LAIKA – Stop-motion and Storytelling magic

“If you must blink, do it now!”  That opening line of Travis Knight’s BAFTA nominated directing debut, Kubo and the Two Strings, could be advice for watching any of the animated films made by his company, LAIKACoraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls were all Oscar and BAFTA nominated for Best Animated Feature.  Full of stop-motion brilliance, rich visuals and captivating story-telling.  You don’t want to miss a second.

kubo_sunset_laika_focus-0
Kubo and the Two Strings Dir. Travis Knight

It was a treat to hear director, animator and LAIKA CEO, Travis Knight and producer Arianne Sutner talk about the making of Kubo and the Two Strings at a recent National Film & Television School (NFTS) Masterclass.  Conveying the creativity and magic of the animation studio, Travis described LAIKA as, “kind of like Santa’s workshop – if all the elves had body piercings and neck tattoos.”

And they brought some friends along:

Monkey and Beetle - puppets from Kubo and the Two Strings
Monkey and Beetle – puppets from Kubo and the Two Strings

In the run up to the BAFTA and Academy Awards, scripts are freely available online.  It’s a masterclass in storytelling to read those for LAIKA’s films.

Links to PDFs of LAIKA’s scripts:

Coraline script (2009. Dir. Henry Selick. Screenplay Henry Selick from Neil Gaiman’s book)

ParaNorman script (2012. Dirs Chris Butler & Sam Fell.  Screenplay Chris Butler)

The Boxtrolls script (2014.  Dirs Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi.  Screenplay Irina Brignull & Adam Pava)

Kubo and the Two Strings script (2016. Dir. Travis Knight. Screenplay Chris Butler & Marc Haimes, from a story by Shannon Tindle & Marc Haimes)

Stories bold enough to have properly scary bits, like the Other Mother from Coraline with her button eyes.

On the page you can see the complex, fully rounded characters, that yet leave room for the animators’ creative artistry.  In this short extract (below) from Kubo and the Two Strings, Monkey is stern & soft, serious & witty, fearsome & loving; all believable due to script and performance.

As guardian Monkey watches the young hero Kubo conjure origami birds:

MONKEY

You’re growing stronger

Kubo LAUGHS.  He feels it.

MONKEY (CONT’D)

You might not want to look quite so pleased about that.

She sits him up, ushering him onto his feet and brushing down his robe.

MONKEY (CONT’D)

We grow stronger.  The world grows, more dangerous.  Life has a way of keeping things balanced.

Kubo reacts to this cynical wisdom by making a face.

KUBO

Monkey, do you ever say anything encouraging?

MONKEY

I encourage you not to die.

Monkey licks her hand, smoothes down Kubo’s hair and walks away.

In the extract above the maternal actions – all meticulously animated frame by frame – of brushing down Kubo’s robe, smoothing his hair, subtly convey the caring and affection that underlie her seemingly tough words.  There is nothing accidental in animation actions.  They have purpose.  Sublime where those actions combine humour, character and storytelling.

ParaNorman

In ParaNorman this opening exchange (below) between Norman and his (dead) Grandmother as they watch TV, succinctly sets up the themes the film goes on to explore – don’t prejudge, be open to seeing things from a different view, talk things through to find out the real story.  A message of, and plea for, tolerance and understanding for everyone.  Even Zombies.

GRANDMA BABCOCK

What’s happening now?

NORMAN

The zombie is eating her head, Grandma.

GRANDMA BABCOCK

That’s not very nice. What’s he doing that for?

NORMAN

Because he’s a zombie. That’s what they do.

GRANDMA BABCOCK

Well he’s going to ruin his dinner.  I’m sure if they just bothered to sit down and talk it through it’d be a different story.

Norman CHUCKLES, as if the idea is absurd, then winces as he hears his father shout from the kitchen.

Even brief phyiscal decriptions richly convey character, as in this short introduction to Norman’s teacher, who is in charge of the school play. A job she is taking seriously.  Very seriously.

In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume. Mrs Henscher’s knuckles clench white around her script.  She attempts an understanding smile, in the same way a shark might.

And that’s before they’ve recorded the actors’ voices and started on the animation.

It was a delight to hear such talented and dedicated artists talk about their work.  Very much looking forward to whatever LAIKA makes next.  As Travis said, “Stories endure.  Art matters.”

And a joy to meet Monkey:

Meeting Monkey from Kubo and the Two Strings

BAFTA Short Animation

Animation is such a pure form of storytelling, full of visual inventiveness & emotional richness.  It was a huge honour & great pleasure to be part of the BAFTA jury panel for British Short Animation 2016.  Loved having the chance to see so much wonderful animation from so many incredibly talented people.

