Thursday, 17 July 2014

Snails of Animation!

Before Dreamworks even came up with Turbo, snails haven't really made much of an impact in the animation world with so few being pushed as lead characters. But many have featured in secondary roles - Timon and Pumbaa made friends with "Speedy" (whose mannerisms were inspired by Bing Crosby), Mr. Harrison was one of the stars of 'Creepy Crawlies', Spongebob has his pet sea snail Gary, and of course there is that one little snail hidden in every episode of Adventure Time.

However, it's still a rare treat when a series based around this particular mollusc does turn up. In fact, there have been a few such cases that I remember well;

Snailympics, a Spanish / Canadian 2001 series, was based around a group of athletic snails training for their own tiny versions of the Olympic Games. Very little of this series can be found anywhere as it only had limited airings on YTV and Nick Jr / CBBC respectively, with regular airings overseas such as Japan. But from what I have seen of the show here and there, I found it quite amusing in terms of the premise and the fun character designs of this stop-motion animated show. And as with most shows centring on sports, it also encouraged kids the values of teamwork, perseverance and the importance of exercise.

Almost around the same time at 2003 came Snailsbury Tales from Maverick Entertainment. It focused on the odd goings-on of the residents of Snailsbury, from the pompous Mayor to skateboarding teen Eric. I found this show much more memorable as, being perfectly British, it had its own bizarre sense of humour - for instance, how it would take everyone from a week to 10 days to travel to the shops and back!
And the series itself did its creators very well, topping even Bob the Builder at the time it first aired. Mercifully, several of the best episodes survive today with two "rare" DVD releases floating somewhere in cyberspace...

And then in 2011, voice-actor and scriptwriter Tim Dann created Compost Corner for CITV. Continuing the mad British-type humour for kids, it's a series of short "skits" featuring old Major and young Moss as they embark on the impossible in their little home at the corner of a garden. While it features some brief "potty" humour for today's generation (farts, etc), the stylish models by Mackinnon and Saunders and the rapid-fire scripts have made it a memorable little series.
In fact, it gained additional attention in 2013 when it gave viewers the chance to design a third character to feature in the show - you can find out the results here!

There are very likely a few other snail-related characters I may have left out, but with Dreamworks pushing Turbo into the forefront with the attached-TV Series "Turbo FAST", would we see more snails putting their best foot forward? If so, then it could take a while at the pace they go...


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Little Robots (2003)

It is no stranger to all in the media biz that these days, any series or movie that features a "big time celebrity" is instantly branded a hit - when in truth, it is partly used as a marketing ploy in order to get the public's attention to what the producers hope will be the next best thing.
That all depends on the quality of the show or the performance of the celebrity (or more importantly, if said celebrities are chosen because they fit the character rather than how important they are). If neither manages to hold up then the efforts of the production team involved will be for none.

However, this show, from what I have seen, succeeds in both categories...

As with many kid's shows, Little Robots started out life as a children's book written and illustrated by Mike Brownlow way back in 1999. It's a cute little read full of rhymes about various types of robots - spotty ones, messy ones, noisy ones of all colours and shapes and sizes. And it caught the eye of Cosgrove Hall / Create TV & Film Ltd at some point, who brought Mike on to adapt his little book as an animated series, which involved designing and defining a full cast based on the many robots he drew.

The series focused on 12 little robots, who create their own special world beneath a scrapyard, proving that it's not just the Wombles who can recycle junk! Next to the fun scripts and the colourful stop-motion models crafted by Mackinnon and Saunders, the cast list is just as impressive - and it's helped greatly that each have a comedy or acting background to boot;

