Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

FrightFest – To Fire You Come At Last

FrightFest 2023 – To Fire You Come At Last,
Directed by Sean Hogan,
Starring Mark Carlisle, James Swanton, Richard Rowden, Harry Roebuck, Stephen Smith,
Severin FIlms

Debuting at this year’s recent FrightFest, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come At Last may be short, but it certainly delivers, drawing on the influence of classic British folk-horror movies. It’s a nice, clean, simple set-up: Mallow, the local squire (Mark Carlisle) and his manservant Pike (Richard Rowden) have enlisted Holt (Harry Roebuck) to arrange the carrying of the coffin of the squire’s son Aldis (Stephen Smith), Holt having been his best friend. The squire has sent his man to obtain villagers to carry the coffin across the moors to the church, but none want to come, as the moors (of course!) have an evil reputation for witches and mysterious black dogs that signify impending death (shades of the old Black Shuck legend). All they can get is Ransley, a local drunk and ne’er do well, forcing the squire to also assist in the carrying of the casket.

It’s against this backdrop of lonely moorland our four men set out with their macabre burden, Holt warning that with only four of them they will not likely make the churchyard before dusk, and they really don’t want to be caught on the moors after dark. The squire arrogantly chides him for foolishness and superstition, and the four continue, but Holt is correct, darkness falls while they are still treading this lonely, rural path, the blackness of the countryside at night, dispelled only in small pools of light around them from their lanterns.

And they start to hear noises – is that a dog growling somewhere in the gloom? Footsteps? As the darkness and thoughts of local folklore play on their nerves, the men bicker among themselves, and soon accusation are flying too – connections each had to the deceased (even the lowly drunk, Ransley), until it seems they have all committed sins that may leave them vulnerable to Damnation, and therefore ripe for the picking for whatever dark, supernatural forces roam the moorland at night. Except the squire, who insists he is a good, upright man (so you just know this arrogant aristocrat is hiding a secret!).

This short film is split into four acts, each slowly ratcheting up the tension rather splendidly. It’s shot in a crisp black and white, which is particularly effective once night falls – four figures burdened by a wooden coffin, illuminated only by carrying lanterns, the world around them almost invisible, black darkness, the odd skeletal tree coming into view as the lamp light reaches it, the only other features the stars in the nocturnal skies above them. It’s a great choice, aesthetically (props to cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson), giving the film a simple but very effective look, and it also works well for a small budget, enhancing the look of the film without the need for expensive sets or locations to match the 17th century period.

A highly effective, atmospheric short that draws on the fine Brit folk-horror tradition.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Lola

EIFF 2022 – Lola,
Directed by Andrew Legge,
Starring Stefanie Martini, Emma Appleton, Rory Fleck Byrne, Aaron Monaghan

I had a good feeling when I first read about Andrew Legge’s debut feature in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival programme; when I get that buzz for a film or book I normally find my instincts were bang on, and I am glad to report that continues to be the case (thank you, intuition, you know what I will like!). Lola is the name of a special machine created and operated by two eccentric sisters, Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and Martha Hanbury (Stefanie Martini), a series of valves and tubes and wires that can tune into broadcasts from the future. The two have grown up isolated in a big, old country house in 1930s England, naming the machine after their late mother.

Once they confirm that the machine works by tuning into broadcasts in their near future and seeing if they then unfold as predicted, it starts off relatively light-hearted. The women use the machine to learn the winners in some upcoming horse races, making themselves a decent income to survive on, before going on to tune into a cultural smorgasbord of broadcasts from the future, especially music (Bowie, the Kinks and Dylan feature particularly). Thom is the more emotionally remote of the pair – she clearly adores her sister but has little time for anyone else, and if she has thought out some of the implications of her work, she isn’t sharing those concerns, nor does she plans to share the machine with the rest of the scientific world.

