Making the film Nightmare

The Making of a Nightmare

By Neil Carstairs


I was brought up with painting, my grandfather was a commercial artist, and painting was my father’s main hobby. I had always felt vaguely that I would like to make cartoon films, and about four years ago I bought my first (and only) camera and started animating. I had seen a series of programmes on TV (Bob Godfrey’s Do-i t-Yourself Film Animation Show) several years before, and I found the hook of the series in London at the same time.

About two weeks after this I went up to Cambridge University, and my parents moved house from near London to Scotland. During that first term I did some drawings and got my father to build a rostrum in the attic of the new house, to specifications gleaned from the book. I then spent a hectic Christmas vacation filming the drawings, trying to spin them out to finish the reel (I had no desire to make ordinary cine film, and I never have).

I started with a stick man walking along, using a cycle adapted from the book, then the erection of a butterfly entirely from straight lines. All these scenes were drawn in pen on paper, without backgrounds. When I saw the results I was encouraged to continue with abstract drawings rather than the stick man. I started working on a story of evolution, which eventually, after several attempts, became my first completed film, ‘Elixir’.

page-13-1Towards the end of this film I was introduced to the music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and saw what a difference sound can make to a cartoon, so I persuaded my parents that a good sound projector would make an ideal 21st birthday present. I then selected tunes to go with each scene, sometimes trying to get a particular phrase to coincide with a piece of action, otherwise relying on the rhythm of the music.

After the difficulties I had finding ideas for ‘Elixir’, I decided for my next film to use a song as the soundtrack. I had always known the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and I chose the nightmare song from ‘Iolanthe’, one of the classic patter songs, which does not have repeated chorus. Because it is a dream anything can happen, which makes it ideal to animate. For this film I used multi layered cels for most scones and cutouts where appropriate. I always try to use the same mix of acrylic paint for all the drawings in a scene to avoid varying tones painting on the back of the cels. Unlike ‘Elixir’ which gradually evolved over several years, the ‘Nightmare’ was defined by the duration of each line of the song. I first got hold of the recording I was going to use and with a stop watch found the time to the start of each line, then used the score of the opera (from the library) to got the position of individual words in the line. I wrote all these out on dope sheets with a line for each frame, ready to note down the drawing numbers as they were produced. At first I just wrote down a few ideas for some scenes, and then, starting at the introduction, worked through, a line at a time, often completely finishing one scene with no idea what was coming next. Because the song tells a story it divides neatly into scenes, and this approach works well. With another song it might be a different story, and for a film which is not tied to a song a lot more planning is desirable. ‘Elixir’ evolved, but the result is a weak storyline, which can perplex rather than entertain the audience.

I am now starting work on a film contrasting designs made from straight lines with others made entirely from circles.

The pastry cook plant from the film “Nightmare”.

Originally printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 1 (Summer 1982)