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The Making of The Hill Farm

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The Hill Farm was made over a three year period at the National Film & Television School, Great Britain and was completed in 1988. It had a budget of around 18,000 and used more or less traditional animation techniques.

The story took some time to develop. I kept coming up with isolated visual ideas and scenes but I couldn’t find a story that would link them all together. In the end I realised that I could start with a very simple structure (setting the action in one location, over a three day period) and let the characters create the story. I pasted my notes and drawings together in different ways and stripped out elements that didn’t fit. At first the characters included a group of archaeologists/palaeontologists, but I realised that although I really liked some of the visual stuff they did, they weren’t an essential part of the plot – so they got thrown out. After spending a few weeks, seemingly endlessly reordering, re-photocopying and re-pasting my pictures and text together I typed up my draft script and started the pasting again. I wanted to get the written script working before I started storyboarding, so that I wouldn’t waste time storyboarding shots and sequences that turned out not to be needed.

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First I animated the sequence on paper, and linetested it on video. (I have always liked working small, and this sequence was animated on a 5” field, the whole drawing area being five inches across.)

Next, I traced the animation onto levels of acetate cel, using a wax pencil. I painted the characters with white cel-paint on the same side as the tracing. Then I roughly coloured the reverse side of the cel, using more wax pencils, which I smoothed using cotton buds. I traced the background onto cartridge paper, stretched it and worked on it with coloured pencils. Finally the sequence was shot on the 35mm camera rostrum by Danny Boon. This was quite a lot of work for one sequence, but the main thing was that the technique worked and was fairly practical. Now I had to make the rest of the film.

About this time the NFTS had a visit from an animation filmmaker and past student, Phil Austin, who had come to give us help and advice. I showed him my first sequence, and he instantly thought of a way to shortcut the process. Since I was going to do all the animation and tracing, why didn’t I combine the two stages? In effect this meant animating directly onto the sheets of cel, using the wax pencils and not doing any “rough” animation on paper. I had already worked this way on commercials at Richard Purdum Productions in London, so I knew that it was possible. The main problem was that since my colouring technique involved painting white cel-paint on the same side as the line, I would have to work in reverse and animate everything flipped, left to right. This wasn’t such a big problem, as I was working alone and could use whatever strange methods I liked. So, I adopted Phil’s idea and that’s the way I animated the rest of the film – directly onto cel.

The one stage I could get substantial help with was the cel-painting, and I used some of my budget to pay helpers. Another visitor, during the production, was my previous boss, Richard Purdum and he helped me enormously by volunteering the free use of his paint department, in its down-time. The huge bear in the film really was huge, in terms of the size of drawing, and it also moved very slowly, generating hundreds of acetate cels that needed large areas of brown cel-paint. I took Richard up on his offer and decided to animate most of the sequences featuring the bear in advance of anything else, so that I could hand them over to him. I delivered the enormous stack of drawings, a large vat of brown cel-paint was mixed, and the paint department began working on them, in their spare time. One year later I collected the finished cels.

In the meantime, I had been animating, colouring and shooting other sections of the film. I basically worked in self-contained sequences, so that I could get a feeling of achievement as I finished of different sections and bolted them together. The whole process took about three years, far longer than I had imagined, but once I had started there was no way out other than just plodding on.

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One of the best bits about the way that animation students worked at the NFTS, was that we took sequences right through to final picture and cut them together in a working copy, before moving on to a new sequence. This meant that we always had an assembly of our films, and could see what was working in terms of design and colour. My backgrounds gradually became more ambitious, as I grew in confidence by seeing them on film.

Once the animation scenes had been shot and assembled, they still needed editing. This is when I started working with Annie Kocur, another student at the NFTS, specialising in editing. She not only edited and re-ordered the sequences, but also suggested new bridging shots that she felt were needed. Up until this time I had tended to play safe in terms of at what point I would stop animating a scene at. A good example of this is if I had a character who was walking out of frame – I would animate them all the way out, just in case those frames were needed. But now that I was working with Annie, we could make a decision on the cutting frame in advance and I didn’t draw any more cels than were needed. There is a shot towards the end of The Hill Farm when we see the bear’s head in close up, moving out of shot, which I hadn’t yet animated at this point; Annie knew that she wanted to cut just before his eye left the frame, so I only animated to that point (luckily she was right).

