and enthusiastic patrons. In many ways, LNWC is a challenge aimed directly at Benson's thesis.
For me, the LNWC is emblematic of an inspirational magic that comes from closing the gap between thought and action. Making animation is inherently repetitive and laborious, and within "the industry," usually done in larger teams. Though a good portion of the films in "Ghost Stories" were aided with others' help, they are largely a composite of many concentrated, personal visions. While I thoroughly enjoyed all of the films, my favorites included Huettner's "Jump", Grigg's "The Phantom Limb" and Bagnall's "Loose Ends": three quiet, almost hushed films that are loosely about loss. I was dazzled by their style and technical prowess. But, the best part about Ghost Stories is that as long as you dig moving drawings, there's bound to be something you'll fall in love with.
I talked with Benson to get the low-down on all things LNWC.
The Creators Project: Where did LNWC originate from? How was the group formed?
Scott Benson: One of the things LNWC grew out of was a a dissatisfaction with the way that indie animation is contextualized, for lack of a better word. I grew up in the punk scene, and DIY was a big deal. That's still how I make things, with some similar assumptions: don't ask for permission, make things that mean something to you and do it right, support others and be proud of what you do. It's not like I was thinking “yeah punk animation” or something, but animation is often so stuffy and regulated into these specific channels of theatrical releases, TV series, film fests, maybe one short you saw on some aggregation site. Knowing the people I do, indie animation feels a lot more like people who have bands, or make small indie games, or do online comics. I identify more with those people than a lot of folks who are more readily synonymous with animation.
These were little rumbling thoughts going back and forth between myself, Charles Huettner, Eimhin McNamara and Eamonn Oneill in the spring/summer of '12. One day I was flipping through an issue of NoBrow and thinking “the stuff in here is like the comics equivalent of what I love about indie animation in the online sphere, why isn't there something like this for animation?” And then I thought back to those punk rock comps I'd get back in the 90s, a CD with a hand-folded insert someone made in their garage, a bunch of songs that might become your new favorite by a band that might change your life. I'm not fetishising handmade DIY stuff, but that's what we do, and that analogue is resonant for me at least. It's something I've carried years after my last basement show.
And so Charles, Eamonn, Eimhin and I got talking one evening in late July '12 and I brought up the idea formally. That was a Tuesday night. By Thursday we were sending out emails to people we knew, expecting most people to not be into it. By Monday we had a list of over a dozen people who wanted to join up.
Is there a common style or sensibility that binds you all together?
If there's one thing that we all have in common, it's that our work is easily recognizable and has a very personal look to it. A good example is Sean Buckelew's work, particularly his film The Jennings Account and his Ghost Stories short, "The American Dream," they're SO unique to him. His visual style, and his voice in how the characters speak. The characters in those shorts speak like people, with frailties and shifting moods and undercurrents and so forth. And his animation style fits that perfectly. You are watching/listening to Sean Buckelew. And to some extent that's a common thread between us.
Was there any narrative rubric? Do the stories work together at all? Or was everything entirely up to each animator?
Everything was entirely up to the individual animators. With only one or two exceptions, there was no oversight at all. The stories are all self-contained and are at times drastically different from one another. Which was kind of the point, to showcase the animators and their own voices.
What was the original timeline? Did members pass bits and pieces to each other for comments as things were in production?
Ha ha ha. Well, the earliest timelines were quite optimistic. We had planned on being done in April, but for a first time pulling something like this together, that was just too hectic. Next time I'm sure we'll be super organized and hit every deadline. Yes. I swear. It'll happen. A lot of members did indeed pass things to one another pretty regularly, and most of us posted work in progress pics and gifs and such on our Tumblr over the months. Some were very guarded, though. For the most part, until someone turned in their finished film, we weren't really sure what to expect. We were pretty blown away every time.
Your take on distribution and supporting your scene resonates with me. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to release Ghost Stories and your expectations regarding Vimeo's tip jar?
We're in a place now where people can directly support the work they care about. There was always this idea of “well, this is the shit on the TV/radio/theatre so I guess that's all we have." But now, I support several podcasts and go out of my way to buy from cool people, donate when I can and the option is available, etc. Online animation hasn't had that cohesive “moment” yet. A lot of us know each other, but there hasn't been a moment where people look around and say “hey, this is it's own thing that's been happening, I want to get into it." I guess with LNWC we're trying to poke people in that direction. We wanted to premiere it online, for free.
So munch great animation goes unseen unless you're at Ottawa or Annecy or something. If you're in a corn field in Nebraska, you're shit out of luck. So it was important to make it available to people. And having it for free just seemed a no brainer. People will support us if they want, and it's part of our job to make that connection. If there's a brighter future for artists on the internet (including indie animatiors) it's democratized toolsets and the support of people who care. Indie animation has the first part in spades, we're just working on the second part.
Vimeo's great. Most if not all of us use it as our primary place for showing our work. The community there is really great, very eager to spread the word and support one another. The tip jar goes with the general LNWC idea of “we make things, support us if it connects with you” thing. To be honest, I have no idea what the expect. We could pull in enough to split up in a worthwhile way, we could make $2.50. Who knows. This is uncharted territory for most of us.
What about these about the special edition packs I've been hearing about? What if I want to see Ghost Stories on the big screen?
We'll be selling digital downloads and Uncanny Mystery Packs at our Gumroad page. Mystery Packs contain some pins, stickers and a zine with artwork and comics and stuff from various members. We just kind of thought of things we'd like to receive in the mail from a bunch of artists we dug, and so there you go. Most of as also do illustration, comics, all kinds of things, so it made little sense to separate that from our animation, right? As far as screenings, members in different areas are setting them up throughout the fall--LA, London, NYC, Dublin, I think one in Sydney too. If anyone is interested in doing a screening, contact us and we'll set something up.
What's next for LNWC? A new series? General hopes and dreams for the collective?
What's next is a long nap, and then enjoying watching how Ghost Stories fares in the wilds of the internet. We'll be doing screenings and other fun stuff throughout the fall. Then we'll be quiet for a bit. I will say that there are already plans being made, conversations happening, etc, so work will be happening long before anyone hears about Project #2. I think the next couple of things we do will solidify what all Late Night Work Club is. Some of that is still a mystery even to us. We'll see. As far as hopes and dreams, I hope it inspires other animators to make things and not to wait for any sort of permission. I hope other people copy us and do their own big crazy projects we can all support and get excited about. And I hope it gets people talking about what we do. And I hope it slightly changes the perception of where animation is right now, and where it is happening.
And for indie animation on the whole?
Well, I can only speak for for my tiny sphere. Indie animation hasn't had that coalescing moment that other independent artsy-type scenes have had on the internet. It's still just a bunch of people who kind of know each other toiling away largely in isolation unless they're in NY, LA, London, etc. I'd like to see it go from that to more of a cohesive scene that people want to get into, support and participate in. Hopefully LNWC helps nudge it in that direction.