The first installment of Barry Purves' production diary as he chronicles producing a series of animated shorts for Channel 4. An Animation World Magazine exclusive.
Editor's Note: Lumps, warts and all, for the next 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...
Gilbert and Sullivan, like the sources for my other films, have long been part of my life. I think I saw my first opera when I was ten. This was The Mikado, and I was hooked. I was not always so keen on the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, not because of their performance style, but because of their audiences who refused to allow Gilbert and Sullivan to move with other theatrical developments. It was about the dozens of crusty amateur societies who unquestioningly and badly reproduced the D'Oyly Carte productions that I wrote a rather angry, and probably not very well argued, thesis at University. There must be life in these masterpieces, I hoped, and when the copyrights elapsed, companies such as the English National Opera, started performing the operas without being tied to traditional staging and design. It was then that `my eyes were fully opened.' These operas still have so much joy for us today.
Here's a How de do has been in my head for many years, though I originally saw it as a one-off half-hour special. There has seldom been such a perfect marriage of words and music as in these fourteen operas - but I loved the ironic way that this harmony belied the `marriage' between the three men responsible for these masterpieces. As always, I am fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes, the story behind the icon.
Clare Kitson, commissioning editor of Channel 4, and I first seriously talked about Here's a How de do back in February 1997, and I worked through the summer trying to think of a way of getting my too-plentiful ideas into the five three-minute slots she had available. She was happy with my solution, and in September 1997, we received some development money. Two months later, Clare had in her hand a pretty detailed script, some colorful paintings, a few storyboard drawings, a budget, and a lively piano and vocal demo tape (I've since carefully misplaced that tape of Wyn and I singing the whole thing).
Four months later, we started work for real, though it was not as easy as that. Clare had not envisaged any money until 1999, but she pushed, and my producer pushed harder, and money was found sooner. In the meantime, I was training up three animators, Steve, Justin, and Joanne, for Cosgrove Hall, as well as training the animator, Sue Pugh, to be a director there as well. All this took a lot of juggling and planning, but I couldn't grumbl as this followed a two-year hiatus after Mars Attacks during which I scarcely worked.
Here's Who's Involved with Here's a How de do
Wyn Davies - a much respected conductor and arranger. We worked for months on the musical scores, sitting `round his piano out in the country, singing snippets, honing the music down. For me that has been a perfect job - working with people who are as passionate about their craft as I am about mine. He also had a career dip, but just as we got the go ahead, he was inundated with work and spent several months in New Zealand.
Christopher O'Hare - my producer. This is the first time we have properly worked together, so there's a lot of discovering how each other works. This produces several parallels to Gilbert and Sullivan themselves.
Mark Wright - Chris' assistant.
Karen Cain - my assistant.
Mackinnon & Saunders - probably the best, and most versatile puppet makers around. We have developed alongside each other for years, and we are all survivors of the Mars Attacks experience. They have a large staff, including Joe Holman and Darren Marshall, the sculptors responsible for the puppets. Also, Geraldine Corrigan and Clare Elliott will be doing the costumes through this company.
Cosgrove Hall - the animation studio in which I have an office and for whom I've been running several training schemes. Like many animators, I also learnt my craft here.
Nick Barnes - a young theater designer. I'm keen to work with people in other disciplines, and this is the first film where I've actually employed a designer. As and When Men - Jeff, Rick and Richard, the set builders.
Flix - the editors I have worked with for years.
Clare Kitson - the commissioning editor of Channel Four, for whom I have made Screen Play and Achilles.
Gilbert, Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte - well, I hope their story will become clear over the next eight months.
We aim to start shooting on June 15th, and deliver the film in the second week of November.
Play away the overture...
Still waiting for the contract to appear, which is a little worrying, as a lot of people are already working away in various corners. The characters now exist as lumps of clay, and already there is a life to them. The orchestrations are whizzing back and forth to New Zealand, where Wyn is trying to conduct L'heure Espagnol in the blacked-out city of Auckland. A bit concerned about not knowing whom we will have behind the camera. Paul Smith is very keen, but obviously being away from the family is not easy. Tyron Montgomery is also keen, though he has work offers coming in, and he lives in Paris, with whatever complication that brings.
An Omnibus program was on TV last night about various G and S festivals in the world. It will surely set back the argument for performing G and S by several years. The real joy of G and S for me, (i.e. - the works themselves) was clearly not on display. A lot of people in very tacky costumes, giving second hand performances. It was easy for me to be snobbish about this, which is a little frightening.
Have not really been able to get on today, because of a location shoot with Sue and 30 manic children, which included a child from Hell!
