He has produced films for Pink Floyd and been nominated for an Oscar. Lorne Jackson speaks to a director and animator who is still pushing the envelope.
Three words sum up the attitude, career, and life of Ian Emes – sink or swim.
Though perhaps that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Drift or paddle is a better statement of the case. That’s how it was when he was a boy, left alone on the lakes by his father.
Drift or paddle.
When his rock star heroes, Pink Floyd, asked him to visualise their trippy music.
Drift or paddle.
And the time he struggled to hold a conversation with Jack Nicholson at a fancy LA party.
Drift or... well, you get the idea.
Emes is a protean talent; a director of animation, live action movies, TV and pop videos. More importantly, he’s a pugnacious paddler.
A Brummie battler.
This feist and fight was fostered by his no-nonsense father, Ronald Emes, a Birmingham policeman and sporting dynamo who trained the British canoe team for four Olympic Games.
Ronald didn’t approve of his son’s passion for the arts, pressing Ian to follow him into a career with the police.
He also wanted to make sure his son was tough enough to tackle the world head on.
“My dad used to take me out with his canoe team and push me out on a lake in a canoe, then tell me to get on with it,” Emes recalls.
“I spent a lot of time in the middle of lakes, absolutely terrified I was going to capsize.”
Which may seem harsh, though it was actually rather helpful, being the kind of training you need if you want to make it in the arts.
Being left in the lakes gave Ian the mental muscles needed to thrive in the UK and Hollywood.
His success came early.
Emes’ first major work, French Windows, was made while he was still a student at Birmingham College Of Art. It was a four-minute impressionistic sequence of animation, driven by the music of Pink Floyd.
First shown at the Ikon Gallery in 1973, it is now being exhibited there again, as part of a showcase of the gallery’s most cutting-edge work of the 1970s, It Could Happen To You.
When it was presented the first time around, it changed the tyro creator’s life.
After it caused a sensation at the Ikon, it was broadcast by the popular rock music TV show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Pink Floyd themselves became interested and requested to meet the youngster from Handsworth.
“Pink Floyd called me!” Emes beams. “They were my gods and they wanted to see me. I thought I had done something wrong initially. I thought they wanted to tell me off. I rented a preview theatre in London’s Wardour Street and all four of them arrived. We ran the film.
“I had cut a minute of the music out, because the actual track is five and a half minutes, while my visuals were only four and a half minutes.
“David Gilmour was drumming his fingers and the beat was going, and he turned to me and he said, ‘Did you cut some of that music out?’ I said ‘Yeah, I did, actually. It would take too long to animate.’ The film finished, then, they said they would like me to make them the first ever animated film to be played at a rock concert, which became Dark Side Of The Moon.
“The film I created for them was screened at Wembley Arena on giant circular screens to thousands of tripping out hippies who were rocking from side to side in their fur coats.”
The film has been used in Pink Floyd’s live concerts ever since.
With its success, Ian Emes hit the big time. Not bad going for a young man who had been informed by his mother that he was born under a kitchen sink in Handsworth.
Another project he worked on involved a former Beatle and his wife.
Paul and Linda McCartney had been to a Pink Floyd concert and were impressed by Ian’s visuals.
Linda got in touch and asked him to animate a musical segment, Oriental Nightfish, which was performed by Wings, McCartney’s 70s band.
The music wasn’t really Ian’s bag, but he knew how to get inspired.
“I got pissed on whisky and put the music on as loud as it would go, and lay on my back in the living room and let it wash over me.
“The whisky did indeed help, and I came up with this weird idea where alien forces enter this building where someone who looks like Linda McCartney is playing a Gothic Expressionistic Wurlitzer.
“This blonde female is penetrated and inhabited by the alien force, then she’s replicated, before becoming a comet that explodes.
“The film was a bit weird and scary and a little bit sexual. Yet it was later put on Paul McCartney’s Rupert The Bear video for children.