Martha, by comparison, is the more emotionally warm of the two, and also more tuned to the new cultural experiences Lola can bring to them, quickly falling in Love with the likes of Bowie being broadcast from the 1970s, or Dylan in the 60s, as well as relishing the idea of the huge societal and cultural changes these musical movements indicate, so very different from the buttoned-down British society of the 1930s and 40s. Thom is the technical, scientific genius, but Martha sees Lola more for the way it can show her a world beyond what she otherwise could experience, and Martini does a wonderful job of conveying her total delight at all of this.

However, as the Nazi menace grows and war arrives, they both start to wonder if they shouldn’t be using their remarkable invention to help. Thom still doesn’t want to share her creation with anyone else, but she’s not against some form of aid, so they create a covert way of broadcasting warnings, using a clever system to make it almost impossible for the authorities to track their signal. In this way they can listen into news from a day or two in advance, then warn people in a certain area to take cover because an air raid will happen that evening without any warning. This soon earns them the nickname of the “Angel of Portobello”, and while most cheer these anonymous saviours (a newsreel shows and ARP Warden outside a shattered home, explaining his home was clobbered by German bombers, but thanks to the warning, his family was safe in the shelter), of course the authorities are keen to track them down and find out how they gather this intelligence.

The film is presented as a sort-of mix of found footage and documentary; it begins with the discovery of a pile of old film cans in an abandoned country mansion, all dated from the 1940s. It is through these that we discover the story of Lola – the sisters were determined to document their creation and the discoveries they make with it, but the films also include period newsreels (many doctored quite cleverly to include the cast or relevant events – shade of Forrest Gump). As the authorities finally become involved, the desperate nature of the Second World War demands that Lola be used to help a Britain with its back against the wall, and while this is perfectly understandable, anyone who has read a lot of science fiction will, as I did, already have an inkling that there will be repercussions to all of this – any change to the here and now (or the tomorrow morning) will ripple out into the future, the same future the sisters have been listening to, but will it be for good or ill? You’ll have to see the film to find that out.

While not without its flaws – for instance faked newsreel footage of Lola and her use to fight the Nazis struck me as wrong, I’m sure in such a scenario it would have been as kept as tightly secret as the famous Bletchley Park), other historical what-if moments didn’t sit quite right with me (knowing a good bit of the period). But those are minor niggles and, to be fair, I can see why Legge chose to have them because they do work in the context of the narrative he is telling here. And besides, with any tale involving playing with time, arguments over those what-if moments and how they could have been or not is all a part of the fun, isn’t it? Fuel for a good post-movie chat in the pub afterwards.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 04
(some photos I took of director Legge with his two main actors, Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton, on stage at the Everyman cinema after their Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Lola. Snapped in dark auditorium from several rows back, so please excuse the low quality!)
Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 06

Edinburgh Film Festival - Lola 05

As we go on we find there is a very good reason for the amount of the found footage, not just there because of documenting the creation of Lola, which I won’t go into, but I liked the idea and how it fitted into explaining some of the film. The main actors and director talked to the late-night festival audience, and some of the footage was shot on period cameras – those wonderful old clockwork-powered movie cameras – often in the hands of the actors themselves, with the cast and director also often developing those films, using slightly odd processes to ensure they looked damaged and dated, like they would if left in old film cans in an abandoned home for decades, and this compliments Oona Menges’s cinematography. As these reels were essentially documentary, the actors explained Legge had to keep telling them to ignore their acting training and dial down their performances to something more real-life, more documentary than narrative, and they both do this very well (with Martini and Appleton carrying the bulk of the screen time).

It’s a clever piece of micro-film science fiction using concept over the need for huge effects, a small and intimate cast but a huge central idea, the kind that can have you debating points of it for ages after watching the film. In many ways it reminded me of another time-travel, micro-budget movie I also saw at the EIFF many years ago, Primer, and I think Lola can hold her head up next to Primer, and I hope will garner itself a similar reputation and following.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Summer in the Shade

Summer in the Shade,
Directed by Alice Millar,
Starring Niamh Walter, Nyobi Hendry, Rebecca Palmer, Zaqi Ismail

It’s the summer of 1997, and best friends Grace (Niamh Walter) and Asta (Nyobi Hendry) are going with Asta’s mother, Kate (Rebecca Palmer) for a break in Cornwell. It sounds like an ideal piece of childhood fun, a little while away with your bestie, free from everything else. But Niamh is dealing with problems, not least that her father has left her and her mother (the trip may be as much to give her mother some space as it is to give Grace a holiday). In fact her father is glimpsed only at the start, reading her a bedtime story – Penelope waiting for the return of Odysseus, which turns out to be prescient given his departure soon after.

