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The Directors: Pencil Bandit


Self taught graphic artist and Somesense animation director combines quirky colourful characters with his own way of weirdness

The Directors: Pencil Bandit

Pencil Bandit is a self-taught graphic artist and animation director who aims to affect change through comedy with his work.

He’s a self-confessed nerd who draws quirky, colourful characters - often with a twisted, creepy underbelly - that have adorned commercials, social media campaigns, music videos and charity films alike.

His background in drama, theatre and comedy informs his use of character and performance, leading to some of his most celebrated work, including branded stings for E4, and, most recently, an online campaign for SMARTY Mobile featuring Katherine Parkinson and Tom Bennett.

Heavily inspired by British comedy, weird indie films and classic stop motion, he likes his animation slightly offbeat and surprising, and is passionate about good storytelling and proper jokes. 

Not one to conform to normality, Pencil Bandit found his moniker on the underside of a forest log, and is drawn to clients that let him have his way with weirdness.

Name: Pencil Bandit

Location: London

Repped by/in: Somesense

What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Funny! Like, do they genuinely force out a tangible chuckle as I read them, or as someone pitches them? A visceral reaction like that is often what will make something stick in a viewer’s head. Saying this, in the world of commercial animation, scripts are often not the starting point; the creative briefs we get from clients or agencies might include scenarios, or they could be more nebulous and ‘vibe’-based. Either way, the briefs that excite me most are ones that dare to be a bit bolder and haven’t already been crushed into the most familiar, advert-like box imaginable.

How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

This obviously varies wildly from project to project, depending at what point I’m being brought into the process, but as with all animation, it tends to kick off with something visual.  Thankfully, since people have come to me for my particular style and way of interpreting things, we get to bypass a lot of commercial animation’s usually endless moodboards and style references. ‘I am the moodboard,’ I like to yell to nobody in particular.

If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

So important. The most important. Before jumping into the aforementioned visuals, I always need to do an absolute deep dive into the brief – really dig into that thing, rub my eyeballs all over it. I want to get the best possible sense of what the clients are about and how they want to come across, so that it becomes second nature as I march ahead with characters and ideas and all that fun stuff. It tends to include looking out how they present themselves already: their branding, their website, their socials, their tone of voice across the board.

For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Your relationship with a sick producer. A producer who’s got your back when it comes to liaising with agency and/or the client, who can filter some of the noise so you can focus on your creative end. A producer with whom you can be on the same page and comfortably voice concerns, and who tells you to stop working at 6pm. And as someone who once made eight 10-second stings entirely solo in a couple of months, I can attest to how valuable that relationship is for retaining your sanity.


What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

I’m big on comedy. Proper comedy. And weird, unsettling stuff, which I’ve had less of a chance to explore commercially. And, sometimes contradictorily, stuff that has a broader underlying message. So I dunno, if anyone out there wants a funny animated piece that speaks to the climate crisis, while also somehow being a bit creepy, then hit me up.

What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Ask an animator what common misconceptions they’ve encountered about the medium and I think you’re in for a long night. The most frequent is probably time, though: how long animation takes. That a crew of two could get through a minute of frame-by-frame work in a week, or similarly wild estimates. As a director/designer it can often be about working with time and budget restrictions rather than against them, and making a deliberate virtue out of a simpler style that can fit the bill.

Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

That’s not something I have personal experience with, but it’s also a benefit of having a production company like Somesense behind me; that kind of business is somebody else’s… business.

What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Wow, that’s a tough one to sift through. Since I’m still fairly early on in my time as a director, the thing that springs to mind is the problem of not being able to stay awake after I’d been working like, 18-hour days, every day, for weeks (I hasten to add that this was a good five years ago when I was an idiot and had taken a big project entirely on my own back). My solution? I took a power nap and actually hired other animators in future.

How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

This is the ultimate balance of being a creative person making things for commercial clients. First, I think you gradually just get better at conveying to clients why an idea works, and having good people around you who can do the same. And second, you learn to be less precious over your ideas. There are many ways to skin a cat, and sometimes a client doesn't think your way of skinning a cat is quite right. And that’s OK. If you really think it’s that great, maybe you can skin a cat that way later on, as part of a personal cat-skinning project. (Please do not skin cats.)

What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

It’s something I’m very conscious of, particularly now I’m in the position of making some of those decisions as a director. I’ve worked as an animator in a great many commercial studios where almost all the creatives are dudes, and mostly white dudes, and it’s exhausting to see it happen so often. Sometimes when you’re crewing up for a project you come unstuck; whether it’s because your pool has shrunk because you’re looking for someone who can work in a very specific way, or purely because all the non-white non-dudes you reach out to are busy on other things. But as a white dude myself, I certainly make a point of seeking out anybody but white dudes as my first port of call, and resources like are a huge help in diversifying your mental Rolodex.

How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Given that animation can be made from pretty much anywhere, I was already thoroughly used to remote work, so I don’t know that I’ve picked up anything major on a personal level. I’ll be interested to see what lasting change we see from the clients, the agencies and the big studios, however. Everyone’s cottoned onto the fact that you don’t need all your employees in-house, five days a week (imagine that), but equally I think by the end of this we’ll all be ravenous for human contact and being able to hollar for someone across an office, so who knows.

Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

It’s only important to keep those different formats in mind when you really need to. Ultimately, if a client isn’t looking to turn your 16:9 ad into a 4:5 Instagram video, there’s no point in splitting up your brain and diluting the images that you’re creating for some theoretical flexibility. However, since anything can be watched on any device, I do generally try to keep in mind what’s going to work when something’s squished onto a phone screen, as well as on someone’s big living room telly. It’s good not to lose sight of one or the other, if you know it’s going to end up on both.

What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

I’m definitely really excited by what’s possible in VR and AR, particularly how you could have 2D animation functioning in that 3D space, but it would be dependent on the right project and a company who really wanted to develop something in that arena. Just because it’s cool and new doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good fit for my chosen medium and style. Maybe I should go the other way and do my next project as a zoetrope.

Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

These ads for UK mobile provider SMARTY have been my first venture with Somesense, and have emerged as a real calling card not only for myself, but what we do as a production company: comedy, character and craft.

These spots for Orangina on E4 feel like a natural predecessor to my work for SMARTY, playing out funny, characterful skits in a very short space of time, and housing them all in a very distinct visual style.

Before being hired by E4, I’d made a couple of 10-second pieces for their old E Stings competitions, which were both selected as finalists to be screened on the channel for a few years apiece. This one in particular shows off some more kinetic animation and really hits the beats of the crazy EDM soundtrack.

While these videos for the National Autistic Society were helmed by Seed Animation Studio, I worked closely with Creative Director Morgan Powell to find the visual beats of these short explanatory pieces. They’re deliberately uncomplicated, and each get across a way of being sensorily overwhelmed without being sensorily overwhelming themselves.

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Somesense, Wed, 20 Jan 2021 09:53:43 GMT