Gear Seven/Arc Studios/Shift
I Like Music
Contemplative Reptile
  • International Edition
  • USA Edition
  • UK Edition
  • Australian Edition
  • Canadian Edition
  • Irish Edition
  • German Edition
  • French Edition
  • Singapore Edition
  • Spanish edition
  • Polish edition
  • Indian Edition
  • Middle East edition
  • South African Edition

Animate! Keeping the Movement Subtle with Jonny & Will


Blinkink directors on a love of cartoons, being character focussed and why filming with puppets can be tricky

Animate! Keeping the Movement Subtle with Jonny & Will

Bafta nominated directors Jonny and Will specialise in innovative, inventive puppetry. From bin bags to body parts, there is nothing they cannot bring to life. They have worked with an impressive list of clients and directors, everyone from the home office to Ben Wheatley. They also write, perform and score their own films, building immersive worlds from scratch and consistently creating memorable, lovable characters to populate them.

LBB> How did you fall in love with animation?

Jonny> I grew up on the work of Jim Henson, and always loved the immediacy of puppets. Cartoons and animation too, but I guess there was something about bringing something to life right there in front of your eyes, in live action, that captured my imagination. I was always drawing cartoons and comics, and naturally started making my own puppets at home from about age seven. As I got older I started making little puppet films with friends, and just never really stopped.

Will> Growing up I watched a lot of Tex Avery cartoons.. the abstract, throw away, quick fire gags really captured my imagination. The exciting prospect of telling impossible stories through film trickery and character creation has been an endlessly fun passion for as long as I can remember. 

LBB> Tell us about the animation project that kick started your career?

Jonny> I met Will at Wimbledon Art School back in the days, where I was making another over-ambitious puppet film, and we instantly got on. After college we shared a studio and got work on music video art departments and stuff, until we met director Simon Willows, who we ended up working with for a few years making and performing all sorts of puppets for his advertising work. The jobs were always great fun, and through that we got in with Blink Productions and got signed as directors ourselves.

Will> Good times.

LBB> How would you describe your art style and what are your biggest inspirations that developed it?

Jonny> I guess we specialise in hand-made live action puppets. All our stuff feels quite tactile and tangible; we like the sense of craft to come through on screen. Our main focus is really on character; everything stems from that. Growing up I was inspired by the Muppets and Star Wars as well as comics like Calvin and Hobbes; just freedom of imagination. Labyrinth was a big one for me too. 

Will> Whether we’re bringing a pepper grinder to life or puppeteering a twelve foot dinosaur, it’s always important to ground a character in a world that suits them.  

The language of film, the editing, the sound design, how we present our puppet characters on screen is always a consideration throughout the character design and construction process. 

How best can these puppets tell this story.. we try to make it dynamic and exciting, 

So yeah we do watch and reference a lot of movies, usually depending on what the current script we’re working on is.. I watched a Jackie Collins romance film the other day. 

LBB> From your perspective, what’s the key to animation that really lives?

Jonny> I think it’s in the subtlety of movement. As humans we pick up on such tiny nuances in each other’s expressions and gestures, that when we see a puppet tilt its head, or deflate a little or change its eyeline, we automatically read into it, and put thoughts and emotions into that character. Picking up on those sorts of things is what can bring things to life. There’s also an element of magic and chance too; filming with live action puppets we will shoot multiple takes of a move or a moment, and watching them back in the edit, there will often just be a magic take where everything comes together and the character is really alive, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why.

Will> Yeah keep it subtle and occasionally make a plan to go off the rails. 

LBB> Show us your favourite or most impactful project that you’ve worked on - tell us, what is it that makes it special and what were the memorable moments or challenges?

Jonny> One of my favourite projects was our mini series for Cartoon Network called The Grumpy King. It’s a non-verbal, slapstick medieval puppet show about a Jester trying to entertain a moody monarch. It was such fun to write, and then we had an awesome team of creative pals who helped us make all the puppets and props, and then shoot it at our favourite place to film; Clapham Road Studios. There were various fun problems to solve; getting puppet dogs to perform acrobatics, making miniature versions of the characters for some of the action sequences, and creating a puppet show within the puppet show. We were really pleased with the end results, and they wound up getting us a Bafta nomination.

LBB> How do you approach character design? What is your creative process like? Show us some of your favourite characters and their journey from notepad to screen.

Jonny> I’ve always enjoyed drawing, so since college I’ve kept sketchbooks, which now fill up a shelf at our studio. I’ll always do a load of doodles and sketches first of all, throwing ideas out there and playing with the simple initial shapes and lines of a character. We’ll then usually go through a load of these and narrow down to a handful, picking out features we like or elements and shapes which feel original and fitting for the character brief. Once we feel we have the essence of a character in our loose, simple sketches, that’s the basis for then diving in and fabricating the puppet in three dimensions. This is where it really evolves and naturally changes and grows in order to be able to function as a puppet. Sometimes we’ll make a prototype version to figure things out, and test movement, and sometimes we’ll sculpt a clay maquette to further explore and refine a design; it all depends on the brief, and ultimately the script; what the character has to do and emote.

LBB> Tell us more about observation and movement - what is the process you go through to study movement of characters?

Jonny> For us it usually comes from the form of the puppet itself. Being that we build the puppets ourselves knowing we will be operating them on set; from the start they have to be able to function, almost more importantly than how they look. So we’ll usually do rough movement tests at quite an early stage, as this is often where people can see the character start to emerge. Sometimes we’ll make a super rough puppet as part of a pitch for a job, as the charm and heart of a character can often come through in the movement, and win people over. We worked on an Ikea advert with Dougal Wilson a few years ago, bringing a flock of T-Shirts to life, and the initial tests we did, with some old T-shirts, a couple of coat hanger wires and an air-filled plastic bag more or less got us the gig.

LBB> We all know of some ever-green adult animations, but lately they have definitely been on the rise, from Rick and Morty to Arcane. What sort of opportunities does this open for animators, both within and outside the advertising industry?

Jonny> We love Rick and Morty, and grew up obsessed with The Simpsons. Although we have worked on various kids shows, we have always dreamt of making our own adult comedy puppet series, which we’ve been chipping away at for years now. One day we’ll get there! I think the fact that show like these are becoming more popular is really exciting, and goes to show that puppetry or animation is just another tool for creating original and interesting characters and stories; people want to see stuff they haven't seen before, and a whole genre like puppetry can’t be pigeon-holed as only for children.

LBB> How does one figure out what kind of animation style or styles fits a particular story or project?

Jonny> It all depends on the tone of a script, I guess. When we read a commercial script, we’ll often get a gut feeling about what style of character fits best in that world. Sometimes it’ll be a puppet which has to interact with humans and exist in the real world; in which case it may be slightly more realistic looking, or have real feathers or textures that look right on camera. Other times it may be a fantasy world, which is entirely imagined and designed, in which case it is fun to push the style in a new direction which doesn’t have to sit in reality, and feels new and original. 

We try not to do the same thing over and over; and luckily pretty much every job that comes our way takes us in a new direction, and makes us try things we haven't exactly done before.

LBB> What is your favourite piece of technology or software that you use and how does it help your creative process?

Jonny> Filming puppets can be tricky, and we always like to see a whole character where we can, rather than always being stuck behind a wall or counter like a Sesame Street character. So one thing which we love to use are motion-control rigs. These allow the camera to move, while providing identical clean plate shots, meaning the rods and puppeteers can be removed in post, leaving the puppet free and unfettered. This technology, as well as After Effects and the post production side of things has evolved massively from when we started, which has opened up a lot of possibilities for puppets.

LBB> What sort of briefs or projects do you find more personally satisfying to work on?

Jonny> We’ve both always been big comedy fans, and are both into music in differing ways, so when we get projects which combine music and puppets and funny stuff, that’s our sweet spot. We’ve done a few jobs in advertising which combine those elements, which is fun, although there’s a lot more committee decision-making going on, which can be frustrating and not always the way to find the best solution. When we get to do our own projects it is a lot more satisfying. When we made our series Teddles for Cbeebies, we got to write the music and lyrics, as well as make and perform the puppets, and basically do it all, without too much interference; which was a dream come true.

LBB> What recent projects have really stood out for you and why?

Jonny> We recently did a campaign for Freeview which was great fun, as we got to create an alien Queen and her Butler, on a big, sci-fi spaceship. It was an awesome job to direct, and we got to work with animatronics wizard John Nolan and his team, to create really high-end, movie-standard creatures. We spent quite a while designing the characters and testing things, to create a nice hybrid of flexible hand puppet and remote controlled animatronic.

LBB> Who is your animation hero and what is it about their work that inspires you? What example of their work particularly stands out?

Jonny> For me it’s still Jim Henson, the work he did while he was around was so inspiring; the variety and abundance of ideas and worlds, and the innovative way he approached things. I guess it’s mixed in with nostalgia, but I got to visit his Creature Shop when I was a lad, and the amount of talent and clever ideas and practical effects on show was awesome. Also it wasn’t just all about the visuals, the ideas were always rooted in character and humour, and had a lot of heart, which is easy to overlook.

LBB> Outside of the field of animation, what really inspires you?

Jonny> The natural world is always endlessly inspiring to me in terms of creatures and characters. But besides that, music massively inspires ideas and creativity. I like drawing and writing to atmospheric movie score stuff, and I grew up on 90s hip-hop, and love making beats and writing rhymes, which often ties in to the other stuff we do one way or another.

LBB> What do you think are the misconceptions about animation throughout the industry?

Jonny> We’ll sometimes get scripts where it’s all based on ‘it’ll be funny because it’s a puppet’, which we find quite frustrating. Just having a kooky puppet isn’t enough, a character works best when it evolves from a funny idea or concept, and this foundation must be really strong before you get on to details like what their eyes look like or what sort of nose it has. 

LBB> What are the biggest changes to animation and challenges facing animators at the moment and what are your thoughts on them?

Jonny> Now that CGI is at such a high level, everyone’s seen everything, and anything’s possible, I think people turn off a bit when watching it, because nothing’s amazing anymore. I think the challenge we like is to create stuff on film which is tangible and real, and does make people admire the craft of it. When you see things which are handmade and a little bit wonky and imperfect, there is a warmth and charm to that, which you just don’t really get with computer generated stuff.

LBB> Any advice you would like to give to aspiring artists?

Jonny> Just to do your own thing. Find what you like doing and try things out. Don’t worry about pleasing someone else; if you’re into it, there’ll be other people out there who are too. No one has the same vision as you, so often it’s no use trying to convince someone of something, you just have to show them. We tinkered about writing a pitch treatment for our show Teddles for ages and no-one quite understood what we were trying to do. Then we got off our arses and made a couple of episodes for ourselves, and suddenly people could see what was special about it, and we ended up getting a commission from the BBC. 


view more - People
Sign up to our newsletters and stay up to date with the best work and breaking ad news from around the world.
Blink / Blinkink, Thu, 02 Feb 2023 14:03:22 GMT