How to be a Racing Driver

Drawing by Johnathan Millard, aged 5.

By David Coleman

“You’re going to give a talk on animation at my school next Friday.”
“Eh? What?”
“Well I told the head¬mistress you would, so that’s that.

There are disadvantages to having a sister who’s a primary school teacher. Now and then she wants a zoetrope built – or repaired. She will appropriate one’s pipe-cleaners, ask you nicely if she can have that dolls’ wallpaper you bought for scenery for a film, glean any usable “offcuts” of felt for collages, turn your writing pad into a set of silver fingernails for a Christmas play …

So when she blackmailed me into giving an educational show to seventy-five infants I was not terribly pleased. However, an audience is an audience and I set about preparing the lesson, which obviously had to be very different to talks I had given to a cine club and a group of students on a “TV production” course. Although most of the children seem to be eagerly swallowing an alarming quantity of “video nasties”, they tell my sister about them, I decided the tape I have of VULTURE (which was away-on-film – at a competition) was not suitable!

I found a use at last for those sequences I had edited out of the GNOME and the footage of PUT NOT YOUR TRUST which had been unusable because I had left the daylight filter in. And those bits of time-lapse, and of myself at work on the sets for films, which I had had taken just to finish off a reel of film getting near the 50 ft mark, proved not to be wasted after all, since I was able to put them together into a reel roughly ten minutes long explaining what animation was capable of. It also included a ten-second shot I took while trying out using two cameras at once on my latest film; THE TRUTH ABOUT THE BILLY-GOATS GRUFF, where I had taken a frame (operating the reserve camera by remote control with my foot) every time I touched part of a puppet to move it. If you haven’t tried this yourself, do! It explains to people far better than words can, quite how much work is involved in even a short sequence of animation and it will probably surprise even you, too!

At the school, I was given a bookcase as a projector-stand in a room just large enough to give sufficient throw to fill a crumpled 30 ins silver screen on an alarmingly robust metal stand that could have comfortably supported an 80 inch one! A diaphanous curtain was drawn across the mercifully small window in the firm but false belief that this would keep all the light out. Still more light streamed in through the glass panes in the door, but the room was fairly “badly-lit”, facing north on a dull winter’s day, and the screen was small.

I set up my speaker and set the lamp switches on my Bell and Howell DOT to “full”, as a tidal wave of tiny children did for the remaining space in the room what Polyfilla does for cracks in the wall. The Vulture and his friend the Green Man along with one of the horses in PUT NOT YOUR TRUST stared nervously down from the top of the school’s BBC Micro
I climbed over a few children to what had ended up as “the front” and began the talk.

Actually I just asked them questions most of the time, and steered their answers the way I wanted them to go. They all seemed very responsive, and interested in the puppets I had brought along. The idea of persistence of vision seemed readily understood after I let off a flashgun in their eyes, having asked them to look at it! And I “animated” both myself and one of the puppets in front of them, to get across the idea of motion being divisible into stages on film frames.

Then the film; as a plasticine nomad on horseback swung a sword round his head and my voice boomed as clearly as possible over some synthesiser music:
“You are looking at an animated film”, assorted cries of delight went up from my audience, only to be quietened down by the headmistress, telling them to “listen!” I am afraid I lost them on the time-lapse sequences of cars on a road at night.

“You were driving those cars fast, weren’t you?!”, said one boy, accusingly. There seemed to be a consensus amongst the children that I was trying to deceive them in maintaining that I wasn’t!

There was rather a scrum as I handed out bits of film to let them see that all it was a series of little pictures, but things came to a happy close: the deputy headmistress kindly called my cobbled-together off-cuts an “educational film” and seventy-five children went home convinced that “Miss Coleman’s brother” was the man responsible for MORPH.

It was a very interesting and rewarding experience, and one I would recommend to any of you who make films specifically for children. I now intend to build up and improve my “explanatory reel” which has since been very useful in explaining animation to adults.

Printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 10 (Autumn 1984)