Friday, 21 September 2012

The Animators: Kitchen Table Kinema

In 1989 BBC West made a three-part documentary series called The Animators, focusing on animators of the West Country - both professional and amateur. As the series is a brilliant snapshot of the animation scene as it existed at the time I have decided to post a complete transcript.

The first episode, Kitchen Table Kinema, profiles Aardman Animations. But this is a quite different Aardman from the one seen in more recent documentaries: the series was made before the studio found runaway international success with Creature Comforts and A Grand Day Out, neither of which are mentioned here even though they were presumably in development at the time.

Instead, the episode focuses mainly on Morph, Animated Conversations and the studio's work in advertising; the last few minutes of the half-hour programme are devoted entirely to a now-forgotten advert for the Manchester Evening News. It's a great look at the renowned company's humble origins.

Footage of a zoetrope.

Narrator: A hundred and fifty five years ago, a brilliant but now forgotten man from Bristol - W. G. Horner - invented one of the first devices to show a moving picture: the zoetrope. A series of separate drawings is seen through the revolving slots n the drum. The brain, which is tolerant of the missing part of the movement, joins up the gaps to produce a lifelike illusion. Today, Bristol has a flourishing animation industry, with an extraordinary range of talent. In three programmes, we search out a secret band of men and women still in touch with that original magic.

Footage from an unidentified animation, possibly one of Aardman's Vision On segments.

Narrator: Aardman Animations is having a production meeting. Their chief animator is Peter Lord, one of the firm's co-founders, with David Sproxton, the lighting cameraman. Aardman is the largest animation company in Bristol, and it's become very successful in the world of advertising. Like many other West Country animators Sproxton and Lord began making short pieces for BBC children's programmes. At first, Aardman's achievements - and their fees - were small, but now their expertise is recognised by a growing list of clients.

Narrator: Perhaps the ultimate accolade is simply a letter. It says, "your work is great, people here are awed by it." It came from the Walt Disney organisation.

Footage from a Morph short and the Sledgehammer video, intercut together.

Narrator: The character on which Aardman's success was built is an amorphous ball of brown Plasticine called Morph. His ever-changing shapes and antics have delighted young viewers of a succession of television programmes, shaped and hosted in Bristol by Tony Hart. Their work now extends from the simplicity of Morph's world to the high-tech trickery of Peter Gabriel's pop video Sledgehammer.

Footage from an early home-made short by Lord and Sproxron.

David Sproxton: Pete and I were regular schoolboys, and we spent quite a lot of our weekends and our holidays playing around on the kitchen table with a Bolex strapped to a column, doing stuff with chalk drawings and cut outs out of Sunday supplements. Absolute nonsense, we'd sort of half script the things, and then after about, you know, eight hours and about two and a half seconds of film time, we'd get bored of the script and just sort of become more anarchic - which is the classic flaw that you make when you start. We never planned any music, but we did find that a lot of Charlie Parker's numbers fitted what we did very well, mainly because it's very up-tempo and it was slightly quirky, that bebop sound.

Footage from the original Aardman clip.

David Sproxton: And then we got into doing a show called Vision On, and we came up with a character - which is actually cel animation, it was cel and painted - and he was like Superman, but a dope. And he was an anti-hero, and the sort of man that fell down holes that he couldn't get out of, and we called him Aardman, as in "aardvark", for want of a better word. And Vision On actually bought this fisrt sequence we'd ever done in our lives, that went for the tune of something like twenty-five quid.

Peter Lord: Vision On was a BBC programme for deaf children, which was a lovely idea because it was all... everything was visual, it was just music and no speech. And that came from Bristol. We started working for it, I suppose about 1970 or something, ages ago. And Dave and I were at school, and the whole essence of the programme was they used people who were cheap, basically. And, like, one guy was a postman, and there was a lady working behind the couch in the living room. And we were working on the traditional kitchen table, which in fact is still in the studio somewhere today. Obviously non-professional people, enthusiasts, and so I suppose they cashed in on people's enthusiasm, but made a good programme, and it was what we wanted to do.

Footage from an unidentified animation, possibly one of Aardman's Vision On segments.

