Horror manifests in all art forms, but when it comes to animation the medium is often overshadowed by its live-action counterparts. Yet, more so than live-action, animation affords filmmakers more creative leeway, allowing their imaginations to truly soar and bring their strange and terrifying visions to life in the process. Perhaps animated horror is overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone unnoticed among genre fans.

Image from Bobby Yeah, courtesy of the Miskatonic website.

Terrifying incarnations have appeared in animated cinema since its inception — Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) features the image of a menacing clown, after all — and have enthralled audiences in the decades since. It’s not uncommon for genre fans to claim that they fell in love with all things scary in the first place because of Disney and Scooby Doo; even in children’s cartoons, animation and horror have been frequent bedfellows. Animation has a rich history of tapping into human fears, anxieties, and morbid curiosity, in entertainment for all age groups.

A huge proponent of animated terror is the Director of the London International Animation Festival, Nag Vladermersky, and next week he will be curating a class for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies dedicated to animated horror in all its iterations. Recently, Diabolique had the opportunity to chat with Vladermersky about animated horror and what visitors can expect to see at the event.

Diabolique: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Nag Vladermersky: Well I sort of fell into the world of animation. I studied film at film school but was always interested in this much smaller department next door where a bunch of geeky people were constructing these amazingly detailed tiny sets and bizarre worlds where you could see these incredible stories taking place. I had spent three rather frustrating years making live-action films, working with actors and crews and being at the mercy of the people I was working with as well as things you have no control over such as weather conditions etc. It dawned on me that with animation you are the master creator, you make everything yourself and you can make the characters do whatever you want them to do. You have total control and I really like the idea of that. So straight after finishing the live-action course I enrolled on the animation course and I quickly realised that with animation you are only limited by your imagination – so you can really let rip! To cut a long story short, I started making a few independent animated films and one of them did well enough to get on the film festival circuit. It travelled to several festivals around the world and I went with it to talk to audiences, meet other animators and generally have a great time. I then realised that festivals were such an amazing experience, they’re almost like a secret society – like a communion of like-minded souls coming together to celebrate the art forms they are into. I also realised there wasn’t a stand-alone animation festival in London and so I just thought I should at least introduce my animation mates to these amazing short films that I had seen on my travels that weren’t getting seen here and so that’s where it all grew from. I sort of made it up as I went along, as I have tended to do my whole life. I just talked to the animation people I knew about what you need to do to put on a festival and it just grew and grew. 14 years on and we’re still going and I now run the UK’s largest stand-alone animation festival – and I still love it and every year I’m amazed at how many amazing short independent animated films are produced from so many different corners of the world. It’s a blast!

Diabolique: Animated horror isn’t discussed as often as it perhaps should be, but it boasts unique qualities and lends itself perfectly to all things creepy and strange. Can you tell us about the various forms of animation in horror and why you think they’re effective?

Vladermersky: There are so many forms of horror in animation and horror in general. For me horror isn’t just about gore or frightening people, horror can be violent imagery, horror can be dystopian futures, horror can be the way one person treats another person. I’ve personally always been drawn towards darker subject matter and darker characters, much more interesting than nice people! But as I mentioned before animation is so good at being able to construct bizarre worlds with puppets or clay or drawn characters or CGI etc, and because everything is a construct there’s something intrinsically strange and artificial about that. It’s these small things that make animation such a perfect art form to portray horror on the screen, as indeed any genre.

Diabolique: What can visitors expect from the upcoming class?

Vladermersky: I’ll be screening various snippets of animated films that we’ve screened at the festival over the years, some of them might not be obvious to people that they are horror, but I will be attempting to clarify this by explaining that, in my opinion, horror is a much wider genre than people tend to think. This particular class will be a bit different than previous Miskatonic classes because part of the evening will be taken up with an onstage conversation with two filmmakers (Chris Shepherd and Robert Morgan) who have been making animated films for a long time. Robert Morgan in particular specialises in his own form of animated horror. They are also both very good interviewees, really engaging and have a lot to say which makes for really good onstage banter. It should be fun!

Diabolique: What drew you towards Robert Morgan and Chris Shepherd?

Vladermersky: Both filmmakers are LIAF favourites – we’ve screened most of their films over the years and both have won awards at our festivals. Robert specialises in horror. You could see the trajectory he was going to take in his very first student films and he has been perfecting his art ever since. As a festival we probably screened Robert’s magnum opus Bobby Yeah (2011) more than any other festival. I just love the fact that Robert has been honing his craft from day one and in my opinion he’s reached the point of perfection in his field.

Chris is more of a jack-of-all-trades, and the horror that comes through in some of his films is more of a true-to-life violent horror. The two films of Chris’s that I’ll be focussing on are Dad’s Dead (2002) and Johnno’s Dead (2017) which are autobiographical, part-documentary in style and a hybrid mix of live-action and animation. They are very powerful and hard-hitting. But I think the one thing both of these filmmakers have in common – apart from both being masters of their trade – is that they also both have a wicked sense of humour, which might not always be evident just by watching their films.

A still from Chris Shepherd’s short film, Johnno’s Dead

Diabolique: Out of all the horror/bizarre films in the LIAF archives, which one would you recommend to unacquainted viewers as an example of the art form at its finest?

Vladermersky: One film? That’s not fair! Well I suppose if I was stuck on a desert island with only one film I could watch on repeat then I would have to choose the aforementioned Bobby Yeah by Robert Morgan. I do still get something new from it each time I watch it. And knowing some of the backstory such as how Robert spent a year collecting his own toenail clippings to make one of the puppets adds a certain spice to the film as well.

Diabolique: Do you have any other projects or events coming up you can tell us about?

Vladermersky: Of course – our annual festival kicks off at the beginning of December, and that’s what is taking up most of my time right now. We’ve got some incredible international guests this year, including one of the most anarchic, irreverent but supremely talented filmmakers coming to visit – David OReilly. He’s Irish but lives in LA and he makes a mix of totally mad independent films but also works in Hollywood and on TV and has recently started making bonkers games as well. He’s here for opening night and it should make for a fantastic opening. Loads of other stuff over the whole 10 days of the festival so if you’re interested go to www.liaf.org.uk to see full programme details.

For more information about the event, head on over to the Miskatonic website.