Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Animators: Playing God

My transcript of the second episode of The Animators, a 1989 BBC documentary about West Country animators (go here for the first episode). The first half of the episode covers CMBT, the studio behind The Trap Door and Stoppit and Tidyup (along with an unmade feature, tantalising concept art for which is shown). The second half covers Maya Brandt, an independent animator who had recently begun her career with a couple of shorts made for Channel 4; again, concept art for an apparently unfinished film is showcased in the documentary.

Footage of the CMBT studio accompanied by The Trap Door's opening narration and theme song ("Don't you Open that Trap Door")

Narrator: But if you do open the trap door, all you will find are three amiable chaps called Charlie, Terry and Steve, presiding geniuses of a Bristol company called CMBT. The partnership goes back to Speedwell Junior School in Bristol, when Charlie Mills - who was good at drawing things - began knocking around with Terry Brain, who was good at making them. The Trap Door is their most ambitious creation. It's about a chap called Berk, who lives below stairs in a castle with his friend Boni, a philosopher who seems to have mislaid his body along the way, and beneath them, below the trap door, is is a whole collection of downtrodden monsters who spend their lives giving Berk and Boni a bad time.

Footage from The Trap Door, along with its sets and puppets.

Narrator: The Tony Hart programmes for children, made by the BBC in Bristol, gave Charlie and Terry - like so many others - the perfect opening to make their first short animation pieces. The two series of Trap Door, commissioned by Channel 4, allowed them to be disgusting on the grand scale.

Terry Brain: We wanted to do a series where we could have a bit of fun, and also do a certain amount of experimentation, so by having the trap door in it we could introduce a new character in each episode that moved in a different way.

Charles Mills: It's all always kind of been monsters and creepy things and strange things and things getting squashed and puled apart, and generally pretty messy stuff, you know. Who wouldn't like to spend their life playing with Plasticine? The essence of animating with Plasticine, really, is the flexibility of it.

Charles Mills: And If I destroy this worm for a moment - take his eyes out - once you've got a lump of Plasticine nice and warm in your hands, because you're taking things frame by frame, the actual physical properties of the Plasticine as it stands don't actually come into it, but if you can make it look slug-like by just sort of squashing it slowly, take your two frames, then squash it a little bit more, then you're to get something really squirming along really nice and slowly.

Terry Brain: with the main shots where the bugs were everywhere, and Berk walking thorough the middle of them, all we did was pour a load of  Plasticine over the set, and you take a few frames, wiggle it about, and move Berk and you'd have two or three actually animated bugs going across the top, but the illusion is that they're all quite well animated - I hope.

Charles Mills: What we didn't want to do was actually work to a voice that was already recorded, because that would mean we'd be totally rigid as to what we could make Berk say and what we could make him do because of the voice it'd already been mapped out. So we decided that we'll work out what we roughly want him to say, and we'll make him say it - I'll show you in a minute - and then the person who's going to do the voiceovers, in this case Willie Rushton, could actually fit the voices to the mouth. Now, the way that we cam up with for making Berk speak, with his mouth, we just cut out little paper mouths...

Charles Mills: I don't know if you can see that there, that's a little Berk's mouth, I'll get rid of this scunge of him here, and just lift one mouth off and you can see the mouth that was there leaves a slightly impression in the plasticine so you can see where to put the next one, and then pop the next mouth on there.

And if you break down words into roughly where mouths are, I mean like an "oooh" is basically a roundish mouth, it's roughly vowels, then you only need six or seven different mouths to encompass the expressions and you just roughly time them and you think, well, the word "what" is probably an eight-frame word and the word and is probably a six- frame word, it's really done very roughly like that, and Willie, using his amazing skills, manages to say his lines to fit the synch of the mouths.

The other thing that was really nice about filming that way is that it meant that Willie has the opportunity, when he saw the pictures, for the first time, of sort of spontaneous reaction to them, which... I mean, there were quite a lot of script changes made, actually, that were dubbed because of something funny Wilie's said, because he hadn't seen the film before and he was seeing this character waddling about and he'd just think of something that struck him as being funny about the scene and substitute that for out script, it was ever so funny to do, I mean we were in fits most of the time.

Steve Box sits with the denizens of The Trap Door.

Narrator: Everybody does a bit of everything at the Kingswood factory, but many of the models are now made by the most recent arrival here, Steve Box.

