Dave Borthwick, Radical Independent.
by Frankie Kowalski
"Independent: Free from influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self reliant: an independent mind."
--The American Heritage Dictionary
Working as an independent filmmaker is not a "stand still" kind of thing for Dave Borthwick and his colleagues at bolexbrothers studios, in Bristol, England. The studio currently turns out commercials for such clients as Coca-Cola's Fanta, Legos and Weetabix to fund his love of "dynamic filmmaking." In fact, Borthwick limits the amount of work he takes on, so the studio can devote more time to making experimental shorts. Recently, the studio has turned out such films as Darren Walsh's The Biz and Mike Booth's The Saint Inspector--both made by first-time directors. This is in addition to its first feature effort, Borthwick's The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993).
Officially founded by Borthwick and Dave Riddett (now at Aardman Animations) in 1991, bolexbrothers is part of Bristol's thriving animation community. He recalls that the impetus to establish their current facility came when, "We were faced with a project (i.e,The Secret Adventures ) that was going to take one-and-a-half years to film, meaning we had to set up and equip our own studio. So, the film's completion left us with a full studio facility. Keeping that going had been relatively easy so far, because (to our surprise) we found ourselves being offered commercials on the back of the film."
In retrospect, Borthwick says that the process that led him into animation began in the late 60s and early 70s, when he was mainly working in "theater-based projects." This involved designing and producing projected special FX, backgrounds and lighting for "traveling performances."
Visually Narrative Ideas
"As I'd had little or no experience of working with film," he recalls, "all the material was 'stills based,' [which involved] using a variety of still projectors to produce the movement and animation that was needed (any light show veteran will know what I mean). That was a very formative period for me. Not only in discovering ways of teasing movement out of still images, but also in working with visually narrative ideas."
The theater group he was working with never bothered rehearsing their shows and the first time anyone saw the "whole picture" was on opening night. Working under these conditions may seem somewhat courageous, yet the experience seemed to generate excitement and wonder to the audience. He fondly remembers that, "What it taught me was that it can pay dividends if you learn to trust your instincts, especially when making creative solutions about narrative."
Borthwick still feels that the theater is "the perfect vehicle for audience engagement." However, despite the excitement he experienced in seeing a different show every night, Borthwick envied people who could "carry it around in a film can."
After learning the fundamentals of filmmaking at Bristol University, he wanted to be an animator; instead, he spent the next 10 years or so as cameraman, indulging his passion for lighting and composition. Borthwick was fascinated by the whole filmmaking process and wanted to be more involved.
By the early 1980s, Borthwick was living in Copenhagen, but frequently returning to England to work for the BBC. A turning point was an assignment to produce a series of "cheap" shorts set against the soundtracks of vintage pop records. The job required the juggling of very small budgets in order to pay for the actors required for particular films, leaving only "a few hundred pounds in the kitty. So, together with Dave Riddett," he explained, "I decided to produce them as animation films. All they required was our time and imagination. We couldn't afford to commission armatured models, so we plundered local rubbish dumps and the toy cupboards of friends' children."
The Ultimate Ready Made
It was during this period, in search of "ready mades," that Borthwick started working with the ultimate ready made, the human body, using pixilation. He wanted to try and work with the technique in a very controlled way; his aim was to create characters with more subtle facial and body expressions to provide for a more dramatic effect; in this, he seems to have wanted to deliberately avoid the more comic, slapstick effects achieved with the method by the past master of this technique, Norman McLaren.
The opportunity to put pixilation to the test came out of the blue, with a chance commission from BBC Bristol to make a 10 minute animated pilot. Several ideas were discussed, but he eventually settled on the idea of reworking some traditional fairy tales. He wanted to try to transpose them from the "sterile never-never land, to which time has relegated them," into a world that would seem less removed and more accessible, and "which had the ability to engage an adult audience."
Borthwick was thrilled with the idea, because animation is a means by which he could totally immerse himself in his own fantasy world. "I wanted to work with actors and models. A story involving giants and little folk seemed the obvious subject and Tom Thumb offered some salient issues that appealed to my more sinister curiosities."
