All posts by amyfionabaker

The Ray Harryhausen Film Awards: Pioneer of Moving Monsters

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, photography by Brian Robertson, National Galleries Scotland

What do dinosaurs, skeletons, a giant octopus, and a phorusrhacos have in common? Ray Harryhausen’s legendary hands zapped life into all of them!

Since the 1950s, Ray Harryhausen has been hypnotising audiences world-over with his unprecedented stop-motion special effects. After seeing King Kong (1933), teen Ray Harryhausen was awe-struck and discovered a new life-long love for creating stop-motion creatures and bringing them to life. Harryhausen quickly became Hollywood’s go-to guy when it came to physical effects for live-action film, making beastly characters for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films. He’s best known for his work on 20 Million Miles To Earth, Clash of the Titans, and Jason and the Argonauts. Ray’s career spanned three decades and created a strong foundation for future animators and model makers to build upon. His work combined so many skills and merged technicality with creativity in a way that created entire new worlds! Always innovative, he created a new animation/special effects technique called ‘Dynamism’. To quote a critic from The Guardian, ‘This is not just special effects, this is art.’

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, Vanessa Harryhausen’s book, ‘Titan Of Cinema’.

In order to continue his legacy and inspire future generations of stop-motion artists, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation have set up an awards programme that will be open to entries soon. I’ve spoken to John Walsh from the foundation to learn a bit more about The Ray and Diana HarryHausen Foundation and their exciting new awards programme!

Tell me about Ray Harryhausen’s impact on the film industry. 

Ray Harryhausen was an expert exponent of visual special effects through stop-motion animation. This involved moving a puppet in front of a camera one frame at a time to create the illusion of movement. Other people had been working in this field before Ray, notably Willis O’Brien on King Kong (1933), but Harryhausen would break new ground and influence generations of filmmakers to come. From Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. On his death in 2013, George Lucas said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

What is the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, and how can people get involved?

Ray and Diana set up the charity in the 1980s to protect the vast collection, estimated at 50,000 items, and educate other animators in Ray’s working practices. We are active on social media and have exhibitions. You can find our website here and details of our current and most extensive exhibition to date here. We have an active social media presence and an award-winning podcast series too. 

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Can you describe for us the new ‘Ray Harryhausen Film Awards’ programme?

Ray Harryhausen’s influence on cinema past and present is truly titanic. I devised these awards in Ray’s name to recognise new standards of excellence in the growing field of animation. I hope the awards will promote Ray’s legacy and identify new talent coming into the industry. More information will be released on the Awards website in the coming months. 

Vanessa Harryhausen © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Is there anything, in particular, you’ll be looking out for in your award entries?

Innovation and technique, of course, are critical for any judging panel. However, the quality of the films in that category is crucial in awarding the best examples. It is a case of surprising the judges and hoping you get recognised. I have been on the other side as an award recipient and nominee on numerous occasions, so I know how much an award or even a nomination can help a career. 

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, Ray & John Walsh with Kraken.

How do you hope these awards will influence emergent filmmaking talent?

Animation can be a solitary experience for a filmmaker, so the awards will act as a network and a chance for other filmmakers to discuss their work. It is also part of any filmmaker’s development to see what their peers are working with or even struggling to achieve. In any creative field, growth is the key to success. Sometimes that can be a frustrating and challenging road to travel but satisfying when you arrive at your completed project ready to show the world. 

John Walsh is a trustee of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Watch his documentary about Harryhausen’s life and work, and follow him on Twitter.

If you fancy reading more about Ray Harryhausen’s career and seeing some magic from behind the scenes, the books; Harryhausen The Lost Movies by John Walsh and the award-winning Ray Harryhausen Titan of Cinema by Vanessa Harryhausen are highly recommended.

The Winners! 2020’s Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge

As much as it is all about taking part, I’ve been told that winning is an experience that feels very good. At last, you can stand tall on that podium, sit up on that high horse and look down at all the little runners up! Joking aside, we’re getting close to the 2021 Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge and there’s excitement in the air.

Finishing the challenge itself is a tremendous feat. Coming up with a concept, constructing puppets, making all the little set bits, animating/puppeteering, filming, and then editing the whole thing in 48 hours – it’s a little bit crazy and a lot of fun! Creating a puppet film is difficult, but what’s more difficult is pleasing both a panel of expert judges and all of your screaming fans. Last years winners will already know this very well! There were so many gems in last years competition, I can’t imagine how hard it was to agree on the winners.

In third place we had ‘Joey of the Past’ by Taylor Bibat. A music video-style film with a score from his band, ‘ElvisBride’. This film took the theme of last year, TIME and used the item, THREAD and created something pensive and surreal. Joey is a time traveller swinging across the screen clinging to a thread, maybe representing string theory?

Tell us about your film Taylor.

I was told about the Bristol 48hr Puppet Challenge by Chris Pirie who I had recently performed with in an opera in Chicago. Because of COVID-19 I decided to do my best with just my own two hands and readied the apartment for 48 hours of creative flurry! The three cats were confused, but along for the ride. When the prompts of “thread,” “flip,”and “time” were announced I realised that the song “Joey of the Past,” written by Troy Martin for the band ElvisBride of which I was a member years back, was perfect. With support from Bry Sanders, I teased out the images I wanted to play with; time represented by thread, Sisyphean struggle and problem solving around it, that dreamlike state between waking and sleep. Ultimately my plans were mostly thwarted by lack of extra hands because two is never enough, an ever failing monitor set up resulting in puppeteering blind and other tech challenges that left me exhausted and frustrated. I remember thinking that I wish the filming process had been itself filmed as it felt like an ongoing clown act with me constantly “eating” problem after problem. At a certain point I stopped shooting and got to editing, putting aside the plan and collaging with whatever footage I had. The only measure of success I cared about was turning something in before time ran out. 

