The kitchen as an puppet animation studio

The Burglar was voted the most popular film at the Animator’s Association (ANIMA) Festival held in September. Film maker Tina Fletcher tells how she progressed from puppet shows to puppet films and the production of The Burglar.

(left to right) John Martin, Tina Fletcher and Russell Ryman.

‘The Burglar” was shot in our kitchen. Nothing very extraordinary about that, for in the amateur film making world we all work in any space available, be it bedroom, dining-room, sitting-room, shed or garage. Our kitchen is the largest room but has the disadvantage of us all eating in it. Therefore when animating, ideally 1 try to finish a shot before 4 o’clock, 8 o’clock and before breakfast the next morning when the family come in, hungry and sociable. (This of course is in term time. In the holidays I don’t compete.) Too often I am still in the middle of animating when these hours arrive, especially at 4, when everybody is starving from school. Then, since the camera has to be a minimum of 51t away from the sets, and the lights possibly further, they inevitably bar the way into the frig, or larder or claim the places at the table where we are supposed to sit. With luck I have remembered to get out things to stave off the pangs of hunger; if not, I must chalk round the feet of the lights and tree the doors. At all events, we have learnt to tip toe round the untouchable camera and hope for the best. There are however, advantages of working at home, kitchen or otherwise; that is if you are being the multi-personality of housewife, mother and film-maker, If there is an ill or worried child or’ other crises, I am there. When the plumber, sweep, electrician or carpenter came, as they frequently do in our sort of house, I can (more or less) continue to animate while they do the job, and if the interruption does not please me, it appears highly entertaining to them. I can break off for half an hour – oh welcome relief – and hang up the washing, fetch or take a child, cook a meal, switch off from the concentrated job of animation and then return fresh. In the end, you learn to juggle the time between film and family. The moments of frustrated distraction are best forgotten. My husband found the whole crazy life in the kitchen cum film studio rather exhilarating. He never minded being tucked in the corner for late suppers, eating by moonlight while I animated my burglars in their night scenes.

Before the films

In fact there was nothing very odd to us in making films in the kitchen. Before the films we had a puppet theatre in which all six of us took part. So, for a long time now, most rooms in our house had been used for making puppets and props, rehearsing and recording. We started as a family entertainment when our four children were between the ages of 3 and 10. As the children grew, so did the venture. Other children joined us, workshops were held in the kitchen and garden; then parents, friends and later professionals joined us to have their voices recorded, paint backgrounds or help in the hundred and one ways necessary for the enterprise. With one team or other we travelled all over the country, giving performances to schools, for charities, in festivals, theatres, village halls or stately homes and art centres. We had lots of fun and adventures although it was probably harder work than anything I have attempted before or since, even making animated films.

What is animation?

It was at one of these performances that we met the illustrator Errol Le Cain, who agreed to paint the rolling scenery for the play we were doing next. This play, full of flash backs and different scenes, was very difficult. I was in despair how I could make it work. Errol suggested introducing animation. “What’s animation?” we asked. We were very ignorant. He taught us the first steps with a super 8 camera and simple cut outs. Not only did the play now work but he had opened up for us another dimension for all future plays. A new theatre with three stages replaced the old one, with live action in the larger middle one, and animation in one or both of the side stages. And that is how I came to making puppet animation films.

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