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Interview: John Lewis and Janette Goodey on ‘The Story of Percival Pilts’

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At last year’s edition of the Encounters festival we were able to see The Story of Percival Pilts, a wonderfully charming stop-motion tale all the way from Australia (one of my favourite countries for animation production). The story centers around a poem by the creative team John Lewis and Janette Goodey and asks the question “What would it be like to live your entire life on stilts?” For one Mr. Percival Pilts this is a question worth asking.
With funding from the Australian government, the film has a distinct style informed by Janette’s characterful drawings. The sets, puppets and animation proved a massive undertaking for the small crew, with most of the work done by John and Janette themselves. With a long and varied carer behind them, the couple were able tackle most things themselves; the film took three years to create but was well worth the wait.
The delightful story is accessible to young and old alike and has delighted viewers and festivalgoers across the globe. After recently coming back from a tour with the Animation Show of Shows in America, Skwigly were able to catch a few minutes with the Janette and John to discuss just what led to this staggering, home-grown production.

When developing the script where did the idea for the character of Percival come from?

John: Pilts started as a little poem I wrote for Janette when I was visiting with my parents and was away from her. She said she really liked and that it would make a really good animation. It was actually Janette who pushed for it to be made into script. Although she said she liked it, she actually ended up re-writing the entire thing! The only lines that remain from the original poem are “This is the story of Percival Pilts, a man who’s lived his whole life on stilts” – everything else has been developed and changed from there. I didn’t realise at the time I was taking on the rhyme master!

The style is very original and charming, how was it developed?

Janette: One of the things that influenced the style was a particular way of drawing in 2D that is, in part, the way I have developed not being able to draw certain things in certain ways; I have a short hand for the ear which is a little spiral, and all my characters have their eyes off-centre, so that’s sort of a starting point. You can’t directly translate that kind of thing into three dimensions without making it grotesque, so John did a really beautiful job interpreting it.

John: Because of the asymmetrical nature of the drawings, one eye’s always offset and bigger than the other, which looks great, but when you sculpt that it looks a bit scary, so we had to get it back to the charm and fight to keep the same spirit.

The film has a great hand-finished and rich feel to it, were there any other processes of the production that you were particularly excited about or proud of?

Janette: We like to solve problems as they occur and we don’t necessarily know how we’re going to do anything, but one of the things I really wanted for the costume and the feel of the film was that things didn’t look too ready made, and they where at the right scale. For example, with the costumes I couldn’t find anything that was right in fabric shops, so I ended up doing all the materials with the combination of making my own designs in Photoshop, printing them out on to quilter’s fabric, then using an awful lot of dye and tea and various other things to age them and make them look right.

The Story of Percival Pilts (© Finickity Pictures)

Can we nerd out for a little while about some of the processes involved with the film, as it is a truly stunning piece of work – something that has been driving me mad is how you created the water for the sea in the Sinking Sisters scene?

John: There’s always lots of ways of doing it and I experimented with ways we’d tried it before. On Mary and Max we had a giant sheet of clear plastic with a lot of KY jelly under it,but that wasn’t what we were looking for in this film. So we did a similar thing, we took a big sheet of plastic above the table with a ten centimetre gap and that was just tipped back and forth with a robot, so I worked it out in-camera, just tipping it back and forth with my hands. Then my DOP, who built all the motion control rigs and even designed the software himself, built a little tipping rig. It’s flexible plastic, and because it’s not a perfect surface the reflection creates the ripple effect.

How long did you work on the film?

John: It started out that we were meant to be spending a year making the film with funding. After we finally got into the studio I worked for about two or three weeks when Janette came in and told me she was pregnant. So the one-year production became a three-year production with quite a lot of disruption in between! So it’s taken up a big chunk of our life among other things.

Janette: To be fair, when we were working we were working fast and hard. Just a lot of other things happened. It’s been a long journey.

How many individual puppets and sets did you have to create for the film?

Janette: You know, we’ve never actually counted them…

John: It must be around thirty. A couple of them we recycled by switching their heads, which was the original idea, that we would be really economical and one character would play about ten roles with different heads, but as the designs developed we wanted all the characters to have very distinctive looks and patterns, so one would wear checks and another stripes and they were these different, strong colours. It became clear we weren’t able to recycle the characters, as if one had a stronger design you’d see when it was re-used.