Added into this emotional stew, the girls are approaching their teen years, and are in that strange, liminal space, still children for the most part, but adolescence and puberty are beckoning; they still want to play games like kids, but they’re also starting to talk about boys and sex, in that hushed, overheard-in-the-playground half-truths many of us will remember from those early years. One foot still in childhood, the other stepping very uncertainly into becoming older but not quite sure where to step or where the path leads. Millar and her young cast capture that feeling very well, that urge to be seen as more grown up while still partly wanting to hold onto elements of your childhood, something we’ve all been through. Even the mis-en-scene quietly, effectively evokes this as the camera circles Grace’s bedroom, a mix of childish interests any young girl of the time could be into, but also hints of interest in older age elements, like make-up; it’s a small touch, but effective, and also signals that tiny budget or not, there’s a lot of care and attention gone into the production.

While the girls play and talk – Grace is going through a religious phase and Asta enjoys spooky, supernatural stories, and these bleed into their imagination and play – what seems like a carefree break in the countryside slowly reveals the fault lines below each person’s emotional life. Even Kate, the Bohemian mother of Asta, who seems to radiate a positive, easy-going confident demeanour, has relationship problems. We’ve all had that feeling that that other people around us seem to have this life thing figured out much better than we do, although we all know that really everyone has problems; Palmer’s performance brings that out nicely, just a few cracks here and there subtly signalling that really she’s going through the same as everyone else, everyone has problems, that’s just life.

Zaqi Ismail’s Sid joins the small cast in Cornwall, sleeping rough in a little forest den the girls had made, after a misunderstanding by the girls (letting their imaginations out of control), Kate invites him to stay with them for a while, and he soon establishes a friendship with each of them, but of course introducing a man into this female environment also adds to the emotional complexity – it starts to become clear that Kate, more emotionally vulnerable than she at first appears, is drawn to Sid, and while Grace is too young, she is, perhaps, just old enough to feel some little pangs of jealousy when she sees Kate flirting with him.

While much of this is a coming-of-age tale (especially for Grace), the inclusion of the problems of the adults nicely balances this, hinting that it’s not just the adolescents struggling to know what they want, how to get it, how to act, who to be with, that’s just a life problem regardless of your age, and perhaps we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so much about it. You could also read Summer in some of the terms of a horror film – it’s not a horror, per se, but it uses some elements and stylistic riffs quite effectively, evoking echoes of British folk horror, which works very well, all nicely done in a fairly low-key way through good cinematography and soundscape use. An effective and emotional directorial debut; I look forward to seeing more work from Millar.

Summer in the Shade is streaming online now.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle

At the weekend I caught an absolutely beautiful Scottish film, the Gaelic-language Seachd: the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A man returns home from Glasgow to his dying grandfather back in the Western Isles, which leads to a series of tales – in many ways it is a story about stories. Rather fittingly, since Gaelic has an immensely rich oral tradition, a seam of folklore and tales told and retold by bards, singers and just ordinary folk generation after generation. In one scene the grandfather – who may have a much more personal link to the stories of centuries past he tells – talks to his wee grandson, angry and bitter after the death of his parents, rejecting his upbringing, calling it stupid and his grandad’s stories false and tells him “no-one can tell the truth. We all tell stories.”


(Angus Peter Campbell/Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul as the grandfather. A man well suited to play a storyteller since he was taught by Iain Crichton Smith and then later encouraged by Sorley MacLean at University. He is a published novelist and poet and it shows in his performance – like any good poet he has a feel for the fabric and rhythm of storytelling)

As a lifelong reader its hard for me to argue that point – narrative, story, is central to the human condition, it informs who we are in a personal day to day life (how was your day? You don’t just say I did this, this and this, you tell it like a short story) and on the grander scale (the older stories which tell us on a deeper level who we are as a people, stories that repeat again and again – Arthur, the Iliad, Beowulf, Ramayana, the songs of the Dreamtime. We are story, we are words and images – we think in words and images, we talk in them, write and draw and sing in them. They’re encoded into our DNA. And Seachd is stories within stories, stories defining and illustrating history, culture and the individuals too.

The film is beautiful to behold – much of it is shot on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, better know to most of us as the Isle of Skye and the mighty Cuillins range. Even in scenes shot on gray, dull, overcast (very Scottish weather) days the imagery is stunning, clouds reaching down to the tops of the mountains, like angel’s wings caressing the earth. The music (which is what is playing from the embedded player I got from the official site over on the left of the blog here) is also wonderful.

It makes my blood boil that the numpty heids at BAFTA have decided not to support this Scottish film and put it forward as their non-English language selection for Oscar consideration – not because they had something else they preferred to put forward either, they just didn’t put Seachd or anything else forward, which totally undermines their supposed commitment to supporting British film-making (and nice to see London still haughtily mistreats Gaelic culture, some things never change, it seems). BAFTA has attracted a raft of criticism, starting with the Scottish arts community, the Parliament and now worldwide condemnation for this shameful and inexcusable lack of support and rightly so. With the fine reception the film is receiving it makes BAFTA’s ignorant decision look all the more foolish and ill-informed and I hope they are quite humiliated by their disgusting actions.

But enough negativity – the film itself is truly beautiful and moving; the seemingly simple idea of an elderly storyteller telling story after story doesn’t convey the feel of the film. As with any story it isn’t just the story, it is how the storytellers tell the story that often makes it and that’s the case here. Its hauntingly beautiful, stories that you can feel on those deeper levels that the truly good stories can reach. Go and see it.

From Atonement to Yuma

Atonement

Caught a couple of extremely good movies this weekend; last night Mel and I went to see Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s ‘unfilmable’ novel, which means it arrives with the burden of being an adaptation of a highly respected work of literature. It lived up to the challenge exceedingly well, deftly moving from different character’s perspectives and times, from the heavy stillness of a warm, summer day in the country to the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation, yet rarely confusing the audience despite the multi-perspective, non-linear narrative. The use of colour, perspective, music and sound is fascinating right from the start, from the staccato of a typewriters leading into the rhythm of the music to the sound of a bee trapped by a window leading out to a scene which is seen from several viewpoints around a fountain (water motifs repeat throughout). Intriguing story, very good performances (especially Keira Knightly and James McAvoy, Kiera looking at home in those 40s fashions) and a beautifully crafted film which has obviously had a lot of attention and love paid on it.

Also caught a film I have been waiting for, 3:10 to Yuma (a remake of a movie from the Western’s heyday in the 50s) with Christian Bale, Russell Crowe and Peter Fonda. I have to confess that like many wee boys who grew up to be big kids I still have a soft spot for a good Western; it’s a once all dominating genre which has faded away into the sunset like many of its stars did at the climax of their movies years ago. In the last couple of decades there haven’t been many, although we have had a handful from the highly enjoyable like Tombstone (silly but great, especially Kilmer’s Doc Holliday) to the superb like Unforgiven (a brilliant distillation of years of Western films into a dark, brooding masterpiece) and the quirky, odd gems like Dead Man and The Proposition.

Now we have 3:10 to Yuma, with a Jesse James Western starring Brad Pitt on the way in a few months too. I may have to dust off my cowboy boots. The movie itself doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel – the Civil War former soldier turned farmer trying to struggle to provide for his family, the corrupt local landowner, the outlaw gang, the contrast between honesty and crime and how they Won the West, all well worn grooves in the genre and Crowe’s violent nutter who may – or may not – have a latent streak of decency and Bale playing a troubled hero aren’t new either. But damn, it is a good Western. Oh, and it had Alan Tudyk from Joss Whedon’s brilliant Firefly/Serenity in it too, never a bad thing.