Ruth Walker on new Channel 5 show ‘Toby’s Travelling Circus’
COMPUTER animation is de rigueur these days, but Ruth Walker discovers that old-fashioned stop motion is still thriving in the UK – as demonstrated by a new show on Channel 5
I think it’s fair to say that Freddo and I bonded during our brief time together. How could we not? All those long, lingering minutes spent holding him tight around his slender waist while I toyed with his fingers, stroked his eyebrows … poked his eyeballs out with a cocktail stick?
For all our intimacy, Freddo is only about a foot and a bit tall, made from flexible silicone with a wire skeleton and magnetic clown feet. When he cries, it is with tears of KY Jelly. And if I continued to manhandle him in this way, one of his fingers threatened to break off. Which would have been unfortunate, considering he is worth somewhere in the region of £9,000. (Though, as it turns out, he has plenty of spares and as well as exploring my talents at stop-frame animation, I also managed a short stint in the puppet hospital, conjuring up a prosthetic hand using a Tupperware container full of pink silicone, a makeshift vacuum, a jelly mould and a screwdriver.)
Freddo is a clown, one of the stars of Toby’s Travelling Circus, a series for children starting on Channel 5 this month. He doesn’t speak, but it’s surprising how much you can say with magnetic eyebrows, moveable eyeballs and a strip of stick-on mouths. For an hour we played together, Freddo and I, painstakingly photographing every minute movement – an eyebrow raised a fraction in quizzical wonder, an arm moved back in surprise, a blink in recognition, a manic, cheesy wave. The result was just four seconds of film. Four seconds.
Britain is considered the home of stop-frame animation. From Bill and Ben to Wallace and Gromit and even Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr Fox (both of which were made in the UK by Toby’s makers Mackinnon and Saunders), we are recognised as among the best in the world. And proposed tax breaks – incentives that already exist for feature films – to be introduced next year will give a much-needed boost to the industry, attracting overseas investment and encouraging new talent.
As it is, Toby’s Travelling Circus has been nearly four years in the making, the baby of Komixx Entertainment, whose chief executive and executive director Andrew Cole-Bulgin began his career in Scotland. “I started my first business in Edinburgh, in Gloucester Place,” he says. “Then I moved to Drummond Place, and I bought my first flat at 6 Douglas Avenue. My son, Jake, was born in Scotland – he’s now nearly 15. So Scotland played an important part in my career.”
His background is in advertising and working with brands but, in 2007, he set up Komixx with two business partners. “There were a lot of shows coming in from America that were filling up our television screens,” he says, “and we just thought that in this country we have some of the best animators, composers, producers – we have such a fantastic wealth of talent. There was a gap in the market.
“When I started out I made a big point of saying that, whatever we did, I wanted it made in the UK,” he adds. “I think that’s really important. Often people have to go abroad because of the tax breaks, and that’s why I’m hoping what the government is doing with the new incentives will mean more producers can make things in the UK.”
But his noble intentions hit a stumbling block when the financial crash meant the banks pulled out of funding the project. “At the time I had various countries, India for instance, who were approaching me saying, ‘We can do it, and we can shave off probably a third if not half of the budget’.”
His determination paid off, however, and when the time to hand over the ringmaster’s whip and tailcoat and see Toby move from concept to actual characters, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Mackinnon and Saunders.
“You walk into a place like that,” says Cole-Bulgin, “and you see the lady who cuts up the clothes and sews them, and you talk to the young guys and girls who are making the animatronics, they would work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, not because you made them but because they want to. When you have something that is borne out of a real love and devotion, then you add a company like Mackinnon and Saunders, you can’t help but have a good show in the end.”
Both producer Chris Bowden and director Barry Purves cut their animation teeth at Cosgrove Hall, the company that made DangerMouse, Chorlton and the Wheelies and the Bafta-winning Wind in the Willows. “We have a very long tradition of stop-frame animation in this country,” says Bowden. “You have Aardman in Bristol, Oliver Postgate in Wales (who made Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss), Red Kite in Scotland (Dennis and Gnasher).”
“I think we love it because it’s quirky,” adds Purves. “It’s not as slick as computers. You can still see the hands – the craft is there. Also I think it’s very performance based. Cosgrove Hall’s real legacy was the stories and the characters. Wind and the Willows had amazing actors – people like Michael Hordern, Iain Carmichael, Beryl Reid. To get those voices to do a kids’ show …
“When kids watch it, part of their brain says, ‘Yes, I can touch that. There’s a tangibility to it. As a child, you can almost imagine making it on the carpet. And there is a texture and detail you don’t get with computer animation. That never fails to excite people.”
“You mustn’t think we’re Luddites though,” says Bowden. “We use an awful lot of computer animation as enhancement, and to help us tell the story.”
Even before the first series has screened, Channel 5 has invested in a second series of Toby’s Travelling Circus. “That is almost unheard of,” says Cole-Bulgin. “It was a massive feather in our cap.”
And as more money enters the industry, so it is growing in credibility. Bowden cites the likes of Tim Burton, “who has always carried a torch for animation in feature films” and Laika, which made Coraline and has just finished its latest feature film, called Paranorman. “You also have art house directors like Wes Anderson making Fantastic Mr Fox, which had Bill Murray and George Clooney in it. And that is pretty credible.”
But they have to work had to make it happen. “Each animator has to shoot 11 seconds a day, which may not sound a lot,” says Bowden, “but a feature film might only shoot one or two seconds. We have to do that day in day out in order to complete in time and on budget.”
“It’s a great job – we love it. I love creating these worlds,” adds Purves. Which makes the news that the Dandy, the UK’s longest-running comic, is to finish printing on its 75th birthday, particularly sad.
“I don’t know many animators who didn’t start out reading comics,” says Bowden. “On my sixth or seventh birthday my grandad came back from the newspaper shop with a Disney comic. And that was it. From seven years old I wanted to be an animator. I’m sure people will have had the same reaction from a Dandy or a Beano or any of those comics. There’s something that lights a fire in your head that makes you want to recreate what you see. I think that’s horrible news. Don’t do it, DC Thomson.”
• Toby’s Travelling Circus begins on 15 September, Milkshake!, Channel 5 (www.tobystravellingcircus.com)
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