Director Layla Atkinson noted, “ Putting all your eggs in one basket and stepping off a cliff while exhilarating is also quietly terrifying” This perfectly sums up the creative direction behind Trunk’s latest project. The London based animation house has created a video for national treasure Shirley Collins’ (MBE) new album Lodestar, her first for 38 years. The internationally acclaimed folksinger’s version of “Pretty Polly” is set in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1700s. This beautiful ballad, which she discovered with Alan Lomax in 1959 during a tour of North America, set Layla and Trunk on a journey that would require turning a mountain of cardboard and timber into forests, meadows, clouds and rolling hills, building a film set, bringing in tons of camera equipment and packing Trunk’s small studio with eighteen animators, scene movers, puppeteers, lighting and camera operators on the hottest September day in the last 100 years.
Shirley had set only one stipulation within the brief; she wanted the video to incorporate a very special kind of puppet, a jig doll. These puppets come to life when jigged on a vibrating board and have been popular street entertainment for hundreds of years. These dolls fixed not only the look of the video but the spirit and direction that it would take. Layla notes “ My initial thoughts were to shoot the puppets on green screen then add in the backgrounds using After Effects but the prospect of spending a chunk of the summer sitting in a hot room, staring at a screen and trying to key out puppets and then creating “handmade” artwork in Photoshop did not seem that enticing. After listening to the song a couple more times I gratefully ditched the green screen idea and, inspired by the timbre of Shirley’s voice and the stripped back music, decided to create something different. I wanted to use rough cardboard and simple drawings inspired by American folk art combined with beautiful lighting to form the video’s aesthetic handwriting. I then decided to make my life harder still by keeping the camera locked off at all times and shooting scenes in real time with no edits or cutaways so the final piece would feel more like watching a play than a film.” This low-tech and theatrical approach perfectly captured the feel of the song. Shirley Collins and commissioner for Domino Records Bart McDonagh loved the idea and the project was given the go ahead.
This decision was to raise many challenges that would have to be overcome but there was a firm belief that the process would create a dynamic, chaotic and fluid working atmosphere that would allow something beautiful to emerge. After talking to small world genius director of photography Peter Ellmore, it was also decided to shoot on film rather than digital. Using film felt totally within the spirit of the idea and compared to digital photography it gives a much softer and forgiving drop off within the depth of field. However, it also meant that each scene could only be shot six times and there would be no chance to see the rushes before the sets were dismantled.
Once Layla had created the animatic to tell the story of Polly’s adventure, she worked with stop-motion expert John Harmer, artist Jock Mooney, puppeteer Garry Rutter, plus a small art department team to build and paint the sets, elements and puppets. Everything was crafted and painted on cardboard including hundreds of trees, each individually painted and stuck on their respective backgrounds.
All the landscapes were created by moveable planes attached to timber runners sitting on fixed blocks that could be independently moved by two operators. Each set was to have four separate planes which all had to move at different speeds and at different times to create a charming parallax movement. A methodology was worked out where the song provided the seconds count that dictated when and which planes would move to ensure the sets reflected the action of the song. This meant during a shot one plane might have to travel four meters at two and a half centimetres a second while another plane would have to travel two meters at five centimetres a second. Meanwhile elements were bought into frame when needed by puppeteers and sceneshifters to match the song’s narrative.
As well as choreographing a ballet of moving scenes, people and elements, other beautiful low-tech solutions were utilised. In one scene the face of the song’s hero is seen in close up with his eyes moving from left to right, accomplished by a slider behind the cut out eyes reminiscent of B.B.C’s early Captain Pugwash cartoons made in the 1950s.
Director of photography Peter Ellmore along with gaffer Jonathan Yates built and managed the lighting rig as the sets had to be dynamically lit during the filming. This was seen to great effect during the battlefield set with flashes representing cannon blasts. After a few dry runs to iron out any problems, for example it was discovered a lot of grease would be needed to ensure the timber rails would move smoothly over their blocks the filming began.
Over two days of filming a group consisting of animators, students from Goldsmiths, old friends and colleagues all pitched in to help move scenes and elements with producer Richard Barnett calling time. With the heat from the lights and the outside temperature hitting 34 degrees it felt at a times like rowing in the bowels of a Roman galley but the atmosphere and spirit that Layla hoped would come together certainly did. The filming finished just before midnight on the second day.
Layla notes “ I knew it would be a bit of a nightmare and a challenge, I did constantly wake up panicking at 4am wondering what an earth was I thinking to attempt something like this, but had faith in the people around me. It was brilliant to be torn away from the computer and to get to work with my hands again, to constantly problem-solve, to be covered in paint and to finally see how everything came together”.
Jonny T at Glassworks graded the finished film.
Shirley Collins loved the final film stating “Isn’t it absolutely gorgeous: sweet, charming, full of innocence, and it made me laugh out loud! Quite quite perfect..” Praise indeed.