A totally manic and breathless day, squeezing in a day's workshop at a Sheffield College. The journey was a nightmare, and saw me arriving in a bit of a state, having gone `round the one way system far too many times. However, I burst into the classroom firing on all cylinders and more. I think I managed to get them all excited and hopefully inspired. I may not ever have anything profound to say, but I do feel that I can say it with a passion that is infectious - I hope. I think after a day with me, students realize that you can't be half-hearted about animation. I was not half-hearted today, and came home exhausted. I'm not sure this expenditure of effort is rewarded with the £70 fee.
The G and S contract arrived today, so we are on. I should have leapt up and down celebrating, but I just want to get down to business. We are still trying to persuade Tyron Montgomery to be on the camera for us. His film, Quest, was gorgeous to look at, and thoroughly deserved the Oscar last year.
In the office all day, but distracted with training the animators, and Sue as a director. She was cutting her vox pox (sound track composed of interviews with the public at large) together - there is a very fine line between me advising her, and me interfering.
I'm eager to get going with the storyboarding. We are just designing the storyboard now and with this particular film there is so much information to get in on each page. The music helps both to lock things down, but also to make things even more complicated. The boards will have to be a little loose here, as I'm not going to have the music timings for several weeks which is somewhat frustrating.
Getting frustrated too with the hiring of the voices for Sue's development pilot. We need versatile actors who can do a variety of voices, but guess what? They do not come cheap, and Cosgrove Hall only has a small budget for this pilot. Usual moans ... we need the best to sell this project but can't pay for them.
Sadly, we lost Tyron as our cameraman. So no cameraman and no studio yet, but most other people are on board. I'm a bit anxious that the puppet makers are racing ahead before Nick, the designer, has had time to contribute his ideas.
Raced into Mackinnon & Saunders to look at the three plasticine sculpts, and they look wonderful. They are clearly going to work well. The cross-hatching effect is not right yet. Joe is sculpting it too fine and too literal. I must encourage him to be looser and free. The drawn lines on the faces must be very bold and illogical.
A chat this afternoon to Clare Kitson - profuse thanks for getting this far. It is clear that this is a large budget by Channel 4 standards, and that they are expecting enormous things from the film - just what I need, extra pressure. We are still arguing about the title. Here's a How de do seems to be too confusing, and I am certainly resisting calling it The Gilbert and Sullivan Story. I may concede, to show willing, and call it "G & S - the Long and the Short of It!" Also, Clare is a little sad that "Fair Moon to Thee I Sing"has gone in favor of more storytelling songs. There will be some conflict here, but is it a matter of personal taste or what is right for the film? I'm worried that Channel Four sees this film as no more than a collection of jolly ditties.
The brain was truly addled tonight, and I had to shut myself away for a while just to be able to think straight.
A full office and too much admin have taken up the day. The storyboard is sitting there, begging to be filled in, and I've hardly picked up a pencil. The battle for the title continues, with me getting increasingly frustrated. I despair that "The Gilbert and Sullivan Story" is a realistic suggestion. I'm also finding it difficult that Chris is so tied up with so many projects. I know that I'm not easy to work with, and rather demand people's attention when I need it. It's odd but I am already turning into the stubborn Gilbert, who, once his mind was made up over something, would not budge. Once something seems to work, it is very difficult to change it.
For I'm a peppery kind of kind Who's indisposed for parleying To fit the wit of a bit of a chit And that's the long and the short of it.
One nice phone call came from the Sheffield College, where I did a workshop on Tuesday. Apparently the students are still buzzing from the games and exercises, and my passion for animation. They were also excited at my doomed Noye's Fludde project and are sending me a fiver to get it going.They want to see it: everyone does, except the people in charge of money.
Also, a fax from Cartoon Network about an exciting title sequence, right up my street, but I doubt it can happen. Two years out of work, and now it's all flooding in, more than I can handle.
Still trying to find a title that pleases everyone. "D'Oyly Carte Remembers Gilbert and Sullivan" does not please me at all! "Gilbert and Sullivan : the Long and the Short of It,' I could live with.
Called in to see a newly sculpted version of Sullivan: the lines on his face are much rougher and we are heading in the right direction.
I spent some time over the weekend, sat on the roof garden trying to start the storyboard: the first shot is at least 30 seconds, and there is so much to set up so quickly, as it covers not only the dream idea, but also their first meeting. I went round in circles with this, but I have at last moved on. I don't have the music yet, so I'm slightly making up the exact words.
Five years ago tonight I was at the Oscars with Screen Play. Tonight, I'm doing a free talk at the local cine club. Is that progress? I'm hoping Joanna Quinn will win, and Judi Dench of course.
Yet another fax about another exciting job that we can't do. Where was everyone last year?
