Thursday 13 July 2017

An Interview with Derek Hayes

Presenting an interview with BAFTA award winning animator, director, designer and one time White Dwarf cover artist, Derek Hayes.

White Dwarf #8 Cover by Derek Hayes

Way back in 1978 you produced a dramatic cover painting for Games Workshops Roleplaying Games Magazine, White Dwarf #8, featuring characters from The Valley of the Four Winds story, game and range of miniatures.  How did the cover commission come about?

As I recall, the commission came about because, after film school, I was living near the offices (housed in a comic shop, I think) and I went in to see if I could rustle up some work. They lent me the miniatures to work from.

Valley of the Four Winds, Wind Demon Miniature

Valley of the Four Winds 'Unknown Release'  Wizard

To be honest, when I took the artwork in, I expected to get some feedback and to do some more work on it but they took it and paid me for it. I thought they didn’t actually like it, and I only found out much later that they had used it.
Well, I certainly like the cover, has a bold energy, much more dynamic than much of the imagery at the time. That would have been Games Workshops 1 Dalling Road, Hammersmith offices. Were you involved much with early fantasy gaming scene in the 1970s , play Dungeons and Dragons?

I don’t want to start off by disappointing you, but I’ve never really been into gaming, or sport for that matter, I’m completely cack-handed with both and I tend to forget the rules and wander off to do something else.

I do remember visiting a friend of mine who was one of the first people to put computers into sound mixing desks and watching him play an early computer game that had no graphics, just a list of instructions you typed in like, “pick up the amulet”, etc. It was hardly a spectator sport, so I tiptoed away and did something else.

Haha! We'll have to avoid those twisty turney passages . Fantasy and mythology seem to be recurring themes in your films. Skywhales (1983) Y Mabinogi / Otherworld (2003), and arguably the biblical adaptations Elijah (1996) and Miracle Maker (2003) Is there something that draws you to these kind of stories?

I’ve always been an avid reader and after reading everything in the infant school bookcase, especially the stories about the lives of animals (the title of one sticks in my mind to this day; ‘Shag the Caribou’) I moved on to the history stories of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease. They were rich with well-researched and brilliantly imagined descriptions of different times and were exciting too. Back then we also got taught a lot of the legends of the Greek and Norse heroes and gods, so that fed into my imaginative life.

Then I got the bug for science fiction and that was all I read for quite a few years. Along the way I managed to find a lot of books that I thought were sci-fi but are generally not called that by those who talk about “literary fiction”; things like Brave New World, 1984 or The Aerodrome by Rex Warner. This attitude annoys me intensely, especially when some ‘literary’ author is lauded for coming up with something that sci-fi authors had explored, often better, years before.

I was reading fantasy stuff too, and I loved books like Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, but I never got on with magic as well as I did science and I think the question that starts, “What if…?” is something that always drives me to explore different ideas. The question of different, maybe better, ways to live is something I like to explore, as well as looking at the way humans behave in different situations and circumstances.

Looking at one of your earlier pieces, Skywhales (1983) -  there are some lovely moments in there - the contrast between the fluid motion of the Skywhales and the clanking sky-boats of the primitive peoples. The creature and landscape designs are very striking, and setting it in an entirely alien culture is a brave move for fantasy which tends to rely on a human (or proxy-human) protagonist. What were some of the influences going in to making this piece? 

I’ve always enjoyed those stories that have their ending in their beginning, in that you find out something as you go along that was planted, perhaps without you noticing, earlier on, and there were a couple of sci-fi stories that described some kind of weird evolution that were an influence. I’ve conveniently forgotten which ones they were though, so I can’t go back and look at how much I stole from them!

My co-director Phil Austin, who I met at art school and with whom I worked for eighteen years was also a sci-fi fan and we shared the same love of comics and he designed the creatures in the film. (the planet is called Perle and they are therefore Perlians; though there is no way we could tell you that in the movie, since it is all alien dialogue) The design is influenced by underground comic artist Vaughn Bodē, whose work we liked a lot. The film ‘Fantastic Planet’ (‘La Planete Sauvage’, Rene Laloux, 1973) which we saw at art school was also something of an influence.

Another thing I like to do is to think a lot about the setting of a story and try, with the help of a bit of research, to work out all the aspects of an invented society so that it may look weird but everything in it will ring true. So the idea of plants that synthesized a lighter than air gas, allowing them to float above a planet blanketed in much thicker, denser gases was something that I worked on developing as a believable setting.

