Graham Ralph: From Spider to Opera

All in a day’s work

Spider moved into the Top Ten Videos list in its first month, has run for over four years and sold more than 80,000 copies in the UK alone. Ken Clark visited director Graham Ralph.

Graham Ralph.

The road to success in animation is fraught with as many heartaches, setbacks and periods of unemployment as bedevils all performing arts. Animator skill lies in the ability to breathe life into the inanimate, not simply moving things from A to B. Some do it better than others. Hibbert Ralph are among the former.

Before the opportunity arose within the company to make entertainment films, Graham Ralph made a pilot film entitled Spider In The Bath. Arriving home at 9pm, he dined with his wife, and then retired upstairs where he attempted to produce one foot of film each night. His efforts paid off. Theresa Plummer-Andrews at the BBC ‘loved it to bits’, BBC Enterprises backed it financially, Graham committed his own money, and a little came from Hibbert Ralph and they made a series for children’s TV.

The series was based on a group of songs written by one man, Richard Warner, who played guitar songs to his kids at night, beautiful songs about growing up. The music was re-arranged to feature instruments, the brass, and he even had the drummer and the bass player from Status Quo on one of the later tracks.

The music is very catchy – the album and CD sales have been phenomenal and there has been a request for more.

The technique looks like paper animations but they were really Xeroxed cels and watered down cel paints which made the colours gently boil, giving it the ‘paper’ look. Economy of line is complimented with economy of musical instruments, augmented with a variety of rhythms, one week a march, the next a jig, and so on. The decision to accompany Warner’s music with children’s voices turned out to be a stroke of genius. This form of animation is ideally suited to television and is to be preferred to the stylised limited animation films which saturate children’s airwaves.

Spider moved into the Top Ten Videos list in its first month, has run for over four years and sold more than 80,000 copies in the UK alone. Graham told me:

“I believe there is too much violent animation for children on the small screen imported from America, Spain and Japan, and I wanted to do good well-told stories for children that did not involve that violence. At the same time I did not want them to be so sweet and tum-te-tum that their mums would be bored; we settled for friendly charming anarchy and judging from the fan mail we still get, it worked!

“I believe that gratuitous violence begets violence. Aggressive images conjured up in the imaginations of young minds should not be given graphic gory shape-and-form either on screen or computer too soon, because then it passes from the protective environment of the inner self into the realms of pseudo-reality which, for some, comes too close to or is mistakenly believed to be genuine reality. School playgrounds are no place for karate chops and drop kicks. Young minds need time and maturity to absorb all the depravities of the world. There is a right time to come face to face with such awesome facts of life, and a correct way of learning about them.” (These are sentiments with which I am in complete accord! – KC)

Having said that, violence is portrayed where it is justified or designed for older age-groups. Following the Spider series, Chris Grace from S4C Wales approached him to do one of the operas, Wagner’s Rhinegold. Chris is the man responsible for both the Shakespeare and the Operatic cartoon series. Graham’s brief was to interpret the opera, to explain what it is all about in its much reduced running time. He decided to approach it as if it were an educational film and set about untangling the plot. He scoured the library for books on Wagner, then designed a comic-strip approach to the script attempting to remove pomposity from opera and make it more appealing to the masses. Although the studio employs about 35 permanent people, in order to keep costs down much of the work was done at Alfonso’s in Madrid, they provided the labour while a hardcore of five people attended to all other aspects of the production at Hibbert Ralph.

Rhinegold was rather like Richard Williams A Christmas Carol, a hand had to be drawn realistically and not resemble the more usual ‘bunch of bananas’, and that meant skill expectations were high. Although the screening was postponed twice it was eventually shown this year.

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