Martin Cheek stop-frame puppet animation – Page 3

“We started doing models and animation for The Film Garage in 1987 and we have done almost all of their stop-frame model animation since. We did the dreaded Star Trekkin pop video with them, which we can’t say is one of our best things at all but it is one of those quirks of fate, it was seen by a lot of people and so it is what we are known for. Around that time one of our own projects was based on bee people. We used some ant puppets from this on Star Trekkin because we were so short of time. People ask us why we used potatoes, the answer is: I had to make six puppets in one day and that seemed the best solution at the time. A lot of things like that are done through necessity. We used the ants again in the MTV conservation sting. I painted them bright colours, partly because I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, it’s the Star Trekkin ants.’ The theme for the MTV sting was conservation so it was important for me to have a realistic set so you could identify with what was really happening. It is intended for adults and although it has cartoon-ey puppets we wanted to get across the idea of what happens when insecticides are used. At the end all the characters are in a cloud of spray kicking their legs in the air and coughing.”

Puppet and set from Star Trekk in’ pop video, 1987.

The Star Trekkin’ video was animated at Hugh Gorden’s studio in Stoke Newington where The Film Garage do a lot of their filming. Pete Bishop directed and Martin made the puppets and animated. They used replacement mouths made of Miliput that would slot into the potatoes. “It’s a very stylised system but it’s OK. You can also use stick-on labels. I like to use stick-on labels for eyes. The eyes on the insects are little black dots, these are Blick dots, they are good because you can move them around.

Martin picks up a large puppet that resembles an artist’s mannequin. It was used in an ‘International Life Insurance’ commercial which was produced by The Film Garage and combined a dancing puppet with a computer generated style character. “If I had given this to anyone else to animate it would have been really unfair because the puppet was an absolute nightmare to manipulate. He has long legs and so the centre of gravity is very high. If you study the puppets in films such as Trapdoor and Morph they have fat legs and short bodies because they are less likely to fall over. The real artist’s mannequins are sprung and will only go 90 degrees. People think they would be great to animate but they are very restricting. We had to make ours with wire joints and he has at least twice the movement of the standard mannequin. I knew this one had to dance but it was only an hour before the shot they revealed it had to do the tango. I had to learn the tango in half-an-hour!

“We originally tried to make it with ball and socket joints but with the amount of movement required it was just not on. I think it is one of the trickiest puppets we have made, but because it looks like an ordinary artists mannequin people do not think it is any big deal.”

Martin also gets model-making commissions outside the field of animation. He made models for a 72 sheet poster that was displayed in the underground. He made all the characters, buses and other items while someone else made the base board. “It was great to go into the tube station and see it across the wall. It is the first one I have done. I like the variety of the work I get. I found working at Cosgrove very frustrating, if you were building sets you always envied the bloke who was making the puppets, but if you were constructing puppets you would wish you were working on the sets or props.

“It’s lovely to make something from the moment of conception and then to animate it. I don’t think I could make something where you are that close to it, and hand it to someone else to animate. It would be very hard. Without being too arty-farty, a puppet has to have a soul. You have got to be able to look at it and recognise its personality, otherwise you are not going to be able to inject anything. You have got to feel you know it somehow. With Portland Bill the characters definitely grew. We started off thinking we knew who they were but when you are with a group of puppets over a period of eighteen months, all day, every day, as part of your job it is obvious you are going to learn a lot about their personalities. If you treat them like objects, as dolls, it is not going to work. You have to believe in them and you have to act with them.”

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