Beowulf in Plasticine – cameras might fly

David J.M. Coleman describes a way of adding visual interest to a Plasticine puppet film with camera movement.

I wanted to make a film of a legend… and after rejecting quite a few classical myths because they required too much specialist knowledge from an audience, I decided on the third part of the Old English epic, Beowulf. The first two parts, in which Beowulf, the young Danish hero gorily slays an evil marsh-monster – and its mother, for good measure have almost certainly been filmed several times. A novel has been written, telling the story from the point of view of the monster, Grendel, and thousands of students of Old English have laboriously translated the ‘fight with Grendel’s mother’ which appears in a textbook which has been ‘in print’ since the 1880’s. The final part, however, seems to have been rather neglected. So I began to make the puppets for what I hope is the first animated adaptation of this part of a most important piece of Old English literature, which mentions historical characters who lived in the Sixth century A.D.

Puppet from the film Feud.

It was some time and four other animated films later that I finally found a sponsor for this, my largest-scale project so far. The film runs for about a quarter of an hour at 25 f.p.s., with eighteen puppets made of plasticine, pipe-cleaners,.., and goodness knows what else: the dragon contains about three hundred and fifty pipe-cleaners, three metres of flower-wire, seven ‘bendy’ hair curlers, a pair of ladies’ tights, a pair of surgical rubber gloves, quite a bit of ‘ModRoc’ (which I also used for the ‘exterior’ sets and the inside of the dragon’s cave) and a couple of medium size jars of Copydex. You may have seen him on my stand at the last ANIMA festival.

To cut a very long story short: after the dragon has awakened from a three-hundred-year nap and burned down all the Geats’ houses because one man has swiped just one little golden cup from his huge underground hoard, Beowulf, the King of the Geats, feels it his duty to go and fight the monster. He makes quite a fuss about the fact that he is the only warrior around with a hope of killing the dragon, but takes eleven of his greatest – and most loyal companions with him, just in case. I wanted to make the high-point of the film, Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, particularly exciting, as it is in the original text, although the relatively brief encounter with the dragon is prolonged by detailed description. I needed some way of getting across the truly epic stature of the battle, which, if portrayed merely as a plasticine warrior tapping a rubber dragon on the snout with a plastic sword, could fall a little flat.

In my other films, I had begun to make the movement of my camera augment the movement of the puppets: usually just up or down in one plane at a time. As with live-action, the most effective and dynamic way to pan the camera is to keep your character reasonably static within the frame, and disregard the background, the movement of which will more than compensate for the lack of movement of the character. In a shot at the start of Feud I had mounted my camera on a model-railway wagon, for a long, slow tracking shot behind some ‘pillars’ in Beowulf’s royal hall. A serving-wench walking between the tables at which sat boozy warriors provided the ‘static’ element, and I made sure that she kept pace with the camera, moving millimetre by millimetre, frame by frame, along the side of the hall.

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