Barry Purves talks about Screenplay – Page 2

Still from Screenplay. Animated and directed by Barry Purves.

Barry spent five months writing the script of Screenplay before signing a contract with Channel Four in October, 1991. He then spent nine months laying the groundwork for thirteen weeks of filming.

Barry said he usually worked all day and often at night. It was so hot that he wore a swimming costume for work and did not wear gloves as it would be rather like animating with boxing gloves on. The constant manipulation of the puppets caused their joints to buckle and their skin to become dirty so he had to find a way of getting the puppet in question off-screen to clean and tune him (or her) up. He noted that if one looks closely one can see the points when they reappear all fresh and clean looking. The choreography was worked out prior to each scene and the revolving stage was a hard element to work into it.

I asked him if he was at all anxious about the fact that he did not take the film out of the camera for the nine minute fifteen second ‘long take’. Not until the night before it was due to be taken cut, he replied, at which point he had nightmares of his cat appearing with a puppet in its mouth. (The budget for the film was about £80,000.) It was a deliberate risk which he said was exciting and kept him on his toes. The preparation involved a great deal of research. He designed the armatures with friends and then had the puppets made by Barrow Model makers of Manchester. Although he researched the costumes himself, he left the details to the costume makers as they have to have some enjoyment. The faces of the puppets were inspired by Japanese photographs and Hokusai woodcuts. Meticulous attention was also paid to fashioning the bodies as the puppets disrobe so their physiques had to be oriental. (Barry mentioned that a tabloid somehow heard that the puppets were naked and called up to ask if they could have some pictures of the puppets in the nude!) The names of the characters were culled from a Japanese telephone book and the Japanese writing on the screens is authentic.

For the deaf Barry learnt basic sign language at evening classes and memorised the script in detail. He animated the hands of the narrator to mime the story in sign language. Barry did not want to be patronising and do condescending stories like: “the deaf go shopping:” or “the deaf use the telephone.” And he thought it was a very sad idea to relegate the use of sign language to a little box in a corner of the screen. Barry was inspired by a live Shakespeare performance during which an actor portrayed the story so well that Barry thought he himself could visually integrate the signing into Screenplay.

Still from Screenplay.

Music is as important to Barry as the visual aspect of the film and has to be an integral part of it. While working on Next he recorded the music before starting the animation. There are thirty-seven variations of the same music which accompany the thirty-seven representations of Shakespeare’s plays. For Screenplay the sound was added after the animation was finished and this was the first time Barry had done it that way around. Nigel Hess, a British composer, created the music. The first part of the score stays in keeping with the ‘play’ and has an oriental flavour whereas in the last scene the music is more filmic in order to contribute to the cinematic style of the sequence. The music was rehearsed beforehand and then recorded in one take in the same spirit as the visuals and Barry commented that it gives the soundtrack a certain freshness. This was the first time Nigel Hess had composed music for animation but he loved it.

Barry was an actor before becoming an animator and worked in theatre productions for three years. It was his theatrical experience that led him to become an animator. He went for an interview at the Cosgrove Hall Animation Company and told them that their puppets were not performing but simply going through the motions. The characters lacked heart and soul. Cosgrove Hall called his bluff and hired him as an animator.

His first animation job was, as part of a team of five, a feature length film of Cinderella: he felt it was a learning film with a lot of mistakes in it. The Pied Piper of Hamelin followed, and in this case there was only one other animator. The animated feature The Wind in the Willows took two years. In a favourable review on page 11 of the 1984 No. 8 Spring Issue of Animator’s Newsletter nine year old Mark Jefferson commented that: “The animation was very good, probably the hardest part was to get Toad to swing on the chandelier.” Barry had always wanted to animate Toad who, he felt, was his alter ego. For the film and for the television series for three years, he brought life to Toad, Ratty, and a multitude of weasels.

Barry summed up his new project: “There’s lots of flesh in it, three cod pieces, three rapes, a murder, and it starts with an orgy!” It is a 30 minute animated puppet opera, one of a series of six programs produced by S4C, Welsh Television. Barry is animating Verdi’s Rigoletto. The music was created from scratch and Barry worked closely with the singers of the Welsh National Opera to make sure they delivered a characterful performance with all the appropriate grunts and groans. The production is now several minutes underway. It is not acted out on a stage but will be kept in period and told filmically. The sets are huge: 30 ft long and 20 ft high so there will have to be tracks. The use of scale and perspectives will significantly heighten the dramatic effect. The camera work will move in step with the musical phrases. With characteristic meticulousness Barry learnt how to sing with the film’s musical director so he would know when the puppets would have to draw breath. The lifelike aspect of the singing is enhanced by the fact that one can lip read the puppets!

The three main characters are the Duke, Rigoletto (the vengeful dwarf). and his daughter Gilda. The budget for the puppets is £80,000 and £40,000 for the costumes. The characters’ faces are inspired by the grotesque drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. The puppets have facial muscles and lungs and there is an internal mechanism which has to be turned with a screwdriver to inflate and deflate the chest. When showing Barry how to manipulate the puppets the puppet-maker made a point of explaining that the puppets should not be over-wound. Later, by himself Barry tried out the puppets and found that an electronic alarm goes off if he winds the puppet past a certain number of turns.

When he’s not working on films Barry Purves gives workshops and talks. What does he teach his students? “Storyboard! Storyboard! Storyboard!” was his initial reply. He also teaches dramatic art, why the character moves, and where the movement comes from. He told me he was overawed by the response to Screenplay as there are no gags and no tricks. But he had already given me the key to the success of the film when he stressed the importance of finding a reason to make a character move.

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Printed in Animator Issue 30 (Spring 1993)