Blinkink’s animation director Catherine Prowse on letting go of the ‘perfect idea’ to get to what is actually real within your art, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov
Now an animation director at Blinkink primarily concentrated on stop motion, Catherine Prowse started off as an introverted and “indoorsy” kid. Even though she does enjoy people, she says she always saw herself as a bit of an “outsider looking in.”
Being homeschooled for some of her childhood allowed her to spend a lot of time on her own, which in its own right helped her understand the importance of self-entertainment. “I was usually reading, or engaged in solitary creative activities like building fairy houses.” Like a lot of other kids, she took doll-house building and doll life quite seriously, setting up her Barbie houses in an extremely meticulous way. She jokes that “to be in stop motion you have to be a bit of an obsessive nerd.” She still has the memory of walking around and making up her own stories and characters, something that she would later on lean into and turn into a career. Her beautifully intricate character designs perhaps stem exactly from those days of solitude, where she allowed young Catherine to take off to her own world of imagination.
Spending those days of her childhood on an island just off the coast of Ireland allowed her “a lot of physical as well as intellectual and imaginative freedom.” Her birthplace also gave her a lot of inspiration for her core creative ideas. “The island was so safe that I used to roam around in the fields and on the beach with all the island kids.” For Catherine, those days felt like part of a classic children’s novel about a group of kids that get to have adventures because nobody is hovering over them. “I had a lot of space to grow,” she says (I mean just look at her headshot).
Straight out of school, Catherine pursued an English degree and then worked in a couple of antique bookshops in London. “It was really interesting, but I always knew deep down I wanted to do something more creative.” So when she turned 24, she went back to university to study illustration. Looking in hindsight, Catherine knows that she always loved making 3D models so much, that to her stop motion now seemed like such an obvious choice, however it didn’t occur to her until her very last year at university. “I found a way of twisting every brief around to make a short stop motion film. And by the time I graduated, I definitely knew I wanted to pursue it,” the animator explains. In those final days at university, Catherine was also the bravest with her work, because the “stakes were so low” that she could try out things that usually she wouldn’t.
Immediately after university, Catherine got into making models at an art department of stop-motion ads and music videos. She assisted in making shop window installations and built props for photo shoots. Some of her first ever jobs in the industry, she actually shot in her own flat. “I had to sleep in the middle of the shooting setup for months – with the camera on one side of the bed and the lights on the other. I constantly had to stop filming because my floorboards were too rickety.” One of these jobs involved live-action puppeteering, which ended up with her having to cram eight people in her room for one shot, trying to work around her bed and wardrobe. “The less-than-ideal shooting situation required a lot of creative problem solving. Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely glad that I can now shoot in a more professional setup, but there’s something about those practical limitations that really pushes you to make smart artistic choices,” she says. At these jobs where she had to put that creative problem solving to work, Catherine believes she honed her craft best, and got to try a load of different styles to see what fits her creative vision.
From those early days, the most important lesson for Catherine was that she learned to “just make stuff.” Like a lot of creatives, she remembers holding herself back when starting out, out of fear of making a mistake or creating a bad piece of work. “But ultimately, there’s no way to prepare yourself for directing something - you just have to do it. And the first thing will probably be quite bad, but that’s part of the process.” Embracing this process and turning them into a part of her learning curve, Catherine realised that those are the signs of growth and are now what she can turn back to and trace her development as an artist. “An idea you have for something that only exists in your head is always going to feel boundless and brilliant and perfect, because it doesn’t actually exist yet. The process of turning it into an actual finished thing is always going to be a bit painful, because with every creative choice you make, you carve away at it, inevitably making it a bit cruder. You need to let go of that perfect idea in order to actually make anything real. Every piece of work you make is a step on the journey to finding your voice.”
When it comes to the work itself, making her animation for Childline was for Catherine a definite “step forward” in her career. “It was great to work on a project with such a relatable message that touched so many people. I still get messages nearly two years later from people it struck a chord with. Recently I had some primary school children from Canada share some photos of an “inner monster” they created as part of an art project.” Indeed, during the first lockdown, when Catherine created the “Nobody is Normal” campaign in collaboration with Childline, she probably didn’t foresee it receiving the worldwide recognition that it did from the creative industry and beyond. It not only won big at Cannes that year, but also at D&AD and The One Show.
To Catherine, the true magic of her work hides in the “first little bit of animation.” This is to her the moment where she feels the worlds she has created in her head finally come to life. And the most challenging part is, when it comes to commercial stop motion, taking the client on a journey into this “very niche and specialised field.” “You’re often asking clients to take a leap of faith with you up until the shoot. All they get to see are these separate elements of sets and puppets and often they don’t all come together till the last moment. But when the shot is properly lit by the cinematographer, and you’re looking at a believable mini world through the camera lens it really feels like you’ve made something special,” says the animator.
Because of the very nature of stop motion and it being “an intricately textured, tactile medium, that always heightens the emotion,” Catherine knows that it is paramount to make her audiences feel as much as she can. Stop motion, to her “adds a tangibility that people can relate to. The physical textures are like a fingerprint - they add a human quality that invites intimacy and draws the audience in. It feels familiar and personal, because in miniature, everything is close to you.” However, Catherine believes that to keep the medium of stop motion fresh and unique looking, animators need to draw inspiration from various other fields. Be it 2D animation that she uses as a building block, or something totally different like fashion or ceramics, she is keen to incorporate the unexpected in her work. Perhaps that’s why, when she got totally hooked on RuPaul’s Drag Race she used some of the runway looks for inspo for her work with Childline!