The Making Of… Toby’s Travelling Circus
In the midst of tax-break celebrations, Will Strauss visits the set of a stop-frame animation production to see how it’s made and find out what impact the government’s decision will have.
At just eight inches tall, Toby is lucky to be alive. Born of plastic, rubber and silicone, he moves freely – but not completely so, because he is held down by magnets. His friends fare little better. One has iron filings for eyebrows and a magnetic forehead and his every limb is connected by a ball and socket joint.
Despite all this, Toby is a happy boy. Toby, as you’ve probably guessed, is a stop-frame animation puppet. He’s the star of a new Komixx Entertainment- produced series for Channel 5 called Toby’s Travelling Circus, built and animated by Mackinnon and Saunders. Given the roster of his predecessors from that studio (Fifi , Roary, Bob, Raa Raa et al), Toby is about to become a household name for anyone aged three to five (and their parents).
The reason he is lucky to be alive is nothing to do with his synthetic appearance, of course. We should be grateful for his presence because the animation industry in the UK has taken a massive hit in recent years.
But more of that later.
When Broadcast arrives in sunny Altrincham to meet Toby and his friends, there is a palpable positivity in the air. Partly because production of the show is now well into its fourth week but also because, only days previously, the government announced plans to extend its feature film tax breaks to include animated TV series. It came as a huge boost to everyone in this corner of Greater Manchester.
“I think it is going to have a huge impact, frankly, because in a lot of cases it could be the difference between getting something financed and not,” says co-producer Chris Bowden. “We are prepping our next project for 18 months to two years hence, and that has attracted interest. If we can say we might be able to have a tax break on it, that will be absolutely massive.”
Why? Simple, really. Animation, particularly stop-frame, is time-consuming and expensive.
As a result, with ever-dwindling broadcast budgets, producers have, in recent times, headed overseas to take advantage of tax incentives and cheap labour. The result is a decimated UK animation industry, with the likes of Chorion, Cosgrove Hall and Target Entertainment all going bust.
If the government’s proposed tax break comes to fruition, saving potentially 25% of British spend on each production, the problem will be partially solved. April 2013 is the likely launch.
The show’s other producer and Komixx’s head of production and creative director, Richard Randolph, is particularly buoyed by the announcement, having been forced to outsource animation abroad in the past. “This is a technically diffi cult genre to complete. But I promise you it is a lot easier to produce it in the UK than it is to make it out in the Far East or in Eastern Europe. The show is easier to direct, and we get the sort of quality we want and the performances that we need.”
To better understand why that tax break is important, you only have to look at the scale of a stop-frame operation: Toby’s Travelling Circus required five months of puppet-building alone.
Somewhere in the region of 40 mannequins were made, each one taking between 12 and 16 weeks to construct. This process required 40 modelmakers, working simultaneously. At the same time, there were props and costumes to be made, voices to be recorded (see box, right) and studios to dress. The budget is as involved as for a feature fi lm. And that’s before production has even started.
“I think we are as efficient as it is possible to be in a television environment,” says Bowden. “Everything we do is geared towards keeping our animators animating because that is the longest part of the production process.”
Each animator on Toby achieves just 11 seconds of animation per day. With six of them working on the 52 x 10-minute series, that’s an 82-week production cycle that will take them well into 2013.
Pounds And Pence
It’s not cheap either. The whole thing is costing £4.8m to make. Had it been made abroad, as a computer generated series perhaps, that figure could probably be halved. But then the show would be completely different in both look and feel.
“Texture is really, really important,” explains art director Holly Cook, who is tasked with making the sets practical from a production perspective and fun for the viewer.
“Some surfaces are shiny and smooth, some are textured, some are not. You can create this with CG but you just don’t get the same quality as stop-motion, where everything looks three-dimensional, solid and as if you could pick it up.”
The Big Top in Toby’s Circus is just one example. “It is painted fabric with a foam core to give it a puffy and soft, yet taut, look,” she continues. “If you just painted a solid surface you would get a slightly different texture. CG would be different again.”
That’s a lot of attention to detail. But is it worth it?
“Young children tend to find stopframe more immediate,” argues Randolph. “They find it easier to make a direct association with the characters. And if you’re going to make a show like this, you make it here where the quality of stop-frame is the best in the world.”
Commissioned for a second series before the first episode has even aired, Toby is already something of a success for both Komixx and Mackinnon and Saunders. And with a tax break on the horizon, there’s no reason why Toby cannot continue to be a happy boy.
KEEPING THE TEAM ON TRACK
Director Barry Purves on the voice record process
“Before we get to the actual recording, we create a camera script so that I know the physicality of the action. This allows me to reveal to the actors where they are at a particular time, be it very close to one another or hanging from a trapeze.
We do about five scripts a day. This is vocally quite hard for the actors, not least as we have three people, working as an ensemble, doing 10 or so characters and they regularly have to swap voices within a conversation – a skill I admire greatly.
My role on a recording day is to ensure that everyone gets on and is very chatty. I would never tell anyone what to do but I will explain to them where they are and what is happening in the scene and how the dialogue fits into the plot. It can be very hard for an actor to imagine running across a circus ring when they are just sitting in a cold recording studio.
So I try to visualise what is happening and then relay this to the actors. To some extent, they have to trust me and let me guide them. It is the same when we are animating. The animators can go from episode one to episode eight in the same morning and it is up to me and the studio director to explain what we need to see and why.
Yes, they have the storyboard, but I have to make sure that we get the plot across on screen, and that means filling in the gaps. Again, I would never tell the animators what to do. Instead, I urge them to have fun but within certain parameters. That’s the joy of stop-motion.
Unlike CG, it is a combination of control and chance. Unexpected things happen and that is to be encouraged. It is the nearest thing to acting in animation. You cannot quite predict everything.”
• Production company Komixx Entertainment
• Animation producer Mackinnon and Saunders
• Commissioner Jessica Symons
• Length 52 x 10 minutes
• TX 9.10am, from 15 September, Channel 5
• Producers Chris Bowden and Richard Randolph
• Director Barry Purves
• Musical director/composer Paul K Joyce
• Production design/art direction Bridget Appleby and Holly Cook
• Script editor Nick Wilson
• Post production Flix Facilities
• Cast and voices Toby, Dolores, Momo, Li: Joanna Ruiz Thor, Jang, Freddo, Bish, Bosh: Jimmy Hibbert Clara, Ling, Bash: Julie Ann Dean
[This article first appeared in Broadcast magazine]