Simon Robson on Winning Awards, Fluking Through College and the Advice He Wishes He’d Heard Sooner
Growing up, Simon Robson wanted to be a rock star. But, tragically, he’s had to settle for becoming a multi award-winning director.
His career to date has included more styles and genres than many could fit into a lifetime of work, and it’s easy to get the sense that he’s not finished experimenting. From his 2011 ‘Coalition of the Willing’ film on the ecological crisis, to last year’s striking ‘Get Your Brain Back’ animation, Simon’s portfolio includes some of the most prescient and thought-provoking work you can watch.
With the director having recently signed to Passion Pictures Melbourne, LBB’s Adam Bennett took the opportunity to chat with Simon about the past, present and future of his unique career.
LBB> Congratulations on signing with Passion Pictures! What kind of projects are you hoping to get working on?
Simon> Thanks! Passion and I are already four projects deep this year, even before I signed. The work we’ve done together has been super fun and hugely varied. I think all parts of my brain have been called online at some point. We’ve done two mixed-media live-action and animation films; one incorporating miniature 3D bubble worlds into a live-action world and one integrating live-action and cel frame 2D animation. We’ve created a full 3D all singing and dancing animated film and three live-action comedy spots. It’s been nuts. From here on in my ambition is to combine more live-action performance, particularly comedy with CG and animated characters. I want to find partners in crime to create some crazy mixed-media mashups that flow from idea to idea and scene to scene in a suitably irreverent and surprising fashion, I’m hoping for the world on a stick basically.
LBB> Growing up, was it always your plan to become a director, or involved with film in some way?
Simon> No way, I was going to be in a band and become very famous. Honestly I was. From age 15 I did little else but play guitar. We’re talking six-plus hours a day for the first years. You can imagine, my grades took a beating. I went to university and studied a Mickey Mouse subject purely to get into a band. In ’95 I moved to London and was convinced that by ’98 I’d have ‘made it’. That didn’t happen. But what did happen is I literally stumbled across a prospectus for what was then a ‘Multi-media’ degree at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design. I fluked my way onto the course and the rest is history. I started in web as everyone did back then and by the early ‘00s was freelancing around London as an animator. Then I made my first short in 03/04 and got signed as a director. In-camera filmmaking came later. Agencies saw the potential for my approach to animated story-telling in a live-action scenario and trusted in me. I’ve been pretty lucky really.
LBB> What lesson or piece of advice do you wish you'd heard earlier in your career?
Simon> Oh God, where to start. After my first short ‘What Barry Says’ did well and won awards I thought I could walk on water. So I wish someone had told me not to get so cocky. When my second short bombed, I wish someone had told me not to take it so hard and that failure is part of progression. I wish someone had told me not to look around so much at what everyone else was doing and to just plough my own furrow. I wish someone had told me earlier in my career to believe in my inner voice and not choke it when pitching just to do something I thought the agency would like. So many lessons I know now. It’s actually all there in James Victore’s book, ‘Feck Perfuction’, it’s an absolutely essential read for anyone working in a creative area.
LBB> In 2011 you directed Coalition of the Winning, which imagined a collaborative solution to the climate crisis. How do you feel the situation regarding the climate emergency has changed in the years since?
Simon> Huge question. I’m going to try and not get too negative here… In the last 10 years I think the majority of the world's publics have come to broadly accept that the science behind climate change is real, that the ‘debate’ is over and that the science and predictions in the IPCC reports are to be believed. Trouble is, they a) Don’t really know what the hell they can do in the face of such a huge existential crises and b) They don’t want to seriously curtail their lifestyles. I’m guilty of this too, I still fly.
I think environmental technology has made HUGE leaps forward, solar battery storage and electric car range to name two obvious ones. But the immovable object remains the first world and developing world governments. They are sewn up by incredibly rich and powerful carbon fuel and carbon industry lobby groups and private interests who essentially set the governments’ carbon policies. The crazy thing is that this is broadly accepted by the world’s publics these days, we know we’re being stitched up. The liberal administration in Australia green-lighting the monstrous Adani coal mine is a perfect example. Hope lies in the burgeoning non-violent civil disobedience actions that are now proliferating through groups like Extinction Rebellion. This won’t stop. More and more people are cluing into the idea that unless societies rapidly shift to net-zero carbon emissions, we and our kids will be cooked. Greta Thunberg is kind of like a modern day Joan of Arc leading the charge. It’s amazing to see.