Did you already have the song to work with or was that created for the challenge?

The song was already written and recorded years prior. I was in a band called ElvisBride when I lived in Chicago and the music is very special to me. This song in particular always fascinated me and I was so happy to get to explore it visually. I love for ElvisBride music to be heard by new people, even all these years after the band has broken up. 

What was it like watching the screening and hearing from the judges? 

To be honest, winning any sort of recognition was so far from my mind that I didn’t think to watch it live as I knew I could come back to it later. It wasn’t until I got a text from a friend saying I was in the Top 10 that I got to a computer and turned it on. I was then shocked that I placed in third! To have the amazing judges refer to the “excellent animation and movement” and “really skilled manipulation,” along with comments on its relationship to COVID, “Intriguing design ideas”, the mechanics of the simple set being “enormously satisfying” and of course the music. I was just beside myself and felt a profound sense of confidence and joy. This specific feedback from these brilliant puppet artists was invaluable. I had surpassed my goal of just getting something turned in and felt so proud of the work I had done just with my two hands over the course of 48 hours. Thanks Bristol 48hr Puppet Film Challenge and House of Funny Noises. What a pleasure to participate in such a wonderful event!

In second place, was ‘Why am I a Stick’ by NonSuch Productions. An epic adventure where a man wakes up and turns into a stick! We follow his journey in solving the mystery of why he is a stick and how he might return to his human form. A bit like Freaky Friday! Existential and funny, with lots of charm and a lovely fly. Let’s hear from Jennifer Sinclair, one of Nonsuch production’s puppet creators and wranglers.

NonSuch Productions

What gave you the idea to turn a man into a stick?

The inspiration for the film came from many different places, and the storyline itself was inspired by the prompts of the Challenge. Stickington (the name of our lead character) however, was created because of a picnic. We were on a post-lockdown, two-household, socially-distanced picnic and were discussing the upcoming challenge and what we might do. Somebody mentioned that it might be difficult to get puppet-making materials with the restrictions still in place and so we were discussing what household items might make good puppets. We then chanced upon a stick that looked a bit like a face and the rest is history! We had our protagonist and after a long night of brainstorming, storyboarding (and some wine!) after the announcement of the prompts at 7:00pm on the Friday, we decided to send our stick-man on a journey of self-discovery and adventure!

How did you get involved in the challenge?

We heard about the Challenge from some friends in the Bristol Puppetry community and thought it sounded like fun (and it was!). We aren’t professional puppeteers, but love to be creative and make things together and we really enjoyed making the film and seeing all of the entries!

Which element of the challenge was the most fun for you?

Being together and making something we are proud of. There were times that things didn’t work how we wanted or we felt like we were running out of time, but throughout we were laughing (even ruining takes because we were giggling!) and enjoying working collaboratively. Having limited time and resources is challenging, but necessity is the mother of invention and the Challenge gives you an opportunity to really flex your creative muscles, think on your feet and work together to get things done.

NonSuch Productions

And the winner was… ‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siún! A unique and dreamy film with a porcelain doll protagonist who falls to her death whilst sweeping. She ascends through a glittering spacey scene as we all reflect on the concept of time and the fragility of life. Here’s what Bear had to say about his time doing the 48hr challenge.

‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siú

Can you describe the concept of The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep?

The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep is about not letting the day to day get swept away. 

How did you manage your precious 48 hours?

On the first day we brainstormed lots of different ideas. It wasn’t until the second day, when we started making things, that it all came together. We both had different roles so we could work on different things to save time and it was a lot of fun working together too. 

What advice would you give to future competitors?

Our advice would be to crack on and start making and trying things out, but don’t panic if after 24 hours you still don’t have anything. Allow the story to change and use what’s around you to inspire ideas. Use the prompts to shape the story and try to think outside the box and include them in as many ways as possible. Make it your own style, because every single film last year was so unique and it was amazing to see them all. You’ll have a great time!

‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siú

If you fancy having a great time making your own puppet film in 48 hours, then lucky for you, there’s still time to sign up! And you can also watch last year’s films for inspiration.

The Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge will run this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th, and is open to people of all ages and backgrounds, from absolute beginners to seasoned professionals. You must register in advance to join in with the fun and registration closes at 12:00pm (BST) on Friday 27th August. The Challenge is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed.

This years Festival is 11th – 12th September, 2021, with timings and viewing platforms to be announced! The Finale will be screening at We The Curious in Bristol on Sunday, 12th September, 2021, at 7:00pm (BST).

For more information about visit bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk

 

The Legend of Jan Tregeagle: An Interview with Simon Tytherleigh, Odd Planet Studios

Odd Planet Studios is based in Devon and was founded in 2013 by Simon Tytherleigh and Leon Cauchois, with a mission to make high-quality stop-motion animations. Their latest stop-motion puppet animation project, ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’, is an exciting retelling of a classic Cornish legend. Amy Baker caught up with the film’s director, Simon Tytherleigh, to find out more about the production of this folktale from deepest, darkest Cornwall.

Still from ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’, directed by Simon Tytherleigh

The Legend of Jan Tregeagle is your most recent film venture. What’s Jan’s story?

In one of the classic legends of Cornwall, Jan Tregeagle is a corrupt and greedy magistrate. A vision of Hell prompts a change of heart, but too late. The folk of Bodmin rejoice at his death, until by mistake he is summoned from his grave. What is now to be done with this wicked man? Should he ever be forgiven? Will the Hounds of Hell catch him? (Answer… you’ll have to watch the film!)

Still from ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’, directed by Simon Tytherleigh
Still from ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’, directed by Simon Tytherleigh

What stage is the production at the moment? 

We have about 20% in the can, and the final movie looks like it will be between 17 and 20 minutes long, so an epic in stop motion terms! It moves very slowly, mostly because I want to have plenty of detail in the sets and puppets, and because we are reproducing some recognisable Cornish landmarks. Roos Mattaar in Bristol is doing some of the animating, and there are others on the team, but mostly it is driven forward by me. The film will be ‘coming dreckly’, as the Cornish say!

Watch the trailer for ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’ – coming dreckly!

You’ve also been involved in, SFX makeup, theatre and boating! Do these things feed into your work? 

Completely. I started out doing make-up effects in television, most memorably devising prosthetics for ‘Casualty’ in the early pioneering days. Working on TV and film drama gave me a sense of how to tell a story visually. I have also written, directed, and acted in a number of stage plays, which also taught me important lessons in dramatic construction. As for the boating, I built an ocean-going catamaran from scratch, which I sailed round the UK in 2018. It certainly taught me a lot about construction and materials, but the most important lesson was that persistence and determination win the day on long projects!

What’s next for you and Odd Planet Studios? 

I have designed and built three motion control rigs, the latest using a lot of 3D printed parts and I am keen to make the files available for anyone who wants to build their own rig. I am also trying to pass on some of my knowledge by making YouTube videos. The latest was constructing thatched cottages with papier maché and cardboard, but I am also enthusing about 3D printing as another incredibly useful tool for model makers. I have been 3D printing mouldings and even working door latches for the film!

Test shot of the motion control (moco) rig on set

As for future projects… I can’t think beyond the next scene at the moment!

Interview with Amy Baker


To find out more about Odd Planet Studios, visit the website at oddplanetstudios.co.uk, and catch up with all the latest news, clips and tutorials on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

Under the Sea with Harriett Bradbury

Interview with the Animation Director

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

Under the Sea‘, Sugarmoon’s latest single; an easy breezy love song that brings us some much needed serenity. Warm beach vibes and whimsical dreams of frolicking in the sea or maybe diving to an under water world. The song brings a hopeful reminder of the fun times ahead when there are no more lockdown restrictions. Harriett Bradbury, Animation Director, has captured the song beautifully in her new music video. A band of sea critters performs the song, ‘Under the Sea’, under the sea! The video is an injection of charm with each character showing a distinct personality. My favourite is the crab with his rosy cheeks and tiny bowtie. I can imagine the creatures playing at a prom in a teen movie, they’re all smart and ready for their big show.

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury

This isn’t Harriett’s first film full of characters you just want to squeeze and put in your pocket. Harriett Bradbury’s work often takes cute and funny creatures and makes them feel like real characters with quirks and insecurities. Her award winning film, ‘Love Bugs’ is a great example of this where Dusty the moth goes on a series of bad dates. One fly orders a plate of poo at a fancy restaurant, another slaps Dusty in the face for looking at her glowing behind (firefly). Harriett’s films are thoughtfully put together from the idea to the design to the performance. Every detail creates a world in which humour, warmth and story are at the centre.

Tell us about yourself and the work you do.

I am a stop motion filmmaker based in Bristol and currently working as a junior compositor at A Productions Ltd. It’s definitely tricky balancing personal projects alongside a full time job, but I try to develop them whenever I can. I enjoy every step of the filmmaking process, from writing to post production, and get so much gratification seeing a project grow from a tiny spark of an idea to a fully formed film. Although animation feels incredibly tedious when you’re in the midst of it, seeing something come to life at your hands is magical and worth the slog.

Although I would consider myself a stop motion filmmaker and a bit of a generalist, puppet design and fabrication was my first love. Anyone who has seen my work will know I have a real soft spot for anything anthropomorphised. Aesthetically, I enjoy working with low tech materials and don’t think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money to make something effective. Plus, there is something very charming about things that look like the material it’s made out of – as if you’re reinvigorating the life of an inanimate object.

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

What led you to puppet animation?

I’ve always been more inclined toward puppet animation. Working in 3D space makes way more sense to me and I love the tangibility of stop motion. I’ve always had an active interest in theatre, puppetry, and filmmaking, so it felt like a very natural route for me to take.

Under the sea! Can you tell us about your latest project?

Yes! I worked with local Bristol band, Sugarmoon to create a music video for their latest track ‘Under the Sea’. The song is so fun and was an absolute pleasure to work with. It took five months to complete in total, including all pre-production work. Luckily, I had a pretty solid idea of what the video was going to look like and so design and fabrication didn’t take as long as it usually might.

Originally, I had planned to make wire armature puppets, but due to time and budget parameters I decided to use paper instead. Previous to this project, I had never really worked with paper or used a multi-plane camera before, so it was definitely a learning curve and has certainly helped me grow as a stop motion artist. Working with paper allowed me to work more illustratively and create something completely different to my previous work. I’ve never been a traditional pen and paper animator, so it was wonderful to design a bunch of 2D characters and still be able to animate them physically with stop motion.

I can’t wait to share it with everyone! The track is so joyful, it’s impossible not to smile when listening to it. The video definitely reflects that exuberant spirit, and I feel grateful that I got to work with such great material. The video was released on the 2nd April and you can also hear the song on Spotify.

Behind the scenes of Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

Do you have any big creative influences?

I have a very eclectic taste in art and film and so find myself influenced by so many different sources. Even so, I find the bulk of my ideas are based in comedy; especially deadpan or absurdist humour. There is so much to be said about the power of making people laugh, and it’s something I will always strive for with my work. I’ve loved the poems of Spike Milligan since I was a kid, so he immediately springs to mind as someone who has been very influential to me.

Any future animation plans?

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

I have a couple of collaborative projects in my peripheral vision, but I can’t really talk about them yet! Other than that, I have lots of ideas bouncing around for future short films and I’d love to use paper animation again, but nothing set in stone. I’ve also been thinking of ways I can set up a shooting space at home but nothing has come to fruition yet. Basically, there is so much I want to do! If I can continue creating my own work around my 9-5, I will be a very happy woman.

What are you looking forward to as restrictions ease?

I really miss going for a pint after work on a Friday. I have everything crossed that we can have a more sociable summer and reunite with the friends and family we haven’t been able to see for the last year. There have been too many missed birthday celebrations and two of my closest friends had to postpone their wedding. That will be a right knees up when it comes around!

Keep up with Harriett and Sugarmoon on Instagram. Listen to the track on Spotify

Interview by Amy Baker

Another Quarantine? Interview with Astrid Goldsmith from Mock Duck Studios

Interviewed by Amy Baker

Astrid at work on ‘Red Rover’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

Mock Duck is a delicious canned meat substitute originating from China. Astrid Goldsmith is the founder of Mock Duck Studios, an award-winning stop-motion studio located in her garage in Folkstone, England. The studio has brought many delights into the world; Morris dancing badgers, sci-fi squirrels, even aliens! Whilst her settings and creatures are otherworldly and a little eccentric, the themes running through her content are often rooted in real-world issues like Conservation and Brexit. Astrid and her team craft enchanting worlds with stories that are thrilling, emotive and meaningful. How does she do it? Let’s find out!

Tell us about your garage!

It’s an old coachhouse, which is the ground floor of our house, we live above it. It has very draughty double doors and an original flagstone floor, which unhelpfully slopes downwards towards a drain in the middle; so you have to be careful not to drop anything that might roll. That drain is probably full of lost puppet eyeballs. I’ve divided the space in two with a big blackout curtain – the front half with the window is my workshop and the dark back half is where I animate. This all makes it sound very grand and organised, in reality it’s a tiny, chaotic space full of tools, tripods, lights, backdrops, set walls, furniture, polystyrene, and of course lots and lots of puppets gathering dust, all staring at me accusingly. 

Still from the film ‘Quarantine’ 2018. Mock Duck Studios.

The subjects of your films are always wonderfully wacky; Morris Dancing Badgers, Sci-Fi Squirrels. Where does your inspiration come from?

The initial ideas for my films always come from the news. I’ll read an article or hear an item about something that strikes me as curious or unjust, and start thinking about it from different angles. I started writing Squirrel Island after reading a series of articles about conservation policies to protect Britain’s endangered native red squirrel population – which included sterilising and shooting thousands of grey squirrels in the borderland territories. When I thought about the experience of an unsuspecting grey squirrel in that situation, it immediately suggested themes typically found in sci-fi action thrillers.

With Quarantine, I saw a report about proposed plans for post-Brexit pet travel and animal imports, predicting that the South-East’s existing kennels and quarantine centres would be overrun, and new facilities would have to be built to accommodate the numbers. I began to imagine what kind of animals would be kept in these new facilities, and what the impact would be on the surrounding habitat. I live in Folkestone, where the Channel Tunnel terminal is, so I didn’t have to look too far to see where these sites might be. Once you start thinking about Brexit, and tradition, and British animals, it’s only a hop skip and jump to writing a film about Morris Dancing badgers!

Still from the film ‘Quarantine’ 2018. Mock Duck Studios.

Your film ‘Quarantine’ came out in 2018 but has re-emerged this year with more success; what’s that been like?

Well, I’m delighted that my film has found new audiences, although, I would rather it hadn’t taken a global pandemic for that to happen! Over the last year, I have received so many emails and messages from people who had just discovered it, and I recently learned that it was the third most-watched free film on BFI Player in 2020, which is incredible.

As any animator or any creator of a long-term project knows, you spend months or years of your life thinking and designing, and working on something, but once it’s released into the world, it belongs to the audience. Everyone will bring their own interpretation and sometimes even global events will change how audiences will receive your work. I certainly didn’t know in 2018 that everyone would have their own experience of being ‘quarantined’ in 2020, but I’m glad that the badgers have been keeping people entertained in lockdown!

Still from Edwin Burdis’ ‘Beautiful Domes’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

You’ve recently worked on projects for bands; Blossoms and Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard! How has it been animating for them?

Those projects were collaborations with creative director Edwin Burdis, who works in a unique way with bands and is tons of fun to collaborate with. He writes the initial idea, hands it over to me to animate, then the bands write or improvise the dialogue around the action, or the two are put together in the edit. The whole process feels quite free and organic, which is the opposite of making most commercial work or my own films, which are always carefully storyboarded and planned down to the last detail, with animatics already in place so you know how it’s going to work in the edit. I think in a way these projects have revealed a new side to my practice, and shown me what happens when you relinquish some control!

The puppet heads and bodies are designed and made by Edwin’s sister Joliande, and then I make their armatures, so their aesthetic and range of movement is very different to the puppets I design and make for my own films. So not only is the physical aspect of animating the shots a different experience, but also the mental approach is entirely new, as I’m kind of guessing what the band will say when they record the dialogue for that shot, and guessing what will happen in the edit. It’s always such a nice surprise to see the finished video, and see all the great responses from the bands’ fans.

Set from Blossoms’ music video, ‘Christmas Eve (Soul Purpose)’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

A lot of of your short films have no dialogue, but these projects have loads! Do you have a preference?

I love watching and making dialogue-free short films, as I think they allow both the filmmaker and the audience to use their imagination, explore, and free-associate in a way that dialogue-heavy films don’t leave space for. I studied at Norwich Puppet Theatre for three years alongside my degree, and I love mid-century Polish and Czech puppet stop-motion films, most of which are dialogue-free, and often feature fixed-face puppets. It just shows you that you can express so much with so little. Animation has such an incredible scope for physical comedy, gravity-defying action, or crazy visuals that take you into unknown realms, and often in short films dialogue can feel superfluous or too didactic. In these music video projects, it’s different because the humour comes from a bunch of animals in a pub in Stoke, discussing how to find Santa Claus; or in the case of Beautiful Domes, creating a pastiche of 1970s children’s television. At the moment, I’m developing my first feature film, which will contain dialogue, so I’m exploring ways of combining that dialogue-free puppet magic with fun and characterful speech.