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
© Manga Entertainment
Although the BBC encouraged Borthwick to be radical, even provoking, their initial reaction to the script was "pretty negative." He commented that, "I think they felt it was offensive. But I was very excited at its potential and insisted that I wasn't interested in producing any other ideas that had been suggested." The BBC changed their minds and Borthwick got the go ahead. "Then the commissioning editor went to the programmers with a bunch of new programs," he recalls, "including a couple of minutes of Tom Thumb, [which was still a] work in progress. Unfortunately, the piece he took along was one of the more tender scenes, and the programmer said, "OK, we'll put it on over the Christmas period."
"I was very nervous about that," Borthwick says, "and tried to tell them that the finished piece would not be suitable. But I was told the decision couldn't be changed. So after a manic rush to finish it in time we had predictable consequences--I think it was bit of a 'party pooper.' There was a lull of about a year before we could get anyone interested in developing Tom Thumb further."
Getting to the Next Step
Borthwick still wanted to take his film to the next step, which was to turn it into a long-form, alternative fairy tale. He recalled that, "Peter Lord at Aardman suggested I submit it to the Stuttgart and Belgium festivals and it soon started winning awards."
It was about this time that Richard "Hutch" Hutchison entered the picture. An avid fan of bolexbrothers, he felt their films deserved a wider audience. They started a new partnership, creating a company whose first aim was raising funds for a feature-length version of Tom Thumb, i.e., The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. Island Communications (now Manga Entertainment) provided some of the money to develop a script and bought the video rights. The project's funding was split between four more parties--BBC-TV and La Sept TV in France each bought broadcast rights; John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin, put money in it, as well as Hutch. This coincided with a new initiative at the BBC to commission animated films and it was included in a package which also included Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers and Jan Svankmajer's Faust.
Borthwick worked alone on the script for about six months before he had a draft that would secure funding. "I was very fortunate," he says, "that the initial investors didn't insist on seeing anything more than the written script. Colin Rose (BBC), Andy Frain (Manga) and Hutch were very supportive and seemed confident that I had a clear idea of what it would look like."
The Secret Adventures employed Borthwick's usual combination of traditional puppet animation and pixilation. The puppets were built using latex skin and foam flesh over metal replicas of human skeletons. The pixilation, though, posed something of a problem for the actors.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
© Manga Entertainment
He soon found out that, "because of the slow movement involved in pixilation, they just couldn't get it--humans do not stand still. So I used my colleagues instead. We kept the energy level up by shifting and changing roles. The pub scene where they are playing skittle, Aardman Animations' cameramen Dave Riddett and animator, Richard Goleszowski are in the scene." He feels that the results of pixilation are notoriously unpredictable, so a wrong move requires a constant "reediting of the action" during filming. It is this sort of challenge, however, that seems to interest him the most. Thus, he notes that, "I enjoy working with kindred spirits who appreciate instinctive decisions."
The Virtue of Limitations
In terms of today's climate for independent production, Borthwick feels that investors want to "take safer options, rather than seeing what the potential of a project could be." The resulting pressures, he feels, leads to a tendency to solve design problems by resorting to established, "off-the-shelf solutions." Instead, he prefers to try to make a virtue of those same limitations.
While commercial work has kept Borthwick busy of late, he is also "very close" to finishing a treatment for a new feature. If he can generate enough interest, he could start production late this year or in early 1997. This time he wants to work with professional actors so the film isn't strictly animation, in that it won't be totally stop frame. For Borthwick, "One thing is quite certain, there won't be any live-action in it. I have a bit of a problem mixing live-action with animation. Once you've set up an animated world. live-action, for me, just shatters the illusion and drags one back to normality."
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb is a bold approach to the story's basic theme and a visually striking journey through a bizarre and often surrealistic post-industrial world of "giants" and "little folk." One can only marvel what sort of world Borthwick's next feature venture will evoke.
Frankie Kowalski is Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine.