Ceramic Puppets

Linda McCarthy shares insights into her work, divulging some fantastic production secrets along the way!

Tiny Elephants was formed in 2007 by Linda McCarthy following her degree in Animation at Glynd?r University, North Wales. Since 2007 Linda has completed four short films adapted from the cartoon strip Small Birds Singing by Steven Appleby, and music video Mother’s Song by the Long Dead Sevens.

“I started my animation studies in 2003 as a mature student. Already an experienced potter, and a marionette enthusiast, I was naturally drawn towards stop-motion animation. I enjoy all aspects of the process from the puppets, prop making and set building to the filming and post-production. My experience with clay inevitably dictated my style – my early experiments resulted in ceramic exchangeable puppet heads and ceramic props.

A still from A Traditional Christmas at Small Birds Singing

The Stranger’s ceramic heads after firing in the kiln

I bought my first copy of Stop Motion Pro 4 while making my graduation film, so that I could film extra scenes at home. Then, when my company, Tiny Elephants, was formed, I invested in Stop Motion Pro HD. A Canon 40D with Nikon Lenses captures onto a lap-top. These images are exported as a Targa sequence, taken into Adobe After Effects for cropping and post-production and rendered as a Quick-time before being edited in Adobe Premiere Pro. The image quality is fabulous and I find Stop Motion Pro simple to use and intuitive.”

The four films have travelled to festivals worldwide, with the first film Small Birds Singing screening in Graduation Films at Annecy 2008. A Traditional Christmas at Small Birds Singing is currently in distribution by Shorts International and last year the film was included at Anifest 2012, in the Programme ‘Puppets in British Animation’, coordinated by Paul Wells. The fourth film, Hinterland, has also been popular at environmental festivals and in June 2012 it won best Eco film at Golden Kuker – Sofia Animation Festival.

The studio during shooting of Hinterland

“It’s my Turn!”

Mother’s Song was completed in June 2012 after two years in production. It is a visual interpretation of the song by The Long Dead Sevens from the album The White Waltz and Other Stories.

“My son did some drumming and percussion with The Long Dead Sevens and I became infected by their music, Mother’s Song in particular. I approached the band and they kindly gave me freedom to create an animated interpretation of the song. With Nick Cliff’s haunting lyrics in mind, I designed and made the ceramic heads first. This gave life to the characters and helped me to visualize how I would translate the narrative into a stop-motion animation.”

First models of Mother and Son heads

Ready for foam latex

Mother’s armature by Animation Supplies. Next a rough storyboard was constructed to fit with the strong rhythm of the song, and the resulting animatic sent to members of the band for approval.

Beginning construction of Mother’s Shack Scene

…and when it was finished

The first and main scene to be constructed was Mother’s Shack Scene. The shack had a timber frame and ceramic cladding to give textured wood effect on walls and tiles on the roof. It was designed so it could be dismantled and then rebuilt for the Saloon shots. The orange lighting and the colour palette of the props helped to portray a parched and dusty atmosphere throughout the film.  ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ by Joel and Ethan Coen was a reference point.  The desolate mood also reflected Mother’s dysfunction and tragedy in the story.  Joe Dembinski, who has many years experience in the industry, was invaluable help with lighting and set design.

Mother and son outside her shack

…which was reconstructed as the saloon

Creating false perspective using varying sized trees, hills and props also helped to give the impression of wide open space.

Scene set-up for the deck view

View from the deck of the shack

Excerpts were sent to the band from time to time to keep them up to date with progress. Composer and lead guitarist Paul Rogers who had previously worked on the sound design for my film, Hinterland, used his skills again to create a sound sculpture for the credit sequence at the end of the film.

“To reduce post-production, I like to create my effects as manually as possible during filming, although in this case the group of children had to be filmed against a green screen. There were also many shots to tidy up and two complicated flashback transitions for which I am grateful to Jeremy Richard for his compositing help. I have now purchased an upgrade to Stop-Motion Pro 8, which I am hoping will cut down post-production headaches!”

Mother’s Song premiered at Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival in October 2012 and went on to screen at festivals around the world. At Annecy 2013 it screened in Annecy+ which is a screening of animated shorts rejected by the main festival and presented by Bill Plympton and Nancy Phelps. In June, this year, it was included in Panorama 1 at Melbourne International Animation Festival.

Linda McCarthy