“The kids who watched it years ago are now in their 20s, and they’ve set up an internet site called The Oriental Nightfish Haunted My Childhood. I guess it freaked them out and opened their imagination.”
Ian isn’t averse to a little freaking out himself. Back in the 1980s, he looked set to break Hollywood, after winning a British Academy Award for his short live action film, Goodie Two Shoes, which was then nominated for an Oscar.
The prize-winning director was flown to LA for the ceremony and courted by the heads of all the major studios. Emes touched down in a world of success, excess and the nip and tuck ageless.
Quite a journey from that kitchen sink in Handsworth.
He was taken to a fancy hotel, where he was confronted by more bottles of free champagne than it was possible to swig in a debouched decade.
“These magnums of champagne were three foot high and I didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. “So I poured them in the bath, then bathed in champagne, which I thought was going to be incredibly nice, but it was actually really horrible. It was sticky and nasty.
“I did manage to drink a couple of glasses of the champagne before going to the pre-Oscars party. So I was a bloke from Birmingham who was a little bit tipsy.”
The invitation for the party said it was going to be an intimate, informal gathering. Which it probably was – by Hollywood standards.
“There was a two lane motorway going down to the house, lined with Mexicans on horseback, playing guitars,” recalls Emes.
Every major Hollywood star of the era was there.
“It was like Madame Tussauds come alive. There was Warren Beatty, Dolly Parton, Cher, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine...”
Shirley MacLaine had been nominated that year for Terms Of Endearment, and Emes – still half-cut – staggered up to her while she was telling her friends that she was feeling rather nervous.
Slurring his words, the boozed-up Brummie burbled: “Well Shirley, whatever happens, you’ve made some wonderful films!”
The group didn’t take kindly to such chumminess. All the faces fell and they drifted off, leaving Ian on his own.
Luckily Michael Caine came over and was very friendly. Caine pointed to a fireplace and admitted that it was bigger than his mother’s house. Then the star of The Italian Job introduced Emes to an actor standing nearby.
It was Jack Nicholson. At which point Ian put his foot in it once more.
“I said, ‘The thing is, Jack, I don’t know what they’re all getting so excited about – it’s only an award!’
“It was such a Birmingham thing to say. The Birmingham was really coming out in me that night. Jack said: ‘Well, Ian, you kind of get caught up in it. You know what I mean?’ Then, obviously, he vaporized into the group.”
Emes certainly didn’t manipulate the party to the advantage of his career. He was a loser of a schmoozer on that occasion.
However, in the long run, it didn’t prove to be detrimental. He still had that canoe cruising mentality to fall back on, plus a bunch of ideas.
Over the years he has worked in America, Europe and the UK. After a period working on feature films, he is currently focusing his energy on TV.
He recently won another British Academy Award for co-directing the children’s TV series, Bookaboo ... about a talking dog who plays the drums and interviews celebs. Yep, those Pink Floyd trippy trappings have never really left Ian’s itchy imagination.
Even after many decades in the film and TV industry, Emes still believes that French Windows, the work that set his career in motion, is the work that stretched his talent the most.
He is delighted that it is once again being shown in the Ikon, its original home.
“Looking at it again is incredible,” he says. “In my life, I’ve made a lot of films that I’m proud of. But that piece is still the best thing I’ve done. Which must be the freshness and ambition of youth.”
That isn’t to say the 61-year-old has dried up in any way.
“My limbs are a bit more creaky and tired,” he admits. “But inside this robot piece of machinery called the body is a floating ‘me’.
“And that ‘me’ is still a child in the playroom.
“These days I’m a father, I’ve been married for over 30 years, and I pay a mortgage and I pay my taxes, and all that stuff.
“But my place is in the play room. That’s where I’m happy, and that’s where I want to stay.”
* This Could Happen To You, also featuring the work of many other seminal artists of the 70s, is at the Ikon until September 5. For more information: www.ikon-gallery.co.uk