How an animated film was born on the south coast of the UK.

Freda Cooper (@FredaTalkingPix)

Think stop-motion animation and you think Aardman. They paved the way, they set the standards, they won the Oscars. But change could be on the way in the shape of a small studio on the South coast – and rejoicing in the name of GiggleFish.

Founded just three years ago by animator Trevor Hardy, the company is about to hit the big time with its first ever feature, Strike. For a small outfit, that’s significant enough, but what makes their story even more remarkable is that the film is getting national distribution, and it debuted in nearly 90 Vue cinemas in the UK, as well as all 26 Picturehouses. Pretty good for the new kid on the block.

Hardy himself is anything but new to stop-motion. It’s been his passion for 23 years, ever since losing his job as a tyre fitter and, on that very same night, finding himself watching A Grand Day Out on the TV. That, for him, changed everything. A degree in animation was followed by a place on Aardman’s own special animation course, where he worked with his original inspirations, Wallace and Gromit. He set up on his first company, Foolhardy Productions, yet, after what he describes as “banging on the film industry’s door” for the best part of 20 years, it’s the new outfit, GiggleFish, that’s eventually opened it. All because of Strike, the story about a mole with a dream.

The mole with a goal

That mole is Mungo. His dream is to be a footballer, but family tradition dictates he has to work down the local gold mine, which he dutifully does. But when the mine comes under threat, it’s down to Mungo and his friends to save it and the entire community – by playing in the Wild Cup football finals. The screenplay is by Neil James and it’s his input that Hardy believes is one of the things that makes both GiggleFish and Strike different from the competition. “The script was written by somebody who does live action, not animation, so it’s got that [live action] style to it. I personally think a lot of animation is written by animators, so a lot of animated films are calling cards to other animators. We didn’t do that. Neil wrote the script and I injected the animation into it, so it was the other way round.”

The story itself originally came from the GiggleFish team – colleagues Jeremy Davis and Edward Catchpole are the film’s producers – and James wrote the screenplay in 22 coffee-fuelled days. At the time, they had no idea that Aardman was also making a film in which football played a key part. It was only when the Early Man trailer landed that they realised and could see the similarities. But for Hardy and James, the differences were even more obvious, with Strike having an “impossible dream” story akin to the likes of Billy Elliot or Rocky. From script to screen took just under two years, with 13 months of that devoted to filming.

Greased Lightning

For a stop-motion film, and with a small team that included local college students on model making duties, 13 months’ filming is fast. On average, one day’s filming results in just eight seconds of footage to use, which Hardy describes as “greased lightning in the world of animation”. Creating what seems like a simple action shot – Mungo running with a football – involves at least six different people: the cameraman, the model maker, the puppet maker, the set builder, the animator and a post-production person to create the final illusion that Mungo is running all by himself.

The puppets themselves are made from scratch, giving the finished film its handcrafted, almost home-made, look. Once the design is agreed (the lengthy part of the process), making them is quicker, but their component parts – arms, legs, bodies, etc – are made in batches to cope with the demands of the animation process. And individual puppets are made for specific scenes – sitting, standing, different sizes to create perspective. The list is almost endless, the work painstaking, detailed and sometimes stressful. For the animators, total concentration is essential as they work in their black bays, setting up the shots and lining up the sound. Woe betide anybody who interrupts them, including a certain dog that managed to find his way into the studios!

Money matters

While Hardy and his creatives were hard at work in the studio, the film’s producers were raising money to get the film made. The result was a final budget in the region of £13 million, which sounds hefty, but not for stop-motion. And money is the reason why there are so few companies specialising in this style of animation. “It takes a lot of money to make a stop-motion animation,” explains Hardy. “Unless you have a background in stop-motion, the people who are likely to invest aren’t going to take a gamble on a start-up.” Hence Strike’s comparatively modest price tag. That level of investment also means that, as far he knows, there isn’t another stop-motion animation company on the South coast, or anywhere in the UK, making stop-motion animated feature films. With the exception, of course, of Aardman.

Sequel?

A redubbed version of Strike has already been seen in over 600 French cinemas, while it’s currently showing with subtitles in the UAE, alongside Avengers: Endgame no less. As the film prepares for its UK big screen debut, the word “sequel” is already being mentioned. Hardy and James are cautious, preferring to wait for audience reactions before making any decisions. But the idea of Strike 2 is clearly already in their minds – along with another project about which they’re currently very coy. For everybody at GiggleFish, their film about making a dream come true is just that – a dream come true. And it could be the start of something big for the little studio by the sea.

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