I can finally show you what I’ve been working on for the last few months!
The below is a written description of how it was made, originally submitted to BBC Comedy on 19th October 2011.
Please note that, in the ‘Making of…’film below, the final sequence is from an early rough cut of the film to show the sequence in context. The eventual edit of the film had different book-ends which also meant losing the final cloud sequence.
Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope – Jim Le Fevre (freelance director represented by Nexus Productions)
We were approached by Polly Leys, Kate Norrish and Owen Harris from Hillbilly Films about doing the title sequence and some animated sections for their Comedy Docu-Drama, Holy Flying Circus, written by Tony Roche, in May this year (2011).
At the first meeting (with Luke Youngman from Nexus Productions) it was apparent that two things boded well for the project, firstly that the budget was extremely low which meant that the passion (from both sides) needed to be extremely high, and secondly that Owen, the director, had a strong vision that, although he didn’t know exactly what he wanted, he wanted something passionately different.
Probably the most interesting aspect to the film was that it was, in effect, a ‘period drama’ and equally (and perhaps uniquely) it was a drama that had at its roots a powerful starting point in animation, namely that of Terry Gilliam who, although he never understood it at the time, was creating a new chapter in the use and technique of animation.
Even though Owen wanted something radically new I was at pains to point out that if all the actors and sets were dressed in the detail of the time, were we to radically re-define Gilliam’s work using contemporary CGI wizadry it would no longer be honest to Gilliam’s work, something easy to excuse when you are using animation and something utterly frustrating when wanting to retain the authenticity of this kind of subject matter. It would be like Darren Boyd who played John Cleese, listening to an iPod in the film.
However one of Owen (and Lisa Marie-Hall, the art-director)’s stronger desires was that it mirrored Gilliam’s passion, craft and approach which, back in the 70’s created an utterly ground breaking new form of animation (and comedy) through necessity on minimum budget and found something through problem solving.
Well, we had the minimum budget box ticked.
That was when I realised the Phonotrope technique was ready to be used.
The Phonotrope is a technique I created about five years ago involving a record player spinning at a fixed speed (45 revolutions per minute) and a camera filming at a fixed speed (25 frames per second) and a sequence of pictures laid out around the circumference which, when filmed, would create the illusion of animation. Previously my experiments had been restricted to record sized discs (those of 12 inches) which, by the workings of maths, limited the ‘frame’ size to about 1.8 cm. And the length of the animated loop to 1.3 seconds. To create a sequence that would tell a story over 90 seconds I realised that we needed to build upwards and outwards.
Image of ‘Goldie – Jump 01’ Phonotrope
copyright Jim le Fevre 2010
After planning the Phonotrope on the computer (in 3D Studio Max with the help of a truly fantastic ‘script’1 from Ben Cowell) and creating the animated loops (based on Gilliam’s style but telling the story of the ‘Holy Flying Circus’ film) in after effects, we laid out the sequences onto A2 sheets and had them printed onto the heaviest stock of card we could afford. From that point the outline of the sequences was taken by Ewen Dickie of LaserMake.co.uk and used to lazer cut the ‘frames’ out. This was no easy task as there were, in all, 2012 individual frames (plus a few more for the top cloud layers) and some issues with the registration of the prints meaning Ewen had to manually position each sheet.
Early virtual planning of the Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope
copyright Jim le Fevre 2010
Gordon Allen and Gee Staughton from www.wearetheartdept.com took up the reigns to physically build the structure of the Phonotrope with Gordon carefully spending time figuring out a system to be able to revolve the structure at a fixed (and constant) speed with the help of Matthew Day at Clapham Road Studios who was also DoP on the job.
The build eventually took two weeks with help from many extra hands including Sophie Powell and Joe Kirton and the rigging and lighting took three days.
The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope in construction
copyright Jim le Fevre 2010
The eventual structure was 1.2 meters wide at the base and 2.1 meters tall and weighed A LOT. Each segment was linked through moments of animation which meant that once the Phonotrope was in place there was a final run of sticking and from that moment onwards the only way to take it off was to break the whole thing apart, which Claire Thompson, the producer from Nexus Productions and Matt Day had to do at the end.
We had to use a combination of a motion control rig and a 14” ball-bearing ring to be able to spin the Phonotrope and due to the weight of the tower it took around ten seconds to get up to speed and, more importantly as we discovered to our cost, about 16 seconds to ramp down to a stop.
It should be noted that the final stage of the Phonotrope, the clouds and tower, never made it into the film as the linking scene involving chewing gum and a foot that followed it got cut so you will probably have to wait for the DVD extras to see that!
If you would like to see the structure in it’s (almost) entirety it currently stands in the foyer of Nexus Productions in Shoreditch.
Director Jim Le Fevre
Executive Producer Luke Youngman
Production Manager Claire Thompson
Production Company NEXUS PRODUCTIONS
Production Assistant Fernanda Garcia Lopez
Production Assistant Carmen De Witt
Intern Leila Smith
3D Pre Visualisation Development Ben Cowell
3D Pre Visualisation Development Mark davies
Director of Photography Matthew Day
Camera Assistant Toby Goodyear
Design / Construction Gordon Allen
Layout / Art-working Gee Staughton
Joinery / Construction Joe Kirton
Laser Cutter Ewen Dickie
Assistant Joinery / Art-working Harris Allen
Art Department Assistant Dominic Owen
Senior Art Department Assistant Sophie Powell
Studio Assistant Elizabeth Day
Eliszabeth and Matt etc.. @ Studio Clapham Rd Studios
Gordon, Gee, Jo, Harris @Wearetheartdepartment
Ewen Diskie @ Laser Cutting Laser Make
Ben Cowell for everything he’s done with Max for the Phonotrope project and Mark Davies for his blind enthusiasm about it too.