Behind the Craft: National Lottery 25
The brief was to create a short film to spread the message about #CelebrateNationalLottery25, a new funding pot marking the National Lottery’s 25th birthday. The scheme allows anyone with a good idea of how to make a positive difference in their community to apply directly for funding. It was important that the film had a universal appeal, was powerful and optimistic (focusing on the hopes and dreams of the general public) whilst at the same time having a light-hearted and comedic approach. I jumped at the challenge of creating such a film and being involved in something so full of hope and embracing of diversity and inclusion. It felt like the perfect time to be doing this!
From the outset we decided to adopt an interview style, asking members of the public how they’d spend £1000 of National Lottery funding to improve their communities. I wanted to start by highlighting the contrasts between the characters, showing seemingly very different people in very different settings with very different ideas. This contrast was heightened by framing each character on opposing edges of the screen. Not only did this allow us to open on a clear view of each character’s environment, but because your eye has to jump around, it creates an initial sense of disconnect.
As each character continues to talk, we start to see how their individual, quite specific ideas could actually feed into the wider community – a café for people with dementia could involve young people volunteering and help bridge the age gap; evening classes at the local library could inspire someone to become a writer who would in turn enrich the lives of their readers; a wheelchair user getting a lift fitted in her local Dial-A-Ride van is able to get out more and connect with others. Once these separate ideas begin to relate and overlap, the camera starts tracking in towards the characters, framing them tighter and closer to the centre of screen.
Finally each character’s idea leads them to speak more generally about their hopes and dreams for their communities. We find that they’re all pretty much saying the same thing, so much so that we’re able to run one person’s line into the next, and eventually construct sentences by quickly cutting between them. As we do so, the camera frames each character centrally and in close up so that their faces all line up and overlap as they speak. The depth of field narrows so their backgrounds begin to blur meaning we are literally more focused on the characters themselves. I designed each character so that their eyes would match up to give the impression of them all coming together as one. In this way I was hoping to give a sense that although at times we may seem to be very different people with very different needs and aspirations, essentially we all want the same things for our communities and are much closer than we think.
We were very lucky that the National Lottery were able to commission research to inform our film. Interviews were conducted along the length and breadth of the UK to discover what ideas people had to improve their communities, the results of which were really useful in informing the script and giving us a starting point from which to base our characters.
Five characters seemed to be the right number to comfortably develop their ideas in the time given, whilst still featuring a wide and varied cross section of the British public. I very much wanted them to highlight this incredible diversity, which meant that not only should they all be from different parts of the UK but they should also portray a wide range of ages, cultures and backgrounds. Even though I designed the characters to all have a clearly recognisable Aardman style, I also wanted them to visually contrast with each other, being literally all shapes and sizes. Early designs were created by illustrator Oriol Vidal and were hugely useful in exploring this variety and as a jumping off point to inspire my final designs.
Along with contrasting characters, I wanted the environments they were based in to depict a wide variety of locations, from an over-cluttered front room to the sweeping vistas of the Highlands, taking in urban, suburban and public spaces along the way. Even the lighting needing to create a point of difference in each setting. I worked on sketches of these compositions trying to create enticing scenes that felt balanced despite the main subjects (the interviewees) being initially right on the edge of frame. These early thumbnails were then drawn up by storyboard artist Andy Janes who filled in enough detail for our scenic artists Jim Grant and Henry St Leger to work from. Jim has a very distinctive style where he’ll build, texture and light a scene in 3D whilst combining 2D elements and techniques to create a finished image.
Treating the backgrounds in this way provided a perfect setting for our characters who, although created in 2D, were shaded and textured to give the impression that they had a certain 3D quality. In order to tie the characters and their environments together, both had to blend aspects of this 2D/3D look. This was further enhanced by the subtle and inventive work of our animators Dave Connolly and Barry Evans.
Before we launched into full production, I wanted to test the idea I had for framing the characters and gradually cutting between them faster and faster, ending up constructing sentences from fragments of each of them. I’m indebted to my colleagues at Aardman who stepped up to be filmed reading the script. This enabled us to experiment with how the edit would work in live action before leaping into animation. More so than usual with animation this film was really constructed in the edit. We needed to ensure that we featured each character equally, that we weren’t cutting back to the same character too quickly in succession but that the sequence still had a random feel to it. Our editor Dan Williamson’s keen instinct really helped us to cherry pick the best moments from each performance and to create a piece that at first seems disconnected but gradually begins to flow together with a clear rhythm driving it. For roughly the last third of the script we recorded each voice artist reading every part so that we could choose who would be saying what in the edit and how it would flow together. A lot of this experimentation happened using our live action test and also with the animatic.
With both the script and the vocal performances we were looking for something very naturalistic to echo the idea of people in the street being interviewed, rather than professional actors or anything too rehearsed. It had to have an element of authenticity so, for instance, rather than use actors to put on an accent or play younger/older characters, we cast people who were from the appropriate region and were the age we needed. As a huge fan of James Acaster I was delighted he agreed to voice a character for us and I wrote the part of Jake especially for him. It was inspired by one of James’s stand-up routines where he recalls being in a gang called SW6 who roam their neighbourhood shouting “SW6!” at rival gang SW5 (after getting particularly over-stimulated he accidentally shouts out his entire postcode and subsequently has to move house). One for the real spotters: if you look closely you’ll notice Jake’s mate Jay is wearing an SW6 cap.
I had an absolute blast making this film and it was all the more enjoyable knowing it was for such a great cause and working with such a talented cast and crew.