  • Tiny, the helpful little mechanic, was played by Hayley Carmichael (co-founder of theatrical company Told By An Idiot), who lives in the Nut and Bolt tree with his dog Messy
  • Lenny Henry played Sporty, a fitness fanatic
  • The grumpy but organised Stretchy was played by long-standing writer and voice actor Jimmy Hibbert (of Cosgrove Hall fame)
  • Rusty, the shy little lass, was played just adorably by Morwenna Banks (who these days is kept very busy playing 'Mummy Pig' for Peppa Pig)
  • The gentle giant Stripy, who is never without his Teddy, was played by Martin Clunes (who is best remembered for his work on Men Behaving Badly and Doc Martin)
  • Su Pollard (Penny Crayon, Hi-De-Hi!) fits into her role very nicely as questions asked!
  • The (literally) well-rounded Spotty was performed by Emma Chambers. Very different to her role as the naive Alice Tinker from The Vicar Of Dibley!
  • Comedian Mike Hayley played one of my favourite characters - the theatrical Scary, with a touch of Donald Sinden involved...and like Tiny, he has his own companion in the form of Flappy the Bat
  • The Sparky Twins were played by then comedian duo Mel and Sue (Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins respectively) Mel has also lent her voice for Mist: Sheepdog Tales and is currently the presenter for the 4 0'Clock Show for BBC Radio 4 Extra, whilst Sue became recognised for her work presenting The Great British Bake Off.

As I've said before, unless celebrities involved in any production don't fit their characters at all (or at least perform them well) then the show or movie will very likely flop. As it is, for this series, each and every one played their parts just beautifully. With so many characters to play off from, each with their own distinctive personalities, it allowed the writers to come up with many clever episodes, enough to teach the kids a subtle moral while also giving their parents something to giggle at, too.

And it has since paid off - the series became more recognised when it was broadcast overseas via BBC Worldwide, and the characters have even taken part in Peter Kay's All-Star Animated Band for Children in Need.

All four seasons can still be watched today on the cBeebies digital channel - proving how an electrifying series like this can make proper, careful decisions when casting celebrities into their ideal roles. It helps as well that pre-school shows such as these don't have to be Dora the Explorer clones to keep kids amused ;-)



Thursday, 19 June 2014

Little Designs - June 2014

Found myself tinkering with character styles and brushes again - the lineart was "inked" in Illustrator while the colouring was done in Photoshop. Nuthin' much, but it was fun.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Mike Pearse - "It's A Funny Old Game"

In the past I have shared and gushed over Mike Pearse's contributions to the Beano in previous blog posts. But just in time for this year's World Cup, here's his first-ever "extra long" story that truly established his creativity and fresh approach to these old friends of ours. ie; telling a superb storyline in the look and style of European Comics like Asterix.

Although it wasn't given an official story title as such, this was republished, recoloured and edited in the 2009 Bash Street Kids Annual (alias "Space Cadets") under the name "It's a Funny Old Game". However, I thought it was time to show off the original in all its glory. For die-hard Beano fans, try to name all the characters featured in the crowd scenes whilst you're reading!

PS: I apologie for the quality of the double-spread pages. They were hardest to scan and edit...


Saturday, 31 May 2014

Creepy Crawlies (1987)

Throughout its legacy, Cosgrove Hall Films have brought to the world a great many shows, feature-lengths and TV Specials for audiences of all ages to adore. But with such hits like Danger Mouse, Count Duckula and the Wind in the Willows, it is rather a shame that Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall's other lesser-known pieces are left behind and forgotten about - that is until a DVD release graces them for a second wind.

Take the case of this show then...

Created by Bridget Appleby, Creepy Crawlies told the stories of a band of insects who all lived near "an old broken sundial that nobody wanted". It starred Lambeth the strong-but-dim beetle, Suppose the mopy red-nosed worm, the snooty snail Mr. Harrison, Ariadne the friendly spider, Anorak the woodlouse (who insisted that he was a Pillbug), the gentle Ladybird who has trouble with her R's and the very old caterpillar known as The Ancient.

Yes, long before Anthony Ant, long before A Bug's Life, even longer then before Insektors, these little insects gave us a look in to the everyday lives of an Invertebrate...which, for this series, may not seem much to some. Compared to Cosgrove Hall's other shows like the Avenger Penguins or Victor and Hugo, there's not a lot that actually happens here that one may call exciting.

However, after finally getting the chance to watch this series for the first time, I am actually quite taken with the writing here. All 52 episodes were written by Peter Richard Reeves - who contributed a sizeable number of scripts for Count Duckula - and in my personal opinion, it feels as though he might have been inspired by the lines of A. A. Milne and Kenneth Grahames in terms of the writing style for Creepy Crawlies. In that there is a lot of verbal humour and vast amount of character interactions that glitters with intellectual dialogue...even Lambeth's muddled way of speaking feels very BFG-ish.

