I can’t tell you how many people said ‘She’s just like my sister/girlfriend/friend/mum!’.

Interview with Candy Guard

Candy Guard is an award-winning director, animator and writer. She has built her successful career on sharp, witty, comic observation.

Her creative practice is multi-dexterous; she contributed cartoons to The Observer for many years and created the animated sitcom Pond Life, which ran for two series on Channel 4. She has published a number of books. The Jelly series (MacMillan) follows the tween protagonist, Jelly, navigate secondary school and life in general, and an illustrated comic novel called Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus (Penguin) is about a confused 21-year-old girl trying to find her way in the world. Candy also teaches scriptwriting, film and animation and was recently a panel guest at Greater than 11%’s Visual Storytelling event discussing her career and talents.

I am a huge fan-girl of her work, re-watching Pond Life and her other animations on YouTube whenever I need some light-hearted relief or a boost. And to be honest, in this current coronavirus situation, that is often!

Renee: Candy, you have graciously indulged my creative-crush and agreed to this interview. I will do my best not gush throughout.

Let’s start with Pond Life and the other animations you made for Channel 4 and the BBC in the 90s. They are well observed, internal dialogues that most people, especially women, can identify with — they are timeless. How did the protagonist, Dolly Pond, come about and what was the journey to getting the series on air, and with one of the UK’s main broadcasters?

Candy: I had already made eight animated shorts for Channel 4 — all concerning funny female characters dealing with disappointing trips to hairdressers (Alternative Fringe), dieting, parties, temping etc about the day-to-day female experience. These seemed to strike a chord with audiences and won many awards, so when Clare Kitson, Head of Animation at Channel 4, was asked to commission some adult animation series, she asked me if I had anything (those were the days!) and I had had an idea bubbling away for a while. I passionately wanted to make a series with a female protagonist and about the kind of woman that my hero Beryl the Peryl (from The Topper comic) may have become if she had been allowed to grow up — funny, naughty, arrogant, multi-dimensional.

I based Dolly Pond on a blend of me and friends of mine — I was 31 at the time and living in Cardiff. A friend said that her sister always described the little bit of Cardiff where we lived as like ‘pond life’ i.e. the same faces going round and round and no chance to meet anyone new. It gave me the idea to have this ambitious but fearful young woman living in a cul-de-sac in a suburb of a big city where she has lived all her life. Unfortunately, all the other characters have lived there all their lives, too — her crap friends and family who she considers hold her back from the exciting life that should rightfully be hers. But really, she is scared to leave the cosy familiarity of the pond. So, I decided that each episode would be about her trying to change her life in some way — an exciting job, new boyfriend, getting fit, a new social circle — but always ending up crawling back to her friends and family with her tail between her legs. I wanted Dolly to be complicated, full of wants and needs, and also relatable so that people recognised themselves and their significant others in her. It was amazing the reaction she got — I can’t tell you how many people said ‘She’s just like my sister/girlfriend/friend/mum!’.

R: Pond Life’s paired back whilst simultaneously super detailed animation style — distinctively Candy Guard — how was this developed?

C: Basically, I made all my early films on my own using the traditional technique of drawing on paper and then getting the drawings filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera — I had already made a film like this at college. Because you have to draw each frame again and again and I only had five weeks to make each film I couldn’t possible fully colour each frame so I drew in black felt pen and used spot colour on certain things and kept most of the frame white. It was still back-breaking doing that amount of colour on 1,000 drawings, though! This was a style that I liked anyway coming from a background of cartooning. Also having taught myself animation from Bob Godfrey’s animation book (I studied fine art so taught myself), he always emphasised that the story was important and once a door has slammed you can lose it — and when you are animating on paper you learn a sort of visual shorthand where you only include the minimum information needed.

When it came to Pond Life, that look had become my trademark and I really like things to look hand-made — I think it’s friendly and inclusive. Ironically though, keeping that simplicity for Pond Life is harder than a more complex look — a lot of the 30 animators had trouble drawing on model with just a few lines — Dolly often ended up looking a bit weird by just her glasses being the wrong shape or the dot of her eye not being round!

R: Observation, humour, the everyday — even the mundane —consistently feature in your work. I’ve noted a series of illustrations appearing on your Instagram feed reflecting the interactions with your family whilst being housebound during the COVID-19 crisis. They are hilarious and highly relatable. What is your process of working these interactions into your work?

C: I have trained myself over the years to observe things and try and shape those observations into a story or a series of jokes on the same theme — it’s about gaining the confidence that if you feel something then probably other people are going to feel that too, or at least some of them. It’s about being honest and personal whilst trying to keep it universal and relatable. We aren’t that different to each other at our roots.

