I’m just mad about Saffron

Paul Thomas is probably the most independent of London’s independent animators. He has turned his back on commercial work to follow his own dreams. He talks to David Jefferson about his latest production based on black and white photographs animated against painted backgrounds.

Sophie Aldred as Saffron.

If you have read past issues of Animator you may know something of the enigma which is Paul Thomas of Tiger Trax Animation. (He also creates our regular ‘Scratch’ cartoon strip.) Saffron is Paul’s most exciting project yet, and has created a vast amount of interest. It looks set for a television transmission in the latter part of 1991.

Those who know director/animator Paul Thomas’ sense of humour and imagery will have some understanding of how this project evolved. However, for those who don’t, take two lumps of Monty Python, a spoonful of Roobarb and a splash of psychedelia and stir well for five minutes.

There are six 5-minute episodes featuring former ‘Dr Who’ girl, Sophie Aldred. She is photographed in live action black and white, performing in a colourful cartoon world added by Paul. He relied on Sophie’s talent for the art of improvisation. “I worked out all the animation positions she would be in for each episode,” explains Paul. “She then acted them out and we took numerous photographs. I timed the gaps between each movement to create the illusion she is moving all the time which, as we know, she isn’t.’,

Paul first used the technique some years ago in a series of four films called “kalizascopes” made for the television show Hartbeat. In one episode, a knitting sequence was used. “The girl who did it then just acted out knitting and I chose three key positions in that movement. When she got there she paused, we took the picture, she moved on, she paused again at the next position and so on. You simply use these three pictures again and again and again and they give the impression she is actually knitting.” says Paul. When the Saffron idea came about he recalled the kalizascopes and adapted them to suit.

Photographer, Steve Cook, had worked with Sophie previously on promotional shoots, therefore a good working rapport had been established. He captured Sophie in full flight as she was directed to laugh, cry, swim, fly and so on. Sophie varied her hair style for each episode but wore the same dark outfit. This gave a clear outline for when Paul cut out the photographs. Various costumes were added at the animation stage. She is moving all the time but not in the same way as the animated elements. Although the animation is limited, it balances with the live action style used. Roger Rabbit it may not be, but it creates a standard of its own.

The shoot with Sophie took about a week for all six episodes. “There were no rehearsals because I wanted genuine expressions,” recalls Paul. “I explained a sequence to her and she acted it out. It was all shot against a plain white background. Her professionalism as an actress enabled her to convince us all she was reacting to her cartoon surroundings. I’d say ‘look at that moon up there crying his eyes out’, and she would convince us it was there.

“A lot of photographs were taken. Obviously some were duds and some were better than others. The right expression was on one and not on the other but what we wanted was there, it was simply a matter of choice. Prints were scaled to suit the story requirements. In some cases Steve used different lenses. Sophie might look very big or very small. We were up and down ladders, you do whatever is necessary to create the illusion.”

Once the photographs were selected Paul cut them out. “It is something I inherited from my mum. She was an expert with the scissors, cutting out materials for quilts and so on. But I won’t do it too often, your fingers give way after hours and hours of cutting out these things,” he admits. Nine months were spent adding the cartoon animation.

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