Mr. Harrison, Lambeth and Suppose
Then of course, equal amount of phrase goes to the modelling dept of Cosgrove Hall. The characters all look the part in their scaled up garden settings, which makes it all the more beautiful with every episode ending with the lead characters watching the sunset after every "adventure".

The character voices were provided by Paul Nicholas - who has done a lot of work on stage and in the charts over the years, but is probably remembered more for starring in the BBC sitcom "Just Good Friends". And the perfect package to this series is Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe, who contributed the catchy theme tune and credit song.

With many modern-day animated shows becoming more colourful and wackier nowadays, it's no wonder why Creepy Crawlies has been left behind. Yet those that know me would know that I embrace the obscure, the diamonds in the rough - and I find that this show's slow yet timeless style of entertainment that has made it different amongst Cosgrove Hall's vast library. It's really a shame therefore that there have only been a handful of VHS cassettes and hardly anything else since.

But then we've seen several of Cosgrove Hall's other lesser-known productions make the jump to DVD, like their adaptations of Truckers and The Fool Of The World And The Flying Ship. So one can only keep one's eyes open for that old broken sundial and its residents to be given the same chance one day...

In keeping with the theme of gardens, Bridget Appleby went on to redesign Bill and Ben for a brief comeback return in 2001 as well as create the look for Fifi and the Flowertots in 2005 - all part of her 30 year career in animation!


Saturday, 3 May 2014

Booklet Designs - August 2013

Back in August last year, I was placed on a "Mandatory Volunteer" Course, being one of a handful to assist a Community Centre in outer London. Recognising that I had Graphic Design skills, I was tasked with designing the layout of their booklet. The result was very different to what I thought would be useful and attractive in comparison to their ideas, but all the same I managed to gain some experience during my short time there.

Below are some of the original illustrations I created to headline each topic they wanted to cover in the booklet. These were considered "too abstract" to use;

Below is a double-page spread of the page outline. The purple, they thought, seemed too "feminine" so I swapped it with yellow. And the arrow-fingered hand was meant to be pointing to a map, until I was instructed to shrink the map itself down to a quarter of the page (about as big as two of the people in the running boarder below);

In the end, we worked out a compromise - they did allow some illustrations to decorate the booklet as long as they were "universal but friendly". So I did some fast workarounds;

 I can't think why I didn't think of sharing these until now. Maybe because I was tired of seeing them sitting in the Draft section for so long. So here ya go :P

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Paddington Bear - His Story So Far

"Please Look After This Bear. Thank You"
It's really no surprise as to why Michael Bond's Paddington Bear is still much-loved today. From how he earned his recognisable name to adjusting to his new life with the Browns, Paddington's adventures are captivated with much of the old British charm that appeals to all ages. Michael carved out of this little bear a very loveable, well-meaning character who is almost as accident prone as Mr. Bean, creating one sticky mess after another - with or without his marmalade at hand!

These stories, for those who have never read them, are extremely charming and are so wonderfully written they don't try hard at all to win over its audience regardless of age or genre. Compared to children's books today, it's incredible to see that while many try to keep up with the next current trend - whether it's space, pop stars, "anti-vampires", teenage wizards, reality parodies, snot-ridden monsters - this little chap is still around 56 years later and has hardly altered a bit, with the last "new" set of stories published in 2012 no less. Proof that Michael Bond's knack of creative storytelling hasn't dwindled in the least.

In fact, it's rather a surprise as to how far Paddington has come since 1958. Many will believe, as they will, that you will truly become a star once you make it big in America. Don't believe everything you hear, I say, but all the same it seems that even US audiences (or producers, one or the other) saw some appeal in this little bear from Darkest Peru - especially through animation.

Everyone knows the first animated series by Ivor Wood's FilmFair studio - who also brought to life another of Michael Bond's creations, The Herbs - narrated by the charming Sir Michael Hordern. This 1975 series really stood out by its unique animation style, in that Paddington was the only stop-motion puppet amongst hand-drawn 2D characters. Ivor Wood's animation is "basic" but wonderful to see, with every noise twitch or "dead faint" by Paddington, all accompanied very nicely with Michael's sparkling verbal comedy.
Next to being a hit in the UK, the series also aired as a segment in various kid's shows for PBS and HBO respectively.

