‘Bradley Manning Had Secrets’ dir. Adam Butcher

A young American soldier simultaneously going through a crisis-of-conscience and a crisis-of-identity.

Year: 2011
Country: UK
Writer & Director: Adam Butcher
Animators: Ben Claxton, Adam Butcher
Key Cast: Danny Mahoney, Angus Dunican


C8: How did BMHS come about? Where did the story come from and at what point did you decide to make a film about it?

AB: I came across an article about Bradley Manning in The Atlantic – it looked at the recently released chatlogs between Bradley and Adrian Lamo, essentially the online conversations that would lead to Bradley’s arrest. And for the first time, this article drew out all these things that made Bradley seem really human and interesting to me: his youth, his idealism, his developing issues with gender-identity. And I thought: there’s definitely a really good short film in here.

About a month later, I found that Animate Projects (http://www.animateprojects.org/) were looking for commissions based around the idea of “The Digital”. I wrote this into a proposal, and luckily got commissioned to make it!

C8: BMHS is a documentary realised in a very imaginative way – did creative license ever come into play?

AB: As I see it, it’s a documentary, just done in a style that a lot of people wouldn’t call “documentary”.

In terms of “creative license” – all of the dialogue is the real words written by Bradley and Adrian. I had to edit down their conversations a lot, and pick key moments, but at no point did I change the meaning of what was said. The only “fiction” part of this is that I got these dialogues to be read by voice actors, and so their delivery is very much a result of my artistic interpretation.

C8: How did you go about animating the film and how did you decide to use this style?

AB: The style was first and foremost chosen to reflect the digital nature of Bradley’s conversation. What was interesting to me was how this style then reflected other ideas – the faceless silhouettes showing a fluidity of identity, and the interactions between characters evoking a weird mix of coldness and intimacy.

As to how we actually did it – I borrowed a pretty rubbish camera and filmed actors putting on clothes, throwing boxes around etc. just around my house. This footage was then taken into a computer and painstakingly traced over by hand, frame by frame. Thankfully the shapes were so simple (at this low resolution) that it didn’t take as long as you might think.

C8: The style of animation in BMHS is reminiscent of that used in the void sequence in your early film ‘Arcadia’. Have you found there any threads that run through your films, either in the visual style or the kind of stories and themes you explore?

AB: Ha ha, well spotted! Really this technique (rotoscoping) is a way of me creating convincing animation for human movements and 3D spaces. I love using animation, but I can’t draw, so this technique came in very handy a few times!

But in general I think I vary up my style a lot between the films I make. If there was a single thread running between my works, I’d say I’m interested in telling stories using unconventional techniques that somehow reflect the stories themselves. So I might tell a story about the internet entirely from screen-grabbing blogs and web videos, I might tell a story about childhood by mixing live-action with puppeteered toys.

Perhaps the only other theme I’ve noticed is that I’m always returning to male relationships. I need to write more women!

C8: While the story of leaked documents runs through the film, you manage to give us a real sense for Bradley’s character. What do you think is the key to successfully realising character, and do you feel animation presents unique challenges in this area that you don’t face with live action?

AB: If I’m honest, this animation technique made realising this character far easier than live-action. By using just voice and abstract imagery, I think the audience is able to “fill in the gaps” and build up a picture of the man that they can relate to. When live-action is good, it can be very very powerful – but I think it can require a longer time on screen to really get to grips with a character, much longer than 5 minutes.

In general, realising character is something I’m still very much exploring – and I think it’s completely different between a short film and long film. I’d say normally I get a lot about character by seeing them act and react. But in this film Bradley does neither – he monologues – so maybe you have to take some shortcuts in short form!

C8: How did you work with the voice actors to get the right performances for your film? Were they working to an animatic, the finished animation, or from the script alone?

AB: The voice actors only worked from the script, and then I animated imagery to what they said afterwards. I think doing it the other way would have potentially stilted or distracted the actors.

I have to say, this was probably one of my favourite pieces for directing performance, and it confirmed to me that casting is so important. Danny Mahoney was perfect playing Bradley, and from the outset he channelled Bradley’s character as I saw it. Then it was a matter of trying different reads from the actors as we went through the script – I’d get what I wanted, and then go “Right, let’s forget all that and try an angry one”. Every read got something new, and then in the editing suite I had this lovely emotional palette to work from.

C8: From beginning to end, what did you find to be the most challenging part of making this film?

AB: This probably went the smoothest of any film I’ve made! And think this might be because I had a very limited time-frame - about 2 months to finish it for the commission’s deadline. In some ways you can think of this as a challenge, but it meant that I just had to crack on with it, limit myself, and not let things drag on as I sometimes do with my film projects.

But I do remember it getting quite nail-biting getting Blair’s lovely music all composed for the final deadline. I think he only had about a week!

C8: Even experienced filmmakers learn with each project, was there anything you remember particularly from making this film?

AB: I think I learnt the joy of doing something fairly simple in a limited time-frame. I had the idea, I made it, I finished it – and the simplicity, I think, meant that the end product worked very well on its own terms. I’d really like to do more projects like this.

C8: Are there any filmmakers or films that you found inspired your work early on, or even now?

AB: I definitely hold with me a lot of things that I watched as a kid. “The Wrong Trousers” – is a perfect short film, and I think that did inspire me: it achieves so much with music and cinematic direction, amazingly realised characters and set-pieces – it made me realise what can be achieved with good storytelling.

For me now, I love a whole bunch of filmmakers – from David Lynch to Wes Anderson to Kubrick to The Coen Brothers; probably their influence is in their somewhere, but I don’t really see my voice as having come from anyone else’s.

C8: What do you think is essence of a good collaboration?

AB: It’s when two people effortlessly combine their talents to work towards the same idea. If the idea or the mindsets are different, it can be very difficult – so I think there has to be a lot of personal connection and like-mindedness. It can be hard to come by, but when I find a collaborator that I really work well with, I tend to keep coming back to them.

C8: What does the future hold for you?

AB: For some reason I’ve not been so interested in making short films at the moment – every story I want to tell now feels much bigger than 10 or 20 minutes. So I’m setting my sights on making a feature film – at the moment I’m writing a script for a kind of post-apocalyptic love story with a twist. Very exciting.