BAFTAs

Here’re the 3 films the panel nominated, the winning film was voted for by BAFTA members.

Edmond

Directed by Nina Gantz Produced by Emilie Jouffroy

A stop motion film about an oddball felted character who slips through floors into the past and the deepest parts of his psyche in his pursuit of self-understanding.

Edmond behind the scenes
Behind the scenes – making of Edmond
manoman

Manoman poster

Directed by Simon Cartwright Produced by Kamilla Hodol

Glen is barely a man. In a desperate attempt to tap into his masculinity he attends a primal scream therapy session, surrounded by wailing men he cannot even make a sound. When another member of the class pushes Glen too far he finally lets something out- a miniature version of himself which does whatever it wants, regardless of the consequences.

Manoman behind the scenes 2
Behind the scenes – making of Manoman
prologue

Prologue poster

Directed by Richard Williams Produced by Imogen Sutton

Taking place 2,400 years in the past, Prologue depicts a brutal battle between two teams of Spartan and Athenian warriors.

and the award went to……

Edmond by Nina Gantz & Emilie Jouffroy

Winner Edmond

Full list of BAFTA 2016 winners

Bruce Munro & Art in the Landscape

“Sculpture gains by finding a setting that suits its mood and when that happens there is gain for both the sculpture and setting.” – Henry Moore

I was treated to a preview of Bruce Munro’s  ‘Winter Light’ exhibition in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor recently.  Flamboyant light installations in a formal Victorian garden.  I wrote a short piece about it for Buckinghamshire Life: Bruce Munro.

Here’re some more pictures from ‘Winter Light’ and a few other bits of art in the landscape.

Winter Light

Beacon by Bruce Munro at Waddesdon Manor
Beacon by Bruce Munro at Waddesdon Manor

Beacon was originally constructed in 2013 on a hill at Long Knoll near the artist’s home, to raise money & awareness for breast cancer charity Cancerkin“This hill and surrounding countryside has long been my ‘canvas’,” Munro explained. “I lost a dear friend very young to breast cancer. By illuminating the night sky for a brief moment, I hope to send the message ‘you are not alone’.”

Bruce Munro’s Moon-Harvest at Waddesdon transforms hay-bales in their black plastic wrappers into a galaxy come to earth.

Moon-Harvest
Moon-Harvest

The exhibition is on till 4th January 2015, illuminating from 4pm.

Prehistoric

“Bid men of battle build me a tomb fair after fire, on the foreland by the sea that shall stand as a reminder of me to my people, towering high over Hronesness so that ocean travellers shall afterwards name it Beowulf’s barrow, bending in the distance their masted ships through the mists upon the sea.” – Beowulf

Part of the charm, for me, of standing stones and burial chambers is the way they sit like ancient sculptures in the landscape. I wrote an article about Welsh Standing Stones for Pembrokeshire Life, ‘Romancing the Stones’.

“An entrance fee allows you to admire Stonehenge from beyond a fence. At its closest fifteen feet from the stones. Afterwards you can snack on a ‘megalithic scone’ as the A303 roars past and another coach load of visitors arrives. In Pembrokeshire stones stand alone, unassailed by gift shops, quietly keeping a sense of ancient mystery and eerie beauty.”

Pentre Ifan
Pentre Ifan, Preseli mountains

 The Great Storm

One of a series of sculptures by Jill Watson around the Berwickshire coastline, commemorating the Great Storm of 1881 in which 189 fishermen were shipwrecked.  This one is at Eyemouth, figures forever looking out to sea, hopeful their friends and families might yet come home.

Eyemouth

Henry Moore

I was lucky enough to visit the fantastic 2007 exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures at Kew Gardens.  Henry Moore is back at Kew, his Reclining Mother & Child in the gardens described by Kew as – “This bronze beauty will perfectly illustrate the clear synergy between Moore’s delight in the natural world and Kew’s celebration of nature.  Having his works perceived within a natural setting was crucial to Moore’s vision.”

At RHS Wisely, Henry Moore’s King and Queen contemplate the view from their chilly bench.

King and Queen at Wisley
King and Queen at Wisley

“Landscape has been for me one of the sources of my energy… The whole of Nature is an endless demonstration of shape and form.” – Henry Moore

The Crow Road

Fence-post crow guarding the path up to the ruins of Dinas Bran castle in North Wales, near Llangollen.  Dinas Bran has been translated as Crow Castle or The Hill of the Crow.

