No strings attached!
Martin Cheek Puppet Animation has specialised in stop-frame puppet animation films since 1982. Martin Cheek is a puppet maker and animator who works on commercials while developing children’s programmes for television from his own and other ideas through a new company called “Cheeky Films”, reports David Jefferson.
Martin Cheek has a studio in the ‘Plaza’, a new building on the corner of Lots Road and Kings Road Chelsea. When I arrived Martin and his assistant Simon Gaskin were busy making puppets for a TV project. The walls of the workshop were lined with shelves containing puppets in various stages of completion. At one end was a table-top set which had featured in a conservation sting Martin and Humphrey Leadbitter had just finished shooting for MTV.
“Over the years I have learnt how to do everything, sculpting, mould making, set and prop making and running the company,” says Martin. He joined Cosgrove Hall in 1981 after leaving college. At that time they were making the feature film of Wind in the Willows and Martin worked on sets and props. “Even though I was straight out of college they didn’t make you do menial things all the time,” Martin recalls, “they give everyone a chance, or they did when I was there. They might tell you you’ve got Mole’s garden, you’ve got to make this. They really throw you in at the deep end, which is great! We would use chicken wire and plaster, paper-rope, resin and all manner of stuff. They were still using the sets after four or five years. Now, if I am making a set for a commercial and it only has to last a couple of weeks I would probably use cardboard and balsa wood. We are quite good at weathering down. One thing I don’t like about some railway modellers work is that because they spend weeks on their sets everything has got to be pristine, it is not distressed enough. Real life is not like that, if you look at film sets they are always distressed to hell. Much as it hurts, you have got to take the hammer to it and throw skit at it really.”
In 1982 Martin moved to London where he became a freelance model maker and animator for FilmFair who were just starting work on the Portland Bill series. Portland Bill was created by John Grace, a lecturer at Leicester, who entered a maritime England competition with a story using characters named after areas on the weather forecast such as Cromarty, Dogger, and so on. He won an award for the idea and FilmFair picked it up. Barry Leith made the initial puppets and directed the first series. That was when Martin came in and, together with Gordon Tate and Humphrey Leadbitter, made sets and props.
“On the second series of Portland Bill Humphrey was director, animator, and I was model maker, animator but we both swapped really. It was great fun,” enthuses Martin. “We opened it up with miniature landscapes on an eight by four foot set and gave it a geography. We had tiny versions of the cottages and the lighthouse and I made tiny little puppets with pipe cleaners. In the first series we worked in a limited environment, either in the shop or in the lighthouse. This time, suddenly we were able to have the shop keeper going on his rounds on his little bicycle in long shot, which is very difficult to do with puppet animation. Cosgrove’s have got the answer because they have a studio the size of an aircraft hangar and they can make large sets. However, once you start building that big you have to have walkways because obviously you can only animate within your reach. You can only reach so far to manipulate the puppets. This is the main factor in determining the size of the sets and the puppets. If you have to use walkways your camera angles are restricted so you tend to keep the size down.”