A system of stock sequences has enabled a high standard of animation to be achieved within the £18,000 per episode budget. The idea of stock animation is not new, Ward used it on Bananaman and many other studios work this way for TV series. He planned his stock material right from the start, deciding all the various moves that might be called for and then pre-animating them. Characters were restricted to one set of clothing each, in most cases a pair of wellington boots and some kind of head gear. They learned this lesson from Banana-man who was forever changing costume, making it very difficult to file re-usable footage. The environment was also limited to the area around the Pondles tree-root home, thus saving on backgrounds.
The backgrounds are beautifully painted by Russel Pearman and Kevin Smith who are both adaptable and prolific artists.
Music is an important feature of the series. It plays continuously in the background and there are songs in some of the episodes. Many of the characters have their own theme tune which accompanies them while they are on-screen. The music is arranged, played and recorded by Dave Cooke, using several synthesizer keyboards controlled from a BBC computer. He receives a video of each episode after it has been edited to its final length, complete with time codes and a pulse track enabling the music to be synchronised exactly to the frame. Results are very entertaining, in one memorable sequence three singing jackdaws have a musical accompaniment that sounds just like a banjo-band. I had the benefit of seeing a couple of episodes without music, and one with. The addition of the music made a world of difference to pace and performance. The voice characterisations were much improved by the extra layer of sound seemingly binding the whole thing together. Music also takes the place of many of the sound effects, although loud and obvious noises are still there, such as a door slam or that of a hammer hitting a nail, but many other effects are highlighted with music alone.
The programme is part narration, part voice characterisation. The narration delivered by Robin Bailey is very pleasant to the ear, and the voice characterisations work well, given the obvious limitations of two people taking on the voices of a whole group of people.
Animation for the series began in Spring ‘86 although pre-production planning commenced in November ‘85. At the time of my visit they were shooting one film every three weeks. “We try to complete a film a month,” notes Ward. “So far we are a week ahead but we’ve got to stay ahead because it takes the composer quite a time to write the music, record and mix it. Although we shoot one film at a time, we are editing, recording music and dubbing on two others at the same time. This is necessary to meet the deadline.”
Ward has to set targets, even for himself. “Basically, because it is an art form it is
difficult to stop working on these things. You can always change it, make it better whatever the standard, but every animator has a deadline, the cameraman has a deadline, I’ve got a deadline set by Central Television and by the fact we have a September launch for the merchandising, the books and records. If I fail to meet that date it will turn the merchandising side of the enterprise into a disaster, which I can ill afford.”
They did not make a pilot film for the series. “A pilot film would be a waste unless we could use it, they always looks weaker than all the other episodes and normally cost more. We felt that by getting the whole thing right before we filmed the animation, we would save time and money in the end.”
Janet Nunn is the hard working layout artist on The Pondles. Once Ward has completed the storyboards he and Nunn go through the situations, the animation, and how the scenes should look and feel. They also discuss the use of existing stock animation. “Often you may think you have got the correct stock scene when you haven’t,” notes Ward. “In these instances we have to create new animation, which then becomes stock animation for future episodes. Janet draws up all the layouts and when they are ready, we go through the episode together.”