Dinas Bran

Autumn Delights

“The mellow autumn came, and with it came the promised party.” – Lord Byron, probably one thing you could trust him on was to spot an opportunity for a good time. And surely autumn is the best of times. Glowing leaves, crisp skies, bright berries urging us to get out there and snatch the last golden days before the winter dark. New England may have ‘leaf-peeping’ hotlines, but the beech-woods of Bucks have their own enchantments. Even when it rains.

I love autumn, so was delighted to be asked to pick some places to enjoy autumn in Bucks (even if it rains) for Buckinghamshire Life magazine – Bucks Autumn

And here’re links to the places featured in the article –

Waddesdon Manor

For fairy-tale grandeur and innovative art installations

Waddesdon Manor

Bruce Munro art installations for the 'Winter Light' trail through the grounds
Bruce Munro art installations for the ‘Winter Light’ trail through the grounds

Chiltern Open Air Museum

For Halloween nights, harvest traditions and stories by the fire in the roundhouse

Halloween
Halloween

Hughenden Manor

For all things apple and for being a secret WWII map-making base, codename ‘Operation Hillside’

Apple Day - 57 varieties grown at Hughenden
Apple Day – 57 varieties grown at Hughenden
tree sculpture
One of Ed Elliott’s ‘Watchmen’ sculptures commemorating the top-secret WWII map-makers

Stowe

For neoclassical elegance and pumpkin hunting through the grounds

Autumn Colours at Stowe The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire Chatham Island

Wendover Woods

For the Rothschilds creating a trackway through the woods for their zebra & cart, but mainly for the Gruffalo….

lord-rothschild-zebra-carriage-490_107554_1

My niece making friends with the Gruffalo at Wendover Woods
My niece making friends with the Gruffalo at Wendover Woods

‘The secret of freedom is a brave heart’ – WWI pacifist ambulance unit

I’ve always loved the Quaker Meeting House in Jordans village in Buckinghamshire.  Sure, it’s a beautiful seventeenth century building, all herring-bone brick floor and diamond-latticed windows, old wooden tables with vases of wild-flowers and so forth, but more than that, it has an air of tranquility – maybe that’s what you get from centuries of people meeting somewhere to sit together quietly. Or maybe it’s just in a nice setting.

Out of this tranquility came passionate pacifists, brave enough to stand by their beliefs during the First World War, yet go to the front-line anyway as the ‘Friends Ambulance Unit’ – praised by the Red Cross as “one of the brightest chapters in our history”.

For the centenary of the First World War, I wrote an article commemorating the Friends Ambulance Unit, ‘Friends in Deed’, for Buckinghamshire and Berkshire Life magazine.

Friends Ambulance Unit

On 21st August 1914, barely 2 weeks after the First World War began, Philip Noel Baker put out a call to fellow pacifist Quakers for volunteers to “form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations.”  Adding, “It is possible that it would in various ways involve some personal risk to members of the Corps. But it would probably result in the saving of a great many lives.”

Philip Noel Baker is the only person ever to be awarded both the Nobel Peace prize and an Olympic medal – silver in the 1500m in 1920.  His Nobel Peace prize citation begins, “Frequently when the storm clouds gather the world is made aware of the forces of good, rallying to meet the threatened danger.”

He set up a training camp at Jordans for the ambulance volunteers – “A rather motley band of lawyers, doctors, students, engineers, surveyors, accountants, businessmen and workers in arts and crafts” – as they described themselves.

Volunteers camping in the orchard at Jordans training camp
Volunteers camping in the orchard at Jordans training camp © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

Over a thousand men, and some women, worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War.  Twenty-one were killed. Ninety-six, nearly one in ten, were awarded medals for bravery.  Their achievements were one of the reasons the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In accordance with the Friends Ambulance Unit motto – ‘Go anywhere, do anything’, they established and staffed hospitals, founded orphanages, set up and ran recreation rooms at Dunkirk – The Pig and Whistle and the Cat and Fiddle, to boost troops’ morale, provided civilian relief, including 27,000 typhoid inoculations when an epidemic threatened near Ypres, worked on hospital ships and by the end of the war had transported over half a million patients across France on ambulance trains.

The work of the Friends Ambulance Unit prompted one historian to recall the Ancient Greek advice – “The secret of happiness is service and freedom, and the secret of freedom a brave heart.”

