INTERVIEW | PASSION PLANET | TIM HOPE
Award-winning director Tim Hope talks animal sentience and the making of video series Animals in Therapy, Season 2, with On the Edge. Interview by Sarah Bewick.
Who chose the talent for Animals in Therapy?
Tim Hope: That was a discussion between us and On the Edge. We’d make suggestions. I would go for people who were able to do the more naturalistic performances – particularly on Season 1 – and they were all people who tend to come from that side of comedy. I avoided people who did cartoon voiceovers. I think they’re brilliant, but I just didn't want to do that kind of thing.
Were the celebs (in Season 2) recorded separately from the animals?
Tim Hope: No, we did it all live. We videoed them on a Zoom call for an hour, but it was carefully scripted beforehand. We were working to scripts while the celebs were improvising. The way we make it is, I do sound tests and create test videos so I can try out ideas and see what works, but also to show it to others and get an objective view. I use my own voice to rough them up and get actors in to do the final versions. The interviews were great fun, inverting our prejudices about animals, like the perception that fish don’t feel pain. Then putting those prejudices into the mouths of a catfish and a red trout and getting them to ape our ignorance. The celebs got the concept quickly and were happy to be insulted by the animals (voiced by Lola Rose Maxwell and Stevie Martin), who gave these great interviews with them. There were these hilarious bits of them telling hugely successful actors like Jaz Sinclair (star of American Prime series Gen V) and Murray Bartlett (who appeared in the HBO series Looking and The Last of Us), ‘I'm not getting it.’ ‘That’s not working for me at all.’
Did you write the scripts?
Tim Hope: I wrote them with feedback from lots of people, which made them 10 times better. There was some initial backwards and forwards with On the Edge to get the big concept and know what we were trying to do. I do that, and then I get writers in to make it funny. Or take it up to the next level – ‘punch it up’ is the phrase they use in the light entertainment world. Stevie did a lot of that on this series, and Kevin Cecil and Ben Glasstone.
Can you talk about the overall shape and content of the videos?
Tim Hope: Creating the format is a difficult thing. Comedy and conservation aren’t the easiest of combinations. It’s a difficult subject to get right and to make work tonally. It involves making a lot of mistakes. You know, trying to deliver the message and be funny.
Did your view change on which one was funniest?
Tim Hope: Animals in Therapy S2 was less comic than the first season. More message driven, especially the interviews. I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing. It seemed to create discussion on social media, which is good, I think. And the songs were even more blunt. You can't be too literal with a script, you've got to give the audience something to do, but with the songs, you could be very literal: I've got a brain and I feel pain. That was fun. I'm not your pet. There you go. We made a deliberate choice to keep it upbeat. The aye-aye song seemed to work well, even though it was not upbeat. The sound felt childlike and upbeat, while the message is dark: fish and pain and the illegal pet trade.
Can you tell me about the short films that were part of Animals in Therapy S2?
Tim Hope: The pangolin and kākāpō videos. I'm proud of them. We had a lot of discussion about what we were going to do. How do you make this work for social media? Songs were OK. Celebs on screen seemed like a good idea. But in the end it was such fun making the (pangolin and kākāpō) sketches. I worked with Kevin, and Stevie and Lola. The pangolin video was a rejigging of the type of thing Stevie and Lola do together so well – like their Acer computer ads – their natural rhythm in comedy is brilliant. On the whole in the first series, we tried to avoid excessive anthropomorphising of the animals, to let them live and breathe in their own universe. But I think we slightly threw that rule out with that script. Them doing social media! Whether that's works or not I have no idea.
Have you ever had to write a script from the point of view of an animal before?
Tim Hope: No. I've done films and adverts with animals in them, but they were always doing human things, and this was totally different. And working with lots of writers, it's quite hard to get your head around it, what makes it an On the Edge script? Trying our best, the priority is entertainment, but to see it as much as possible from the animals’ perspectives and within their boundaries. It's daunting to think about the amount of empathy required. You soon find how flawed you are. I suppose we don't know the limits of our own understanding and then now and again we glimpse it and go, oh, God, how much we don't know! It's a fascinating way of working. I don't think we’re doing it well. It’s more of a guiding principle than a law and this project has been thrilling for that reason.
Deadpanning is a feature in your work.
Tim Hope: Yeah, that's probably my thing. I think it's kind of funny. I think all comedy is slightly deadpan. I mean, cartoon stuff, you can get great big performances and it's wonderful, and animals tend to be big voices in animation. But I like the slightly underperformed, monotone voices. I think comedy comes from taking something absurd very seriously. I've worked with Julian Barratt (formerly of British comedy troupe Mighty Boosh) throughout my career and he's quite an intense, serious person and that's what makes him funny. There's lots of ways of doing anything, but that's my touchstone for how I approach it. Keeping it real. Which is obviously ridiculous to say when you're talking about talking animals!
What was the biggest challenge?
Tim Hope: Finding celebs who were up for it! We talked to a lot of people to try and find actors who were game for the challenge and who understood the conservation message. In terms of the film making, making animals talk is the biggest challenge using live action animals. You have to hunt down the archive footage and these being EDGE animals, there's not a huge amount. It takes a couple of days to animate each film, there’s no AI involved – AI couldn't create an open mouth that looked anything close to what we were after.
Was there any reason behind bringing Steve the Kākāpō back?
Tim Hope: I feel the kākāpō is one of the poster children of On the Edge and Steve always felt very developed as a character, in a way that others weren't. When I'm writing these things, I'm projecting what I've already seen [from Series 1], so that's the character: he's created. There's also a lot to be said for writing for a certain performer. Letting them make it their own script. Going with what they do. They will be doing that 10 times better than anything you're telling them to do. Rhys Darby (who voiced Steve) does that brilliantly. He's very engaged with the subject. It made sense working with him again and I think he's hilarious. He's starring in an HBO TV series. Having someone with his profile and his passion behind it, is great. It's like a brand ambassador. Hopefully, he’ll do more.
Thinking about you as a student of theology and philosophy, I can see elements of that consciousness in your work.
Tim Hope: It's big, big issues behind all this! I love that aspect of it. Dealing with animal sentience is the brief that On the Edge gave us for Season 2. It's fascinating. I think weirdly, the science has been the enemy of empathy with animals for years. The idea that animals have feelings was seen as an unscientific statement, probably because the idea of science discussing feelings is seen as unscientific. Science is about facts. So, there's a kind of dissonance there. Only in recent years have we started talking about the science of feelings. It's a sign of the sophistication of neurosciences that we can even look at how feelings manifest in the brain. Inevitably, we're looking at animals and the evidence that they share a large percentage of DNA and biological features with us, as well as probably a lot of the same emotional architecture. But it's still controversial.
What's your top tip as a writer/ director/ performer?
Tim Hope: Try to constantly search for objectivity around your work by creating versions of it to look at later so you can decide, is that any good? I think it's important to lose objectivity as well. To get lost in something and think, this is brilliant! Then have the space to go, it’s rubbish. Instinct is a vital part of the process and often your instincts are right: I like this. But you do need to allow yourself to be wrong… just try to make sure that the production schedule will give you the space to throw something out and start again.
Will there be another season? 🤞