And through those little segments, on such shows as Calliope, that Paddington's fame in the US began to grow - though not as far or wide as he had already become in his true home, the United Kingdom.

Whilst researching more of Paddington for this review, it came as a great surprise to me of learning that Hanna-Barbera took a shot at adapting Paddington Bear for the American audience as part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in the late 80's. More incredible still that the titular character in this adaptation was voiced by Charlie Adler - more famous for his voice over work on Tiny Toon Adventures, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs...great surprise indeed!

Naturally, to the original British audience, it would come as something of a shocker to see Paddington in a totally different light. However, one has to give the team behind this version credit - they did try to remain faithful to Michael's stories and comedy style (adapting most of the earliest novels to a point), the characters and their settings remain British (with Tim Curry as Mr. Brown) and the animation, even for Hanna-Barbera at the time, is passable enough. The only "major" change here is the addition of an American Cousin for Jonathan and Judy Brown.

In fact, Bill and Joe also tried adapting another British Bear, SuperTed...but that's another story!

Later on down the line, FilmFair's television properties were bought out by Canadian-based Cinar (later re-branded as the Cookie Jar Group), and they did the whole world a favour by releasing nearly all its shows to DVD, Paddington included, digitally restored and everything. But they went one further than that...

In 1997, co-produced by Protécréa, Cinar / Cookie Jar brought forth another animated series of Paddington, which first aired in the States via HBO before it made its way to British Airwaves shortly after. With a nice little theme tune, splendid animation and a carefully chosen voice cast - which included Jonathan Kydd, Ève Karpf, Jon Glover and Nigel Lambert.

Perhaps because there are so few versions of Paddington to watch (which isn't bad at all), but when this series came about, it's interesting to see that Cookie Jar's animation team also had a go at adapting Michael's original stories, even a sizeable handful that neither FilmFair nor Hanna-Barbera had the chance to adapt.
Again, while some see it as a far cry from the days of Michael Horden, I remember this series quite fondly when it aired on CITV in the UK - and since rewatching a few episodes with new eyes and a better understanding, it's very interesting to see Cookie Jar's own personal touches while staying as faithful as possible to the original source. Even if wholly original material pops up, the air of Michael Bond is quite present throughout this series.

And now, there is to be a feature-length film based on Paddington, due to air in late 2014. When the news was first announced back in 2007, I was somewhat dubious as were many others, knowing all too well the costs that certain licensed characters have paid when brought to the big screen, British or American...and how this film would be yet another CGI / live-action hybrid, and how the screenplay "will draw inspiration from the whole series" rather than adapting the familiar stories yet again.

But then, what is there to worry about really? Paddington Brown has become as iconic as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace rolled into one, having been voted the UK's Best Animated Character at the British Animation Awards in 2012. The old stories are still in print and are retold to a new generation, with a sizeable amount of "new stories" from 2008 to go round. Why, Paddington is even the face of Marmalade in the UK!

With all that in mind, the screenwriters would not be so foolish as to write a feature-length story of a famous character they know or care little about, and not just for the money either. In any case, it's just another, not-so-subtle way of keeping this little bear alive for both long-time fans and a host of new ones to come.

It's especially important to note, as Cookie Jar's adaptation has proven, that with a dedicated producer and the right team involved - animators, writers, voice actors, the lot - a classic children's character can be brought to life properly without the need to "modernise" or ostracise the original stories entirely. Paddington is a rare case here as he slowly adjusts to "modern London" as seamlessly as anything without losing any of his original charm. Michael Bond demonstrates this in Paddington Races Ahead (2012) when the little bear misunderstands the concept of "Oyster Cards"...

So far as I have witnessed, every version of Paddington made has provided more positives than negatives, and rightly so. Therefore, I shall not let trepidation darken my hopeful curiosity. Because in the end, whatever the final product will be like, we'd be fools to not see this feature-length adventure with open eyes know...give it a chance!!