Exclusive: An Interview With Robert Mills

Who Is Robert Mills?
A question I’ve been asking myself for over 50 years and have yet to find an answer.  Father, husband, writer, director, producer, web series creator, shit disturber, puppeteer, curmudgeon, bread baker, sausage maker, CG artist, ex-mime, ex-clown, ex-juggler, cartoonist, cinephile, bibliophile, code monkey and lazy beer swilling resident of Parkdale in Toronto.

Could you tell us a little about your background in regards to the film/television/media industry?
I got serious about filmmaking when I was 15 and crafting stop motion movies in my friend Bryan’s garage – the late Ray Harryhausen was a profound influence on me.  Did a lot of theatre in high school then took film (briefly) at Ryerson before falling back into live theatre where I studied mime, dance, commedia dell arte, mask, clown, juggling, acrobatics and more.  Worked as a performer on the streets for a while and formed a troupe with some friends before auditioning for the Muppets and getting a gig as Junior Gorg in the television series Fraggle Rock.

My time working for Henson on Fraggle was the best university training EVAR – not just learning puppetry but also how to run a shop, how to script, how to run a production office, the technical end of lighting, sound & cameras, props, set dec, the works – I was always someplace in the building other than where I was supposed to be but I came out of it with a wealth of knowledge that still serves me to this day – and the people I worked with provided an invaluable mentorship.  My time with Henson went on for about 15 years in film and TV productions here in Canada, in the States and in the UK – Fraggle, The Jim Henson Hour, Dinosaurs, Labyrinth, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a whack of others – which lead to work with other companies.  Canadian Sesame Street afforded me the opportunity to emerge as a writer and then story editor. By then I had already started my own production company, Radical Sheep, and puppet building company, the Sheep Shop, doing a lot of service work for other productions and commercials.  

After Jim passed away I realized I needed to do more than just sell myself as a performer so I teamed up with Cheryl Wagner who had a great concept for a children’s series called The Big Comfy Couch.  We developed and produced Couch with some success and went on to make a bunch of other shows, like Ruffus The Dog and a whole slew of other things.  I left Radical in the hands of my business partner back in 2002 and am no longer affiliated with them – they do animation now.  Also spent some time at the CBC as the Exec. Producer for KidsCBC.  The bulk of this past decade – whilst working as a writer, performer or director for others – has been spent in the world of the interwebs making original content and having a pantload of fun.That’s the long version.  The short version is:  I started as a performer, started getting work as a writer, became a producer and hired myself as a director.  I wear too many hats but I have a huge head so what the hell.

What is the IWCC?
The Independent Web Series Creators of Canada is a non-profit organization with the stated goal of promoting and supporting the efforts of independent creators, their works and their direct connection to their audiences.  It grew out of a regular series of meet ups for the Toronto web series community – organized initially by Jason Leaver and Scott Albert – which continued to grow and became a fixture on Facebook where the beer sodden conversations could continue on a daily basis.  There we found ourselves sharing information, knowledge, resources and engaging in deeper discussions about the work we were doing in making web series.  Toronto wasn’t the only place where this was happening – it was going on all across the country – and it was really exciting to see these communities keep growing and reaching out to other.  Eventually – inevitably – we kept hearing from people that we needed to have some kind of organization to speak for everyone as a singular voice – while at the same time maintaining everybody’s deeply felt sense of true independence – which is a little bit like herding cats.  It took over a year of concerted effort but the group of people who are currently our interim board managed to pull it all together and now we are a legitimate representative of many web series creators throughout the country.

What are the IWCC’s goals?
Ultimately the goals of the IWCC will be defined by the members themselves.  We did the grunt work of setting it all up but in early 2014 there will be a general members meeting and our first elections and from there the path taken will be determined by everyone.  In the interim, we’ve been establishing benefits for members ( discounts from equipment & service providers and so on) and starting to organize events that serve to promote the works of the community,  making linkages with other similar groups and festivals around the world, establishing ourselves as a voice at policy discussions with the CRTC, Department of Heritage, the various funding agencies & financing groups, and working with the guilds and unions to help them provide better access for their members to participate in an entrepreneurial manner as they engage with the significant industry changes afforded to them and find themselves able to make their own works and connect directly with their audiences.

Why is it important to have?
The singular voice of any one web series creator is a difficult one for any agency, guild or other industry organization to pay heed to.  We already have the ability to connect directly with each other to inform and support and promote the works of everyone in our community – but there are (and will always be) larger forces and concerns that affect our abilities to make use of this new and evolving means by which creative artists can craft and distribute their own works directly to a world wide audience.  Sometimes those “larger forces” do not have the best interests of the creators or the audience in mind when they lobby for and institute policies, rules and operating methods for this industry.  It’s important for us to have the voice of a crowd, which cannot be ignored as easily as the singular voice of any one creator, not just to gain attention but to insist on having a say in anything that will have a beneficial or adverse effect on our work.  In addition to that the IWCC will serve to extend the reach of existing community efforts of sharing & support – and at the same time act as voice to promote the works of the community to both audiences and media.

What is your role as acting president, and what do you hope to accomplish?
At the moment my role as interim President is just to help keep things on track.  My main goal is to keep everyone energized and focused – it’s not like this is some kind of car and I’m the guy behind the wheel – it’s more like we’re on a road trip and I’m the jerk who keeps playing with the radio knobs and asking “Are we there yet?”.  As to what I hope to accomplish with my participation in all of this is to have in place an organization that can truly serve the wide and disparate needs of the extraordinarily creative and diverse tribes of writers, actors, directors, technicians – artists all – who are invading the cultural space of the world wide web with their visions and stories that deserve to be shared with an audience that is equally eager to experience them.  And I want a decoder ring.  I’m serious about that last one.

Are you working on any personal projects you’d like to share?
I have waaaaay too many projects on the go right now.  We had a show on broadcast when I was at Radical called Ruffus The Dog – when I left Radical I took a bunch of projects with me, including the rights to Ruffus.  We have since then put all the original broadcast episodes online and are currently working on a larger venture with those characters that overall is called The Ruffus Project.

The first thing out of the gate for that was our version of A Christmas Carol – not a series, just a holiday special, but it was fun to make and seems to be fun for people to watch every year.  We shot it in my living room – it’s actually pretty cool.There is also a new series for the web called Ruffus Rhymes, where we take apart old Mother Goose nursery rhymes and make them into our own nonsense.  In addition to that we’re gearing up for pre-production on another one-off with Ruffus called Ruffus The Dog’s Steampunk Adventure – and it’s a big assed thing, with live actors, great sets and special effects, explosions, mind control rays, incredible Victorian wardrobe, gears, goggles, corsets, puppets, ray guns, airships, pigs & sheep wearing clothes and a ripping yarn that’ll make you laugh, make you cry, make you kiss your ten bucks goodbye.  

We’re going to launch the fund raising for that with a kickass trailer at the end of August when we attend FanExpo. And we have this other odd thing called Rubber Chicken Players which was supposed to have launched a couple of months ago but I’m kinda behind on that one.  It’s a series of really silly short comedy spots riffing on classic cinema, theatre and literature – all performed by rubber chickens.  Why?  Because we could – and the very idea of it made milk come out our nose.There are also two other larger projects that I can’t talk about – yet – but which are definitely not for young audiences and one of which will scare the crap out of people.  So there.

If you could scream 1 thing out to the masses, what would it be?
Srsly?I’m immediately thinking of Graham Chapman in Life Of Brian:  “You’re all individuals!”Ok – for me it’d be one of two things:”Live now. Tell the ones you love that you love them.”or”Somebody get me a beer!”

Robert Mills

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