During lockdown, where most of us were gloating about their new sourdough-making abilities or watching The Sopranos for the second time, illustrator Polly Nor and animator Andy Baker were working together on a project which looked to portray the sheer weirdness and ultimate mundanity of the whirlpool of emotions 2020 has been. Writer and editor Ione Gamble spoke to both of them about the making of the WePresent produced How Have You Been?.
Describing the specific mundanity of life in lockdown is a difficult task for anyone; but when trying to surmise the very distinct loneliness of spending too much time inside, Polly Nor is a pro. When brainstorming ideas for her latest animated short film, How Have You Been?, a collaboration with animator and fellow Londoner Andy Baker, lockdown was still an extremely new experience the globe over. But for Polly, the acute sense of loneliness that comes from feeling isolated from the world is one of familiarity.
The film Polly and Andy have created follows a day in the life of a young woman, moving through the world experiencing little contact with anyone, until a visitor finds its way through her door via a vegetable subscription box. When deciding on what to tackle in the five-minute story, capturing the mundanity of our negative feelings was at the top of her list. “I wanted to demonstrate the reality of a mundane day; particularly with elements of grief, depression, or sadness from a breakup – just the everyday boringness and irritation of it.” If you’re familiar with Polly’s work, you won’t be surprised by her quest to bring our darkest feelings to the boil. Her illustrations astutely capture the feelings we so often find impossible to put to words; whether that’s by depicting abusive relationships as a toxic sea serpent, family issues demonstrated in twisted portraits with faces concealed by full-face masks, or our own self image staring back at us devilishly in the mirror.
Many of Polly’s most-beloved characters appear in How Have You Been?, including a red toothy slug-like entity that eventually turns into the devil as the protagonist nurtures and feeds it. We see the demon return the favor by coaching our leading lady through her day; brushing her hair, running her baths, and getting her dressed – all to the disdain of the film’s central character. Bringing these creatures to life for the first time with movement and sound, Andy and Polly worked over a period of three months perfecting every tiny detail.
Andy tells me they both spent a lot of time figuring out “how her work plays out in longer form, in terms of the animation as a narrative.” Details in her work that are usually left to be inferred by the viewer, such as how the devil walks or the sound wings make when they fly, suddenly had to be paid as much attention to as the plot itself. “The nice thing about animation taking time to complete is that you do get that space to think about stuff,” Andy explains. “Obviously Polly’s got lots of supernatural elements like demons in her work. I want it to flow in terms of the story.”
Though similar creatures may appear time and time again across her illustrations, Polly believes “each demon is personal to the character.” People often assume her monsters represent the patriarchy, or men-at-large, Polly tells me “sometimes the demon can be a kind of enemy. Usually it's the inner critic, or the inner voice of the character that causes them to change.”
In the film, the familiarity of hours spent between the kitchen, the sofa, and our beds collides with the small, red other-wordly creature the protagonist reluctantly befriends. In Polly’s world, the normal always sits beside the strange, she says, “it's either just the super-real, like being in the house all the time, or the other side of my work, which is a lot of dreams and escapism.” The hyper-real of grey bedroom walls and the empty fridges of our existences throughout this year have left us all wishing for something magical to walk into our lives, and in Polly’s artwork, those wishes are actualized. “It’s the longing for that escape from being in your room and spending all of your time inside.” While the central character may first find the demon’s attempts to care for her a smothering annoyance; Polly explains that “towards the end she begins to accept the demon. That's when she's alleviated from the pain. Which happens quite a lot in my work.”
Unlike most of her back-catalog, animation requires Polly to collaborate. This isn’t Polly and Andy’s first time working together: the pair initially met on a commercial project, and then went on to create a music video for Chelou which clocked over 20 million views on Youtube. With Polly so often tackling sensitive subject matters within her practise, finding the right people to bring on board a project is imperative. Initially, she took Andy a full script. “I was meant to brainstorm some ideas and then I ended up writing something that probably would have been a half an hour piece.” From there, Andy helped Polly whittle down the story to a five minute film. He tells me over the phone, “working with an artist, you learn to help them refine their vision.”
Watching How Have You Been?, it’s clear the protagonist is battling her own demons. “I had definitely wanted to create something to do with grief,” Polly explains. “When I was trying to do an illustration related to it, I just didn't really feel like I was honoring it in the right way. I never felt quite like I could grasp it as such a personal thing.” While grief may have been at the forefront of her mind when creating the film, the beauty of the piece lies in it’s ambiguity. “With most themes in my work, the film could be interpreted in various different ways. We wanted to keep it open.” The audience isn’t spoonfed the details of the character’s trauma, we don’t know why she feels the way she does, we’re just shown the consequences of that emotion. “In the story, she’s very isolated. It doesn’t have to necessarily be viewed as a story about grief, but it's about a breakdown of communication. About not having people around you when you need them, or when you want them to be there.”
Flying red creatures aside, it isn’t a dramatic piece; but rather puts sequence to thoughts the majority of us have encountered, particularly in the last few months. Grief, loneliness, and breakdowns in communication may have been themes Polly had been ruminating on for ages; but suddenly, these emotions were being experienced all across the world, and all at once. Polly and Andy worked together to bring her work alive sonically within How Have You Been?, eventually casting aside nearly all dialogue in favour of the brain-drilling noises that fill our everyday. “I had thought about noises that I would want in it, which is really like the buzzing of the fridge, or cars going past. Things that fucking annoy you. The sounds that amplify when you've listened to nothing for a long time.”
Working with such sensitive subject matter, it would be tempting to tie up the story in a pretty bow; solve all of the character’s problems, and prove it is possible to overcome the darkness within ourselves. But that isn’t Polly’s style. For both Polly and Andy, it was important to end the film with a conclusion rooted in reality. “It's a bad habit of filmmaking that you can't leave something open. There’s the temptation to say, ‘we've got to have the big ending,” Andy explains. “There’s something almost therapeutic about it being a snapshot of tiny parts of someone's life.”
When tackling issues that so closely align with our mental health, Polly is cautious about being branded as having all the answers. “Generally artists aren't experts on a whole lot of things, other than the thing that they do. Although I have experienced grief, I don't own that grief. I don't want the film to be a sob story.” Every element of How Have You Been? is a double edged sword; the demon that at one point picks away at her sanity, ends up becoming a comforting and positive presence; providing the character with the impetus to begin interrogating her own issues. “The main theme of my work is always that struggle for self acceptance or happiness. I definitely don't think that there's one route to either of those things. But for me, it is just kind of trying to work through the issues that you've had.”
Rejecting the idea that we should push through our problems, or ignore them altogether in a bid to pretend everything is fine, Polly finds it easier to dig deep into her feelings in a bid to understand them. “I did actually find that this project was quite therapeutic, because I was really trying to think of an ending; like what is the ending for a situation like this?”
Andy adds, “It's easy for films to try and wrap that stuff up. To not do that feels a bit more real.” Polly agrees, adding, “I just don't think that it's realistic to have this one cure fits all approach, and to have this constant ‘positive vibe’ attitude. I want to give an honest reflection of how I feel.” While we may all be dying to know what happens once the flying demon evacuates the protagonist’s flat, creating the animation has been a conclusive experience in itself for Polly. “I find that with a lot of my work that is an outpouring of emotion,” she says, “getting the emotion out, and accepting that is how you feel about something – that kind of alleviates the darkness a little bit.”