Chris Randall, Senior Producer/Director on future drawn production series chats with Ken Clark.
Roald Dahl’s books have tremendous appeal for children. They are different – very different indeed. Most good stories written for children are well-written, but sanitized. Not so the Dahl yarns and poems. He has a perceptive approach, freely explained in a recent television programme, wherein he said: “Children are far cruder, and more basic, and not so civilised as adults are – and so you feed them a different meal altogether. Something that will shock an adult won’t shock a child at all, they will roar with laughter at it. And I know, I think, what those things are. Some adults don’t! You can become as crude as you like, and as coarse as you like, and almost as cruel – as long as there is a burst of laughter at the same time, it has got to be there. You cannot write about something grisly unless it is funny. If it is grisly and funny, they love it – and so do I!”
It is these traits the animators will have to retain in their drawings. They are quite capable. The Dahl philosophy has even invaded the ‘Chapel’ on the rooftop which houses a small but dedicated group of artists working on the new series Count Duckula.
KC: How does this department operate?
CR: This year we are doing something we have never been able to do before. While The BFG is being animated and most of our animators and designers are working on it, we’ve got a small group working here, where we used to do the series work (we’re not doing any series work at present). We are concentrating on a pilot for a new series entitled Count Duckula and also the preparation for when it goes into production next year. It is a luxury we have not enjoyed before. We’ve always been one film ahead with the storyboards, layouts, scripts and recordings, just in time for the next three films -we usually make them in groups of three. This time we hope to do a pilot film, finding answers to all our problems, and then spend from six months to a year preparing the initial series of 26 half-hour scripts, storyboards, etc, so that when we have finished work on The BFG the animators will be able to move straight on to this project with all the problems solved. That’s the idea – and so far it is going well. It’s a co-production with American MTV network Nickelodeon. They are putting up half the finance, but they are leaving the whole of the creative side to us, in fact it will be just like any other Cosgrove Hall production. They previously bought Dangernouse for showing in the States and that is why they wanted us to do this series.
Was Duckula a Cosgrove Hall idea?
Yes – he was a character in Dangermouse who appeared in three films just as an incidental character, and we decided we could build a complete series around him.
Of course we had to change his character a great deal. He was very much ‘over the top’ in Dangermouse, he could afford to be because he had a foil in Dangermouse, but for him to hold together a complete story we had to invent a whole new world for him and a new personality. So he is now a vampire duck who really doesn’t want to be a vampire. There are other characters – among them is Igor, his butler, who tries to get him to be evil. There is Nanny, just a big, loveable old hen who has been Nanny to all the Duckulas. They all live in a terrible old crumbling castle. Duckula wants to get away from it all – to be modern, and that’s what it’s all about. His money making schemes include a desire to sell off the castle to a millionaire American heiress; another time he plans to hire out Igor and Nanny in a Rent-a-Butler scheme.
I see from the layouts you are attempting to establish a mood, an atmosphere, a style peculiar to Duckula.
Dangermouse had a certain look to it, and when we did Alias the Jester we tried to change the style even though the same people worked on both. The idea is that when one of the series is on, you recognise it instantly. Each series has a different graphic approach although the humour might be similar. Brian Trueman has written episodes for this series, as well as writing Alias, Dangermouse and the Wind in the Willows. He writes in a completely different style for each of them, and although the jokes have to be different too, the underlying humour is the same. I think what makes them individual is their soundtracks, the lighting and the acting.
You place a lot of emphasis on the acting?
We always have! Most of our energy has gone into casting – with seven or eight test soundtracks. We believe we have the right one this time but lately we have been spending more time in the recording studio than we’ve spent drawing. I don’t think it is possible to make these types of film without good basic soundtracks – it is essential to get it right. We’ve made our start on the pilot and in a few months time, hopefully, we will be on our way.
Usually I do a lot of the drawing but I’m preparing storyboards at present, the basic design, the layouts and the recording – so I’m not sitting at the desk or animating very much. Dan Whitworth, the Animation Director is doing most of that, hopefully I shall get on it when all the other work is finished. We also have two background artists who are experimenting with the ‘feel’ of the series, and two layout artists.
How limited will you make the animation? Hanna Barberaish?
Obviously it will be limited to a certain extent because of the time element, but the way we might solve it will be to keep the animation fairly full and not waste any, cut away before we need to get too involved in complicated movement. The feel of the film will be that it is reasonably full. I think if we can get the expression and the posing right we will not require too much clever stuff. That’s why it pays to spend so much time on preparation. Once that is right, then if there is more animation in them it will certainly help, but even without a great deal it will still work. If we choose the right poses, and we get them into their poses as easily as possible and then include the occasional bit of fancy animation, the general impression will be it has been animated more than it really has.
You mentioned Hanna Barbera – I once saw the cels for one of their films and I was surprised. They use more cels per episode than we do. However, ours appear to contain more animation than theirs. You see, it is partly illusion!
If you believe in the characterisation you’re not looking for too much movement. The detailed backgrounds sustain interest, they are an exaggeration of all those old Hollywood horror movie settings and of course, camera movement helps as well.
What a pity Boris Karloff isn’t alive today to do the tracks.
Yes he would have been good as Igor. We have David Jason doing the voice of Duckula and Jack May as Igor (He is currently in The Archers) and Nanny is actually the voice of our writer Brian Trueman. It is a small cast who will do all the other voices when required.
When will we see Duckula on TV?
It is due for release in 1988, although even that might change. We expect to commence production in April 1987 and by the end of the year we should have the first batch almost ready. We are looking a long way ahead.
Are you anticipating making the complete series before their release?
Well 26 films at least, they catch up so quickly on American TV. Every single episode of Dangermouse was shown in a six month period in America – every day, sometimes appearing twice a day, whereas they were screened over a four year period on a once-a-week basis for six months of each year in this country. In the States they put them in half hour programmes using two films in each programme. We made something like 200 episodes but we simply cannot keep up with the demand. That is why Duckula has been planned for a long run. With The BFG completed, more animators will be available, but it is still a problem to make that many pictures and maintain quality. That is what we have to keep reminding ourselves. Quite simply, it means more planning and since I do not have any other productions in hand I can concentrate on it completely.
Printed in Animator Issue 17 (Autumn 1986)