Janette: There were a few with an added coat or something so we could recycle those. We also got better at making them as time went on, there a lot more characters sculpted then appear in the film because we just didn’t like them.

The Story of Percival Pilts (© Finickity Pictures)

Were you the only animator on the production?

John: I animated everything. We did have a lot of help in small amounts, but the budget wouldn’t allow us to hire anyone full time. So we had a set builder (Craig Fison) for about 10 weeks and a costumer (Felicity Hardy) for 3 weeks, plus sound and things like that, but the DOP (Gerald Thompson) was great because he came in whenever he was needed. Then Janette and I mostly built everything; it was very small team. If we could’ve afforded to have a big team it would’ve been nice, there’s a lot more satisfaction from working with lots of people. Also when we did employ people they weren’t often actually working in our studio, so the guy who built armatures was working in his studio and the costumer in hers.

Janette: Or medium size. I think that would be our ideal scenario if we did it all over again, but I think the main thing is not really making the production with just the two of us.

How did you secure the initial funding to create the film?

John: Australia has – or rather had – a reasonably good funding situation. It started out originally funding around 3-4 animated films a year, but by the time we got the funding for this film the funding had gone up but they were only funding 3 a year, then two. Now I don’t know if they’re specifically funding animation anymore, so we’ve been very lucky. Quite a lot of good short films have come out of Australia because of government funding.

How has the festival and audience response been for the film?

John: Our best audiences have probably been in America. We’ve also won quite a lot of awards in Lisbon, there’s something about the poem that translate really well into Portuguese. It being seen as a kids’ film was surprising to us.

Janette: The biggest surprise to us is it’s been absolutely pegged as a children’s film, which is not the way I interpreted it myself.

John: We were aware we were making something that was accessible to kids, but we never sat down to make a kids’ film. We never compromised or said Oh no, that’s no good for kids, we just made a film that worked best for the story. However not only has it largely been seen as a film for kids, but we’ve had it outright dismissed by festivals as “just for kids”. So it’s less likely to get into the main animation section of a festival. I remember when I was a student, constantly having to say “Animation isn’t just for kids!”, and now I find myself having to say “Just because it’s for kids doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy it as an adult!” There’s a sort of immaturity in some adults that they can’t take something seriously as an art work if it is perceived as being made for kids.

The Story of Percival Pilts (© Finickity Pictures)

How did you first get involved with stop-motion?

John: I don’t know – in some ways this film is about how Percival makes a decision one day and sticks to it for the rest of his life without justifying why. Sometimes I feel like that as a stop-motion animator. I became interested in stop-motion and puppetry watching documentaries like Movie Magic when I was in high school, and then went to study Multimedia with the idea of going into computer animation, but my university didn’t have computers that were capable of doing 3d animation until about halfway through the course. So whenever assignments would come up instead of using Flash I would use puppetry and stop-motion, teaching myself those skills. So that just stuck, and whenever I came up with a film it always seemed like it would be a better stop-motion film then a CG film.

Janette: I did painting and design when I finished school and basically have always been a jack of all trades and master of none, which is ultimately perfect for stop-motion. I entered animation a little bit by doing backgrounds for children’s shows in Photoshop when I was about 30-31, then I got a little but frustrated with having no control and just making pretty skies and trees. I did study animation for a year and made a film during that year in my early 30s, which then got into Annecy and other places, which is how I met John at the Melbourne Animation Festival. So I came to it from a different direction. But stop-motion is absolutely perfect for someone that’s interested in a little bit of everything.

I know you also worked on Adam Elliot’s feature film Mary and Max, there seems to be some links in terms of story and storytelling between the two – would you agree with that?

John: I certainly learned a lot from Adam, even in different approaches of tackling animation. He doesn’t really consider himself primarily as an animator but more of director and a storyteller, yet working with him you can’t help but absorb different values, including the idea of doing everything in-camera. I was always trying to say “Can’t we just fix this in post/” and he was always pushing for it to be in-camera, and now I’ve completely come over to his camp.

What’s next for Percival and Finickity Pictures?

John: Percival is finally winding down, we’re just at the point now in which some short films, TV series and children’s books ideas are starting to reach a stage of development where they might become something. We also have teaching and occasional commercial jobs to keep us busy. To be a short film maker takes a sort of wilful amnesia and optimistic denial. We have to wait until we’ve forgotten all the struggles of Pilts before we decide to it all over again.

For more on the film visit the official site at

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