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Interview with ‘Clangers’ director Joanne Chalkley

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Following its successful 2015 revival, the timeless world of Clangers has again returned to CBeebies this month for a new series of brand-new adventures. Narrated by Michael Palin, co-produced by Coolabi Group with Smallfilms and animated by Factory, the new batch of stories will see the beloved ensemble – Mother, Major, Granny, Small, Tiny plus companions the Soup Dragons, the Froglets and the Iron Chicken – put in a variety of new, sometimes ‘quite noisy’ situations while staying true to the warm tone and stop-motion look that made its original incarnation so endearing. Skwigly spoke to series director and animator Joanne Chalkley from Factory about her career and the challenges of stepping into the established world of a children’s classic.

You’ve had a long and varied career in stop-motion working on some very well known and loved stop-motion characters and films, what do you feel have been the highlights in your career so far?

It is hard to separate out highlights. Almost every new project brings some new high. At Cosgrove Hall Films I worked on a series called Rotten Ralph. It was naughty, funny and so well written that when a new script came in the crew would all read through it together. It was an honour to know Mark Hall a little and I have carried his sage advice with me through the subsequent 20 years.
Hamilton Mattress was my first professional short film and a chance to work closely with my mentor, Barry Purves. I think I produced some of my best animation for him on that project.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride was a big high and a chance to work in London. I went down as an assistant animator but was quickly moved up to full animator. It was both wonderful and terrifying, great high’s but a mass of self-doubt too. I worked on it for just over a year. I got to meet Richard E Grant too.
Creature Comforts USA got me a foot in the door at Aardman Animations. The emphasis was on getting a good performance as opposed to the amount of footage you produced. A rare treat in our cash strapped industry.
I enjoyed my time in computer games. It showed me that creativity can thrive in any format and proved I had transferable skills.
I took a sabbatical from Lego games to work on Wallace and Gromit – A Matter of Loaf and Death for a short time. It was a real high to work with Nick Park. I particularly remember doing a close up of Fluffles, the poodle. Due to her poofy hair, I had to animate her ears from behind with pins. It took four attempts to get the subtlety Nick was looking for.
Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires. Mike Mort’s gloriously funny, gory, rude and irreverent film. I watched the animatic and didn’t stop laughing. Shot on singles and with sculpted faces, it really tested my plasticine skills. I don’t think I have ever had to animate vomiting before.
The biggest high has been working on Clangers, both as an animator and director. There is such affection for this show from all quarters. I feel I have done good work, with wonderful people. It is a very special show. It also allowed me to meet Michael Palin, one of the few people I truly admire. He visited the studio during filming of series one and I was so shy I could barely speak to him. I have since remedied this.

Joanne Chalkley – Factory

With this wealth of experience behind you did you feel comfortable taking on the role of series director?

I love animating and feel lucky to have had such an interesting career so far. Over the years I have taken various creative and supportive roles and always believed that I would make a good series director. I have a passion for storytelling, a lively imagination and a good sense of humour. I am organised, and I communicate well. Directing felt like a natural progression.
After animating on the first series of Clangers I was asked to direct Scream Street Bites, five one-minute films for CBBC and Factory. There are not many female directors in our industry and I have never before been encouraged to put myself forward. I approached Phil Chalk, Managing Director at Factory, and asked to be considered for the vacant director’s position on Clangers series 2. I was a little cheeky and suggested it was about time we had a northern woman directing.

Can you remember how you felt when you heard the series was being revitalized for modern audiences?

I was happily working in computer games when I heard Clangers would be made at Factory. I immediately sent through my showreel and got in by the skin of my teeth. My reel arrived the day before they were making the final decisions on crewing. Clangers was my favourite show as a child and I was a little worried it might be over modernised. I soon realised that the directors, Mole Hill and Chris Tichbourne, had huge affection for the original series and felt it was in very safe hands. Peter Firmin and Daniel Postgate (Oliver Postgate’s son) were both involved from the beginning too. Dan writes many of our scripts, often the more deliciously quirky ones.

What is it like working with such well known characters and how do you deal with marrying what are very traditionally developed puppets with more modern production processes?

Prior to Clangers I had been working in CGI animation for 7 years. I volunteered to come into the studio a couple of days early to ‘get my hand back in’ to stop motion. I tested with Major Clanger and had to keep pinching myself. I don’t think I stopped smiling for six months.
The new episodes are very sympathetic to the 1960s Clangers. Most of the sets and characters are based on the originals. The new puppets are a little more sophisticated, though still hand knitted. We now have all this lovely technology to support us. We can ‘invisibly’ jump and fly and sparkle! Chris and Mole were keen to keep the handmade feel of the original. As much as possible is shot ‘in camera’ including a lot of the effects. The flames shooting out of the Eggbot in Series One are carved from Pears soap and the planet surface dust is wisps of cotton wool. Some of the droplets and sparkles are shot against blue screen and added digitally. It really is marring the old techniques with the new.

The Clangers have their own special language that I’m sure many of us grew up with, how are these interactions scripted – and how is that translated into believable performances?

The Clanger dialogue is fully scripted in English, right down to every sigh and giggle.
As part of the production process Chris (Tichbourne, my Co-Director on Clangers) and I record a guide track for the narration and all additional dialogue. We then record a second version of the additional dialogue as whistles, clucks and soupy gurgles. This is all cut to episode length with the animatic. The editor lays the ‘English’ lines of dialogue in the left speaker track and the corresponding whistles, clucks and gurgles in the right speaker track.
Once in studio we can then choose to listen to the left or right speaker by means of an audio slider on the monitor. There is a half way position, so you can get both simultaneously. This helps the animator understand what the Clanger is saying but also gives a good guide to the intonations of the whistles. It also means that as you walk around the studio you hear yourself ‘performing’ in every corner. Chris’s whistling skills are superior to mine, but I do quite a fine Iron Chicken impression.
With all this in place, we brief the animators on a shot by shot basis. I sometimes act out particular shots. I recently filmed myself trying to fly with 4 helium balloons tied to my waist.
All the final dialogue and sounds are dubbed to picture in post-production. Dan Maddicott, one of the Executive Producers, plays the swanny whistles beautifully (There is a different size and type for each Clanger). The narrator is Michael Palin. At the voice records we sit, pink faced, while Michael watches each episode with our temporary (amateur) narration over the top.

Clangers (Coolabi Productions Limited)

What can we look forward to with the new series?

There are some cracking stories in these next 13 episodes. There are new adventures to be had, new friends to be made, inventions to see, all wrapped up in a tuneful Clanger hug. Be warned, there are a couple of quite noisy episodes coming up.
I think the animation has gone from strength to strength and there are some really beautiful sequences. We have tried to incorporate more physical comedy too. The writers have really embraced the characters and play to their strengths.

And finally who’s your favourite character (mine’s The Iron Chicken)?

My favourite character varies from episode to episode, but I must admit to a particular fondness for the Skymoo’s. The puppets are very ‘huggable’. Within the Clanger world they are majestic and gentle. Tiny Clanger has her very own toy Skymoo that she cuddles in her sleep. I recently turned 50 and was presented with my very own hand-made copy of Tiny’s Skymoo. I treasure it.

Catch all new Clangers on CBeebies every week Sunday – Thursday at 6pm.
Clangers is co-produced by CBeebies, Coolabi Group and Smallfilms with BBC Worldwide for its international channels. BBC Worldwide is also the international distributor for the show.

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