Nik Lever of Catalyst Pictures

Catalyst Pictures Ltd was formed in June 1985 by Nik Lever, Caroline Titley and Paul Miller to produce TV commercials and corporate films, particularly animation. Report by David Jefferson.

Top left: Nik Lever. Top right: Clint Priest. Bottom left: Steve Charkewycz. Bottom right: Martin Edwards.

All three directors previously worked for Orchid Productions Ltd in Manchester – the largest independent animation/live action house outside London. They left in order to concentrate solely on animation. In July 1987 Paul Miller decided that his interests lay in music production rather than film and so left to concentrate on a new career. Nik and Caroline promoted one of the staff – Jan Bruce to the Board of Directors. Jan is also ex-Orchid.

The front cover features a picture from "Round the Bend". Click the pic to see a larger version.

Catalyst is based in Manchester which has the largest number of advertising agencies outside London. When I interviewed Nik Lever earlier this year Catalyst had just completed their first joint production of a new children’s television series entitled “Round the Bend”. Commissioned by Hat Trick Productions for Yorkshire Television, this series of six by 20-minute programmes, which also involved the production talents of Spitting Image and model animation house Aardman Animations, was screened on the ITV network in the Spring. They will be starting work on a second series of “Round the Bend” at the end of July.

I asked Nik Lever how much of the animation in “Round the Bend” came from Catalyst.

NIK LEVER: Each show has about eighteen different segments of which we provided eight per show. Some of them were 30 seconds, some were 90 seconds long, most were about 60 seconds long. Overall we did about 40 minutes of animation for six separate episodes. It was written by the team who created Oink, a comic which came out about three years ago. The only connection with the comic is the writers, the characters in the series have not appeared in the comic.

“Round the Bend” starts with a journey down the sewers, travelling along the pipes. Live action puppets made by the Spitting Image people link the show together. They are not the famous characters, one is a crocodile and one is a sewer rat.

Aardman Animation did a two minute film for each of the episodes. If you joined them all together it would be a twelve minute film called False Teeth from the other end of the Universe with Roger Prentice the apprentice dentist. These were animated stop-frame. We did all the drawn animation segments and it was great fun. One of the topics we had was “The Transformabots”, bottoms in disguise. It is all very irreverent. There is a pastiche of Thundercats called “Thunderpants” with Y-fronto.

Scene from “Round the Bend”. Thunderpants with Y-fronto.

DAVID JEFFERSON: Did you choose the subjects of the stories?

NL: No. We got involved in the first place because the writers of the show were actually Manchester based. They were originally approached by YTV to make a series. To cut a long story short, the people who made “Who Dares Wins” and “Chelmsford 123”, a London based production company called Hat Trick, eventually became the overall producer. This is part of the move to put 25% of production in the hands of independent companies.

We used quite a bit of cut-out which worked surprisingly well. The cut-out animation I remember are films like Christal Tips and Alistair and the brilliant “Noggin the Nog” but I don’t recall any that used a large number of replacement parts. Often the characters are moved around and that is all. We used a great many replacements, for example, normally the head would not turn because it could only move in a flat plane, whereas by changing the head we were able to turn it and have lip-sync. It works surprisingly well and, for animation, is relatively quick to produce, so we are pleased with that.

Scene from “Round the Bend”. The Transformabots.

DJ: Do you use a pressure plate to hold the parts flat?

NL: No. The problem with cutouts is you get so many levels. You might have legs, then a body and a head on top of that. These are all on card which builds up to quite a thickness. Even if you used a pressure plate it would still leave quite substantial shadows. In order to get round that problem we put the lights down very low and elevated the cutouts on a piece of glass so it was about ten inches off the background. With the low angle of the lights the cutout did not cast a shadow on the background at all. That really speeded things up.

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