Steve Box: Well, some of the oddments over there on the sponge are made out of a substance called Milliput, which is a two-part proxy, it's like green party and white putty that you mix together and leave it to set for about half an hour. And other characters, like this one I've just been working on, it's what I've stolen from my mother's marble collection.

Footage from Stoppit and Tidyup.

Charles Mills: Stoppit and Tidyup we filmed using cutout animation, which is really much easier to do than cel because, say, you don't have to do a drawing for every frame, all you need to do is make a cut-out of your character - this is Stoppit - in paper, and we just cover it with sticky clear film, and then do the same thing for his arms and legs and then you can just reposition arms and legs or different angles on the legs or arms around the body, position him, take a frame, move him to his next position, take another frame and away you go.

Behind the scenes: the Stoppit drawer.

Charles Mills: The reason, one of the nice things about doing it this way is that actually -as with models - you're creating animation under the camera and you don't have to go through a massive amount of planning or anything, you can go in there, get the character, get your hands on it and do it. Great, it's a good way to work. one thing that's handy when you're doing stuff like this is this particular device here, which isn't too expensive - a few hundred pounds really - can record single frames directly into its memory and then can play them back, and that's useful for testing things out before committing them to film. Now this one we did when we were working out Clean Your Teeth's walk, if I load that up you can see what it does.

Clean Your Teeth's walk cycle, shown on a computer.

Terry Brain: Unfortunately, animation is a very expensive process, and TV companies might not pay enough to cover the cost of making the programme.

Terry Brain showcasing the amount of merchandise for the series.

Terry Brain: And that's when you have to resort to merchandise, such as these things, These cuddly toys here, then you also get duvet covers, greetings cards, books, badges, you name it,  they make it. And sometimes it seems that the programme is just an advert for the toys, but that's not always the case, sometimes you need the toys to make the programmes.

Concept art for The Pudding.

Terry Brain: This is our next project, which is going back to model animation, much as the Trap Door was but taking things a bit further. It's called The Pudding and it's an hour and a quarter feature. We've been developing this project for about... must be about four years now, and basically it concerns these two characters, Hoodgurn and Groyle, who land on Earth in a remote country village at Christmastime and find that this thing, the Gert, is pinching the Christmas presents from the village, and it's their job to make sure he doesn't succeed.

Narrator: All they need now is eight hundred thousand pounds. Full-length animation features are enormously expensive, so the knack of persuading people to invest in your efforts is a key skill which Maya Brandt seems to possess. Her work is in stark contrast to most of the other West Country animators. It's not for children, and it's often angry - a personal statement on the world around her.

Footage of Maya Brandt drawing.

Maya Brandt: I started when I was at art college on a foundation course and i made this little film about fruits coming to life out of this basket. and it was a Super 8 film, it was dead rough, because it was just set up in the studio with... everyone kept walking past, bumping the lights, bumping into the camera so it was all jumping over the place, so it looked pretty awful. But it was good fun to do and it just sort of got me started, and later on when I was doing what was supposed to be a graphics course - I didn't actually do very much - we got set this project about birth, marriage and death which are big issues in life. And so I made Funny Valentine then I decided to go into making animation, and it took off in a way that I hadn't expected.

Footage from Funny Valentine.

Maya Brandt: Because it fitted the medium so perfectly, very simple perfect kind of Plasticine thing, even though it's technically quite naff, it just seemed to... because the simplicity of them message and just keeping it together just seemed to work very well. Knowing they're silly little people really, I suppose, but it just worked.

Maya Brandt: I mean, I suppose I consider myself a feminist, but, you know, I'm not going to do something to fit into a particular slot and with that I'm afraid I probably do offend people - go forth an be offended, really, I just think it's good to be truthful and if the truth hurts then so be it.

Maya Brandt: Well, they always come out of direct experiences in one way or another, it's either something that has happened to me or quite often it comes out of dreams, and I keep a dreambook by my bed so that when I wake up I can write down the stuff that comes up and, well, it always starts from something real but then I will work at something consciously that could come from the subconscious, and it's always about things that appeal to me directly and it just comes from the heart, things that do effect me very much emotionally... quite often it comes out of anger and its may way of, my revenge on the world things that I like to do, I reckon, and never did at the time, my way of getting on with it.

Maya Brandt at home.