Peter Lord: So anyway, that was Plasticine animation, that's where we started using Plasticine to animate with, which at that time was a revelation. I mean, we had no model to follow, we'd never seen it done before, and we just worked out it ourselves because it was so simple, because it was the most obvious thing, you know, you could pick it up and model a figure so we sort of worked out Plasticine animation for ourselves, if you like. And Morph is a sophisticated version of what we were doing for Vision On, although, in fact, I say sophisticated, everything about him is actually designed for economy, because he's very lightweight and he's all one colour. I mean, in Plasticine, the last thing you want is a Plasticine figure with striped trousers, for example, which would be hell. So Morph is one colour, an easy colour to find, you know and he's the right size as well, sort of four and a half inches high. He's never going to fall over.

Footage from an early Morph short.

Peter Lord: Apart from the fact that now it's always rushed, which is a tragedy, I really enjoy doing Morph. It's like it's a rest cure from commercials, it really is. We kept doing it every year and I really want to keep it going. I mean, financially it doesn't make any sense and people always say, "you're crazy or you should stop or something, but I really don't want to. Also, secretly I have an ambition he'll become, like, the Mickey Mouse of the future. I want him going on, you know, thirty years hence.

David Sproxton: After we came out of college we did more work for the BBC, and one of the jobs we did was two films in a short film which was produced by a BBC producer based on real life conversations, and We did a film called Down and Out and another one called Confessions of a Foyer Girl, which later were shown to Jeremy Isaacs, and he liked them so much he immediately commissioned another five from us.

Footage from Confessions of a Foyer Girl.

David Sproxton: They went out, in fact, a year after Channel 4 went on air, but in about the most ideal slot anybody could want which was nine o'clock at nigh, one a night for a week - for five days - during their first year anniversary week. And the great thing about that slot was that a lot of advertising agencies saw it, and they hadn't seen anything like it in their lives, they hadn't seen what what was effectively it was puppet animation - very realistic voices, and with a little bit of message to tell, quite a sophisticated look really, and they immediately jumped on what was a new-look-type bandwagon. And we got into, well, the commercials atlas for want of another word, and it's been fairly steady from then on.

Behind-the-scenes footage from a Lego advert.

Narrator: Aardman animation began on a kitchen table. With success they've invested in extremely sophisticated equipment and expanded into a large studio. As lighting cameraman, this is very much Dave Sproxton's realm, and he has the same desire for control as any animator. He has to combine the skills of still and moving photography, so that the lighting of sets and models - often in very small areas - accommodates the subtle changes of objects moving frame by frame, and concentration often has to be sustained over twelve to fourteen hours at a stretch. And what's all this perfection in aid of? Anything from an international charity to a pack of sweets or a bottle of bleach.

David Sproxton: You know, when we first started it was three lamps - one for each side, one at the top. And I learned quite a lot when I was at college, I did quite a lot of theatre lighting there and about what looks best because I had time to play with fifty or sixty lanterns up on a show at any one time, so I taught myself quite a lot then. Learnt the hard way, because I never really had any instruction, and at college I could never find any books on it. And very much you got your own experience, I mean, the great thing about this sort of production is that you can experiment a little bit more, see how far you can push it. On commercials you tend to have to steer a slightly steadier line because the agencies want something that's clean and fresh.

Footage from Big Dom, a Domestos advert.

Peter Lord: The commercial work came a long time after Morph, historically. I mean, it was probably eight years later before we got commercial work, and we were very pleased to get it, and it's great, but it's utterly unlike this, I mean, if I'm shooting Morph I'll shoot twenty seconds a day or something, if I'm shooting a commercial I'll probably shoot four seconds a day. And very basically it's the fact you've got someone looking over your shoulder. I mean, Morph is uniquely pleasant to do, because you're given... it's like being at school, and someone says write an essay about feet or something, you're given one word, and you go away and do it, and there's no more involvement than that,. which I think's wonderful, a real treat. Which never happens with commercial work. You've got a whole pyramid of people telling you what to do. I mean, obviously they come to us for what we do, and are normally very charming bout that to start with, but very often in the end you're very limited to do what they want, basically. Doing it well, I hope, but their story. It 's just a question of being answerable to somebody.

Footage from a Guardian advert.

Peter Lord: People do animate themselves in a funny way, the character they animate inevitably, I think, has a lot of them in it, exactly as if they were actors, it's exactly the same thing. You are, when you're animating, you are an actor, but in this bizarre slow motion way that you're thirty-second performance might actually last over five days, but it is a performance in just the same way. So everything you choose to do, if you're a live action actor, you don't think about it but you choose to sort of waggle your eyebrows and gesture with your hands and all this stuff, that's your performance, and it's exactly the same in animation.

