A Load Of Balls

Chris Shepherd is a degree student studying animation at West Surrey College of Art and Design. His 16mm film called A Load Of Balls was recently screened at the college’s London show. He explains the background to his film.

The animation degree course at West Surrey College of Art and Design is primarily concerned with increasing the student’s capacity for developing ideas rather than technique. This emphasis suited me as I tried to channel my own experience of Liverpool life into short narrative films. This eventually led me to examine my own background, attitude and family via film-making. The product of this examination became A Load Of Balls.

Rene and her friend Dot from A Load of Balls by Chris Shepherd.

I was born in the City of Liverpool in 1966. Unlike many other animators or film directors I did not experiment with Super 8mm cameras as a child because my family did not own one. My interest in film making did not develop until I joined an art foundation course at Liverpool Polytechnic during 1985. Whilst there I attempted to create an animated film using low band U-matic live action equipment. I shot each image in real time and edited them so they would appear on the screen for between one and three frames. The resulting work was crude, but it was this experiment that began my interest in animation.
Several years later I began working for a Liverpool based video production company called Narrow Gauge Productions Unlimited. Whilst there I produced a short animated film called Safari and edited many pop promos. Safari was a model film using Plasticine characters within a miniature set. The film had a simplistic narrative which used both sound-sync and fast paced editing to reinforce it’s structure. It was Safari that got me a place at WSCAD in 1989.

I admire a wide range of animators from Svankmajer to Chuck Jones. However, my main inspiration for A Load Of Balls was live action film work, in particular, 1960s kitchen sink dramas such as A Kind Qf Loving, Saturday Night And Sun day Morning, and A Taste Of honey. It was my aim to produce an animated film which reflected Northern life as portrayed by these films. WSCAD animation is frequently surreal in nature, depicting mythical characters in imaginary settings. I decided to deliberately avoid this school of thought and produce a film which was more reminiscent of live action, in terms of dialogue, editing and narrative. I suppose I am a frustrated animator who has the craving to shout “Action” at his drawings to make them act.

Another influence upon A Load Of Balls is Liverpool’s past cultural heritage. As in the works of Alan Bleasdale, the use of black comedy becomes an important way of conveying a serious message. This is more than a writer’s tool, it is a local way of thinking and expression peculiar to Liverpool. The mixture of the comic and the poignant in A Load Of Balls is determined by local tradition. The same can be said about Bleasdale’s Our Day Out and The Boys From The Black Stuff.

A Load Of Balls was based upon the life of somebody who was very close to me. She had worked in a Northern rubber factory during the mid-1940s after which thirty years later she contracted cancer of the bladder. It was proved in court in 1985 that her illness was caused by being in contact with chemicals used in the production process. Her condition worsened to such an extent that myself along with other members of my family had to look after her. During 1989, four weeks before I began my degree course she died of cancer. Once I started my degree course at WSCAD, I began to consider how many other 1940s workers had suffered or died as a result of bad working conditions. I looked at legal test cases and was shocked to find that rubber production had been a dangerous occupation for many 1 940s Northern workers. It seemed to me that once these workers had died, the story of their demise had died with them. Therefore I was determined to document her life, to ensure her suffering was not in vain. Also, Liverpool’s industrial era was a way of life which has long since vanished, to illustrate this way of life was another priority.

Originally I intended to produce a traditional documentary about the court ease, but found it difficult to convince an audience they were watching the truth. The reason for this is animation is always a reconstruction and appears to be the product of an artist’s imagination. People equate live action shooting with the realistic portrayal of a factual story, therefore I attempted to give the audience the impression that they were watching a comedy. The notion of killer golf balls seems impossibly funny, hence this is the narratives main strength. The viewer is led to believe that the film is too bizarre to be true, although a bleak ending supported by factual information shocks the viewer into realising the seriousness rather than the absurdity of the story.

A Load Of Balls deals with the story of two women and naturally needs to reflect a female viewpoint. As a man I could see that I needed a woman to help me script the film to make it credible. Kaiyn McHale gave me this female perspective which the film needed. An example of her influence is the scene in the Rialto ballroom: the character of Rene is unimpressed by the men in the ballroom, considering even her husband to be useless. Without Karyn’s help the scene would not have existed.

I chose to use cel animation for two reasons. Firstly, I had originally intended A Load Of Balls to be a 3D model film. Although, as I storyboarded the film I realised there were a large number of locations within the storyline. I would have had to build over fifteen different sets including street scenes. I felt this was impractical so I decided to draw A Load Of Balls instead.

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