STARTING FROM SCRATCH
by Oliver Postgate
OLIVER POSTGATE was recently both honoured and astonished by being awarded an honorary fellowship to BKSTS. He says that when he first took a contract to make a film for children’s television he was completely skint, totally ignorant and, by any standards, utterly foolish. However, he needed the money. So, using his only qualification - native wit - he literally started from first principles, triumphantly inventing systems and methods that had often been in common use for years. Here he recounts some of the highly unsophisticated technical details of the evolution of a system, which, over a period of thirty years, led from an ostrich in the bedroom through the infinite vastness of Clanger-space, and on to Bagpuss, a saggy old cloth cat whose films were awarded the title of “Best BBC Children’s Films Ever” in 1998 – twenty-four years after they were made!
In 1957, television for children was somewhat limited in scope. Visual graphic presentations mainly consisted of black strips of cardboard with white lettering on, which could be superimposed over still pictures. It was even possible to animate these by sliding the card into view along a cut-out mask. This miraculous appearance was sometimes a bit jerky due to imperfections in the cutting of the card and occasionally altogether absent due to inattention on the part of the concealed operator.
Back-projection was also sometimes available. This was the province of the celebrated Percy Mole who could fix up a sheet across the studio and shine his magic lantern on to it from a stand at the back. The back-projected image was necessarily static as the synchronisation of a projector with the camera signal presented certain electronic problems which could not be approached due to financial considerations, like there being no money for stuff like that.
I must confess that I did not come to make films intentionally. It was a case of force majeure. I had arrived on the scene with a story about Alexander, The Mouse Born to be King, in my pocket, at exactly the same time as a tumultuously enthusiastic Irishman appeared with a revolutionary form of ‘live’ animation. This was, in his glowing eyes, a breakthrough in technical innovation by which live flat animation could now be effected by means of magnetic attraction.
Alexander was duly cut out of card and pressed into the service of the new system. Certain initial difficulties were encountered in that the flat magnet taped to Alexander’s underside had to be approached from below a table by a magnet held by the operator, who, unfortunately, could not see through cardboard. Alexander’s magnet would feel the attraction from a distance and would nose-dive across the picture to meet it. Alternatively, if the polarity was the wrong way around, he would be repelled and either hurtle away or swing around and lie on his back with his feet in the air (hardly a royal gesture!).
In these circumstances the only thing to do was to reach an apparently enormous hand into the picture and turn the damn’ thing over.
These misfortunes did nothing to diminish the inventor’s enthusiasm, but they did cause a certain discontent among the operators and authors.
Utterly exasperated, my colleague, the artist Peter Firmin, reverted to white drawings on black cardboard sliders and discs, a technique which he developed to a fine art, producing a series of delicious, optically-astonishing, renderings of nursery rhymes. These he manipulated to accompany the singing of a young Australian called Rolf Harris, in a weekly programme that ran for some years.
I, equally exasperated, approached the company with the revolutionary suggestion that film might be a suitable medium for animation.
Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, the head of department was instantly emphatic.
“No money” he barked.
He always said things like that, so I persevered
“How much no money?” I asked.
“Hundred pounds a programme. Take it or leave it.”
I took it.
Numerous anxieties naturally followed this sudden excursion into the unknown. An as-yet-unconsidered process had to be developed, and fast. I knew the basic principles of stop-frame animation. Now I had to think up a way actually to do it, using, as far as possible, things that I already possessed or could get hold of for next to nothing.
Wisely I rejected the idea of actually making a 16mm camera. I borrowed the money for that and bought a second-hand Bell and Howell.
Fortunately I possessed a large stock of variegated junk and was also able to lay hands on some old scaffold-poles, lamps, a kitchen table, some loose timber and a broken projector. Having limited confidence in my ability as a carpenter and being uncertain of the design, let alone the likely location, of the proposed animation-table, I put it together using scaffold-clamps, G-cramps and stout sticky-tape. The final structure came to roost, like a large ostrich, in the corner of our bedroom, much to the dismay of my wife who was, at the time, expecting twins.
Technically speaking, I now had an animation table - a camera looking down on a table on which I could place cut-out cardboard figures and, taking a frame between each movement, move them about with a pin. Repeating this twenty-five times would provide one second of moving film. That would be laborious but, I was sure, it had to be more reliable than magnets –as indeed it was.
Nevertheless, the reality turned out to have problems of its own. The first was to find out how to persuade the camera to take single frames. I had been told exactly how to do this. I was to press the “go” button for a fraction of a second. This meant I had to stand on tiptoe and prod the ostrich under the chin. It did not take kindly to this and, being of a somewhat flexible construction, it backed off. Not a lot, but enough to blur the picture.
For once I dealt with this sensibly – I took the camera back to the shop and changed it for a 16mm Bolex. This had a stop-frame button which could be released remotely with a long extension-snake.
The next task was to determine exactly what the camera was seeing. I couldn’t climb up to look down through the viewfinder for each scene. With unexpected luck I was able to obtain a prismatic viewer which could be fitted in place of the gate backing-plate. By climbing up and contorting myself so as to look sideways into this I was able to see the table-top through the lens. By pushing small blocks of wood about with a stick I was able to mark the corners of the visible frame. I clambered gingerly down and marked these corners with a chinagraph pencil. I then repeated this process using the other two lenses of the camera and duly marked their corners. Using these I corners I was able to draw the rectangles which would be seen by the camera with each lens.
Flushed with effort and success I had a cup of tea and then placed a background card on the table ready for filming, thus successfully concealing the rectangles I had just so laboriously drawn.
This necessarily gave pause for thought, quite a long pause, finishing up with my finding a large piece of perspex and fitting it with register pins to locate in holes drilled in the front corners of the table. I then traced the frame-squares through it with scratches, using a ruler and a kitchen knife. Now I was able to lay this perspex on top of each background and see the size and position of the picture that the camera would take - and then hope to remember to lift it off before shooting.
I shot a test reel which seemed to be all right, so I started on my first film series. This was to be a formal Chinese epic about a small boy and a water-buffalo. These characters and their backgrounds were duly painted for me by an honorary Chinaman living in Chiswick.
I cut out the figures and joined on their limbs with bits of cotton and sellotape. When set up on the formal Chinese background, they looked marvellous. However, in spite of my repeated exhortations, the artist tended to draw the characters in three-quarter view, ie, turned slightly towards the camera. The result was that when they walked across the picture they did so with a slightly suspicious limping gait. This was not improved by the fact that the loosely-made joints slithered about as if dislocated.
In the event, however, these strange characteristics could plausibly be ascribed to Chinese formalism and I made the films. Somewhat to my surprise, they were was accepted, perhaps on the grounds that anything was better than magnets.
However, by then I knew that all was not well. The camera exposure was still far from consistent. The stop-frame mechanism in the Bolex often produced frames of uneven density, darkish frames that usually passed unnoticed and lightish frames that I preferred not to mention. Also the snake-release still caused the camera to wobble. Furthermore, the film (Ilford FP3) required a high light level that tended to curl the card-figures. On top of all that the gantry, the timber ostrich-neck, very slowly twisted to left and right, according to the weather. I dealt with that last problem by periodically climbing up and re-aligning the perspex plate but the others were more difficult. It seemed to me that short of making a rock-solid gantry, which would have cost money, the only way to make sure the camera was not jogged by the shutter release device was to attach the entire mechanism firmly to the camera, and operate it electrically from a distance. At the same time it was obvious that in order to be able to lower the light level I needed a much slower exposure.
Luckily the Bolex had an external drive link, so I collected old Meccano, tin-snips and bolts and put together an exterior drive unit consisting of small shaded-pole motor driving, through a heavy-duty rubber-band, a set of Meccano gears which engaged with the unlatched camera-drive. This worked well and gave me an exposure of about half a second, But the release was still a shade too jerky. So after days of experimenting with outlandish ideas I discovered that the best way to get a smooth take-up was to insert into the drive train a constantly-running, spring-loaded slip-clutch, held back by a hooked solenoid. This worked a treat. The shutter-release was now a press-switch to energise the solenoid and so allow one frame to be exposed. This would also, incidentally, click a separate solenoid frame-counter.
As a bonus I made a rotary dimmer with a similar rubber-band drive, using an old fire-element and some brass screws set in a Formica plate, and wired that in with the exposure switch as well. This gave a timed fade. And, to cap it all - joy upon joy! - I found that, simply by putting a twist in the rubber bands I could reverse the mechanisms. I could wind the camera back and also fade the light up or down. By this means I could make a very creditable dissolve in the camera.
The most useful virtue of all in this assembly of junk was inadvertent. I had mounted the release button (a cupboard door-knob on a meccano strip) on to a weighted lump of wood. This was just meant to keep it still, but I found out that whenever I had a long, still shot to take I no longer had to sit and press the blasted button a couple of hundred times. I just turned the lump upside-down so that the button was held down by its weight. I could then leave the camera to get on with it at its own speed - a stately one frame per second.
All in all I was comfortable with the machine and was happy to take a contract to make a film about a Welsh railway engine who wanted to sing in the choir. His wheels had cardboard links, his steam was puffs of cotton-wool and his name was Ivor. He puffed fairly smoothly along the track thanks to the invention which I am most proud of. This was an invisible movement-marker. It consisted of a Meccano cogwheel with a handle on it. I would run this along the cardboard background, pressing quite hard. This made indentations that were invisible in the diffused filming lights but became visible when my hand shadowed them, showing me the exact distance the engine had to move in the next frame.
We muddled on, Peter Firmin and I. He drew and cut out a multitude of heads bodies and legs, and between us we made a stumbling Saga of the Northlands, with stirring music composed by Vernon Elliott. This was for the BBC and for it we received the princely sum of about ten pounds a minute for the finished film, a price that needed me to turn out about 120 seconds of film a day to make a living.
This meant that we had so time for re-shoots, except in a disaster situation, so our shooting ratio must have been about 1:1.2, which was economical. On the other hand, as Peter was living in Battersea, my having to take the tube across London in order to collect one leg or a one-inch winged helmet for a cardboard warrior who was waiting patiently on the set, was not exactly cost-effective. So when, in 1959, Peter and his family moved to a farm in Kent, we moved too.
Peter and I now had our own studio - a cowshed - and, later, I had a studio all to myself, a set of pigsties elevated to accommodate a taller beast and an even taller rebuilt fully-framed animation table. This new table had an electric camera lifter powered by a geared motor and quite a lot of pieces of bicycle.
It was here that I invented a totally new approach to animation.
I decided I would make the complete sound-track first. Then I would have it transferred to a 16mm optical track, so that, by running the track through a steenbeck-type editor (which I had assembled from two broken projectors and a sawn-up tape-recorder), I could locate the frame number of each important noise, word or beat of music, and write it on to the script. I was later both flattered and slightly miffed to discover that this method of working had been a common practice in the trade since the days of Felix the Cat.
I was now able, with a frame-numbered script and a cassette of the sound-track, to make all the decisions about shots and actions, in fact all the editing, in the camera, on the spot, while I was working. In retrospect I now value the immediacy and freedom of this way of working, as compared with the traditional approach in which every single frame has to be decided beforehand.
Everything was running much more smoothly now, especially since the discovery of Blutack. A tiny ball of Blutack made an excellent joint for a cardboard shoulder or leg, one which would rotate accurately without the ‘dislocated look’. Furthermore it allowed me brutally to dismember parts of an actor’s body between frames without having to lift it out of the picture. At a moment of drama in the action, it took only a moment to pull off the actor’s smiling head and replace it with one aghast with alarm. Output increased markedly, but the real pleasure was to receive the rushes from the labs, lace them into the projector along with the sound-track, and see and hear the action and drama that I had so laboriously created, frame by frame, during the last few days, suddenly become alive!
Not that life was without disasters. My most important item of equipment was a fly-spray. Flies found the warm, bright backgrounds irresistible and unless I was constantly vigilant an apparently huge, perfectly-formed bluebottle would have its moment of immortality, filmed for a few frames clinging to Noggin’s helmet. We also, for a time, suffered from a ghostly patch that would wander darkly about the picture. Eventually I located this. It was a camera beetle. Absolutely minute, this hitherto unknown creature lived inside the camera and liked to warm itself by walking across the face of the prism behind the camera lens. I had to dismount and dismantle the entire camera in order to hunt down this item of local wild-life.
These were minor difficulties. By now we had discovered that we could, via an agent, sell showings of the films we had made in other countries. So although still fairly short of money, we were in an economic situation that was very favourable. We had taken on no capital, we employed nobody. Apart from the artwork I did everything that had to be done. This caused a small but constant anxiety to lurk in my mind – the Trade Union! By doing all these things myself I was intruding on the demarkations of several trades. Small wonder I was alarmed when, one day, Reg., the ACTT shop steward, came up to me and said. “We had a Meeting about your stuff yesterday . . .”
“You aren’t going to black my films are you?” I asked.
“Goodness me, no. We like them. No, it was just a question of establishing a category for you.”
“Yes. It was resolved that anybody who does the sort of things that nobody in their right mind would think of doing, and gets away with it, then they might just as well be allowed to get on with it.”
“What’s this category called?” I asked.
“Madman.” Replied Reg.
I can’t tell you what a relief that was!
Later in the 1960’s Peter and I decided to diversify. I fitted the camera to a roving dolly made from two pieces of plywood, a piece of 4X2 timber, part of a pram and some G cramps. With this I was able to go outside and film, in single frames, the life and times of the Pingwings, who were knitted penguin-type persons with weights at the bottom to keep them upright. They would scud about Peter’s farmyard looking, as somebody said, like drunken nuns on skateboards.
The Pingwings were followed by another rural family, the Pogles of Pogles Wood. This time, having learned our lesson, we took the out-of-doors indoors, made a setting in Peter and Joan’s barn and dragged in clumps of grass, leaves and branches every few days. The barn was a spacious building and very satisfactory, so for a while we worked almost entirely with puppets rather than flat cardboard. For this I put together a different sort of camera assembly which would be mounted on a rock-solid Vinten tripod that I found in a junk-shop. The unit had a long-distance bulb shutter-release and, eventually, a geared zoom attachment of which I was very proud.
This was clipped on to the lens and would inch the zoom in or out in synchrony with the shutter-release. Alternatively, under its own power, which was as usual a small motor with a reversible rubber-band, it would provide a running-camera zoom. The zoom it produced in this way was particularly smooth because, by triggering the time-exposure gear in the camera with a shell-cam, my drive mechanism held the shutter open for eighty percent of the cycle time, as compared with about forty percent provided by a conventional camera.
When, in 1969, colour came and the BBC commanded a space oddysey, we were lucky enough to locate an ancestor of The Clangers in an old Noggin First Reader book. We cleared the debris of the Pogles out of the barn and Peter built a world of polystirene balls mixed with plaster, in an infinity of night sky (two roving flats painted midnight blue and starred with spots of white emulsion and planets made of old Christmas-tree balls). This made a good home for the Clangers, who were pink, knitted, mouse-like persons with foam interiors and ball-and-socket skeletons. They also had large flat feet which I could pin into the floor with one inch long tintacks. I lived and worked with them for months on end, coming to know them well and developing a great respect and affection for their courteous and sensible way of life, in a world which, without the protection of an atmosphere, was constantly being bombarded with strange objects hurtling about in space
Animating the Clangers was a pleasure, although to this day I have a dent in the ball of my thumb from pushing tintacks through their feet. The main challenge was to find a way to fly in the various objects. Landing something vertically was easy, I just just lowered it on two lines of fine fishing-line. Retro-firing rocket modules were a bit dicey because the rockets (fireworks) tended to set light to the set. Peter’s Uncle Bill took upon himself the duty of fireman and always lurked out of shot with a bucket of water.
Bringing in flying objects, like the Clangers’ music-boat or the Iron Chicken, which had to land at a gentle angle like an aircraft, presented a very subtle task, especially difficult in single frames. I solved it eventually by making a sort of crane which consisted of a long piece of light wood clamped to the head of a screw-pan tripod. This piece of wood had a cross-piece at the far end from which the flying object could be hung.
To set up the scene I had to mount the tripod out of shot at a crazy angle so that, as the tripod head was turned by the screw-handle, the end of the crane would move, frame by frame, in a descending arc. When hung from the cross-piece with the right length of fine line, the flying object could be brought in to land in a fairly convicing way – sometimes. The main task was to stop it turning and swinging. Even with eight lines attached, the music-boat would still shimmy about for several seconds after each movement. All I could do was wait for it to calm down. Once I had learned always to load the crane tripod with heavy objects to stop it toppling over in mid-shot, the procedure became fairly routine. Even so landing or taking off one article could take several hours of delicate, anxious work.
Looking back on that time, thirty to forty years ago, I would expect to remember it as a time of risk, of uncertainty and hard, repetitious, work. In fact it was all of those things, but it was also tremendously exciting and absorbing. I spent hours slogging away, totally engrossed with inching the Clangers into their lives, with confronting Evans the Song with an elephant, or sneering with Nogbad the Bad, and I remember those times as being among the happiest and most fulfilled in my whole life. I am left with the feeling that the worlds which Peter Firmin created and I lived in were far gentler and more joyful than this dangerous, unpredictable place we live in today.
Text, Illustrations and Photographs (c)Oliver Postgate April 2003