The Loveboat director on the freedom of not knowing rules, the need for storyteller accountability and his desire for less performative allyship, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt
Animated content - it’s pretty fun! Whether it’s watching Batman fight Joker, dysfunctional families quarreling or talking animals going on adventures, chances are you’ve explored it at some point in your life. But in the year 1972, a new approach to animation came into the limelight, with Aardman Animations pursuing a stop-motion film style made with characters of clay. The studio behind such titles as ‘Chicken Run’, ‘Shaun the Sheep’ and perhaps most notably ‘Wallace and Gromit’, these claymation productions brought joy and entertainment to the lives of millions around the world. But in some cases, it did a little bit more than that.
For instance, Sean Frank attributes his earliest creative impulses to the inspiration he drew from enjoying the work of Aardman Animation. At the age of 10, the Loveboat director started making his own claymations with the intention of being the next Nick Park.
In fact, Sean attended Goldsmiths in London for his bachelor degree; studying art and design. However, it was here that he began to lose interest in the objects themselves, gaining a new appreciation for the process of image making. “I put whatever I had left of my student loan on a ticket to New York,” he adds. “I couch surfed with friends all summer, with a camcorder and a bootleg version of Final Cut. It was there I started making films and taught myself to edit.”
Sean proved to have a real knack for the line of work. His interest in the industry would crop up right around the time that digital was emerging as a medium. With brands experimenting with the format of film, he was able to secure opportunities to make fashion videos for various magazines.
“I met the creative director of 3.1 - Phillip Lim,” he says. “I showed him the experimental art films I’d been making and they asked if I could make films for them.”
This opportunity would also send Sean to Paris, where he worked alongside the art director of Alexander Mcqueen, editing and shooting show films for the team.
Aside from the opportunity itself, Sean says that the experience helped him learn several valuable lessons. A significant one is the importance of creative freedom. Due to his lack of traditional film school education as well as the fact that the digital medium was relatively new when he was starting out, he found that his most valuable assets were his instincts and intuition.
“I felt an immense sense of freedom in not knowing the rules,” he says. “Now, knowing (more) rules, I try to remind myself of that sense of freedom and magic I felt when I started making films. Before it was logistics and budgets it was pure experimentation and creativity.”
With that said, Sean also recognises the inevitability of mistakes, but emphasises the importance of learning from them. In particular, he says that the most useful lesson he learned in his early career was that one should always shoot on colour and then change it to black and white in post-production: “I’m still recovering from the horror of filming an early job in all black and white, only to have the client ask to see it in colour.”
Despite Sean’s origins lying within the fashion industry, his passion for various environments and cultures led to him branching out. To this end, he partially attributes this process to further childhood influences. Coming from a South African family living in the UK, he says that it created a very interesting cultural dynamic.
“Growing up, I was always surrounded by Sowetan jazz and Afrikaans cooking in contrast to the very residential, very English Bristol,” he adds. “It led me to have an early understanding and appreciation of both cultures.”
As such, Sean would move into directing films about relatable environments, subcultures and situations with the intention of combining cinematic compositions and inspirational stories.
“I want to tell stories and see faces on screens that I didn’t see when I was growing up,” he says. “I plan to keep working across different formats, finding stories that represent a wider range of experiences - breaking stereotypes; showing all hues, shades and nuances. If you can see yourself, you can imagine it for yourself.”
For Sean, this has recently taken the form of him finishing a script for his very first feature film, which he’ll be developing on the side of his other work which includes episodic directing, music videos and commercials.
Regardless of what he’s making however, Sean hopes that the impact will be the same. “I hope that someone can look at my work and relate to the stories I tell,” he says. “I want them to feel seen and empowered, which can hopefully make the world feel a little smaller and a little less hard to navigate.”
Despite his love of telling relatable stories, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t enjoy the occasional stint into working with big-name celebrities. He vividly remembers having the opportunity to film and follow Lebron James around Barcelona for three days. “The memory that sticks out is hanging over the edge of a 25 foot diving board to get the shot of Lebron as he jumped from the platform below into an Olympic-sized pool while fans took pictures from the stands,” he says.
Another, equally memorable task was when he got the chance to do a visual EP for H.E.R. Drawing the attention of Lena Waithe, she contacted Sean which led to their working together and the release of the short film ‘Further Away’ - which Lena executively produced. It’s an experience he’s grateful for.
“There’s nothing like the energy of being on set,” he says. “When you get to see all the things you’ve been dreaming up on the monitor, it’s surreal. I feel very blessed to do this every day.”
But Sean adds that loving something doesn’t mean it’s without challenges. In particular, he finds that the process of taking a project from the page to the screen can be quite tricky, which is why he’s grateful for collaborators who are willing to take a risk and trust a vision while it’s in an early stage of development. But he says that there are also a lack of conversations and accountability for and about the people telling stories.
“A story shouldn’t be a trend or a fetishisation of a culture just because ‘it looks cool’,” he adds. “We need to ask more questions about how things are being put out into the world and the ways they give back to individuals and communities. Less performative allyship and more genuine contributions!”
To this end, he believes it’s a reflection of the fact that the industry is only scratching the surface with representation. “There needs to be more systemic change and diversity within leadership and decision makers,” Sean says. “It’s a slow process but with more training and mentorship for younger folks trying to break into the industry, we will hopefully start to see more opportunities across the board.”
It’s a matter of which Sean is quite passionate. Believing in the importance of initiatives like ‘Change the Lens’ and ‘Free the Work’, he hopes that it will serve as an opportunity to highlight some of the blind spots within the industry.
“I was active during the inception of ‘Change the Lens’,” he says. “Born out of frustration and the lack of opportunities for Black and POC filmmakers, Savannah Leaf got a big group of us together to discuss our individual and shared experiences. It was powerful seeing so many other Black and POC filmmakers together and the first time I felt a sense of community in what can sometimes be a very isolated industry.”
That being said, Sean is optimistic. He says that compared to when he started, far more underrepresented voices are being given opportunities and platforms. “But I hope this is a lasting change and not fleeting,” he adds.