‘The Quest for a Real Hard Hob’ is an original animated film accompanied by a live soundtrack – the brainchild of Andy Millington and Dave Senan
The story is set in Berlin at the last moment of humankind. Before her death, one scientist leaves a new power source in the hands of two androids: Deco4 and Edu3. To restore organic life and create a future, they must find other survivors before all is lost to a terrifying all-consuming entity.
The musical performance consists of Andy Millington (Director) playing drums and cello while Dave Senan (Music Producer) plays various electronic instruments. Both performers sing as a hypnotic unit throughout the show. According to Andy; “Making the visuals and music hand in hand has resulted in an incredibly dynamic show that climaxes in many different emotions throughout.”
The project was originally conceived and developed by a group of Irish musicians and artists based in Berlin. All are driven by a desire to push the boundaries of live cinema and are united by a love for music, animation and storytelling.
Their intention: to seek thoughtful reaction from the audience to both the themes within the story, and the format of live music cinema itself, as well as inspiring more artists and musicians to get involved.
Critically acclaimed shows of 2018 included the Berlin Film Festival, Krake festivals in Geneva and Berlin and most recently the Interfilm festival in Berlin’s famous Volksbuehne Theatre. The Quest for a Real Hard Hob is now preparing to go on tour at independent cinemas across Europe in addition to performances at various film and multimedia festivals.
We sat down with Dave and Andy on a recent visit to Berlin after a sneak preview of the show, to find out more about the dynamic duo and how they work:
How did you and Andy first meet?
D: “So… myself and Andy first met when I moved to Berlin back in 2010. I had an apartment in the same building as him as a good friend of mine was his flatmate. Andy had been here for about 9 months longer and had settled in a bit better. It turns out we have the same escalating sense of humour so we quickly hit it off! I was working a lot on my own music and used to take my laptop up to their flat to mess about on tracks as the guys had more furniture and also bigger speakers than me. At that time Andy was working on his first short novel.
A: “The banter was always mighty in that apartment. Dave would often sit there with headphones on producing on his rickity clickity laptop while we were playing games, cards or going about our day. We would sometimes treat Dave to play some techno for maybe 10 minutes before shutting him down just to watch his frustration. We had an ongoing conflict in music where I would constantly degrade techno music as ‘soul-less’ and Dave would defend it. I guess in the end… Dave won.”
What brought about the story/idea?
D: “When I moved over, Andy was writing a story called The Cavern. My first summer here was spent seeing bits of his manuscript come together. He was almost finished it and I was really happy for him when all of a sudden, he announced that he had had a dream and wanted to write a whole new story. He was leaving the first novel he had been working on so hard for this new ‘dream’. It was this dream that became ‘The Quest for a Real Hard Hob’.”
A: It was back in 2010 when I had the dream. In the dream I heard an old man’s voice from a 1920’s style radio: “This weeks Book of the week is called ‘The Quest for a Real Hard Hob’. This is the story of a robot who has his heart stolen and must journey to the Robot’s Graveyard to discover his destiny.”
“Feeling sure that I had heard the title somewhere before, I searched online. The strange title was nowhere to be found. Having always wanted to create a live show combining animation and music, it felt like some kind of ‘calling’. I decided that day, that I would follow the story to its conclusion and see where it led me.”
Did Andy have any particular style or influences in mind when creating the piece?
D: “I can only really speak in terms of the music, but in two words – ‘Live show’… Initially there was just a vision of performing live music with animation and a story. That had a big influence on how we worked on the concepts after the first draft of the story was finished.”
A: “Being passionate about the natural environment, my feelings and views on today’s issues had a huge influence on the story. We aimed to create a dark atmosphere that would envelop the audience in a dystopian world. The black and white format seemed to achieve this. (It also made decisions easier for my red/green color blindness!!) I had no experience in animation or film, so I brought the idea to my friend Shane Sutton(shout out to Shane for recently winning a European Space Agency art competition with his space-men paintings). His work won a prize that will give him the opportunity to experience zero gravity, well deserved!. He’s a fantastic artist and has previously won awards for his film work. He is also a big fan of Sci fi, so liked the concept. About a week later I received an animation from him set to one of our sample songs. The video began with this futuristic dropship flying in the sky. A compartment opened and robots began falling through the clouds and landing in the city. The robots were constructed from drawn parts. It was the handmade style that I loved most.”
“And of course, Berlin was a massive inspiration for both of us. I wanted to use real monuments from around the city which has such a dramatic history of destruction and renewal still evident everywhere. I spent months photographing derelict sites, buildings, and streets, getting up at 5am to minimise the amount of people around and save ourselves as much photo editing as possible. For a film about a future where humankind has been wiped out, Berlin as a backdrop was still a very usable location. The city now is changing so fast that it would be almost impossible to get some of the shots we used in the visuals if we were starting out today.”
What was the process involved in creating the music and animation for such a complex project?
D: “Once Andy was finished writing his first draft, he converted it into a screenplay and divided it into scenes. It was these scenes that I first started working with when composing and editing the music. Andy wanted a full band to play the music so I knew I was writing for live instruments from the beginning. I would write a first draft of new material or rework some music that Andy had previously from another project. Though we were initially working on an ‘individual song’ based structure, I felt strongly that the scenes should be linked musically in a ‘this is what our universe sounds like’ kinda way. When we had enough material, the band would jam things out in our rehearsal room.”
