Mark Hall is a co-founder of Cosgrove Hall Productions. He has been particularly associated with the puppet animation side of the studio as originator, animator, producer and director. Interview by Ken Clark.
On the wall of Mark Hall’s office hang a number of British Academy Awards:
Pied Piper, best childrens’ programme 1981. Prix Juenesse 1982.
Alias the Jester, the BAFTA award for 1986.
There are autographed portraits of the stars whose voices feature in their productions, Sir Michael Horden, Beryl Reed, Ian Carmichael, Una Stubbs, David Jason, among others.
KC: You have two separate units, one devoted to drawn animation and the other to animated puppets?
MH: We’ve been keen to keep it that way. We always felt we ought to expand both departments together. And by expand, I don’t mean necessarily we wanted to get bigger, although that is the way it has actually happened. We wanted to make each department more skilled. In the case of model animation you can see a natural progression from the early days of Chorlton and the Wheelies.
When we started the company in 1976, with seven people, we were on the air that year with the first 13 episodes of the series. We went on to build the team which made Cinderella. The film had its roots in Eastern European puppetry and, with a running time of 40-minutes, it was a challenging commission because we could not use words. The story had to be told with music and mime. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.
During the music sessions, when the musicians were laying the ‘beds’ of music, I brought in the animators to give the composers the feel of movement and the length of a particular scene. Only the animators and I could feed information to them so that they could give us a ‘BANG, BANG, BANG,’ for example, at a certain point to indicate Cinderella’s sisters were angrily banging on the floor above. Actions had to be expressed, complimented or highlighted in a musical form. It was the biggest challenge I had ever encountered.
All this time the animators and the model makers were being challenged, as they experimented with different methods and materials. By the time we came to do the 30-minute Pied Piper of Hamelin we had experienced the ballroom sequences with puppets dancing in Cinderella and we had learned that you can have too many animators around the set at one time. In fact we lost track of who did what to which model. Pied Piper was staged in a different way, with fewer animators per scene, so that everybody knew exactly what they were doing. That was very important when you were manipulating a few thousand rats!
For the long-shot sequences, we strung lines of rodents on strips of net which allowed them to move without the net being seen. As they were pulled along, the unevenness of the river bank gave them the fluid movement rats have when travelling at speed. But it was the one that got away, the rat who swam the river to the other side and escaped, that prompted the next progression to The Wind in the Willows.
This rat was the one who turned and looked directly into the camera while telling his story, and that was really the first time we became involved with lip-synch. Although it had only a small hinged jaw, it looked terrific. With added observation by the animator of the way a rat moves, and the shaky feel he gave to the body movement, the lip-synch worked. As soon as we saw it on the big screen at the Princess Anne Theatre, where we showed the film to children, Brian and I suddenly realised that we were ready as a studio, to take the next step forward.
In fact, we were asked immediately after this showing, “What do you want to do next?” We looked at each other and then said, “We’d like to do Wind in the Willows.” The idea grew from that moment on, quickly gathering momentum. As soon as we discovered it was to be freed from copyright the following year, we were up and running with a gleam in our eyes.
Because we were able to progress through Chorlton and the Wheelies, Cinderella, and The Pied Piper, every department wanted to advance their own ambitions. Peter Saunders, in the model department, wanted to do more, and kept coming to us with new ways of mastering lip-synch. I remember a wonderful discussion we had, round the table, concerning: “What size head can we go down to, that will conceal the mechanics for, say, Ratty or Mole?” Peter said, “Oh, I think about this size,” and he picked up a tangerine from the fruit bowl, so the whole thing was based on a tangerine!
Of course, then we were committed to set designs of a proportional size. In fact, we finally worked to three different scales, although the talking heads are usually tangerine-sized. I think it was extremely lucky we were working on Wind in the Willows animal characters with head sizes going into the bodies maybe 2 or 3 times, instead of human figures with heads going into bodies 8 times, which technically would have made things very difficult.
We wanted to make sure the model department expanded to the degree reached by the animation department. We had seen that model animation did not sell abroad as well as drawn animation. It was an economic fact that drawn animation was viewed more sympathetically than the model film when it came to requesting big budgets for large projects. But now, with the success of Wind in the Willows, we are getting into places all round the world where, historically, they have not been anxious to take model animation – such as America.
We sell to over 70 different countries, if you include all our material; and having achieved that, the following canvas has to be as big, if not bigger, than the last.
Is it the backing of Thames Television which allows you to indulge yourself?
Absolutely. There would be no question whatsoever that but for Thames’ backing we would not have been able to afford the studio growth that we have enjoyed. To hold a team together you have to have continuity of work because the animation process is a slow one. Therefore City Banks, by and large, are not really interested in something which may take 2 or 3 years to achieve success. Thames has been ready to fund the growth, but we still had to earn our place in the world. You have to go from 7 people to 120, step by step – and that is what we have done.
Then the backing for The BFG is a sign of good faith.
Yes, it is, and given that platform from which to grow and by putting your faith in British animators you will find the potential is there. In fact, I believe we have the best animators in the world, without a doubt. At Cosgrove Hall we have the potential to double our output – I’m not sure we would want to, mind, but the possibility exists.
Isn’t there a danger that the larger you grow, the less personal control you will have over creativity? If you remember, that was the criticism levelled at Walt Disney.
At the moment Brian and I are close to production because we have brought in administrative management.
You have undoubtedly found a formula that works, bringing out the best in your people.
If a series has to be on the air in September and you start in January you have to have a certain drive. That impetus has never left us. Our series work has always been there, you cannot miss a deadline, you have to hit it every time – and we’ve never missed a deadline yet.
At times it is rather like throwing people in at the deep end, but you know, most people can swim. Certainly, in our early days we would not take on specialists. An all round ability, and the cross fertilisation of ideas and talents between pencil and model animators, background artists and set designers was preferred and encouraged. There is an empathy there anyway, and bringing them together is very important. We did that very successfully on Captain Kremmen. Now clearly, as you get bigger you have to work harder to make it work. And, indeed, one tries to do that by choosing projects that will call upon the skills of the two disciplines, so that they do have to work physically together. That is the element I love.
You wish to encourage the right people to enter the profession. What qualities do you look for in an applicant?
Well, apart from the craft skills which should be there, he or she should have persistence. When we meet someone who says, “I’d like to be an animator, please try me,” we reply, “Here are some drawings, some ideas, see what you can make of them. Come back when you have something to show us.” Persistence is apt to pay off in the end. It is not a prerequisite that applicants should have a portfolio of work, but on the other hand more than 90% of the people here applied for their job with portfolios. And, of course, those who had been through college or film school had a film or video to show.
Despite the system at colleges and polytechnics, particularly in the case of model animation, their films are made in the face of tremendous odds, with the smallest of budgets. Yet the enthusiasm and the love of what they are doing is inherent in their work. I would rather see a film than a portfolio of drawings. If they have captured their drive on film you can spot it. Their talent may be raw, they may use 8 mm film, but by golly, when they are good the films are entertaining. You can see immediately the feeling for pace and the careful choice of camera angles, and if the talent is there you really don’t need a portfolio.
Printed in Animator Issue 17 (Autumn 1986)