We wanted to see if we could generate sympathy for a non-human race of characters and do it without dialogue. Then we decided to make it more interesting by adding dialogue, but in an alien language, so we wrote a script for what the characters were saying and got the actors to do it in Perlian. That took a little while to work out and all the early attempts at an alien language came out sounding like some fake Eastern European language, but in experimenting, one of the actors came up with the idea of making noises on the in-breath rather than the normal out-breath.

The fact that we had a proper script meant that the actors could get the correct emotion for a scene and also repeat a sound if they spotted a repeated word, which made for a more realistic feel.

That's an incredible amount of world-building, but I think the labour really pays off in the end result. Looking back at Skywhales now, I can’t help but compare James Camerons Avatar (2009) - the sky island, ‘primitive’ spiritual aliens, interconnected cycle of life,  oddly compound by the lettering and typography. Do you see echoes or reflections of your own films in later works?

I’d like to think James Cameron was influenced by Skywhales; then I could get a hot-shot American lawyer to get me some of those millions he made out of it!

I think though, that certain things are in the atmosphere and people tend to come up with similar stories and settings; we can always point back to things like Roger Dean’s album covers with floating rocks and before that Magritte’s paintings (Castle of the Pyrenees 1959), that may well have influenced both Skywhales and Avatar.

Castle of the Pyrenese - Magritte - 1959

Slightly more recently, the more earthly Y Mabinogi/Otherworld (2003), a dramatisation of the famous Welsh mythological cycle. Again there is some very strong character design with naturalistic historical costuming of the human characters. What kind of research went into those designs?

Efnesian - Otherworld (2003) - Derek Hayes 

I did a huge amount of research and was aided by some very good researchers who gave me books to read and found out lots of interesting facts about Celtic life and ideas. As I say, I like to do research and think that it is one of the most important things you can do if you want to come up with something that is different and original. There is a lot to be said for looking at what your contemporaries are doing but I always tell my students that you need to go to a broad range of sources, especially older ones, if you are to avoid doing a watered down version of someone else’s ideas and research.

So I looked at the things that exist in museums from Celtic culture and Roman depictions of Celts as well as medieval life (fashions didn’t change that fast in those days!).

The horse-skulled wicker-man particularly effective character design in its medieval-supernatural folk-horror vibe.
The Wicker-man - Otherworld (2003) - Derek Hayes

The wicker-man idea was a response to a very particular problem in the story that, in the original, never describes the ‘thing’ that comes out of the mist to try to steal a colt from a stable. The colt’s owner chops off the creature’s arm when it reaches in to grab the foal and, after chasing the thing into the darkness, he returns to find a baby underneath the severed arm. I was left wondering where the monster had managed to keep the baby while reaching through the wall; under his armpit? The wicker-man is based on Julius Caesar’s description of Celtic sacrifices in his ‘Conquest of Gaul’ (though scholars often regard this as propaganda put out by the victor) so the idea that it was a wicker creature that carried humans within its structure helped solve a puzzle that an oral storyteller could sidestep by waving his arms around and growling, but had to be shown in a film. The horse’s skull on top, of course, was influenced by what research told me about the Celtic veneration of the horse, and the old folk traditions of the Hobby Horse that still parade through some British country towns on May Day.

Along side the fantasy/mythology, there is also a strain of dystopian and quite violent sci-fi that runs throughout. Although very different stylistically and narratively, The Victor (1985), Arcadia (1988) both reference gaming or game-like activities and blend fantasy/reality. Both films also have a darkly satirical core, what would you say drove that?

Interestingly, both of those films have their genesis in a single image that was then embroidered upon. I sometimes (often when half awake) get a picture that appears in my head and I find I have to work out what it is about and what the story attached to it is. In this case it was a simple image of a soldier running across a battlefield as bolts of light shot vertically down at him – something definitely influenced by the kind of arcade games that were everywhere at the time.

The Victor (1985)

In the case of The Victor it combined with the idea of drug experiments on soldiers that I’d seen in the documentary that ends the film, and in Arcadia it was the more comedic idea of flipping the situation so that real life was like a space invader game and arcade games were a respite from that.

In both cases the real concern was with the nature of human aggression, a subject I’d been concerned with for a long time. The question, “are humans naturally aggressive or more naturally co-operative, and why?” was something I’d been reading about and ruminating on.