For me, humour is about trying to make people laugh, not by being silly but by being honest — it’s more of a laugh of recognition that I’m after. An ‘Oh I feel like that too, so I’m not alone!’ kind of response. I think humour like this can be quite generous. It’s like the opposite of showing off on social media. I like to show my vulnerability and failings and use that to fuel my jokes rather than saying ‘Look at my lovely garden, family, cat, career — aren’t I lucky?’. I think it’s partly because my mum always taught me not to show off! Then later when I was older, she’d tell me not to put myself down all the time….

R: Mixed messages from parents - I had those by the bucket full! How does your partner manage knowing you may take an exchange and create an illustration or comic strip around it?

C: Weirdly, none of my boyfriends over the years have minded and my husband actually likes it I think — though I have to be a bit careful. Of course, it isn’t always him, but on IG he might worry that our friends will think it is. The slightly worrying thing is that all the boyfriends/partners in my work end up being similar characters; though I like to tell myself I don’t have a type, but I obviously do!

In my book Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus (Penguin), I wrote very honestly about all sorts of people in my life and especially my mum and no one seemed to mind. Some of the minor characters I used their real names thinking I would change them when I’d finished and then forgot. No one sued me!

R: You also wonderfully capture the neurosis that can scamper around a creative person’s mind whilst making work/trying to make a living. You have many roles you inhabit: writer, illustrator, animator, director, author. How have you made it work?

C: I have an idea and then try it in one medium, i.e. I might write a comedy script and then if that doesn’t take off but I still like it, I might re-do it as a book or graphic story, which is what happened with the ‘Disco’ novel – it was actually a series that I developed with the BBC but that they then didn’t go with. I tend to jump around quite a bit, being someone who draws and writes. Whatever media I work in – film, books, cartoons – there is always a Candy guard look. I’m sure if I invented the cure for malaria it would somehow have a beaky nose and stick legs. I can’t escape it. I draw and write together naturally – so when I’m sketching out an idea in a notebook I will write and then when words don’t capture it quite, I will draw little figures, or stick people with dialogue. It means I have to create projects off my own bat rather than being offered work, and then try and sell them.

R: What has surprised you most in your career?

C: I think the instant success of Pond Life was very surprising. It was like people were very hungry for this kind of female protagonist and seeing an animated series like this was surprising and delightful for a lot of people. It got incredible reviews in all the papers, I did TV interviews and I was even interviewed by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph (Boo! But I do hope he gets better of course).

I had literally made the series in a kind of void. Clare Kitson gave me free reign with the scripts so I had no idea if it would work. So, I was surprised when my creative instincts were right and it was a hit.

R: What do you find most difficult in the creative process? How do you overcome it?

C: Lack of confidence. One day I think something is great, the next day I look at it and think ‘What is this s**t?!’. If someone tells me something I’ve done is great it gives me a boost and I get going again (except if it’s my husband) — hence my IG posts about the Creative Person and the Compliment, Mood Swings etc.

I overcome it by just keeping going — even if that means lying on the sofa groaning some days — I think with creative people you can’t help but keep going because you don’t know anything else. Sometimes I wish I had trained as a plumber and just had a nice life in Kent with a big garden and chickens and not worrying about ‘being creative’.

R: The Jelly series consists of three playfully illustrative, popular books for the tween demographic. What prompted writing for a younger audience?

C: My agent showed me all the boy books with lots of cartoony illustrations like

Wimpy Kid and said there weren’t any for girls. Years before, I had written an idea for an animation series called Jelly about some tweenagers which hadn’t taken off — this was an age I was interested in with girls — that age where you have to cast off the fun and freedom of skipping and climbing trees and start feeling pressured to worry about mascara and fat bums (or feel you have to). So I decided to adapt that idea for books and wrote about five chapters and my agent sent it off.

Several publishers were interested and I eventually went with Macmillan. What did shock me is how many of the publishers said having a main female character with her face on the cover was a potential problem — girls will read books with boys on the cover but apparently boys won’t read books with a girl on the cover. Outrageous! I was genuinely shocked that this was a concern seeing as girls are 50% of the kid population. On the whole I like to do adult stuff because you don’t have to be twee or overly worried about being scary or depressing. Kids watch my stuff anyway!

R: Any more books we can look forward to on the horizon?

C: I would love to write another adult book — a comic novel for women — there is a real paucity of them, but writing a novel (along with writing a screenplay) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You need complete calm in your life and I don’t have that at the moment. Short things suit me better!

R: As we are in a period of uncertainty — of stasis somewhat — what are you doing to stay creative, inspired (and married)?

C: I am very lucky to have a home office so I lock myself in there — the lockdown hasn’t changed my life that much — I work at home anyway and so does my husband and we also have my teenage step-daughter imprisoned with us at the moment! I stay creative by trying to give my brain the space it needs to wander — and by making myself do it! We are all driving each other a little mad. But all creative people are a bit mad aren’t they, so maybe it will help!

R: Thanks Candy! I will be very much keeping an eye on your Instagram feed in the days to come.

You can watch Pond Life and Candy’s other animations on her YouTube channel and see more of her work and connect via Instagram @candguard.

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