Maya Brandt: But it always starts with words because the concept of the films is always most important, the message, it doesn't have to have, like, a moral message but it has to say something it has to be about something that appeals directly to me and it always starts with a word, then I start to make a storyboard. It's when they have... it's sort of like a comic book really, but it's the sequence of how the shorts will go, so it's the middle stage on from the words to the pictures before it actually becomes models so it's a guide to shooting and how it will look, that's what you show the commissioning editor or whoever you're trying to get money off.

I suppose I'm trying to edit on the page first of all, although in fact when I have... I do always shoot more like live action in that it's more free and that I do overshoot more than what I originally intend I suppose, because you can never , or I can never envisage exactly how it's going to look, you know, when I've actually got the models here because it's several processes - it's words to pictures then making it into models putting it onto film and then the sound and it is in fact all quite separate stages.

Footage from Gladis in the Underground.

Maya Brandt: That actually came out of several travels on the underground. I just found that whenever I went to London and spent any time in the underground I just found it so incredibly depressing, something awful would always happen. I'd always witness somebody getting beaten up and attacked, mugged or something and just a very unpleasant feeling always seemed to come out of this place, I mean ,different stations, but it always had that same kind of nightmarish feel, and then it just developed into a metaphor of life I suppose.

Maya Brandt: I do like working with other people, I like the energy of it. Basically, so much of it is don on my own anyway, I conceive the idea on my own, I draw the pictures, I try and work out how it's going to look all on my own. And so it's important to have a spin off other people's energy and ideas during a shoot, and I like working with editors as well, although I could cut it myself it's nice to be able to sit back and, well, order somebody around, of course! But it's just nice to have other people's energy and feedback all the way through the later stages, and working with sound, that's very exciting. I do think sound is very important and underused in animation films because I think it's got all the importance that is put into feature films, because feature films put an enormous amount of effort into their tracks - they've got footsteps tracks, dialogue tracks, and all kids of stuff that they spend ages preparing, and quite often I've found with animation films they just do this sort of plinky-plonky piano and shove it on and that will do. I just think it's really important to spend a lot of time getting the sound right there.

Maya Brandt: When I was working on Gladis in the Underground that was my first experience of a big budget, directing a lot of people and it was very strange, actually, because it was just so different, it turned out on that one that I actually wasn't doing any animation it made me feel that I was not in touch with it, it's really important for me to keep in touch with my work and actually put my guts into it I do feel very passionate about everything I do I love to do drawings, painting, sets construction - well, I do need help with the actual construction of sets and models, basically because I'm not very good at it!

Interviewer: Do you like the control that's inherent in animation, doing it all yourself?

Maya Brandt: Oh, yes, I love that. I think that's what's much more appealing than, you know, real film with actors. you know: you actually create this world. The actors do exactly what you want because you are the actors, you know What I like about it is, I suppose I can put all my acting ambitions or whatever into these little plasticine blobs and bring them to life. But it is, it's playing God, you know it's crating a whole world that has its own rules its, own time, and that's very exciting.

Footage from What's Cooking.

Maya Brandt: That came about, well, a few years ago. A friend of mine was working in this restaurant, so I used to go and spend a lot of time there as well. I used to hear all these extraordinary stories of the goings on, because it was full of gangsters and things that used to go there, and just all kinds of really weird tales, I suppose. And I used to go in there and spend time in the kitchen as well, and watching the cook chopping up all these bits of animals and stuff and I sort of became a vegetarian! And it's just... I think after that I began to watch people in restaurants and just... looking at greed and consumerism, people stuffing themselves, these ghastly people who hung around in this place, I mean, because also, in that particular restaurant it was very close to a casino, and then... but all the local gangsters did used to go in there and they'd be sort of letching over every young woman that came, or every young boy, just sort of anything that moved, slavering over them.


Maya Brandt: Well, at the moment I'm working on a series of five-ten minute ideas that are based on dream images. I mean, they're very much more directly dream images, I suppose than I've done before. At the moment its working title is Menagerie of Dreams and basically it's a series of journeys for different characters.

Concept art for Menagerie of Dreams.

Maya Brandt: They will go through the film and meet different versions of themselves, different characters that are another aspect of themselves, their darker sides in a sense, as though it's a sort of journey of self discovery. Perhaps it's much more more spiritually based  than 've done before, but quite often the characters are meeting themselves as wild animals, there's quite a lot of vicious dogs in there - I mean, they're not at all cutesy.

Maya Brandt: But I think they're much more poetic maybe. I'm going for happy endings but not in a sloppy sense, just in a way of going through something, to go through a dark patch in order to get to the light, you know.

The ending to Gladis in the Underground.

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