Still from the film ‘Red Rover’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

Can you spill the beans about your shiny new film, Red Rover?

I started working on Red Rover right after I finished Quarantine, with the support of BFI Network. It’s a colonial sci-fi movie set on Mars, about what happens to the native rock-creatures when a drilling rover lands on the planet. It’s puppet stop-motion, with short sequences of 2D animation and a bit of pixilation for the human element, which I always love to throw in. I completed it in June 2020, so it took about 18 months to make. I actually finished shooting it last March, but post-production took a few months longer than planned as it all had to happen remotely during the first lockdown.

The distribution side of things has been quite different too, as many film festivals were cancelled or postponed in 2020. I was quite sad after I had finished it, as it seemed for a while that there would be nowhere to show it! Fortunately, Sitges Film Festival did take place between lockdowns in October, where Red Rover had its international premiere, and won the Best Animated Short Film award. Since then, it has played at LIAF and LSFF, and is now on the Oscars long list. There will be some more festival announcements, as well as some upcoming online screenings, so hopefully everyone can see it soon!

I really can’t wait for Red Rover to be available online! For people who haven’t seen any Mock Duck films, have a watch! It’s the perfect time to escape and allow yourself to be whisked away by lovely woodland puppets with big, round eyes taking us on cathartic adventures. Astrid’s films are a visual feast with a vintage warmth and tales that entrance. There are lots of stop-motion films out there, but I can’t think of many studios that make work that’s as distinctive, high quality, and charming as Mock Duck Studios.

Enjoy a different kind of lockdown, by watching Quarantine!

You can also watch Squirrel Island.

Visit http://www.mockduck.co.uk/

Follow Mock Duck Studio’s Instagram

Interviewed by Amy Baker

Puppets Online: Interview with Ian Woods, Norwich Puppet Theatre

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Scorpion.

Since 1979, Norwich Puppet Theatre has been a precious and rare habitat for puppets and their puppeteers. A place where all sorts can come together and experience the tangible excitement of a puppet show. The pandemic has of course meant that coming together isn’t such a safe thing to do and like many other venues across the world, Norwich Puppet Theatre has had to adapt quickly. Online Puppet Theatre is their shiny new YouTube channel that launched six months ago. With theatre being such a physical and sensory experience, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to convert their entity into online content and keep the magic alive! A series of making tutorials for building puppets/ DIY mini puppet theatres has been uploaded. Sock puppets, rod puppets, paper puppets, shadow puppets… Before you know it, you’ll wake up surrounded! It’s a nice thought that while many theatres have temporarily shut their doors, Norwich Puppet Theatre has caused hundreds of tiny home theatres to spring up. 

The theatre has a 165 capacity main auditorium so there are limits to how many can see a show in the flesh, however the number of views a YouTube video can get is limitless! You can pause it rewind and watch the same bit over and over! Going online means that the theatre is reaching new audiences, including families who can’t afford theatre trips and people across the world. People are now able to access the wonderful world of puppetry whilst being safe and comfy at home.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes is the latest collection of performances. Each one is performed by a different puppeteer in a unique style, devised and performed at home during lockdown. With such a unique form of entertainment it’s probably a relief to parents to see something fresh for their kids after hours of playing on Roblox or Minecraft. The idiosyncratic Roald Dahl, with his silliness and absurdity, is a perfect match with the crafty genius that puppeteers have to offer. Clever poems, wild visuals and kooky characters, an ideal way to escape and shake off those corona blues.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – Cinderella.

A personal favourite of mine is Cinderella, performed by Clementine the Living Fashion Doll. Clementine is a humanette puppet, a combination of small fashion doll puppets with large human, drag queen heads all composited together perfectly. The tiny ball costumes, sparkly sets and sound effects are all fabulous. Who knew a barbie doll drag queen with an oversized head was missing from my life!

There’s something special about every film in the series, they’re all so varied and distinctive using so many contrasting art styles. The DIY nature of them will be sure to inspire people to try out making their own productions. It just shows what can be achieved even without piles of money and equipment. The premieres are popping up weekly on their channel until October Half Term 2020, and all the shows will be available for free to watch and rewatch again and again until 4th December 2020. Get them while their hot! You do not want to miss out. Ian Woods, the manager of the theatre, kindly filled me in on what they’ve been up to and how they’ve been affected since the pandemic began.  – Amy Baker

What was Norwich Puppet Theatre like before COVID?

A building based company creating and touring puppet shows to venues across the UK and to schools in the eastern region. A vibrant creative learning outreach with craft based puppet making workshops delivered to the public at the theatre and into educational settings across (primarily) Norfolk and Suffolk.  A venue to present our own work and also that of visiting puppet companies, and when not used for our prime charitable mission (i.e. puppetry) we accepted hires for local am-dram theatre and dance groups. We also had 8 wedding/civil partnership ceremonies booked for 2020.  As well as being the ‘place to ask’ about puppets, we have a regular trickle of visitors interested in the building in its former role of the church of St James’ for family history searches etc.

How have you adapted to the situation?

