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Article published 21/04/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories, and got an insight into their work.

There are lots of different ways to tell stories. We caught up with animator and illustrator Gavin C Robinson, to find out more about his work. He also told us about his involvement with the RSNO’s Yoyo and the Little Auk project.

Tell us about what your job involves and how you got into this line of work

I got into animation after the prospect of a career in Architecture filled me with enough dread to ensure that I found something that I actually enjoy! I enrolled in the animation course at Edinburgh College of Art and on the first day of that course I knew that I had made a good decision. I graduated in 2013 and the natural progression for me was to stay in Edinburgh, working as a freelance animator. That's what I've been doing ever since. 

My job, and the projects that I'm involved with, can vary quite a bit. I might be working as the sole animator on a project, comprehensively creating the visuals for a short corporate explainer video. I might be working as part of a much larger team of animators, on a children's TV series for example, concentrating on one specific element of the animation pipeline.

Can you tell us about the Yoyo and the Little Auk project – what is it about and what has been your role in it?

Yoyo and the Little Auk is a short film, for nursery and primary school children, that follows the titular sea bird. The Little Auk gets blown off course and separated from their flock during migration, eventually landing in the fictional Scottish town of Inverkithkin. We soon meet Yoyo, a local girl who is on a mission to find a fancy dress costume for the Inverkithkin Ceilidh and, following these two new friends, we explore Inverkithkin and it's inhabitants. The film is a celebration of the vibrancy of family, of Scotland's communities and of the cultural diversity that we're proud to find within this wee country. The film presents a way for young children to interact with orchestral music, in a natural and engaging way and what better way to do that than through the telling of a story?

I was lucky enough to be contacted by Laura Penny, from Visible Fictions, to create the animation for the project. The story is written by Stewart Ennis and narrated by James Cosmo. The music is composed by Euan Stevenson, and of course performed by the RSNO. My role in the project, supported by the caring guidance of director Dougie Irvine, was to interpret all of this wonderful material and create the visual element. This comprised developing an illustrative style for the piece, designing the cast of characters, planning the action, drawing backgrounds, creating assets for animation, and of course making it all move. I'm hugely grateful to fellow ECA animation alum, Cat Bruce, for being a massive help with the “making it move” bit!

This particular project includes music and a voiceover – has that impacted the way you have worked?

I had the music and a voiceover track to work with from the beginning of my involvement, and that's certainly not always the case with the various types of projects that I might be part of. It was brilliant to have these elements in place. They provided a wonderfully inspiring springboard that gave my own ideas and intentions for the animation vitality from the very start. I've created a few music videos in the past, and so reacting to or interpreting a pre-existing audio track was a process that's quite familiar to me and one that I felt comfortable with.

In the first stages of a project like this I just sit down with a sketchbook and a good set of headphones and scribble anything and everything that comes to me as I listen to the music, over and over. It helps when the music is as beautiful as was the case for Yoyo and the Little Auk! The next step of distilling and refining those scribbles into something coherent and consumable is a really rewarding part of the process.

What do you think the role of animation is in terms of storytelling?

Animation is a wonderfully powerful way to communicate a narrative. You can be incredibly descriptive in detailing to an audience how a thing looks, as well as being able to show them exactly what the thing is doing. There is a danger in that freedom, however, and it would be possible to create something so prescriptive as to lack value.

I think animation is arguably at its most effective when being informed by, and informing, various other elements within a larger method of storytelling. As an example, I often think about how the two main elements of children's picture books operate together. You have words, and you have images, but in some of the most successful picture books, either one of these elements in isolation would not tell the whole story, or might not even make sense. It's when the two are combined and play off of one another that the narrative, tone and pacing of the story are revealed. You don't need to say everything with the text and you don't need to say everything in the pictures. It's about an efficiency and balance between the two. When that balance is right, there's the potential to achieve natural and cohesive storytelling.

With an animated film there will generally be more than two main elements being brought together (namely the addition of sound and motion), but being mindful of a similar kind of balance is a valuable part of the process in just the same way.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I find self-analysis tricky, even slightly uncomfortable, but I think that I can fairly confidently say that I've always been someone who has a desire to create. Whether that's evidenced by the doodles in the margins of my old chemistry jotters from school, or the more recent ongoing and numerous DIY projects for our “fixer-upper” of a house. Making something tangible out of nothing provides me with a very natural satisfaction. Animation unquestionably scratches that itch.

On top of that, with animation, the “something” that you're creating has a life that people can connect to and invest their emotions in. It can be hard for me, personally, to step back and enjoy my work as the product that it's intended to be, free from the knowledge or experience of how it has been created. I definitely get a kick out of seeing other people doing just that.

Why do you think stories are so important to Scotland?

I'm no historian, so I'm arguably ill equipped to give the “correct” answer to this, but Scotland undoubtedly has a rich heritage of storytelling. It may be something to do with our ancestor's need for a bit of escapism from the dreich weather and long winter nights! Telling stories is a very human condition and I'm sure is not something that's limited to our shores.

It's my personal experience, however, that in Scotland, you can't help but be inspired by the land itself. Given the size of the country, we're spoilt by the variety of character in the landscapes of Scotland. The bold, powerful Cairngorm mountains versus the drama of the jagged Cuillin ridge on Skye, for example. The miles long beaches on the east coast, the turquoise waters of the west. Patchwork farmland of Aberdeenshire or ancient forests in Perthshire. That's not to mention how the weather can change the character of any one of these locations in an instant! Who wouldn't be inspired to tell stories in and of this land?

What are you looking forward to in Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022?

It looks like there are lots of events to get excited about throughout the year. I'm generally looking forward to getting involved, and fuelling my inspiration to create more stories of my own!

It would be great to get over to the premiere of Cliabh An T-Shenachais (The Story Creel) on Mull. It sounds like a wonderful project combining film, song and poetry. To have the premiere event on Fionnphort beach seems like a great way to celebrate how the land and sea have shaped the fishing community there, and their stories.

And of course, I'm very excited to see what children all around Scotland think of a certain story about a little girl from Inverkithkin, and her new feathered friend!

The online premiere of Yoyo & The Little Auk took place on 22 April 2022. Aimed at children aged 3-6, it’s an introduction to the magic of classical music from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Visible Fictions.  Find out more about the project on the RSNO website.

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