Island mentalities: Robert Bradbrook's animated
Island mentalities: Dead Air. Image courtesy of Robert Bradbrook

Stoke Newington-based animator Robert Bradbrook has been busy of late. As well as balancing a job at the National Film School, teaching at Middlesex University and a role working on the film Tony Benn: Will and Testament, he last October saw his most recent short premiere at the London Film Festival.

Dead Air is a fable for modern Britain. A quiet island community, untouched and content in its isolation, is thrown into a state of quiet paranoia when a bridge built to the mainland brings with it the threat of an unknowable future. New arrival DJ Pete (Jonah Russell), with his irreverent radio show, is enough to tip the priggish locals towards hysteria.

But, as Bradbrook makes clear, change is constant and those who try to resist it need only stop for a moment and take a look around.

“It’s just the idea of a community that thinks it’s been the same all the time, but in fact it’s always been evolving,” he explains enthusiastically, taking a breather from a work Christmas party to chat over the phone. “The idea came from when the Channel Tunnel arrived and there were all these fears about what it might bring.”

Rocky start

Change and landscape are integral to Bradbrook’s vision. Having studied geology as an undergraduate, before turning his attention to cartography and then film, he was keen to integrate his early studies into his work.

As such, he’s created a world in which the coastal features – the cliffs, hills and beaches – shift and reshape in an exaggerated way, mirroring the society that we, and his characters, live in.

“I’ve always had this background of rocks and the landscape and things like that, so there was a kind of joy in bringing that original degree back into the game,” he says. “It’s like I’ve built this world in animation and now I can do whatever I like with it – I can move through time.

“Often we’ll look at something and it looks a bit still, and then we’ll change the time rate, speed it up and we can actually see that it’s moving, so things that look really static are in fact forever changing.”

While the topography tells its own story, a more conventional narrative unfolds on air during DJ Pete’s live phone-ins. In contrast to the fluster of calls from concerned locals, Laura (Victoria Bewick), who works at a mushroom factory, welcomes the newcomer – and the future – with open arms and an optimistic outlook.

Hers is a view that Bradbrook shares: “The underlying message of the film is a hopeful one. Communities have been developing and people have been arriving from faraway places since the year dot. In essence, it’s not something to worry about.”

It seems that living in Hackney has played a part in shaping the ideas behind the film, I suggest. He whole-heartedly agrees.

“Hackney is a community that is just completely mixed, everyone is from various places around the world and clearly it’s my view that that’s a good thing, it’s worth celebrating.

“The hero of the film is this girl. Whilst everyone’s moaning and worrying about change, she’s like ‘no, it’s brilliant, it’s fantastic – we’re going to get lots of different things coming here.’ And so it’s almost a celebration of what Hackney is, in a funny sort of way.”

With all the hard work on Dead Air complete, and no little praise coming from those who have already seen it, Bradbrook is content to watch it do the rounds on the festival circuit. “It’s the nice bit,” he says.

Currency of favours

Having finished the project with considerable help from friends, he’s now busy returning the goodwill. In what’s a difficult period financially for filmmaking, he’s pleased to be part of a community of artists who operate on a currency of favours.

“In this day and age it costs so much money to make these films,” he explains. “I was lucky to get small bits of funding from here and there, but you can’t make a film on that funding, so you have to find another way. One of the ways is that you work on someone else’s film for nothing and then
they return the favour and it carries
on like that.

“It’s exciting because it means that all we want to do is make films and be involved in films and it allows you to do that.”

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