On the evening of 16 March when the PM said that people shouldn’t go to bars and theatres, we ‘closed’ all our work – a week before the official lockdown started. Our tour of Beastly Belle ended. Planned schools workshops stopped.  We had a week to arrange for staff to move PCs etc. to their homes and to start working from there.  For the remainder of the month all seven of us carried on ‘normal’ working hours.  From April 1st, four of the seven were furloughed. We then received the £10K hospitality grant. We applied for ACE Response Funding primarily to secure the building costs through to September 2020 but also to enable development of online delivery. Our Foyles capital grant was converted to core costs with very rapid approval by Foyles Foundation. We secured £5K from the Martin Laing foundation to cover core costs and support online product making. A volunteer started making face masks for £5 donation to the Puppet Theatre and has raised over £2500 with gift aid. That financial stability and desire to link with our audiences meant from Day 1 of lockdown we wanted to have a digital online presence and so we created our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube channel. This was a vehicle for online puppet making sessions.  

These pre-recorded sessions were designed to use simple everyday materials – paper, glue, tape, card etc. that could be found at home – to make simple but effective puppets. Our pre-COVID workshops when delivered at the theatre or out and about, always had a huge range of decorating/making materials that we couldn’t expect anyone to have at home! The making workshops were added to with some “behind the scenes” videos of Pied Piper (recorded before the total lockdown) and information on how to manipulate puppets. They were ‘old’ and not specifically ‘made for’ online delivery. 

Zara Goodfellow (creative learning coordinator) wrote to the Roald Dahl Story Company with the idea of making puppet adaptations of his poems. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a reply, and even more so that it was positive. When they had released the rights from Netflix to us, an agreement was reached for royalty-free access to the poems provided the films were free to access and that the exact words were used of the poems. The RDSC had final clearance before the films were released. This free licence period comes to an end on 4th December when all films will be taken down.

The result – 15 unique videos each made by a freelance artist that we would, could or have worked with. This enabled us to trickle-down some of our ACE Response Funding to freelance artists whose income had been eradicated by the COVID lockdown. As part-time furlough came into play we have been able to visit the building more regularly, keep it secure and have been able to host two companies for rehearsals.  Also most recently a partner artist of the theatre was able to present her one woman play to a private audience (max capacity is now 35 but her shows played to 24 and 19 people respectively) with live zoom feed as well. 

With CRF funding we are now able to plan for a season of Christmas performances with social distancing in place. CRF money is subsidising a loss making opening, allowing us to design more intricate online workshops for schools delivery and plan/consult on how we can create and deliver work in 2021 and beyond.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Crocodile.

What’s been your favourite video from the, ‘Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes’ series?

Each video is unique, and has its own special moments, so it would be invidious to select one over the others.  How can you select from the plasticine stop-frame animation of The Lion or The Anteater, the live puppetry of Jack & the Beanstalk or The Toad and the Snail, shadow work of The Cow or multi-role play of Cinderella? Whatever your medicine, each poem is a treat for a cup of coffee moment or even to entertain a child (or two!) 

Have you found that you’re reaching new audiences now, having an online presence?

As we have set all our videos to being child-friendly. We do not get direct comments on the YouTube channel so it is hard to say where we are being watched.  But social media comments do indicate an international footprint. For example, we had a flurry of Malaysian comments on our Sock Puppet making video!  We have been releasing the Roald Dahl videos on a weekly basis but now all 15 are available we can push the boat out to spread the word about them.  Each poem has subtitles available, increasing accessibility and also their use in educational settings.

How can people support Norwich Puppet Theatre?

Socially/spiritually by going to our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube page and enjoying and sharing the videos and link: https://bit.ly/NPT_online_puppet_theatre 

Financially by donating via Total Giving:  https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/donate/norwich-puppet-theatre-trust-limited – this can be a one off or regular payment.

Norwich Puppet Theatre will be 40 on 1st December 2020.  We won’t be able to have the hoped for big gala celebration but the date will be marked to be sure! If anyone has memories of the theatre we’d be happy to hear about them and if they want to make a 40 second ‘memory’ and send that through, we will be working to make a compilation!

Interview by Amy Baker

Tokri (The Basket) – A Stop Motion Short From The Heart

Interview with Director Suresh Eriyat , Studio Eeksaurus

Suresh Eriyat is a Mumbai based director and animator, with an Annecy Cristal Award under his belt and a hefty portfolio of over 450 films! After 8 years of production, Suresh Eriyat with his studio, Eeksaurus have released another award winning stop-motion film called ‘Tokri’ (The Basket). 

The film follows a young girl whose treasured relationship with her Father, (visible by pats on the head, nudges and giggles) is threatened when she cracks his prized heirloom – a golden pocket watch. Suddenly there are no more nudges or giggles. Her only hope is to sell baskets in the streets, try to raise enough money to salvage both the watch and their relationship. 

‘Tokri’ has a remarkably intricate landscape of the colourful and bustling Indian city. Time-lapse style cars wooshing by, all with moving characters inside. It’s impressive for an independent stop-motion film to achieve a set of this scale and quality. No wonder it took so many years. The attention to detail is bordering on microscopic, the folded fabrics on the shelf, the pots and pans, characters costumes and individual hairs. It’s these details that give the film a time and place, you know instantly where you are. The nuances in movement and facial expression add realism and make the characters feel human. 

The film’s conclusion is totally moving, earnest and warm, showing the beauty of unconditional love. It’s a touching portrait of the grief that comes with family disputes and the overwhelming relief of forgiveness. Sure to melt the coldest hearts and bring tears to the driest eyes. 

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How did the idea for Tokri come about?

The film is partly fiction, partly real. In India, people beg and come and knock at your car, and they keep shoving their products at you or asking for money.  When I was driving to work one morning in 2008, this kid came up with this basket and I think I shooed her away. It was pretty much routine, I think everybody does it. But the fact that she was wearing a school uniform haunted me.  I also have a daughter who would have been about six at the time who just about started going to school.  For the rest of my drive I began to feel terribly guilty.  I thought why not develop this experience that I’d had into a story?  When I told this story to people, I  could see that they had moist eyes and they were reacting in a very different way, and that created conviction in me to go ahead and do this film. I decided to tell the story in a very subliminal way where you portray a sensitive story and maybe you start seeing these people in the people you encounter in everyday life.

