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Notes on the making of Jolly Roger

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The producer on Jolly Roger was Claire Jennings, who is also the producer responsible for The Big Knights. Claire secured the funding for the film from Channel Four Television, UK.

The script was adapted from ideas that were originally part of an unrealised half hour project. At this time Channel Four were interested in films of eleven minutes in length, and the half hour idea was considered too expensive for a one-off idea. So, I kept some of the characters, came up with a completely different and much simpler story and started work on Jolly Roger.

From the start I wanted the film to be full of animation action and timing. I also wanted to keep it very stark in terms of colour. Although I wanted the ships to have some sort of texture, I liked the idea of a completely flat, deep blue for the sea. It also seemed important that there should never be any land in sight. All the characters’ shouts, demands, hopes and dreams rest on their little ships staying afloat.

Although the dialogue in Jolly Roger is quite simple (mostly shouts and commands) there is quite a lot of it. We had to record the actors before the animation started, so that we could animate the lip synch. The voices were provided by Morwenna Banks (Estelle), Gordon Kennedy (Jolly and Hugo) and John Sparks (Roger). I had deliberately kept the range of words very small – the same orders keep being given, but under different circumstances. Captain Roger shouts “Full Sail!” over and over again, but with a different emotion in his voice each time – confident, terrified, mocking etc. With each “Full Sail!” I wanted several takes so John had to shout this same little phrase all afternoon, wrecking his throat in the process – he still hasn’t let me forget this.

Initially, I was going to make the film by traditional cel-painting means and film it using a 35mm rostrum camera. However, during the pre-production (which took place between other, commercial work the Astley Baker studio was involved in) I realized that I wanted to do the whole thing digitally. This was for several reasons; Neville Astley and I had been using digital trace and paint already on commercials and quite quickly had started thinking of it as the normal way of working, it had great advantages in terms of colouring the huge areas of flat blue needed for the sea, the rough pencil animation could be scanned in and used as the final line with no need for tracing (I particularly liked this aspect, since the animators’ original drawings would appear in the final film, a bit like the way I worked in The Hill Farm), and it seemed that we could work out a way to animate the textured ships directly in the computer – keeping them bobbing up and down, rocking and tipping throughout the film. Many of the ideas, in terms of animation technique, also came about because we were developing The Big Knights at the same time.

The film was drawn on paper, with pencil, and then these drawings were scanned into the Animo computer system at film resolution, where the colour was added digitally. All the backgrounds were created ahead of this process by scanning oil painted textures into Photoshop, again at high resolution. Finally, the digital images were transferred to 35mm film.

The paper animation all took place at Astley Baker’s tiny studio in Soho, London using a team of thirteen animators; Neville Astley, Mark Baker, Odile Comon, Tanya Fenton, Joris van Hulzen, Cathy Lowdell, Gaston Marzio, Joanna Migodzinska, Isabel Radage, Sarah Roper, Chris Shepherd, John Tynon and Pete Western.

We linetested using Geert Vergauwe’s Take 2 system which runs on the virtually obsolete Amiga computer. Even the cutting copy was assembled using Take 2. I don’t know of a better linetest program.

The ships were treated as “movable backgrounds” and all their final animation was done directly within the Animo computer. We used Take 2, together with the Amiga’s paint program, D-Paint, to create a rough version of how we wanted the ships to animate, so that we could include their movement in our cutting copy. Then, when the final work on Animo began, we used this cutting copy version as the blueprint. We had the Amiga computer set up next to the Animo computer and matched the moves visually and in terms of timing.

It’s a feature of Animo that you can “lock” objects together, so when the ships moved, they took the characters with them. Any amount of rocking, tipping or bobbing up and down could be added and the characters would still match this movement. In fact, we added subtle ship movements throughout the whole film – the ships are never completely still, they are always gently moving up and down. One of the trickier things we had to do, was to make sure that these movements flowed across cuts – if a ship was floating up at the end of one shot, it had to drop down at the beginning of the next. All this compositing was done at Telemagination, London by Morgan Francis.

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Next, the transfer from digital to 35mm film began. This was carried out by Pete Williams at Cinesite, London. The process involves scanning 4000 lines by laser on each frame of film, and is very slow and meticulous. The technique is used whenever digital effects need to be incorporated into feature films and it is calculated on a frame by frame basis. We needed to transfer about 12 minutes worth of material which adds up to 17,280 frames! Needless to say, we were indebted to Cinesite, who took Jolly Roger on as a special project.

I had my same team of Danny Hambrook, Julian Nott and Annie Kocur for the Sound, Music and Editing.

To match the visual bobbing of the ships, Danny had to lay creak and groan sounds throughout the whole film, together with the usual enormous amount of footsteps and spot effects. As on The Village, a lot of these “foley” effects were performed by Jack Stew. To make the ship creaks, Jack twisted a wooden chair in time with the animation movements – we recorded this in one take for the whole film. Then Danny moved these creaks slightly to get them exactly in synch with the picture. Jack also provided all the footsteps and the characters’ body moves. He made rustling, taffeta cloth noises for Estelle’s dress, leathery squeaks for Captain Jolly’s moves and wooden creaks for Captain Roger’s moves in the crow’s nest. The track laying took about three weeks, and the final Dolby SR mix took two days.

Julian Nott came up with his “pirate theme” for the music, a year in advance of the final dub. This was because we needed it for the animation. One of the characters (Hugo) had to whistle it, so we needed to work out its exact timing for the lip synch. Recording the whistling turned out to be quite difficult. The musical theme covers a wider range of notes than most people can whistle, and it’s quite fast. It’s very difficult to whistle low notes, they tend to just come out as air. Dave Western, turned out to be the only person capable of doing it, but the next problem was how to keep it in perfect time. At first Dave whistled while listening through headphones to a guide track of the tune played on piano. The problem was that it always sounded as if he was trying to keep up the tune, rather than actually whistling it. As a last resort, Dave suggested that he try it without the headphones, and the next take was the perfect one – in rhythm, in key and absolutely frame accurate to the original tune.

Mark Baker December 1999

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Jolly Roger Prizes

1999 Annecy Special Jury Prize
1999 Nominated for American Academy AwardŽ

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