Mel Ternan

BA (Hons) Animation

Back home in Northern Ireland as a child, all Mel Ternan could do was wonder at how cartoons looked the way they did, how pictures moved, and at how Road Runner never died. He tells us about turning that curiosity into working practice and how he inspires the same in his BA (Hons) Animation students.

Mel Ternan

So your interest began when you were pretty young?

I might have been six or seven – my brother showed me a flipbook that he′d made. He put it in my hand and showed me how to flip the pages – the drawing moved and it was like the big bang went off in my head and that was it. I don′t like the word ‘magic’ really, but I had what I would call a ‘severe curiosity’ about what was happening and how the drawing came to life.

Around then I realised what I wanted to be. There was a kind of a cheeky sort of pleasure in people saying, ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ and me saying, ‘I want to be an animator’. There was a pleasure in them not knowing what that was.
As I grew older and paid more attention it became about the content too – I loved Road Runner because it really messed with the laws of physics – it was so beautiful. He could land on a ledge and it wouldn′t break – the whole cliff would fall away and his ledge would stay. All these things were just so pleasing.

How did you turn that into a career?

I grew up loving art and loving drawing. In my mind if you wanted to do anything like that you had to go to England or America! When I started to try to get into animation, I couldn′t get the equipment I needed I tried all kinds of ways to make it happen – jabbing the buttons on a video camera to record a tiny bit at a time, and when I was older, sneaking a go on a reel to reel video editor.

I knew what I really needed, and couldn′t get it, so it was frustrating. But I found a bit of a path when I did a foundation in art and design, and moved out of home. I went on an Advanced GNVQ Art and Design course, was always fascinated with mechanics, and eventually found my way onto an animation degree.

And how did that go?

All the students on that course, we taught each other a lot. The theory tutors were fantastic, and even though there was not so much structured teaching outside the theory work, we worked really hard, we became a good a team, a good group. Afterwards I moved to Bristol with a friend from the course and we set up a little company. It was a bit naïve maybe, but it was the only time we could have done that. We trawled round for work and a company there said they had no work but we could have a look at their studios.

Anyway we got lucky and met someone there who was creating an animation but didn’t have the time to pull everything together. We volunteered to do it for nothing. It took three months and we almost killed ourselves. But we had done it.

So that was it? You were up and running?

Highs and lows! Long term it didn′t work and I was working part time in a photo lab and wondering what the hell I was doing. Then one day I went to a talk by Nick Park, and that was a turning point. I just needed re-charging, and to know that not everyone in the industry was hard work! I met Emma Landolt and set up another animation studio working on some beautiful projects, and eventually set up as freelance, before I came to teaching.

What are the most important things for you to teach an aspiring animator?

Humility. Honesty. I try and shine a different light on things because students come in with preconceptions about how things work. Learn to do life drawing and learn to observe. If I had my way it would be mandatory to do a foundation in art and design. That′s what you need. It′s about equipping people – helping them learn to observe.

Find out more about Mel Ternanhere

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