Empathy is something that I wanted to convey to Indian audiences. The need for us to be empathetic to the needy, giving a little part of what you have, to support someone emotionally, physically.  That really was the intent of making this film.

Indian family values are unique. The unique emotional bonding within the Indian family with unsaid feelings for each other, the unconditional love for each other without repeatedly saying ‘I love you’ to one another to reaffirm, the concept of respect for elders and their feelings and vice versa, all these are absolutely not something the Western audience relate with.  In India people are driven by their hearts rather than heads. This is why Indians lead a content life despite so many shortcomings.  Life here is not transactional.  One of the reasons why the people in the West always admire India despite the filth and the poverty on the surface that precedes the deep ethos and values, is probably because of these aspects.

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Could you tell us about your studio, Eeksaurus?

After 11 years of setting up and running Famous House of Animation in collaboration with the legendary Famous Studios, we felt the need to expand the canvas beyond advertisements and animation services related work we had been undertaking. To work in a medium agnostic way, exploring and experimenting with mediums, formats and platforms where stories played a bigger part than briefs.  Of course being a designer first, working on briefs was important to us for impacting a larger audience. The ads kept rejuvenating our problem-solving prowess and pushed us to outdo ourselves creatively to come up with unique solutions using the art and film medium for making the impact of a brand, a message or a product stronger. But our team’s collective dream to create films from stories for the love of pure cinema was something that pushed us to create different self funded projects at Studio Eeksaurus.  We felt Studio Eeksaurus should change the perception of animation film making in the country by sticking to Indian stories and making them enjoyable for Indian audiences. Nilima and I were very sure that the ethos of our company should be to constantly raise the quality of storytelling using animation.

Mixing analogue ways of working in the digital age is something that we fancy a lot. This interest has created various strange synergies and serendipities in our work resulting in amazing outcomes. With more than 200 films and 150 global awards to its credit, Studio Eeksaurus clearly strives towards quality content. When we won the first ever ANNECY Cristal for India in 2015, we did not know that we were embarking on a territory unexplored by none in India. We have seen many who are inspired by our work and our journey, and taking risks by doing great work by funding themselves and making Indian animation proud. 

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The film took 8 years to produce, what kept you going through the production process?

First of all the film was self-funded. So we couldn’t dedicate the assigned team only for this project as it would call for us blocking a certain amount of funds for this. In the case of Tokri, as and when we got a commercial project that paid us, we paused work on Tokri,  in order to sustain ourselves. The team always took a while to get back on the track when we resumed again. This resulted in the escalation of time and hence the budget. The biggest learning from this exercise is to dedicate a team for a stipulated time within an allocated budget for a project like this. If we had worked on Tokri at a stretch we would have still taken about 3 years! 6 years we produced just 9 minutes of animation which were mostly the interiors. The more complicated exterior section animation of 5 minutes duration took just 7 odd months including the set making!

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Why did you choose to tell the story from the daughters point of view?

For the daughter the universe is her parents and their happiness. The family is bonded with love and all the shortcomings in their lives are all overlooked because of that. For the father, the daughter’s education is of utmost importance. In my mind he has actually forbidden her from helping her mother even in making baskets as he doesn’t want that occupation to be her future. It is evident in the very opening shot where we see her picking up her study books as soon she hears her father approaching. The father’s story is a self-centred one, mother has other priorities to make both ends meet. The only person who is really affected by the despair at home is the daughter. She is led by the love for her father and nothing comes in between her and the goal. So I decided to see the story from her point of view as she sets off on a difficult path to repair her broken home.

Watch the film ‘Tokri’ (The Basket)

Interview with Amy Baker


To find out more about Studio Eeksaurus, visit the studio’s website at studioeeksaurus.com and catch their latest news on Facebook.

 

It’s going to be O-Clay. Interview with Aardman’s Top Model Maker, Jim Parkyn.

What a treat it was to have been able to talk to Jim Parkyn, whose thumbs and fingers have moulded the faces I’ve watched on TV as a child and now as an adult! Jim’s a highly skilled model and puppet maker best known for his work on things such as “Wallace and Gromit”, “Chicken Run” and now for his Instagram streams of “Community Clay Time”.

It’s here that he demonstrates how to make plasticine models in real time before our very eyes. Viewers send him comments and pictures of their masterpieces for him to share with the world. He can make just about anything! (Interview with Amy Baker.)

Image from instagram @jimparkyn

Image from instagram @jimparkyn

Could you tell us a little bit about your life as a puppet maker and how you got into it?Well!  It’s been a long time. I have been working in animation for 22 years now as a freelance model maker and have worked around the country for various studios, including Aardman Animations.  Over the years I have worked on Chicken Run, Robbie the Reindeer, Wallace and Gromit, Pirates in Adventure with Scientists, Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep, as well as several small series and a string of commercials.

I am now a senior model maker and Aardman Ambassador, as well as running my own very small studio.  In recent years I have worked more in the live circuit, running workshops at schools and universities, festivals and corporate team builds and teaching at the Aardman Academy.

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I know Community Clay Time has been valuable to so many people and families in the lockdown period (including me!). What were your reasons for starting that up? 
The reason I started community clay time was  finding that, faced with no work and being in lockdown, I really missed putting on a show every day and how much I enjoyed sharing what I do and teaching those skills to others.  When faced with what to start with, I thought the reason we are all still here is because of the virus, so let’s start there in a fun and not threatening fashion. Rainbows seemed a natural second step as it was something different to put in your window and a visible encouragement to people as they pass their neighbours houses.