Peter Lord poses Morph as he speaks.

Peter Lord: Everyone always says to me, inevitably they always say you must have great patience, and I don't actually think you need to be patient, because you're thinking too hard, you're concentrating so hard that boredom doesn't come into it. You've got this whole body to animate, all these different bits and pieces and limbs, and you're constantly sort of straining for a given effect. If Morph's doing something that is strenuous, like, yawning is a classic one, or blowing, if he's doing one of those things that involves really straining the muscles in the face you find, when you've finished animating or while you're animating, that all your muscles are really aching, because you're actually doing it the whole time, almost as if you were solidly yawning for half an hour whole Morph is.

Peter Lord: Like an actor, if you're intelligent you can probably play twelve different roles, and it's great fun, it's hilarious if you get to perform three different roles at once. If you've got three characters on the stage, as it were, and they're all acting differently that's lovely, that's a challenge. And you've really got to focus your mind, you shut down all other human activity and you really focus your mind on doing these performances which I enjoy immensely, I love that, that chance to do that.

Footage from Down and Out.

Peter Lord: The only other thing which I think's obvious about it, which other people don't, is actually how simple and accessible this is, Plasticine animation is. Anybody could come in no, to the studio here, anybody, and pick up a piece Plasticine and animate. Now, they can't do drawn animation the same way, because rightly or wrongly they can't draw, so many people feel they can't draw. They wouldn't even start, they'd never produce half a second of animation if they had to draw it. But just by simply making a blob of Plasticine roll around the table, they can see, they can get that extreme pleasure of making something come to life, which it's all about, and that's, you know, a wonderful thing when you first see what you've done moving, so anyone can do that, and I really wish more schools would do it, for example. I think that, like, the Americans and Star Wars and Close Encounters and stuff, that's actually done a huge disservice to the industry because the kids are so terrified, they think it's only for Californians in some immensely complicated artform, when in fact in essence it's so terribly simple.

Footage from a Manchester Evening News advert.

David Sproxton: After Sledgehammer came out we got inundated with offers to do commercials with a Sledgehamer look, but some of them were such a close approximation to the Sledgehammer film that we decided we didn't want to do the same thing again, we wanted to push the technique a little bit further along the line and just really kind of hit the whole Sledgehammer feel on the head. And a few months later a script came along from a Manchester-based agency to advertise their local newspaper. The script was more or less left to us to write, it was really a very nice position to be in. They had a very crude written script but we actually storyboarded it, and the result was the film you've just seen, which was... well, it took forever for us to do, and it was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, and I'll just go through some of the major elements of it now.

David Sproxton: The opening scene was where the lad's in his room, as you can see it's grey and mundane, and he's actually got the newspaper in his hand, flies up, which was substitutes behind this window, and then at this point we wanted to put across the idea of hard news, political news, and we actually went to a model set here, and you've got this big headline of a newspaper across the top. And then we did a sort of photographic process, we actually shot these kind of rioters just outside our studio, reduced them to Xerox type photographs, and registered them up in exactly the same way as you would in cel animation, and pinned them up behind this model character, so you had a very newspapery image, but moving, of a riot scene with policemen and rioters. And then cut straight back over the flash of, like, a grenade going off we then cut back to the studio where we had the chair and the flat and everything else we set up and the back wall painted to match what was on the photographic work, and then real people who are pixilated in, dressed up as policemen, effectively chasing after the rioters.

David Sproxton: And then we literally tore the paintwork on the front layer of paper which is on the flat of to reveal what was painted on behind, and it's a bit like a kind of layer cake. We had several flats made up, which actually had two or three levels of paintwork on them, and they were painted on paper, and you ripped off that paper and you reveal whatever was behind it. So we had to plan well ahead in terms of exactly how we're going to reveal it, at what stage, what set of images should be there. And then the flat was substituted in major cut points. We then made up an awful lot of envelopes, and these were hung on nylons on the set and they kind of rained down in front of our hero to effectively block out the entire screen.

Behind-the-scenes footage.

