Run Wrake, 1965-2012

Distinctive British pop animator, 24 November 1965–21 October 2012.

Gary Thomas

Web exclusive

Run Wrake

Run Wrake

Run Wrake is best known for his short animation Rabbit (2005), one of only three independent films that he made, along with Jukebox (1994) and Down with the Dawn (2012). He worked constantly, however, and like many animators, across different forms – music video, advertising, television graphics and tour visuals for bands. He is one of a small number of British animators – another would be Joanna Quinn – to have sustained a career where a personal, distinctive and unmistakable style carries their work and the range of commercial and personal projects.

Wrake chose to study graphic design rather than fine art because he believed it was inherently democratic, and his animation was distinguished by an engagement and creative collaboration with producers, music and musicians. His use and mastery of the animated loop was a visual parallel and complement to musical rhythm and structure.

He was born John Wrake, in Yemen in 1965 – his father was a chaplain in the British Army – and brought up in Sussex. At a school cricket game, with Wrake rooted to the spot at the wicket, his schoolmates shouted “run, run”, and the nickname stuck.

He began to make animation, using Super 8, photocopy and marker pen, when studying graphic design at Chelsea College of Art, London, in the mid 1980s, citing as inspiration a music video for the Art of Noise’s Close to the Edit (1984, animation director Matt Forrest). He went on to study animation at the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included Karen Kelly, Stuart Hilton, Philip Hunt and Sarah Kennedy. Whilst his acknowledged influences – early hand-drawn animation, Dada, Pop Art, and punk graphics – can be discerned in his work, he quickly established, and maintained, a unique, bold and contemporary style.

Wrake’s graduation film Anyway (1990) won Best Animation at the BP Expo International Student Film Festival in London. There, coincidentally, it came to the attention of the Art of Noise’s manager, who asked Wrake to make his first music video, for the Gang of Four’s Cadillac.

MTV Europe had launched in 1987, and moved its base from Amsterdam to London in 1989; Anyway was shown as part of MTV’s animation showcase Liquid Television. Wrake was one of the UK animators, including Phil Mulloy, Susan Young and the Brothers Quay, who MTV’s Creative Director Peter Dougherty commissioned to make short film idents that contributed to establishing the station’s personality.

Usually working freelance, in 1995 Wrake joined the roster of directors at animation studio Bermuda Shorts and it was through Bermuda that he first worked with Scottish musician and producer Howie B, the start of an ongoing creative partnership. In 1997, alongside Keith Haring and Roy Lichenstein, he created visuals for U2’s Popmart tour, and he worked with the band on a number of further occasions up until last year, often going on tour and creating work that responded to particular cities or current news.

Throughout his career he continued to work in illustration and graphic design. From 1988, when he was still at the RCA, up to 2000, he regularly contributed illustration to the New Musical Express, and his work with Howie B and U2 included artwork for several album covers.

He had close and key associations with Animate, the Channel 4/Arts Council England animation project that commissioned Jukebox and Rabbit, and with onedotzero and its director Shane Walter, who showed his work at its own festivals and around the world, taking him on his first trip to Japan in 2002, and commissioning tour visuals for the Rolling Stones and more.

Wrake’s personal films were widely acclaimed and Rabbit in particular achieved extraordinary success, securing a BAFTA nomination, and winning many international awards, including two British Animation Awards, the prestigious McLaren Award for Animation at the Edinburgh Film Festival, a Special Distinction at Annecy, a Tiger Award for Short Film at Rotterdam International Animation Festival and many others. Rabbit’s festival success is matched by a wider popularity, with a broadcast and online audience of many hundreds of thousands.

Howie B created the score for Rabbit, but unlike most of Wrake’s films the project did not begin as a response to music, but to its collection of 1950s spelling-card illustrations that Wrake had found in a junk shop several years beforehand. A dark morality tale, the film marks Wrake’s concerted and successful attempt to develop a stronger narrative drive in his work.

The Control Master (2008) also began with existing visual material: Veer, a commercial images agency, commissioned him to make the film using images from their archive. The film was featured on the BBC’s Culture Show and toured by onedotzero and Future Shorts, but screenings were curtailed because of copyright issues.

Both films are usually described simply in relation to their use of ‘found footage’, but Wrake transforms and critiques this material, subverting its innocence, and incorporating dynamic hand-drawn and graphic elements to transform the material and embellish the storytelling.

In recent years he’d been developing feature projects, one of which was to ‘star’ Meathead (abo, a character first seen in Jukebox [1994], and another, The Way to a Whole New You, working with writer Neil Jaworski was to be set in a future where everyone is obsessed with looking under 30.

His last film is the haunting and brave Down with the Dawn (2012), again with music by Howie B. A response to his diagnosis with cancer in November 2011, it’s a powerful, personal and intimate work; elegiac, certainly, but characteristically unnerving, and a poignant testament to his brilliance. He continued working and his latest animation features in the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary tour.

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.