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The Axe Jack Nicholson Used in The Shining Belonged To Ian Emes' Beard

But there’s more to Ian’s work than that.

Ian Emes is a great British filmmaker, whose work is too prolific to describe adequately on this page. In potted form, he’s the guy responsible for Pink Floyd’s psychedelic imagery (remember the Time Sequence?) and has been recognised by the important people at the Palm D’Or, the Oscars and the Baftas. Things like this are hard to do, so don’t be lazy and go see his retrospective at Unit 24 Gallery in South London tonight (full details below).


I called him up to shoot the breeze. VICE: Hi Ian, the first thing I wanted to ask you was about how you got into art. How did you get into the early-1970s psychedelia scene?
Ian Emes: Going back to 1971-ish, I was an art student in Birmingham, and I took a pre-diploma course in Bristol. Back then Bristol’s LSD scene was huge and, although I wasn’t really into that, I was surrounded by psychedelic imagery – especially Timothy Leary’s psychedelic art. I became a fine artist in sculpture in Birmingham, and then gradually was introduced to film, of which I made several.

How did you go about making films back then? I guess you couldn't just pick up a flipcam.
I built everything myself. I was an untutored animator when I first saw Yellow Submarine and was so excited about it, especially the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence, which is a rotoscope, a method where you project live action frame-by-frame when you draw it. It felt like the perfect solution for me because I was interested in little bouncy characters. It occurred to me that animation could be the moving version of my painting.

So how did you wind up working with Pink Floyd?
This was the year when the album Meddle came out. One day I went to a party, and I heard “One of These Days”. Their music had a huge sense of space – interestingly, Pink Floyd were architecture students – and that’s something I responded to. Having heard it, I drew the storyboard for an animated film which was a frame-by-frame interpretation of “One of These Days”.


And that was the French Windows.
Yes. Subsequently it was shown on the Old Grey Whistle Test, which was the showcase for experimental animation at the time. I think it was Rick Wright who saw it in there and mentioned it to the rest of the band. I got a call from the band, they wanted to meet me in the preview theatre in Wardour Street, Bijou. I ran the French Windows sequence there, and they asked me to do the Dark Side of the Moon concert film, which included the Time sequence.
You mentioned space, and your work has that huge sense of space to it, too. There’s this idea of the individual trying to make sense of larger structures in simple ways.
I think I was completely beguiled by the idea of the alienation of the individual in the urban environment. Birmingham is a very alienating city; the road system was designed in the 1950s and it completely devastated Birmingham, it turned it into this nowhere land. It's sort of beautiful and dynamic – in particular, the Spaghetti Junction. I have this fascination with huge geometric landscapes. I was into the European auteurist cinema of the 1960s, especially Antonioni who was also an “architect”. It occurred to me that you could really make profound statements through space and architecture and the way the individual relates to those. How do you think the era you were born into – spanning Cold War and 1960s counterculture – affected this idea?
Looking back it seems like an idyllic time, because I was given an education. I was a working class lad and my parents didn’t pay for my education. Harold Wilson’s Labour government really did give grants to students, working class people had amazing education and it was the teachers who turned my life around. But then there was this film called The War Game, for example, and we all thought we were going to have to escape to caves and islands. But at the same time it was really a free era. It was normal to rebel against the system. We were plain rebels. Beatles didn’t have a team of marketing managers behind them; the bands were inventing their own stuff. The music conglomerates were in their infancy, so music was inventing itself.


And what was the sort of main shift in terms of technology in this period, or afterwards?
The big change was from film to video. We had those awful Quantels. I remember making a ridiculously poor video for Mike Oldfield with blue screen and it was terrible, the images were shuddering. Everything was heavy and chunky, it was all mechanical up until the late 1970s, then we moved into the electronic phase, everything started becoming digital. I was taken on in America when I finished the Oriental Nightfish film for Paul and Linda McCartney, I was introduced to a company called International Inc and they had giant computers in their warehouse, of course now it is terribly dated, it’s a bit like Tron. But then I loved it. I stopped hand-drawn animating in the early 1980s to go into live-action. Then, the digital animation revolution was introduced in America.

Let's talk about tonight. Did you have a big say in how the retrospective is presented?
Yes, definitely. The idea is to present the 40 years of my work but in a playful and mischievous way that's not literal. It’s all been involved in projection, so it’s not about information on me but more about walking through my moving images. And it’s also partly about the Pink Floyd concerts, paying homage to rock culture but putting that in the language of an art gallery. It’s more about being inside visions and sounds and making it possible for people to walk around and choose parts of it rather than sitting in front of a screen and watching everything from beginning to end. Is it true that you posted The Beard to Stanley Kubrick? Do you still think it inspired Jack Nicholson’s famous door axing scene in The Shining?
I’m sure it was. What happened is, he lived in England and I knew where he lived, so I put The Beard through his letterbox. I didn't hear anything from him and then came the axing scene, which may have been nothing, but I swear it’s something. Especially because of the timing, I’m sure there’s a connection. Great story. Good luck with the exhibition, Ian!

Ian Emes' One of These Days retrospective starts tonight at the Unit 24 Gallery, 20 Great Guildford Street, London SE1 0FD. It runs until the 28th of March, and you can find more details here.