Sadly, Joanna did not win the Oscar for Famous Fred (nor did Judi Dench for Mrs. Brown - now that is a crime ). Watching the Oscars is very uncomfortable. Was I really once part of all that? Of course, I'm reminded that to have been nominated was an enormous achievement, but it also makes me feel that perhaps that was the peak of my career; or was it just a fluke? But what really saddened me when watching the whole affair was being reminded of what a ghastly mistake I made in the guest I took. It hurts me to think how much my late Ma would have loved every second of it, and how thrilled she would have been. Instead, she had to settle for trying to watch it in a hotel that only had Sky news. Tragically, I'll not have that chance to please her again. Sometimes, I think it might have been easier not to have been nominated. It gave me the deluded notion that perhaps I was somehow entitled to be there (which made the subsequent career hiatus even more difficult with which to cope), and certainly no offers of work came in as a result.
With G and S, the storyboard is now being churned out, though I laugh at my appalling drawings. I am pleased that it's starting to come together - the boys have met, and already Gilbert is being difficult. No decision on the title, but all the contracts are signed and the orchestrations are being engraved.
A good day really, as my trainee animators are doing wonderfully, and Sue's development project is leaping into shape. We've made what was little mor than some disjointed drawings into a cohesive and unique series.
I was on such a high last night, having seen the stage production of the Marx Brother's Animal Crackers. Wonderful physical acting. It's exactly that, that I'm after for Gilbert and Sullivan, so, bold as brass. I went up to them and hopefully they are coming round next week to work on some gags and bits of business for G and S. The production was thrilling, crammed with marvelous gags and pratfalls, and all so inventive. I shall enjoy working with them. I get an enormous kick out of performers. I think I'm a performer at heart, but sadly, I lack the talent.
Talking of G and S: things aren't looking too good today. No studio yet, no cameraman, and no finished script, as Channel 4 wants me to alter slightly episode four. They want me to reinstate a song I cut after the demo as it held up the plot, but I feel that this does not matter to Channel 4 as they see still it as little more than a potpourri of melodies. Hopefully, I'm giving them more than that, a lot more. The title could now be "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" which I'm happy with, but is it any different to "Here's a How de do?"
A quiet day with the head down, though I've not done any storyboarding. Had a good chat to Henry Anderson at Blue Sky about doing some effects for "Never Mind." It's so good to talk to someone with so much passion and love of the arts. We have to work together somehow.
Still the search for cameramen and studios goes on. We have approached Tristam from Aardman. He would be marvelous, especially as he loves Gilbert and Sullivan.
A satisfying day overseeing Sue recording the voices for her development project. Her producer and I clashed. This project involved two characters playing together and I'd rehearsed the actors verbally bouncing off each other and ad-libbing. They gave me a wonderful spontaneity and energy. The producer glared at me, as if I was in the studio for the first time, demanding that the voices be recorded separately with air between the words. Sadly, the spontaneity died drastically. Had supper with Jo and Chris, the voices, and what a joy that was - such vitality and enthusiasm. Sometimes I fear that the process of animation does make a lot of involved people very dull, blinkered and artistically impotent.
Went to Animal Crackers again and am still full of breathless energy, and that's just from being in the audience.
A good chat to Paul (Berry) over the weekend, who is about to start his new film, well a small chunk of it. We both admitted to the appalling nerves and insecurities before filming. I do not suppose that we will ever be satisfied with what we do - it's as if we only ever get to do a dress rehearsal. Having shot something, we get a feel for it and then we can see how it should be, but it's too late. Sue did not make it in today as her arthritis got the better of her. There is no worse or no more ironic situation than for such a talented animator to slowly see her hands grow twisted and painful. I did a spur of the moment live radio talk today - I never cease to be amazed at how little research researchers do. The interviewer could not have got more wrong if he tried. The Episode One music score arrived today. We have some great and hopefully witty orchestrations. I think the score will sound fresh and original, though I'm not experienced enough to read the score and actually hear all the parts in my head. March 31st Bedlam all day - trying to get the animators going and looking after Sue as a director was bad enough, but it has been more than a full day with G and S. We had our first production meeting, and this was witnessed by a documentary film crew. I think it went very well, (I was certainly talking fit to bust and making sense - makes a change!) with us eventually all heading off in the same direction. I hope I managed to have answers for everyone. We've discarded a few of the many options I had, which is very useful. I like to set myself restrictions and conventions and keep to them. We are still trying to find appropriate images for all the tableaux, though we have found a witty one for HMS Pinafore, with the characters at sea in a dinghy, and Pinafore suddenly looming up at them. The Mikado has stumped us for a moment. I'm concerned that I am being the haughty Gilbert, wanting everything my own way. Nick's design ideas are great but he keeps going off into creative flights of fancy. I must try to keep them within our budget and schedule, but also within my conventions (such as, are we basing everything on Victorian stage machinery, or on variations of certain images?). I was, unfortunately, a bit stroppy with Chris as well, who wants to go very colorful in the tableaux - I want to be selective with the use of color. This can still be spectacular. Quite a satisfying and exhilarating day, but heavens, I'm shattered. Not many gray cells left tonight. 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.