As part of my research I had the great pleasure of meeting local Quakers Sue and John Smithson, who both had relatives who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Sue and John Smithson at Jordans Meeting House
Sue and John Smithson at Jordans Meeting House

John’s father Michael drove an ambulance on the front-line, aged only seventeen.  At the end of the war he came to work at Jordans where the Quakers had established a convalescent home.  He’s pictured here at Jordans in 1918, seated fifth from left:

Friends Ambulance Unit volunteers at Jordans
Friends Ambulance Unit volunteers at Jordans © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

Sue’s Uncle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley also volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit.  When Sue became engaged to John, Felix recognised John’s surname and realised he had worked alongside his father Michael on an ambulance train in France during the war.

memorial to the Friends Ambulance Unit was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in 2013.   The Society of Friends, as Quakers are more properly known, have more information about the Friends Ambulance Unit and kindly permitted use of some of their library photos in the article.

And huge thanks to Sue and John Smithson for chatting to me about their inspirational relatives.

With Sue Smithson at Jordans Meeting House

Archive photos © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

Horror Story

Q: What do you get if you put Ben Wheatley, James Moran, Corin Hardy, Neil Marshall, Simon Oakes, Rupert Preston & Paul Hyett in a room together?

A: A bloody good time.

Rupert Preston, Paul Hyett, Simon Oakes, Neil Marshall, James Moran, Ben Wheatley, Corin Hardy
Rupert Preston, Paul Hyett, Simon Oakes, Neil Marshall, James Moran, Ben Wheatley, Corin Hardy

Had the huge pleasure of organising a Horror Day a little while back with some amazing, extremely kind and generous speakers.  Here’re a few of their tips on creating great Horror….

James Moran
James Moran

James Moran, writer of (amongst other things) SeveranceTower Block and Cockneys Vs Zombies, explained how crucial it is to create the right kind of monster/antagonist/villain –

“The first thing I do is figure out who the bad guy is – what’s their plan?  Is it believable?  I spend more time on the villain’s plan than the hero’s sometimes.  It’s not enough for villains to turn up and be bad.  So I figure out who the bad guy is, what their plan is – it can be a stupid plan, but it’s consistent all the way through”

And at the same time, to create empathy for characters –

“Ten minutes into a Horror film you should want the characters to survive and for it not to become a Horror film.  If it’s a load of annoying people you want to get killed – that’s not a Horror film.  If you’re not scared for them, wanting them to survive, then you’re not going to be scared at all.  To be frightened you want to be rooting for them.  That’s my main rule – that you want the people to survive, you want them to make it”

A sentiment echoed by Simon Oakes, head of Hammer films –

“The thing I feel strongly about with Horror is you need to care about the characters – so that therefore what happens to them becomes something the audience is emotionally connected to.”

He said it was something James Watkins, who directed The Woman in Black for Hammer, does so well: “He understood that to make a great Horror movie you’ve got to tell a great story and get the audience involved in the characters, with proper jumps and scares.”

Concluding, “The best Horror movies have an emotional arc, where you identify in some way, positive or negative, with the characters, the best horror films have got to connect with an audience emotionally.”

Rupert Preston of Vertigo Films stressed the importance of thinking about marketing, what makes the film stand out, preferably in a memorable and striking poster. – “One thing you’ve got to have if you want to make a Horror film is a great hook to it that sets it apart from all the other Horror films that’re made every year”

Writer-director Corin Hardy, whose eagerly anticipated Horror feature The Hallow is released in 2015, described the importance of being true to the heart of a Horror film.

Looking at some of his favourite Horror films – Jaws, Alien, The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Evil Dead 2 and Return of the Living Dead he explained, “What they have in common is that each one is very true to what it’s setting out to do.  Whether that’s a very intense, almost true documentary style, Horror movie or a film about a monster in the ice, they don’t betray themselves at any time in story with these crazy twists that get put into films sometimes that undermine the whole movie.”

And he discussed the art of not showing too much –

“Done with the right balance, depending on what kind the movie is, you can build up more tension with what you don’t show.  It’s important to look really closely at the story in terms of the trajectory of the reveal of the creature – what you do or don’t see.”

Writer-director Ben Wheatley, whose films include Sightseers and Down Terrace, described some of his process when he began writing Kill List:

“I thought about my own fears and I wrote them down and that was my starting point for writing a Horror film.  My fears are: I don’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t like bad things happening to kids, I used to have nightmares about seeing strange people in the woods doing ceremonies and then chasing me, I don’t like dinner parties.  Then I wrote them into a script.  We figured if it was genuinely scary to us then it would scare other people.”

