Goblin – a bedroom studio winner

Tony James was one of the finalists in the BBC television Showreel 88 competition with Goblin. He explains the background to the film.

As a pre-TV child I grew up with a love of cinema and theatre, and recall performing, writing and painting scenery for my brother’s amateur company in Birmingham. My father made me a puppet theatre for my tenth birthday and I gave performances at school and the local hospital at Christmas. I was once punished at school for making flip books.

At the age of nineteen I bought an Admira 8F cine camera. The second roll of Kodachrome through the camera I shot on single frame. Furniture whizzed round the room, an apple peeled itself and the Christmas turkey made a miraculous recovery and waved at the camera.

Despite the popularity of this film it was not until some years later, when I saw Bob Godfrey’s Do it Yourself Animation Show on BBC TV, that I began to see animation as the answer to the frustration I felt with my hobby. I went for cut-outs first but after creating a few title sequences for holiday films I soon tired of those flat stiff characters. Plasticine did not fare better, drooping under the heat of the photofloods between takes, and soon consigned to the kids next door. I loved the full flowing living animation of the Disney films and knew that only cel would give me this, but all that work, the equipment and the expense. How could I learn the secret of bringing a character to life? The TV show was obviously aimed at grabbing your attention, but did not, I am sure, expect you to rush off and make a fully animated short.

Tony James with his multiplane rostrum.

My first call was to the local Arts centre but they turned white when confronted by a forty-year-old civil servant in a suit. It seemed to me you needed a UB4O or a trendy cause to unlock that Aladdin’s cave of equipment and know-how. I began to think I might never get started when I met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston signing copies of their book Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life. They said “Go for it,” so I did.

The book was a revelation. I had all the instructions I needed. It did not matter that my drawing might not be up to professional standards. I was not competing with the professionals, and I had one thing they did not – all the time in the world.

I decided to try a short ten second sequence and if it worked I would build a rostrum and make a film. I bought a box of overhead projection film, cut them in half and punched them with the office punch. Two sawn off brass screws were my registration pegs and a sheet of glass with cellotape hinges my platen. No costly animation paint for me. I used Matchpots, those 25p samples of emulsion paint from Crown.

Right from the start I was convinced that it would be necessary to shoot at 24 frames per second, two frames per cel. So as not to waste time or effort, the scene I intended animating for the test, if satisfactory, would end up in the final film. The story was simple. A baby badger is kidnapped by a Goblin and rescued by his mother. The rescue was still a bit of a problem and not very convincing but I was keen to get started. The watercolour background looked good and I was pleased with my first character, Mrs Badger. She is rolling pastry when, hearing a noise, she rushes off wiping her hands. This first step took me a month to complete. After a further ten agonising days the little yellow packet of Kodachrome dropped through my letterbox. The result, for me, was magic. She seemed to have acquired a life of her own. Drunk with success, I decided my film would be double the original length and in multiplane.

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