Martin’s puppet making commissions included a collection of Beatrix Potter animals to illustrate a Ladybird book. These were photographed against painted backgrounds. When he was making Jemima cat he studied real cats. “If you make a skeleton of the cat in wire based on the real thing, by the time you have foamed it and dressed it, it will work like a real cat,” he explains. “When I am teaching animation I am amazed by the number of students who wonder why their animals or whatever they are constructing do not work. You ask if they have looked at the bone structure of the real thing and they haven’t. One guy had made a cat and I had to point out if real cats were made like that they wouldn’t work either.”
He teaches second and third year degree students who are particularly interested in model animation. “When I was at college there were no special courses for animation. I did an illustration course and was lucky because there was a tutor who was interested in animation and we worked on films together. In those days you were allowed to follow the path you wanted to take. I don’t think it is like that now,” he says. “I quite like teaching but I wish students would look a bit further than their own field. They can tell you the last fifteen pop promos Aardman animation did, but when I asked the guy who was making a cat if he had looked at Bonnard’s cats, (French painter Pierre Bonnard did some wonderful cats) he said ‘Who the hell is Bonnard?’ He had never heard of him and don’t really care. I talk about Graham Sutherland and they say, who is Graham Sutherland? I just can’t believe it. They never look at source. It is a different approach I suppose. All my inspiration comes from the animal kingdom, the natural world. It is dangerous to get ones inspiration from your competitors; just because Aardman have done something good to say: ‘We can do that but better.” So what, it is not going to get you anywhere. All the inspiration you need is there in nature. I was watching the television the other night and there was a practical weevil. They have pneumatic noses and they drill into acorns and lay their eggs. You don’t need any imagination at all to make a puppet like that and you’ve got its character, it is self explanatory.
“It is nice to have what has trendily become known as ‘nature truths’. My friend Jenny Keener worked on Windfalls and was proud that it was based on ‘nature truths’. She had things like a burnt scrubland being taken over by a rose bay willow herb, which is the kind of plant that lives on burnt scrubland.
“The Magic Roundabout has been a great inspiration to me. It is wonderful to think that after all this time Ivor Wood is still producing animation with that sort of spark. Magic Roundabout was a knockout, everything fitted, the style, the characters, it was so funny. Ivor is a lovely bloke. Barry Leith was Ivor’s assistant, he learnt from Ivor and I picked up a lot from Barry. By the time I got to FilmFair Ivor had already left and was making Postman Pat. You have to find your own way, not just copy, you’re not going to be another Ivor Wood.”
“I like related puppetry, marionettes and glove puppets. You can not just do stop frame and not care about what anybody else is doing in the puppet world. A lot of people do, but to me it is all part of it. One of my best friends is a Punch and Judy man, Martin Bridle, he is also one of the best marionette performers in the country. Steve Mortram is another. I get so much from watching those guys. Their timing is not a filmic timing, it is not something you would want to copy but you can still learn things from them. Puppet animation timing is not the same as drawn animation timing, you can’t do the kind of wacky timing you get in Roger Rabbit, on the other hand you don’t want it like live action either, it is somewhere between the two.”