Community clay time has been such a comfort for me. It provides me with structure in a fractious time which I had lost. I have daily interaction with the audience (albeit written on a timeline), which is encouraging and a constant reminder of how lucky I am to be doing what I do, and is also an artistic challenge to create something new every day that people will want to make.

What sort of role do you see arts and puppetry having in the community?
I think that this is an interesting time for the arts and especially puppetry as both seemingly are reliant on a physical audience.  There is a new challenge to find a platform for your story or message and this could be seen as a brave new world of new and exciting avenues for expression.

Puppetry is such a brilliant medium for telling stories and communicating in a way that is unlike any other.  There is a level of interaction between the puppet and the audience that is unique and the challenge now is how to have that using new technology and ways of performing.  I am excited at the  prospect of seeing new projects and how we might share that with a larger audience despite the social distancing.

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Is there a project in your career that has influenced you the most?
The very clear influence for me throughout my career – and is certainly manifest in Community Clay Time – is Creature Comforts.  The simplicity of concept and the purity of the concept is still compelling and something that I return to time and time again.  I think I just like making funny animals!

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Do you have any special hobbies that keep you sane whilst being locked down?
I have re engaged with some old projects I had neglected through workload previously. So I am print making, wood carving and foraging the abundance of wild foods popping up all around us at the moment when I’m not pushing plasticine.  I’m not sure they are special  hobbies but they are certainly a stabilising element in this time.

Wallace or Gromit?
Gromit obvs!

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Gromit!

Join Jim each day at @JimParkyn on Instagram to learn how to make a variety of curious creatures, selected at random on a weekly basis! You can also learn more with Jim and other professionals with courses from the Aardman Academy. Find out more on Aardman’s website: https://www.aardman.com/course/

Poetry in (Stop) Motion: An Interview with Tim Allen

It was a pleasure to interview Tim Allen, an acclaimed British stop-motion animator whose filmography spans far and wide. His character animation and performance skill can be found in well loved films and programmes such as ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Isle of Dogs’, ‘Postman Pat’, ‘Chuck Steel’ and ‘My Life as a Courgette’.  Read on to find out why he enjoys moving small fiddly puppets millimetres at a time!


What led you to become an animator?
Well I’d always loved programmes like ‘Morph’, ‘Chorlton & the Wheelies’ and ‘Wind in the Willows’ as I grew up. As an art student I loved ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ but never realised that was even a career option. Once I discovered there were university courses available that taught animation, I was completely in love with the idea that I could chase this new found dream!

After uni, I spent one and a half years approaching every stop motion company I could find in the UK. I phoned and posted them my showreel, then arranged a visit to show my portfolio of model making work also. I did unpaid work experience at a few places, before getting occasional assistant model making work. I was speaking to as many friends as possible to find out where and when opportunities may be, and who to contact.  My first animation job was offered to me basically because they were happy with the quality of my animation, plus I was super hard working and cheap!


Tim painting a set piece he’d made in his early career.

You’ve worked on so many projects.  What’s been the most enjoyable or challenging?
There are so many! I was of course proud to have been able to work on ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Frankenweenie’, and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. ‘Creature Comforts USA’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’ were a real privilege, as was being Supervising Animator for ‘Magic Piano’ and for Disney on ‘Club Penguin’. The child in me was very proud to do things like ‘Postman Pat’ and ‘Fireman Sam’. I always try to earn and appreciate the chances I’m given. I also love intimate short projects like ‘Bunny and the Bull’ where we had an insane two week schedule and little budget but had a wonderful time working day and night with a small crew, bonding on a unique creative project.

Fox miniture puppets“Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2009 miniature puppets.

What are the key ingredients for successful animated performance?
For me the key ingredient is creating the moment within the film that is required. This is a combination of elements. First and most obviously we must believe the character, that they are engaged with the emotion and thoughts of that moment. Secondly we are also creating a sense of atmosphere as appropriate for the moment in the movie. Is there a sense of urgency, panic, peace, romance, rage at boiling point, etc? The camera angle, lighting, composition, timing to music and more all come into play to enhance this. The shot also has to be timed correctly. You have a limited number of frames to convey what you need to so you keep certain moments efficient to linger on other aspects. It is a refined decision making process. Lastly, and in keeping with the last point, you are directing the audience’s attention to watch and feel what you want them to see, and equally what you want them to not notice. They will be drawn to different parts of your puppet’s body as you highlight eyes, hands and other key details in the same way that a painter designs their composition.

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Photo from the “My Life as a Courgette” 2016 production.

You’re currently teaching workshops on character animation. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I started doing bits of teaching and guest speaking early in my animation career, so I’m almost as experienced at communicating about animation as I am actually doing it. As I found myself being asked to teach character animation more and more, I came across recurring issues that students stumbled into, so my classes kept evolving to best help them reach their end goal of believable stop motion character performance. I’ve found that firstly people normally need a period of time to understand how to control a puppet and focus on balance and human movement, before going deeper into acting and emotions.

This is complicated by the fact that animation takes years and thousands of hours of practice to get to a higher level of proficiency. My problem is I’m normally given just days to enhance a group of student’s work. I’m constantly improving the techniques I use to help the students absorb as much understanding as possible in a short time. It’s a version of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repetition and gradual increases in complexity. Repetition and simplicity is the key to help retain understanding, but I avoid boredom by adding layers of ongoing progression. I love the art of seeing how different people absorb and respond to new information. It is a fresh challenge for me to tailor how I present ideas to each individual.

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“Isle of Dogs” 2018. The animating of the sushi sequence.

Interview with Amy Baker


To find out more about Tim, his work and workshops, visit his website: https://timallenanimation.co.uk/ or join him on Twitter and Vimeo.