Interview: Paul Flannery
We catch up with the director of Bernard

Animator Paul Flannery takes us behind the scenes on Bernard - his deeply personal, long protracted and hilarious new stop motion short.

The “passion project” - that long-suffering idea, or ever-gestating pipe dream - is a concept familiar to many filmmakers. Few, however, could lay claim to the notion quite as convincingly as Paul Flannery. The Salford-born, Manchester-based animator’s latest project - supported by Film Hub North through the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund - has been 20 years and several attempts in the making. Now, Bernard is complete.

The finished piece is a heartfelt tribute to Flannery’s uncle - a true eccentric the filmmaker variously describes as a “loveable rogue,” “a nuisance” and “a bit of a gobshite” - and takes its inspiration from a candid recording capturing Bernard’s reaction to being snubbed from a family party. Defying its condensed runtime, Bernard opens up a wide world of characterisation and takes audiences on a charming, stop motion tour of the title character’s favourite haunts in Manchester’s Northern Quarter - lovingly recreated here as scale models, grime and graffiti included.

With the film now screening in festivals across the UK, including a berth on home turf at Manchester Animation Festival 2020, we caught up with Flannery to discuss Bernard’s unconventional route to the screen, the great man himself and what he would have made of his new-found stardom.

The film has a great origins story - can you tell us more about it?

My uncle Bernard was a larger than life character: he’d had quite a colourful past and there were loads of stories about him. He lived the way he wanted, never had a real job, signed on and did odds and sods like washing up in restaurants and cleaning bars, but very occasionally. He was always skint, but still managed to have a flutter on the horses and run up tabs in his favourite pubs.

I knew he’d be good to tell a story about, so I decided to do it for one of my university projects. But when I went round to his house and told him I was recording, I found he was very rehearsed. He was very official and he didn’t have the same candour. That recording lost something - he had his actor’s voice on. I knew it could be better.

So I went back and recorded him, but didn’t tell him. It was 1999 and I was using a DAT recorder. I had this big black box, which was state of the art then, hidden in my rucksack and I secretly turned it on when Bernard was making a brew. I tried to get him to talk and it just wasn’t happening.

Just prior to this, there had been a family party and he hadn’t been invited. And I asked him “why weren’t you at the family do?” It wasn’t for the recording - but he just went off on one. There was a story about some previous party where he’d been asked to leave because he’d got into a row, so he didn’t get invited to the next one and he went off on this rant. I got home and I thought: that’s the thing, that’s what I need to animate.

How did that initial project turn out?

I had planned to make a 4-minute film of just Bernard in his living room. I made a model of the living room and a puppet of him - and I had about a week and a half of shooting time!

I ended up getting about 30 seconds done, and that was enough for me to get my mark. And that was it; the project was put to bed, really. That film looks a lot different to this version. That was a 19-year-old playing with plasticine, I didn't really have any animation experience.

But he loved it. He thought he was a film star! He would tell people: “have you seen Wallace & Gromit? My nephew did that, but with me.”

Did you always know you would return to the idea?

Always. I tried to get more recordings of him in about 2002. I wanted to do it properly; plan it out and try to get Bernard to be as candid as he was.

Then he died suddenly in 2006. We were spending a lot of time together around then and, for a period after his death, I found it really sad to listen to those recordings. What was once funny just reminded me of my uncle.

But as the years went on, it came back round and I could listen to it again and it was back to being funny. And by then it was the right time, everything was in place: there was the funding; I could listen to the recording and it wasn’t painful; and I had about 15 years' experience where I had developed my design and animation skills.

What was your approach to bringing the character of Bernard to life?

Bernard was a very entertaining person, just as he was. He could tell a story, he could hold court and he had this distinctive, squeaky voice. He was quite a thick set guy, quite tall, and his voice in real life didn’t seem to match him - but the recording really captures the way he spoke.

So I focused more on the recording and allowed a bit of artistic license to interpret what this little, wiry character might look like. Rather than try to portray him visually as he was, I married my drawing style with an idea of Bernard. I took certain features and I gave them to this character. Bernard had a bald head and a sort of Mr. Punch pointy nose. Like the puppet, he only had a few teeth; he called them his “pickle-stabbers” and the tooth all alone in the middle of his head was his “central- eater.”

As an animator, I remembered how Bernard moved and I drew on that. Sometimes he was very static - which can work in animation - but I wanted him to be a bigger character. I thought: get his arms going if he’s ranting, let the movement be led by the audio. He’s a cartoon at the end of the day, so have fun with it.

   That sort of animation approach lets you do things differently. Bernard is actually talking about some fairly hard-hitting subjects: he’s talking about boozing, about family tension, about alienation. Animation lets you bring that stuff in under the radar a little bit. You’re still delivering that message, but because it’s now a little model man with a pokey nose telling the story, it disarms people. Animation lets you sneak into those areas and the message still sinks in.

Locations play a significant role in the film - what was their importance to you?

My memories of Bernard are of him being louder and larger than life, propped up at the bar at The Hare & Hounds or Gullivers in the Northern Quarter. I definitely wanted to keep true to the areas of Manchester where Bernard used to go. Drawing a pub that was generic and just looked a bit like it wouldn’t really do. I wanted it to be recognisable.

That even goes for the seats on the bus; I really wanted to get that 80s/90s tartan effect. I used to get on the bus with Bernard to go to Eccles and Manchester, and I remember the seats being like that. It was all about creating a certain place at a certain time.

To make the locations, Steve (the film’s other animator) and I went out and took photographs of all the spots we wanted to use; all the pubs and shops and the chippy. Then we made semi-relief backgrounds that were part-models, part-photographs. Everyone who’s featured in it was so supportive: Gullivers, Empire Exchange, the Kingfisher chippy. All those people came together to help me tell this story and they were buzzing when they saw their businesses recreated as scaled down models.

   The Northern Quarter of Manchester is a character in itself: it’s got all these cool nooks and crannies, and these really characterful buildings that have been there for years. I wanted to focus on the parts where it hasn’t changed much. I wanted to anchor it to that time in '99 when I recorded Bernard. The Northern Quarter is a fun place but - for me - it’s always seemed a lot emptier without him.

The film has had a lot of success locally - how does that feel?

Manchester plays a big part in the film, so the fact that it has done well locally really means a lot. When you’ve got a film in your head that you’re really passionate about - I love my Uncle Bernard and I love Manchester - you start to wonder if it’s actually good, or if it’s just you. But when it gets picked up and noticed, that’s great.

I just think it’s a lovely tribute to him. I wish he could see it now it’s a complete package. He saw it when it was a 30 second student film - and he loved it then! Certainly, if he was about and cinemas were open, he’d be rocking up at the festivals and telling everyone about it and probably trying to get a free beer.

Bernard was funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK. It is currently playing festivals across the UK.