“A big problem for the band was that a song may only be perhaps 90 seconds long, being tied to what was on screen, immediately followed by an abrupt change into a different scene and involving a lot of efx pedal switching to keep up with. We stuck with this idea of a full band for the first 4 years but technically it was a nightmare. The visuals were playing out of Ableton which also sent a click track to Andy on the drums. The band then played off Andy’s drumming in order to stay in sync. You had to hit every mark precisely to constantly changing tempos for the music and picture to work together. If Andy’s headphone cable failed – and it did, that feeling onstage was… unique…”
A: “On the animation side of things, the first job as Dave mentioned was converting the story into a screenplay which lays out the scenes in a more visual way. Once that was done Shane drew up storyboards for each shot, like a comic. I then flew him over from Ireland and after some further experimentation we began production. The focus then became the style of the visuals, characters and animations. After 4 months, we had about 18 mins of visuals done.”
“Originally the story had been divided into 4 Acts. Act 1 at the time only had 2 characters to animate. Progress slowed down considerably when we started Act 2 which introduced a lot more character models. Every new character had to be designed with detail to determine how its movement would be animated. Design ideas came from everywhere; from a hardware store where we photographed industrial power tools, junk from scrap yards and just plain video experimentation. Shane was a great teacher, especially just to watch how he put together ideas from random objects. He would cut out mechanical parts digitally and arrange them as body parts to build each idea. I wanted everything to have a real feeling rather than computer generated, which is why I liked the drawn parts for the characters.”
“Another example is the dust which blows in the desolate cityscapes. I experimented with a small fish tank (with no fish) and fanned different types of dirt around with a lollipop stick until I found what I liked. The background was then ‘keyed out’ and the dust could be added as a layer floating in each shot. Shane taught me how to create the robot characters, to animate them and how to add them to the backdrops.”
“After two years of production Shane had to return to Ireland. We had reached about half way. At this point most of the content such as drawings, characters and backgrounds were completed so I set about making the rest of the film with what I had learned.
How long has it taken to get all the animation together?
A: “Long enough…”
D: “A large part of the reason why we spent so long making this was the amount we, and in particular Andy, had to learn. He had never used animation or compositing software before. There are over 1,000 drawings and 10,000 photos that make up the entire piece. We had a year break in 2014 and have worked on it solidly since. It’s taken 4 years for the animation to come together. I think with what we have learnt we could do it again, start to finish in about 18 months. We do still like to tweak things which is a wonderful advantage of our format, as in; we can constantly improve it as we please. This means we’ve never played two shows with the exact same visuals and I kind of like it that way.”
What kept you going?
D: “For me it hasn’t been one big project. It has been a series of individual tasks, challenges and achievements. I love the whole production process personally. This project has a thousand moving parts to it and I like the complexity of making everything work together. I suppose that aspect never gets tiring for me.”
A: “We believe we are conveying a powerful message within the story. This drives me. There is a movement for sustainability and environmental awareness out there that we want to contribute to. Also myself and Dave are both men of our word… we do what we say… and we said we were gonna do this.”
What’s been the best/worst thing about making this project happen?
D: “The best part has always been the reaction from people after they see the show. We are not the best marketers (but getting better!!), so we tend to undersell what the experience will be. Afterwards, there are always people gasping and saying “OK, when you said live cinema I never thought it would be like that!”. It takes a lot of effort to get everything right in order for the audience to experience the fantasy in the moment and ‘suspend their disbelief’. So, when everything works, the 70 minutes on stage goes very very fast for us indeed!”
“The worst thing? Hmmmm, takedown after a show! We always want to talk to people afterwards but when we’re under pressure to pack up the large amount of gear, we don’t always get to stand around and chat.”
“That and general promotion. I respect the necessity of marketing and I get that it’s never been easier to get your voice heard these days but I’m always looking to find the right balance between needless posts and sincerely communicating “here’s who I am, here’s what I do, and here’s why i do it”.
A:” Before the Hard Hob, I really hated working on technical things, particularly on computers… but here I am, as deep as you can get revelling in the technical aspects of music and animation production. The Hard Hob demanded me to be the most disciplined and passionate version of myself to complete the work and share this vision. I like that. Seeing the dream come true is amazing and I am eager to see the next part of this journey unfold.”
“The worst part… Re-doing, re-editing, re-rendering… because days and weeks disappear. But in the end… it has all been worth it.”
Tell us a bit about how you adapt to different performance spaces?
D: “We have a reasonably flexible stage setup that can grow or reduce depending on the performance. Venues are improving a lot with live visuals integration but it’s always a challenge to get right. That said, the Hard Hob has performed in a cinema, a fortress, an art gallery, a church, an aircraft hanger, a brewery, an auto-paint shop, a theatre, a hall made out of shipping crates and a 2 storey tent. You can imagine how much fun soundcheck has been each time…”
A: “We’ve come to realise that different spaces also attract different types of crowds who have different expectations. For example: whether we are performing at a music festival or a film festival. We are currently designing different renditions of the show to tailor for different types of events. When we performed at a techno festival in the fortress, the crowd were… let’s say… a bit more other wordly than the audience who were seated before us in Berlin’s Volksbuehne Theater. For the more active crowds we designed the show so that we can do a version with more of an flow for dancing.”
Do you see the show evolving further?
D: “We absolutely have ambitious plans for how we will evolve the show and performance. For now, we’re focussed on what we have in front of us so I’m going to have to pull the whole ‘watch this space’ cliche here… sorry!”
What have you got planned next?
A: “2019 is going to be busy year for us. We intend to take the show on it’s first (and maybe ‘a first’) independent cinema tour in Europe. There are also some large festivals in the pipeline which we’re very excited about. We’ll announce more when we get the fully green light. As we say in Ireland: ‘Keep her lit’!”