David Sproxton: And at this point the entire shoot moved up to Manchester and we put the rig on the back of a flat-bed truck with the window behind it on a structure you couldn't see, and this became a cut point to the exterior scene, and if you look carefully you'll see that there's a - that's in the studio, that's the cut-point exterior.

David Sproxton: And we animated all the envelopes towards the camera to reveal Nick, who's the hero, sitting in front of Jodrell Bank, which is a well-known Manchester landmark, and you may wonder why we did the whole scene in camera on location with a truck backing up to Jodrell Bank and Nick's standing in what could be pouring rain, and not just do it with back projection or blue screen or some sort of other matte work, well, we decided very very early on that we'd actually do all the animation in camera, that we weren't going to use, you know, video effects, optical mattes, or harry or anything like that, but everything you see animated was done in one pass through the camera, so that everything there is on the original negative, there's no after-work at all.

David Sproxton: Having said that, I mean, it was a great idea to do it that way, 'cause it was, like, a huge logistical exercise, but but did take us a hell of a long time to do it because every one of those envelopes had to be animated down by hand, all these people had to be told what to do, we lost a couple of days getting up to Manchester and back with all the gear and setting up here again, so all in all the thousand frames which makes up the forty second commercial did take us the best part of a month to shoot. And they were very long days. We tended to start about 8:30 and finish, well, anytime after eleven and the last few days we finished about two in the morning, so it was a long. long chore. I think on average we were shooting about thirty frames a day, which is kind of one scene, almost one scene a day as it rolls on.

David Sproxton: Because it took so long to shoot we didn't actually use a lot of actors and people. Most of the people in these scenes here were other animators or modelmakers, because they were more than happy to stand around for probably about eight hours holding a double bass whilst we animated them. But you man see the sort of logistics we had. Here you've got the HallĂ© orchestra dressed in their tuxes and made up with artificial mustaches and the hair all greased back, and a few frames later, although I think for us it was about thirty six hours alter, you see exactly the same bunch of people but now they're a heavy metal rock band, Tina Turner heavy guitarist, looks completely different. So we had to have the wardrobe ladies and makeup and huge backup, and even the chair had its own kind of wardrobe lady because the chair changes colour throughout. so we had a whole... you see there, it changes colour to colour, so that had its own upholsterer.

David Sproxton: And here we got an old clapped out Ford Cortina, cut it into bits, then reassembled it under camera for the car-selling bit. This is perhaps one of the most interesting pieces in the film because we were trying to connect the crossword puzzle to the sport scene so we thought what'd we'd do is turn it into a crossword puzzle and all the black and white squares they're actually painted on the set at the time as you saw, frame by frame. Nick almost disappears into it and then we thought well, let's do something really crazy, let's turn it into a swimming pool, 'cause it kind of looks like a tiled swimming pool.

David Sproxton: So in another building not far from the studio we built a swimming pool, a big tank out of scaffolding, and painted all these squares on it then lined up all the bits of black on treads in front of the camera and animated them away do they disappeared, and then pumped - I don't know how many gallons of water, but it took about three quarters of an hour to fill this tank up to here with two big firehoses - to reveal the water, and poor old Nick , if you watch his head very carefully, despite the fact that he divers' belts on stage weights, the chair was screwed down to the floor, and he had every conceivable method of holding him down, he still floats about six inches as the water comes up, and this gets us into the sports scene, where again we were shooting outside.

David Sproxton: Very old, tried and tested technique of getting all your mates to jump up in the air at the same time, you take a frame, up in the air and take another frame, 'till they're simply flying across the set and if you look very carefully here you can see the cock saying in, out, in, out in, out as they row across the field, and in fact all it was was a piece of hardboard cut out to look like a rowing aid. And then we got back into the studio and... one of the hardest things was actually trying to find a rather nice racing horse that would actually walk across the studio with us but we found one and a jockey and all the gear and there it is. In fact pixilating a racing horse across a studio in quite cramped conditions as it was was no mean feat.

David Sproxton: By this time it was actually pretty late at night and where the room goes completely bonkers, and I remember we were all very, very tired and it was about two in the morning, and we thought "Thank God, there's only another fifteen frames to go", but we knew it was going to be about another five hours of animation, and as you can see the whole set was designed to fold up and there's a big hinging section down here, and frame by frame we folded up this 16x20 foot flat to reveal the graphic on the other side and a logo comes in, and that was it really, it's a piece of cake.

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