He talked about working up a script from incident points, “so that you can see what sags or where you’ve run out of things to say, so you can see where the problems are.  If you don’t like it at that point you can bin it and you haven’t wasted months writing a script, but if you like it you can expand it, 5-6 lines for each point and then you’ve got a screenplay.”  Adding, “Remember it’s not a radio play – it’s not about talking it’s about seeing”, concluding “The main lesson is to keep it moving and don’t repeat yourself”.

Special Effects artist and director Paul Hyett talked about what he’d learned about the importance of meticulous planning from doing effects on films such as The Descent for Neil Marshall, before moving into directing his own film The Seasoning House:

“There’s a lot to think about with stunts and VFX, prosthetics and so on.  Neil Marshall is the loveliest director – always quiet, always calm, lovely to the crew but he knew what he wanted and that’s why his films turn out so well.”

All of the speakers were indeed lovely as well as insightful and inspirational.  They kindly also chatted to students over lunch, coffee breaks and afterwards, some of them having been there since early in the day, belying the day’s first speaker James Moran’s opening line: “I guess the definition of true Horror is getting a writer to make sense before noon.”

Enjoying a chat with Corin Hardy & Ben Wheatley

‘Cynicism is the death of creativity’ and other stories

A few words of wisdom, inspirational nuggets and general advice from some of the filmmakers who’ve kindly given talks as part of the NFTS Masterclass programme:

“I wish my writing life were more organised, more Ernest Hemmingway, you know – ‘write for 8 hours, 3 gins, shoot a buffalo’, but it isn’t.  You have to write the way that works for you.” Simon Beaufoy, writer, Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty

“If you explain too much, people will tune out.  Just dramatise it once.  The only rule you really need in a story is ‘…and then?’” Guillermo del Toro, writer-director, Pan’s Labyrinth

“I’ve been writing for 20 years and I still don’t know how to do it. Don’t try and be a grown up, I use alcohol, I talk to my wife, I make desperate phone calls. It’s good to skate on thin ice.” Thomas Vinterberg, writer-director, The Hunt

“Almost everyone said I was insane, suicidal, deluded and that it’s impossible to make a film for less than £200,000 even in Romania. I had barely a third of that.  I often thought of just buying a flat, as almost everyone advised. But I asked myself, ‘Should I buy myself a one-bedroom flat in Bracknell or should I make a revenge drama in Transylvania?'” Peter Strickland, writer-director, Berberian Sound Studio, Katalin Varga

“We like to go to those uncomfortable places, because that’s where the good jokes are.” and “The earlier you realise something isn’t working the better….this also applies to relationships by the way.” Sam Bain, writer, Fresh Meat, Peep Show

“You see the world, you end up in jail three or four times, you accumulate experience. And it gives you something to say. If you don’t have anything to say then you shouldn’t be making films. It’s nothing to do with what lens you’re using.” – Chris Doyle, Director of Photography, In The Mood For Love

Cinematographer Chris Doyle
Cinematographer Chris Doyle

“Be around people who take the work seriously, but not themselves.” David Yates, director, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“You immerse yourself in the research, then at some point you have to throw it away and trust yourself to make a film. Otherwise you might as well go be a historian.”  Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-director, The Master, There Will Be Blood

“Figure out what is the song that only you can sing. That is the only thing that counts in the end.” Paul Greengrass, director, Captain Phillips, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum

Three from Atonement director Joe Wright:

“I try to keep my eyes open in life, and see the drama and the beauty and the poetry around me and that’s what informs my films.  I try and work with people who have that sense of wonder and innocence. Cynicism is the death of creativity.”

“If there’s a project you feel like you know a secret about, a way only you could tell that story – that’s the one you should do…If I’m not scared by a project then I think there’s something wrong.  Fear is a great motivator.  One should confront one’s fears.  Or at least I should.”

“The day I stop learning I’ll give up and take up, I don’t know… rose cultivation.”

And finally, a practical tip from writer-director of ‘cornetto trilogy’ Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, Edgar Wright: “My advice – do not try to match the characters in The World’s End drink for drink, or you will end up dead in a ditch”

Edgar WrightEdgar Wright

Edgar Wright Masterclass in Total Film Magazine

Lovely to find that Total Film’s January 2014 edition has an article about the BFI Film Academy for 16-19 year old aspiring filmmakers, part of which takes place at the NFTS.  Complete with a photo from the Edgar Wright Masterclass I organised as part of this year’s BFI Film Academy:

total film

It was a hugely fun and entertaining event.  The highlight was probably old friends Edgar and interviewer, fellow-filmmaker Corin Hardy being game enough to screen a clip of the two of them, aged around seventeen, on 1990s TV show Gimme5 with some of their first filmmaking work: