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Here's A How de do Diary: April

The second installment of Barry Purves' production diary as he chronicles producing a series of animated shorts for Channel 4. An Animation World Magazine exclusive.

Barry Purves

Editor's Note: Lumps, warts and all, for eight months Barry Purves will share his personal production diary with us for his current project with Channel 4, tentatively titled Here's A How de do. This film will take a look at three men: Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte. D'Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and formed the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed Gilbert and Sullivan operas for 100 years. While the trio worked together for roughly 25 years, their relationship was strained at best. How will the production of their story go? All we can do is read along monthly and find out...

April 1st

No April Fools pranks thank goodness. My sense of humor does leave me under pressure. I took the trainee animators to Animal Crackers, my third time. They loved it, though to be in the front row, and so much part of the action, came as a shock to them all. Of course the Marx Brothers dragged them onto the stage; Groucho miraculously had Sue on her feet, arthritis and all! Hopefully they would have learnt something from the sheer physicality of it all: the timing, the slapstick, and wonderful pratfalls are a lesson to all animators.

Mackinnon & Saunders' Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte puppets. Image courtesy of Barry Purves.

April 2nd

Rushing round as usual, but threw a small wobbly with myself in the morning. Confidence about the film flew out the window. I suppose I am wanting to make this film many things, possibly too many things. Above all, it must be clear. I was cursing myself for not being able to do gags. It's bizarre that I can watch everyone else's films and see the mechanics of the gags, how they are set up and timed, but I can't do it with my own films. The Marx Brothers came round the studio--a lovely situation. We were all in awe of them, and they were totally in awe of us. It would be great to collaborate somehow.

I think I've storyboarded Episode One, but like D'Oyly Carte, I'm `lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is taboo'd by anxiety.'

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company have been in the news trying to get funding to keep them alive. The Houses of Parliament were apparently alive with the sound of MP's singing G and S. Gilbert would have approved. Panicking, trying to get ready for the busy week ahead.

April 3rd

On the Jury at Stuttgart Animation Festival:

Stuttgart airport was like a home for lost animators. Suddenly, there was a sea of familiar faces, chatting as if we'd only seen each other yesterday. Actually, most people were suffering from various forms of jet-lag. This particular festival is enormously generous in inviting guests from all over the world. It is my favorite festival, without a doubt, as I feel very much at home, and am flattered by the respect I get here. Still, it's an honor to be on the jury along with Paul Driessen, Garri Bardin, Thomas Meyer-Hermann and Florence Maihle. Illustrious company indeed, though the variety of different languages looks a little ominous.

Ironically, the catalogue has got me down as filming both The Nutcracker and Noye's Fludde. Will I ever get to film either?

April 4th

Names are not my strength, and already I'm hideously confused, and unable to put the right film with the right face. I've already seen more animation than most people see in a lifetime. Our jury discussions have been passionate, but not aggressive; one jury here, actually came to blows! It is disheartening to have to say some films are better than others, especially looking at the variety of budgets and facilities they have. All the films are good to have got this far, and it is very difficult to have to be so critical and dismissive, but we are trying to be fair and constructive.

April 5th

I've certainly earned my keep here so far--so much talking, and so many opinions expressed. My workshop was unexpectedly crammed and very lively. The language did not present any problems. If in doubt, I just flap my arms around a lot, and most people can understand me. As always, I got very passionate and emotional, and started pontificating about nonsense really. More films and more discussions. Tonight, the legendary yearly Stuttgart party at Prof. Ade's house saw me sat on a sofa with Tyron Montgomery and Jan [Pinkava], fresh from his Oscar triumph last week. Looking at the three of us, it seemed like an Oscar-themed version of All About Eve.

April 6th

The jury nearly passed out in the screening tonight for lack of food. We'd ordered a meal at a restaurant, and one hour and forty minutes later there was still no sign of it. `This is not a bistro,' we were snappily told. The jury spent the screening sharing a single bag of peanuts. Oh, the extravagance!

Real life intruded sharply, with Amanda phoning to say Pa is in hospital with a third stroke. I'm not quite sure what to do. This certainly put everything in perspective.

In the very early hours of the morning, drowning various sorrows in the bar with a good chum Frank, I got a glimpse of a very seedy side of what goes on in hotel bars. The words `paid companions' spring to mind.

April 7th

The news about Pa had made me a bit tense and snappy today, but sitting with Clare Kitson in a lovely old wooden restaurant, chatty about Gilbert and Sullivan, eased the strain a bit. Though, of course, she keeps reminding me how much this film is costing and how good it has to be. Help! I went for a swim and managed to sing the complete film, word perfect, as I did the lengths, though one trio got a little hairy and I nearly sank.

Had some very satisfying feedback from the workshop--words such as `inspiring' and `motivated' are always good to hear.

The final jury discussion saw me a little stroppy. Four smoky hours was too much, and though we did not all totally agree, we were all happy with the final choices. A lot of give and take, and I think we made the right decisions. Nothing won from Britain, or with any real puppet work.

April 8th

Various filmmakers are giving me peculiar looks, trying to read my mind for the results, some even coming on somewhat strong. Too late, we've made our minds up. As a jury member, you certainly have some power. The ceremony went very well, with most people agreeing with our choices. However, one person came up to me and rather forcefully jabbed me several times, saying, `Let me tell you about innovation!' Clearly he was not happy with our Innovation Award. We have tried to be fair, and not emotional. Certainly, the generosity of the awards here, and the prestige, will help someone's career, and so we can't be too light-hearted about all this. There is a responsibility.

The famous circus tent outside the theatre was awash with various emotional animators, saying tearful good-byes. To outsiders we may look an odd bunch, obsessed with minute trivial details, but we do love what we do, and we love others who share our passion. In just a few days we had all become a rather close bunch--quite a few hearts broken and otherwise. I witnessed a few emotional undercurrents.

April 9th

The circus tent was little more than a rain drenched frame this morning. Very sad. How could all that passion, discussion and flirtation have gone so quickly? Certainly breakfast was very thin on the ground this morning. A lot of animators had disappeared in the night, leaving only the ritual of the business cards.

It had been a joyous week. It never ceases to amaze me that my silly, little and trivial films have been taken all around the world and have given me so much warmth and respect. How nice it would be to have that respect in England! It is not an important job that I do, but I love it, and for that I am grateful.

Back to reality, a very difficult reality, and a big push to get Gilbert and Sullivan going.

April 14th

Properly back in the office, though I spent all Easter Monday in here catching up with the post and such. The Stuttgart Festival already seems a distant memory. It's almost a separate life. I can't begin to describe to the people here. It is just a blur of images and faces--a bit like me in the office today. I'm beavering away at the storyboard and design issues, but haven't really thought of the larger picture of Gilbert and Sullivan, of the studio, or cameraman, or everyone complaining that there is not enough money to do what I am asking. Where does this relatively large budget go? There are so many people involved with this film. How I envy animators such as Phil Mulloy or Bill Plympton who can have an idea, make the film with only a few people, and then go onto the next project. Everything I do unfortunately becomes such an event.

April 15th

A few worries about the film are taking up too much space in my head. It always amazes me that in spite of a seemingly long period of time for a film, everything is still such a rush. Plus, we still only get one chance at everything; one chance at the animation, one chance at the sculpting. Even the recording of the music, the most important element, has to happen in a few hours. The outside world probably thinks we sit around luxuriously honing everything time and time again until we are satisfied. The reality is very different. All this was brought about by the frustrations of not having the actual music to listen to--I won't have it until a week before I start filming. This will necessitate a mad panic as most of the choreography will have to be done the night before filming.

I was also forced to make a compromise with the puppets. Finances dictate that the puppets can either have controllable blinks or decent mechanical hands, but not both. I've gone for the hands. I really try to get so much expression from the hands.

April 16th

I saw the finished sculpt of D'Oyly Carte's head this morning--quite stunning. Joe has given him tremendous hair (I won't raise the issue that the character has just woken up!).

I've felt somewhat out of control today. Too much fussing about with other important areas of G and S has given me little time to work on what I should be doing.

I watched Mike Leigh's heart wrenching film Secrets and Lies last night and wept buckets. I really do hope that our G and S film can go out with his film of G and S, though the length of his films would seem to rule out the addition of a short film. The distribution company may also worry that we give too much away too soon. I had a letter this week from one of the senior figures of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, saying that the head of Channel Four should know what `Here's a How de do' means, and that I shouldn't even contemplate changing the name to The Gilbert and Sullivan Story.

April 17th

Last night went to Birmingham Royal Ballet's Edward II : monumental, passionate, gory and brave. I so admire the choreographer, David Bintley, trying to push the boundaries of what is usually expected of ballet. Where does it say that ballet has to be cute or about swans? Who would have thought a ballet about the undignified and horrific death of an early British King by red hot poker, would have an audience cheering. A pretty full audience was obviously prepared to give something different a go. If only animation producers would take note.

There was a second production meeting with everyone, and we have thrashed out Episode One and as good as locked it off. Nick's designs are getting there, though we are still in danger of being too straight. We still do not have the cross hatching on the costumes right yet.

Never have I been so ready for the week-end, though it will be all traveling, emotion and work.

April 20th

A weekend with Pa in hospital and by Ma's grave is more than enough to put the pressures of making a film into perspective. With a few rather emotional thoughts still with me this morning, I took awhile to get into G and S mode, but once there I was racing. The long, very flooded journey down to Cambridge had given me some all too rare time to think straight and calmly, and without distractions. I've been able to think of ways of making things simpler and the design more coherent. In every day I find I must have some time to myself.

Had an exhilarating afternoon working with Wyn at the piano. We went through every note of the score, making sure that each note had a purpose, that it wasn't wasted nor took up valuable time. We are happy with the score now. It's certainly full of energy and life, but what a jigsaw it is. What a lot of work it has been to get the music into exactly three minute chunks.

Was amused to see in the Independent, an article saying that Gilbert and Sullivan really are lowest common denominator stuff, and shouldn't be performed. Then there's Channel Four thinking Gilbert and Sullivan is highbrow stuff for an elitist audience. There's a how de do!

April 21st

I was still excited after having gone through the music score in detail yesterday. I can't wait to hear our particular and rather punchy arrangements. Sullivan's music still excites me enormously. `It bubbles with wit and good humor,' as Jack Point says. There is so much warmth in these operas, and this warmth is contagious. I hope I can get this across in the animation.

Nothing moved forward much today. It's not too easy having my producers two hundred miles away. Geography can slow things down.

Only three more days training the animators. I shall miss them, but I do need that space in my head.

A model of the bed appeared and it bounces--very exciting.

April 22nd

Sadly we have lost Tristan, the lighting cameraman I had hoped to use. What makes it even harder is that he is a big G and S fan, and likes my work. His letter of declining was written as a G and S song--brilliant.

I'm now at the end of storyboarding Episode Three, and already my drawings have fallen to pieces. For each three-minute episode I'm doing about 75 drawings. It does take too much time.

Went to look at a potential studio--a good space among other units all beavering away.

More examples today of having to penny-pinch with this budget, and yet for Channel Four it is an enormous budget. It's hard having to keep cutting back and back.

Real life has made me a little sluggish and emotional and tetchy today. I listen to Sullivan's music and escape into a world of happy endings and big chorus numbers.

Shakespeare in Next by Barry Purves. Image courtesy of Barry Purves.

April 23rd

And a happy 434th birthday to Bill Shakespeare. It amuses me that a few people refer to this date as if it were my birthday. It is a good feeling to be strongly associated with Shakespeare through Next. After all that intense work, I feel protective toward Shakespeare, as I do to all my puppets. A strange permanent and intimate bond is always formed. The Shakespeare puppet has been in Oslo today at a Festival. He has literally been `round the world.

The penultimate day for my animators, and they are all looking a little sad. That happy group is about to be broken up, and no-one quite knows where they go from here. They have been a marvelous bunch and are all pretty damn good animators, with a lot of humor and feeling for it. The change in 12 weeks has been astonishing.

Possibly we have a cameraman for G and S...

April 24th

Such a frantic day. I've not even opened my storyboard for G and S and there is such pressure to get it done. I'm still only drawing Episode Three.

Accountants were in this morning--this is all a little worrying. I'm not too good at dealing with the nuts and bolts, and it certainly stops me concentrating on what I should be doing. Things like Schedule D and P45's [self-employment taxation and employment paperwork] are a complete mystery to me, but talk about what the bassoon is playing in The Mikado, and that's another matter.

A visit from Philip Bowman, an animation producer I met in Brisbane. He was fascinated by the scale of the studios here. It would be good to go and set something up down there.

My animators finished today. Champagne at lunch saw us all a little rosy. Their thank you card to me was a photo of their three puppets as The Marx Brothers, quite brilliant, as was their present of a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan cigarette cards. I was very touched and shall miss them. But now I have to put all my so-called words of wisdom into practice. Can I do it after so long away from a camera?

April 27th

A trainee-free day, but I still couldn't resist the temptation to keep popping down to see how they were doing.

A couple came to see me today with an idea for an animated film--and very good it was too. I wish I could help, but I have more than enough problems trying to raise finance for my own films. It saddens me to see the amount of films I have written and storyboarded that have never had funding. So much effort, emotional investment and research, and they just lie there stillborn.

A quiet day in the office and I cracked on with all the necessary lists of props and so on. I think I need to turn the screw a bit as I get the feeling people view our start day as still a long way away. It's not that far at all.

April 28th

I didn't pause for breath all day, and the complexity of this film has really dawned on me. It is huge! I've been trying to give the impression that I have answers for everyone, and that each department is as important as the others. I am so focused on Gilbert and Sullivan that I fear that I'm losing track of anything unrelated. Karen is gamely trying to keep up with me, and look after the day to day running of the office.

I spent the evening with Mandy and Jane walking through some of the more difficult choreographic bits. I was horrified to see the video as I am perfect casting for Sullivan--stout! The girls were a great help in just working out some of the logic, and we certainly laughed. I hope I can get a dance feel to it. I'm worried of course that I will only get the barsheets a few days before I start filming.

Jean Marc the cameraman came by train from Paris to see us--my knowledge of technical matters was slightly exposed.

April 29th

Totally shattered after using up all my gray cells yesterday, but have spent today quietly watching the video from last's night terpsichorean efforts. I never use live-action as direct reference, (the timing is so very different, and, boy, do I loathe rotoscoped animation), but this will help me simply work out who should be where at what point in the music. Of course, I'm still working to our piano track. I'm probably going to get such a shock when I hear the orchestra. Will I recognize it? Where did that twiddly bit on the oboe come from, and should I animate something to it?

Had a call from Angela [Lubbock], whose short film, Mitzi and Joe, had caused such excitement in Hollywood. She's come back to England with just a few weeks before she goes under. There is no justice.

April 30th

Fascinated to read an article saying how all the Lottery grants have produced such appalling films, with only one or two exceptions. Do I commit hubris and think that anything I ever made on that scale could change that? Let me make Noye and we'll see.

Read Barry's previous diary in last month's issue of Animation World Magazine.

Barry Purves is a Manchester-based filmmaker. Through his production company, Bare Boards Productions, he has directed several stop-motion animated films and commercials, including Next, Screen Play, Rigoletto and Achilles.

Download a Quicktime movie from Barry Purves' film, Next. © Bare Boards Productions.

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