Arcadia (1988)

As a personal aside, I’d like to say that The Victor (seen late night on Channel 4 if I remember correctly) for it’s mix of stylish hyper-violence and anti-authoritatian leanings, left a huge impression on my friends and I, very much in keeping with the Battle Action and 2000AD comics we were reading, and Victors cross-hair nose and sideways mouth dominated our schoolbook graffiti drawings for a while!
The Victor Concept Art by Lin Jammet

Well, I’m flattered to hear that; I’m a big comics fan and 2000AD was one that I collected from the start. When Phil and I started our company, Animation City, we got a grant to develop an animated feature film idea and we got Mike McMahon, acclaimed Judge Dredd artist, and Ian Gibson (Robo Hunter), to do design work for it. Mike did designs for Elijah and The Miracle Maker later as well.

For The Victor we used an artist called Lin Jammet, who walked in off the street with his portfolio one day. We loved his designs and were determined to work with him but it took us a year before we found something, which turned out to be a New Year ident for Channel Four. Soon after that we got the commission for The Victor and got him back to design the whole thing.

Arcade Attack (1981) also has gaming characters as a central theme. There’s a strong stylistic contrast between the organic Pinball back-glass characters (I can see shades of John Buscemas Conan and Hajime Sorayama’s gynoids in there - were these references to actual pinball art?) and the neon digital Tron-like Space Invaders, which I imagine the retrowave kids would get a lot out of!

As you guessed the Arcade Attack references came from those sort of sources, all of our comic book influences filtered through some of the actual pinball machine back-glasses and video games of the time.

Similarly, both The Victor, the titles for Jeeves and Wooster use purely abstract forms. In todays world where everything seems to tends towards photo-realist CGI, is there still room for expressive use of style and pure abstraction?

As for expressive style and abstraction, there’s lots of that going on; you can see really amazing films like that at any animation festival and some of it gets into the mainstream via music videos and ads.

As Course Director for the BA(Hons) Animation & Visual Effects in Falmouth, you must see an extraordinary amount of talent pass through the doors. Not asking you to play favourites, but are there any animators or films in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre that readers of this blog should follow up?

There’s lots of interesting stuff out there at the moment and a lot of it is available online; one of our graduates, Olly Skillman-Wilson has been doing some lovely work on a sci-fi game called ‘The Signal from Tolva’.

Signal from Tolva - Concept At

You can also see one of my favourite, abstract films from the course by Lydia Pourmand:

Lydia Purmand - Illusion of Chaos - Youtube

As for other weird and wonderful stuff, check out:

Thanks for the tip-offs, there is some extraordinary work that really deserves exposure. What about your own work, do you have plans for any new fantasy or sci-fi projects in the pipeline?

Like most directors or writers I have lots of projects that I’d love to bring to the screen, some old, some new and most of them sci-fi or fantasy.

I have a live action and CG feature film project called Doodles that is at third draft script stage; Sects, a live action tale of weirdness at an old hotel; a couple of animated kids’ series and some shorts.

I’m actually scheduled to shoot a very short live action film called ACME, about an assassin who runs up against some rather unusual setbacks, this summer, and I have another animated film that I’ve been working on for some time that I hope to complete very soon.

ACME Sounds very intriguing, and again returning to the theme of human violence. Have you considered revisiting any of your old worlds? We’d love to see a series expanding the worlds and themes of The Victor or Skywhales!

People have asked me about something to expand on Skywhales and, though I initially thought the circular nature of the story would work against taking it further, I have come up with an idea that would use the setting for a bigger adventure; all I need is some time to write it!

Do you have much involvement in the gaming world these days?

As for fantasy gaming I, and my colleagues at Falmouth, are doing our best to send graduates out into the industry ready to come up with new and interesting ideas that will be the games that grab everybody’s attention in the future. Having had lots of fun in a great industry, the least I can do is try to give something back.

Well, many thanks for your time in answering my questions, and supplying the artwork to help illustrate this post. I could keep going on all day, especially about world-building and thematic story-telling. It's been a real privilege to talk with you and share your views with readers of this blog. If any  of the long time readers haven't seen The Victor or Skywhales, seek them out and watch at the first opportunity.


  1. To my considerable embarrassment and regret, I had never heard of Skywhales until now. It's right up my alley, so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Hey! it's never to late to hop aboard a peddle-powered skyship and go hunting Skywhales.

      Was really blown away by [i]Skywhales[/i] when I was hunting through Dereks filmography. Such a thoughtful and well rounded piece, and like much of Dereks work, really tight like those classic science fiction short stories, in animated form, where everything is honed down to expressing the theme and telling the story, not a single phase, or frame is wasted.

    2. Yes, I was surprised at how touching it was, given the short running time. Very well played.