Claymation with Lee Hardcastle

By Grant Bailey (@GrantDBailey)

It is important to note that before embarking on a career as a claymation animator you may be resigning yourself to an existence of long days, dark rooms and painstaking, steady progress.

The fruits of that labour can be spectacular, however. If you are yet to experience the ragged, visceral joy of animator Lee Hardcastle’s claymation, we aim to fix that immediately. The Leeds native is getting everywhere lately, venting his twisted visions in music videos, vignettes for Adult Swim and countless projects on his Youtube channel, now 200K subscribers strong.

Take his latest work, a music video for Missouri rockers Radkey, as a prime example of his visual style.

“I was lead animator on the Radkey video for 6 weeks. Usually the bands have a clear idea of what they want so you end up having to share the steering wheel and work together to stay on the road,” Lee says, who has also masterminded gnarly videos for the kraut-punk of USA Nails and nostalgia-tech of Gunship. “When working on my own stuff, it’s a solo cruise.”

Grotesque shifting forms, vivid colours and the influence of 80s pop culture are all traits found regularly in Lee’s work. From John Carpenter to Wallace and Gromit and the work of Will Vinton, it’s all mixed into Lee’s soup of clay and gore. “Growing up I was a huge fan of practical, pre-computer special effects in horror flicks. They were so creative and pleasing to see on screen. Films like The Thing, with all the puppets and transformation scenes really got my imagination racing. I’m very nostalgic as well as inspired from growing up in that era.”

In a personal favourite short, the characters of Frozen find themselves colliding with the iconic blood test scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The results are likely to give Olaf fans nightmares.

Clay might seem like the ideal medium to give life to Lee’s creations now, but in the beginning it was a matter of necessity. “Clay is so easy to get hold of and it’s cheap to construct puppets and sets in the medium,” Lee says. “I’m very much a storyteller first, filmmaker second and an animator third. So like, I started out making comic books before I got hold of a camera, and then I started making shorts with moving images, and then started animating as a means of accessibility.”

Of course, even if the materials are easy to come by, the process of taking ideas and turning them into reality is an arduous process. “Once you get down to animating it’s a lot of hard graft, but in the beginning it’s a case of daydreaming and trying to articulate those ideas onto paper”. Before the first clay model is even moulded into existence, Lee maps out every scene and how he is going to shoot it. Once that’s done and his equipment is set up (for any curious togs Lee uses a Canon 5D MkII and a couple of prime Nikon lenses, a 55mm and a 24mm, to capture his animations) all that’s left is “time, effort and getting on with it, shooting it all one frame at a time.”

This means long days in dark rooms. “It’s a case of endurance. You have to spend quite a lot of time on your own in a dark room shut away from the outside world. That’s what I find most difficult about it all; it’s fine for like a day or 2 but if you’re working on something for months then it gets a bit crazy.”

One of Lee’s most well-known projects, T Is For Toilet, went through this painstaking process, starting with a simple premise: “a gradual build-up to a flat-out gory, bizarro Final Destination-style death.” I think you’ll agree that Lee nailed it, as did the creators of The ABC’s Of Death, who selected Lee’s work to appear in their compilation of death-inspired vignettes.

“Once I had that pay-off in my mind the rest sorta just wrote itself. Plus, at the same time I’d spent the previous summer helping out a family in a burger cafe and I lived with a little boy who made me laugh. He definitely inspired the main character.”

With the Radkey video wrapped, Lee is now free to start out on another “solo cruise” and has already set the gears in motion on his next project, Spook Train. “This time I’m tackling my first full-length feature film, so expect the finished product in about five years or so!”

I can only imagine what kind of messed-up, darkly humorous weirdness we can expect from a full-length feature from Lee. At any rate, it looks like it’s back to the dark room for a long, long time.

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