Setting the Scene


My most ambitious puppet animation film to date is one featuring a group of animals known as the Hammersmith Hamsters. My father-in-law is a road safety officer in the London Borough of Hammersmith and this was planned as Hammersmith’s answer to Tufty, the squirrel character used to teach young children road safety.

Illustration from Hammersmith hamster comic.

The project grow up from a chance remark by my father-in-law that he had thought of the name Hammersmith Hamsters and it had amused his colleagues at the office. I immediately saw it as a chance to make an animated film. My father-in-law saw it in much broader terms and we ended up with a 16 mm film with optical sound, a full colour comic with a 3,000 print run, a Hamster game, countless schoolchildren in the Hammersmith area making models and paintings of the hamsters in the process of learning road safety, a lot of write-ups in local newspapers and a teaching magazine, and even the hamster theme song being played on Radio London. All this from an amateur puppet film.

At the start of the project I did an enormous amount of research into all aspects of the film. The part I intend to concentrate on here is the scenery.

A rich source of information are other films, and fortunately there are a lot of puppet films to be seen on children’s TV. When I was a kid BILL AND BEN THE FLOWER POT MEN and MUFFIN THE MULE were all the rage. Going back to children’s television after a long absence I discovered the delights of TRUMPTON and CAMBERWICK GREEN plus many other puppet animation shows that inhabit the mid-day children’s spot following Pebble Mill at One. These shows are particularly notable for their fine scenery. A village square, a fire station, army barracks, garage, factory, mill, plenty of food for thought and something to be admired by someone trying to create a simple street scene in the spare bedroom.

This was to be a table top operation so I was limited in the size of what I could do. I tried several ways of making the street scene before I got something I was satisfied with. I started with three dimensional model houses made from cardboard boxes. These were 18” x 18” x 6”. I cut out window and door shapes, added sloping roofs and painted on the detail. At the same time I built a small scale model of the village to give an aerial view. Each house was about two inches wide. It was built to the scale of Matchbox toys so that I could use these as traffic. The idea was to cut from this to the larger models at the appropriate time.

I made a test film on Super 8 and this revealed a couple of snags. First of all, when the boxes were arranged on the table top they took up a lot of room. There wasn’t much space left for the hamster puppets which were nine inches high and a car eighteen inches long. There wore gaps between the houses where a background cloth was needed, which I didn’t have, and to top it all the difference in look between the small scale model and the full size scene was so great, on film, that it was unbelievable. Part of the trouble was that the matchbox traffic looked a lot better than my large scale car which was made out of cut up card¬board boxes. It was time for a rethink.

I decided to paint the houses on a flat background card so that I would have maximum room on the set for the roadway. I used card from a large box that our fridge was delivered in. As you can tell, no expense was spared. The results wore a bit more pleasing. I am a bettor painter than I am a model maker. However, I paid the penalty of using cheap materials because the creases in the cardboard showed up on the test film. This was shot in 16 mm to test the camera as much as anything. The resulting 2¾ minute film, although not very good technically, was used to sell the idea to the road safety committee who were being asked to put up the money for film stock and lab costs.

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