All this time the film had been mute. There was no dialogue and just about the only sound I needed in order to animate to it, was the cockerel’s crow (a vocal provided by Paul Bingley, who also did woodland bird calls and the bear’s roars). But apart from this single sound effect, there was still no sound or music. Having had almost complete control over the film for the past three years, I was nervous about the music. I couldn’t compose it myself, so I thought about finding existing music on record. Again, my fellow students convinced me that this was a very bad idea indeed. All students at the NFTS have to specialise in a certain field of filmmaking (camera, editing, writing, directing, sound etc) and the school had recently introduced a new specialisation; film music composition. One of these new students, Julian Nott, had the reputation of being the best composer at the film school, and my friends suggested I approach him. I remember showing Julian the final cut of The Hill Farm and asking him if he wanted to do the music. His first reaction was that he didn’t think it needed music. Then he said that he would have a go, but that I had to realise that he couldn’t do “funny” music. Since then, whenever I’ve worked with Julian, it’s been a bit like this. About two days later he had worked most of the music out, and it felt as if it had always been there. We had just one serious argument, and that was over one note at the end of the theme, which I wanted Julian to change – he changed it, but said afterwards that the original note was his favourite bit of the whole score.

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In these last few weeks the track laying of the sound effects started in earnest. Danny Hambrook, another film school student, began assembling and recording the effects and during this period I worked as his assistant. This was in the days before digital sound and everything was recorded on 1⁄4” tape and edited on mag-track. The film school had an unusual system, where we used 16mm sound stock running with 35mm picture. We would track lay in the day and spend the night recording new sounds, then transferring the selected takes to mag-track. The chickens were a loop of me “clucking” mixed with other loops of scratchy noises. We thumped a huge water tank to get the noise of the pump being hit. We used wet newspaper for the squelchy feet after the storm, recorded a clockwork cine camera for the campers movie making, blew water down a tube for a hunter’s misfiring gun and scraped broken flower pots with a pen nib for the cockerel on the roof. We needed the sound of cicadas chirping and found it in a film school documentary that had been shot in Spain. We needed babbling brooks, and were able to find some that had been recorded in Scotland. It was exhausting, and the whole process took six weeks. In the final days before the dub, Julian recorded the small ensemble of musicians that played his score and we cut the music in. The dub itself took about two weeks – partly because we could only mix a few tracks at a time, so we had to first pre-mix everything into a manageable number of tracks. Since then, I’ve never had the pain or the luxury of such a long dub.

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The was sound finished, and I had a final print. Now the film had to go off to the festivals, but I really didn’t want to go with it. The whole process had been just too long and I wanted a break from it all. Even when The Hill Farm was selected for the Annecy festival the next year (1989) I was tempted to let it go on its own, while I stayed behind. When a film is first finished it’s very scary watching it with an audience, and the Annecy audience have a reputation for being very unforgiving of anything they don’t like. They will whistle and boo if a film annoys them, and do the same to the filmmaker who is obliged to get up on stage after the showing. Annecy is a big festival, so the audience have to sit through a lot of films. Festival audiences in general (including me) tend to prefer short films since if the film is not so good, it is soon over. Also, for some strange reason bad animation films are often quite long – either way, a long length is not a good advertisement for a film at an animation festival. The Hill Farm is not short in festival terms (it is eighteen minutes), and I was very worried about how it would be received. I even heard people muttering about an “eighteen minute film” ahead of the screening. I remember sitting in the front row of the huge auditorium wondering how I had been persuaded to be there. But the film was liked, and I went from a state of terror to extreme happiness. If an audience hates your work, it’s the worst thing in the world; but if they like it, it’s a great feeling. That Annecy was a very good festival for me, and The Hill Farm won the Annecy Grand Prix.

My contemporaries at the National Film School during the late 1980’s were Joan Ashworth, Nick Park, Tony Collingwood, Angela Palethorpe & Ken Lidster, Barry Baker, Alison Snowden & David Fine. Although the animation department could feel isolated, I think we all benefited from having the time and means to make our films the way we wanted them.

 

Mark Baker, January 2000 (revised 2009)

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The Hill Farm Prizes

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GRAND PRIX ANNECY 89 & Department of Youth and Sport Prize,

Department of Agriculture Prize, Best Short Film from the Festival Daily News Annecy 89.

BRITISH ACADEMY AWARD 88 for Best Short Animation Film.

AMERICAN ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATION 89 for Best Short Animation Film.

THE HIROSHIMA PRIZE Hiroshima 90.

GOLD PLAQUE Chicago Int. Film Festival 89.

FIRST PRIZE for film under 20 minutes CINANIMA 89 Portugal.

BEST ANIMATION FILM at Sofia 89.

BEST FILM at Czechoslovakian Student Film Festival 89.

SILVER SPIKE Spain 89.

MOST ENTERTAINING FILM Munich Film Festival 88.

JERUSALEM PRIZE Edinburgh 89.

2nd GRAND PRIZE Ottawa 90.

BEST USE OF SOUND British Animation Awards 90.

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