All Work and No Playlist: Dave Alex Riddett

What helps you create? Whether it’s writing, drawing, shooting or even whittling, for so many of us, music makes the world go round. In fact, we couldn’t imagine working without it. Fascinated by how other creative souls get stuff done, we decided to unpick this causal connection by speaking to different creators about their practice, process and how music fuels their fire.

By: Clare Howdle,   4 minutes

This month it’s the turn of cinematographer and director of photography, Dave Alex Riddett, who’s work with Aardman Productions over the last 30 years has brought the magic and wonder of stop motion to audiences worldwide. From helping out on The Wrong Trousers, to breaking new ground with Aardman’s first feature film, Chicken Run, from relishing the challenge and opportunity of The Pirates vs The Scientists, to revelling in the handmade artistry of Early Man, Dave Alex has seen the discipline evolve, grow and win new fans frame, by frame, by frame.

But through it all, he tells us, music has been there – firing him up, calming him down and sparking new ideas….

I can be attending up to ten or more sets in a day so there’s very little time to stop and listen to music in the working hours. For the animators it’s a different story as they can be animating one shot for several days so headphones and music are a crucial companion.

It’s the start of your creative working day. What do you do first?

When working on a feature film I get up at 6.10 am, have a hot bath to ease me into the day, feed and chat to the parrot (she’s an African Grey…and the only other living being awake in our house at that time of day), grab a cup of tea and drive into work.

At what point in your day do you turn to music?

It usually takes at least half an hour to get to work (Aardman studio is on the outskirts of Bristol.I live in the middle). I alternate, somedays listening to Radio 4, other days music, played loud. Maybe something relaxing like Goldfrapp or if I need invigorating some crazy jazz (Norwegian group Jagga Jazzist are a favourite). Music is a great way to clear the head in readiness for the many film units required each day to make an animated feature film.

Where do you create?

My creative space (in feature films) is generally on the studio floor. I love the physicality of stop frame animation, everything has to be created from scratch, it’s very easy to get an overview of what you are creating when it’s laid out in front of you in miniature.

Is music an important part of your creative process and if so, why? 

In the early stages of a production I have time to experiment while trying to create ‘a look’ for the production or just problem-solving. This is when music plays a major role in setting a mood or coaxing ideas.

However when we are up and running on a production I can be attending up to ten or more sets in a day as well as going to meetings, checking rushes, discussing up and coming shots and working with the visual effects people. So there’s very little time to stop and listen to music in the working hours (for the animators it’s a different story of course, as they can be animating one shot for several days so headphones and music are a crucial companion).

The lunch hour is MY chance to chill out. A quick meal and it’s on with my headphones…

How do you listen?

At home I love to listen to vinyl if possible, played loud through a good old valve amp. Headphones for lunchtime and CDs or the iPhone for the car. I sort out a lot of my ideas on long car journeys listening to music so I tend to choose a car on the strength of its HiFi capability as much as its performance. In the ‘70s I got into cassette tapes mainly for making playlists. In the early ‘80s I had a commission filming an Atlantic crossing as part of a six-person crew in a small yacht. 27 days at open sea and a month cruising around the Caribbean with my choice accessories – two Bolex cameras and a Sony Walkman full of carefully selected tracks. What’s not to like?

Do you have different types of music you listen to, to achieve different results?

To generate ideas I find having a diverse selection of music helps; the more esoteric the better. In my early years of filmmaking we formed a collective that we christened the Bolex Brothers. As a small team we made the puppets, the sets, the props, lit them and animated, often all through the night to a continual background of some of the strangest selection of music that you could wish for (The Residents, Yello, Renaldo and the Loaf, Zappa,Walter Carlos, John Barry, Brian Eno et al). It certainly kept us stimulated on what were generally quite improvised projects.

Is the music you listen to for work different from the music you listen to recreationally?

I like to think I have a wide taste in music – and I do like surprises. I don’t think I separate work from recreation, but I do go through phases particularly when I’ve discovered a new band or songwriter. I spend a lot of time on the internet chasing up their back catalogue.

What one song or album can you rely on to get your synapses firing?

That’s a difficult choice! Could I go for a whole suite and say Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’? plenty of synapse-firing potential in that masterpiece. It’s been the soundtrack to a lot of ideas I’ve been working on…


Dave Alex Riddett’s Playlist to Relax To… (and notes on why)

‘Vaporous’ – Elsiane. I adore Elsieanne Caplette’s voice, Stephane Sotto’s measured drumming and the sublime arrangements creating beautiful aural landscapes.

‘Capsule in Space’ – John Barry. With his outstanding career of writing and arranging, John Barry has contributed a soundtrack to my life. This scene from You Only Live Twice brought home how much power music has in filmmaking.

‘Philharmonics’ – Agnes Obel. I find her music to be hypnotic and uplifting.

‘Cigarette’ – Neriana Pallot. A great song and delightful delivery.

Wednesday’s Child’ – Emiliana Torrini. Another great song. I seem to be drawn towards female singers these days.

‘Hello Skinny’ – Residents. I’ve loved the Residents alternative take on the music scene since coming across them in the late ‘70s.

‘Kaleidoscope’ – Kate Havnevik. Kate Havnevik, in collaboration with producer-writer Guy Siggsworth, never fails to create wonderful contemporary songs.

‘Peaches En Regalia’– Frank Zappa. I always thought Zappa was one of the great composers of my generation. This track from Hot Rats never fails to cheer me up.

‘Seven Samurai’ (Closing Theme) – Ryuichi Sakamoto. A beautiful piece and so simply arranged. A great piece to close the day.

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