Christine Walker model shop supervisor at Cosgrove Hall

Interview by Ken Clark.

KC: How do you cope with the problem of dust?

CW: You see that big machine over there – that’s our brand new dust extractor. We put it over the work we are doing. Our tools, the grinders, sanders and saws etc. are fitted with dust extractors because dust makes breathing hazardous. Breathing masks and air filters are available. The piece of machinery we use most is the band-saw. After that it is probably small hand tools, scalpels, pliers etc. You see, we make everything from scratch here.
We’ve got a vacuum forming machine which has proved very useful. It was made by a small company making toys who could not get a machine to do their work correctly so they designed and made their own. We were lucky enough to obtain one and we use it to form shapes – china, tyres, tiles, brick walls – all the panels in Toad Hall were made using this method. After that, we use a great deal of latex rubber, mostly to make moulds, tree barking, bricks and for textures.

Christine Walker and the river set from Wind in the Willows.

But you would make a wall in sheet form rather than individual bricks?

Oh yes, we’d cast a sheet of plaster, carve it out, make a latex rubber mould with some scrim over it and then use car body filler paste for the castings. Without car body filler paste this workshop would not function! Everywhere you go you’ll find it. It acts as a base and we use it as a sticking medium. Speed is the thing and you can achieve quick results with filler. It sets within five minutes. You spread it here and there, joining sections with a quick wipe, placing it along edges. Normally if you had the time and were taking care you would glue, pin and clamp everything, making a really neat job -we simply do not have the time. Besides, anything that is not quite right can be disguised with filler. Look at the backs of our sets – they are horrific, but the filler system works.

Originally this workshop area used to be the puppet animation studio. When the new extension was completed the sets, including Toad Hall and Ratty’s Tank, had to be moved. We found we could not get the water tank through the studio doors in one piece because the opening was two feet too small. We had to cut the tank right across before we could take it through. Then it took us 96 hours to repair it.

Toad Hall gave us a similar problem. To get that through we had to cut all the galleries off, and it took hours of work to restore it. Toad Hall is fitted to a metal frame, and it is so wide that when the cameramen put their lights above the set they have to tread on the frame. The trouble is their added weight on the parts of the frame which were cut, is beginning to distort the set. So, we face horrendous problems even though it still looks right on screen, in fact it looks better like that. I do believe our watchword should be: “Make it wonky to make it right!” Warps in walls give them character.

Toad Hall set from Wind in the Willows.

Have you had any problems you were unable to solve?

Not really – we are trying to solve a problem with our hedges at the moment. The director wanted a maze with quick fitting hedges so that they could be lifted on and off during filming so we fitted the bases with magnets. We fibre glassed the texture on the outside, but the animators have been catching themselves on it as they worked and it has ‘shaled-off. So, the workshop feels very bad about it. It means weekend working to cure the problem. It could not be helped, we work so fast we do not have time to test everything before it goes in front of the camera. Nevertheless when this sort of thing occurs, we feel really guilty.

We shoot two productions at a time, that means two episodes of Wind in Willows in 37 days, and at the same time three episodes of Creepy Crawlies are being shot. They aim at half a minute of screen time per day.

The workshop begins eight to sixteen weeks before shooting starts, attending pre-production meetings to determine requirements, etc. Of course we keep many sets in store until they are needed.

Printed in Animator Issue 17 (Autumn 1986)