LBB> Does the climate crisis colour the work you do today in any way?
Simon> I recently collaborated with a bunch of super talented animators on a short social-media piece for School Strike for Climate. I had the idea watching Stranger Things and seeing a parallel between Eleven using her powers to battle dark forces and the school kids protesting against their governments doing nothing about climate change. So together we made this really awesome 2D animated piece sewing these ideas together. It was really different having a group of 16 year olds as your client. They loved everything!
LBB> Over your career, is there one project that sticks out as your most defining? If so, why?
Simon> Not really one, I’d probably be able to whittle it down to three. In no particular order there's reMarkable “Get your brain back” that shows my approach to ‘stream of consciousness’ story-telling, threading one idea into the next into the next. I find this approach really rewarding. Secondly there’s The Iconic “Change the way you shop”, a live-action spot where this hipster comedy duo wander around a theatrical mall as strange goings on ensue. I love the (almost) single shot, the strange quirky performances and the awkward moments. Thirdly there’s the spot I just did for the Victorian Government. DOP Thom Neale and I did a lot of pre-pro collaborating on how we’d capture and frame performance to feel as natural and free as possible, all the while factoring in space for the animated bubble dioramas to appear in. I love where we got to with the characters and environments. I pushed hard for a beautiful photo-real integration of CG and live and a very talented team pulled it off.
LBB> Some of your work has involved different styles of animation (such as the reMarkable campaign)- do you feel able to express something in animation that you can't with live action?
Simon> Good question. Not any more, although I once did. I once felt that the metaphysical capabilities of animation gave it story-telling possibilities that transcended live-action. But over the years I’ve seen some incredible live-action works (albeit live-action appended by CG) that have changed my mind. The future filmmaking I’m striving for is challenging, unexpected and irreverent story-telling that transcends time, space, scale. I want to hang this all off live-action performance that relates to and yet challenges an audience. Like I said above, I’m basically after the moon on a stick...
LBB> Who are your creative heroes, and why?
Simon> First I’d say illustrator and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. His work on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ left me gobsmacked as a kid, I couldn’t get his images of marching hammers out of my mind for days. David Lynch is up there for me too, there’s little I can say that hasn’t been said about him. For me it’s his totally uncompromising, stream-of-consciousness approach to narrative and film-making that attracts me. Pretty good actor too. I love Swiss graphic designer Josef Mueller-Brockmann’s pioneering sense of geometry in graphic design. This same geometry in Richard Neutra’s architecture has always turned me on in the same way and the same can be said for the structure in Ed Ruscha’s painting, especially his forced perspective. There are really too many to list here, but I will mention director Ian Pons Jewell’s work. He’s amazing. I find his daring, irreverence and work rate very inspiring.
LBB> Finally, what do you like to do in your spare time? Any current obsessions?
Simon> Haha, yeah. I draw a lot. I draft sculptures that I build and render in 3D. I’m obsessed with fish and aircraft. As a kid i modelled and painted hundreds of Airfix models next to my tropical fish tank. Now I draft and model hybrid jet-fish sculptures, go figure. I’m kind of a sculptor in waiting. I’m desperate to bring some of these creations into the real world. I also just enjoy illustrating and creating for myself when an idea takes hold. There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing on the ‘Still’ section of my site or on my insta: @northboysouth (Shameless self plug). Apart from this I’m an avid surfer (Luckily I live in Bondi) and I’m a life-saver at Bondi Beach surf club. I spend as much time as I can with my kids, Leo and Noah. We goof around skating and playing tennis and handball a lot. We play cards, write stories, play chess, whatever takes hold. The remaining time outside work goes to my long-suffering wife Emma!