Interviewed by Amy Baker
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Follow Mock Duck Studio’s Instagram
Interviewed by Amy Baker