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‘small worlds’

a film buff’s guide


‘small worlds’ is our first attempt to integrate non verbal theatre and animated film.

We are often asked

“Where do the ideas come from, what are the influences on the work?”


Welcome to our Film Buff’s Guide to ‘small worlds’...

...and “Hello” to Jason Isaacs.

MAJOR INFLUENCES

RASHOMON (dir. Akira Kurosawa - 1950)

This is the biggie.

We got the idea during  one of our annual  Kurosawathons - yes we are quite serious about our Cinema. The film takes a single event and examines it through the eyes of 4 different characters: a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter.


Directly inspired by this narrative device ‘small worlds’ examines the events of 1 day as seen through the eyes of 5 different characters: a bug, a goose, a fox, a girl and a cat.

SHERLOCK Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton - 1924)

The other biggie.

Keaton, Cinema’s first Genius - yes we have strong opinions, beautifully and very cleverly introduces the idea of a character literally stepping into a projected film and being expelled from it.



We use this idea in the Goose story and, most dramatically, in the story of the Bug.

On the screen the bug watches the balloon fly away.

The girl follows on her bike.

She knocks the bug up into the air.

It then rolls off the screen...

...and down into the set.

The bug spends the day trying to get back up into his world during which we explore more variations on the ‘real world’ / ‘screen world’ interaction.

Major film influences

Rashomon - narrative

Sherlock Jr. - process

But there were, of course

OTHER INFLUENCES

THE WIZARD of OZ (dir. Victor Fleming - 1939)

Bringing audiences into our Dome shaped theatre/cinema is a very special moment of transition, they are entering our space.


We wanted to visually mark the moment during the performance where they enter the world of the stories.


Looking around for inspiration we remembered the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens a door in her sepia tinted world and enters the technicolor world of Oz.

You may have noticed that we use two models of our small world.

One in white and one in colour.

We also have two digital versions.

One in white, one in colour.

It is these we use for our ‘Oz” moment.

At the start we invite the audience to follow the butterfly.

In the film it flies down into the white world.

We get our first glimpse of the girl on the bridge.

We fly closer to the balloon.

We fly through the balloon...

...and into the world of the stories.

Our ‘Oz’ moment.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (dir. Bryan Singer - 1995)

Like the famous plot twist in the film we bet you didn’t see this coming.


‘small worlds’ - The Usual Suspects???


We needed a purely visual way to tell the Girl’s story in less than a minute. It had to feature all the main characters and incidents but take less than 60 seconds.


We  remembered the notice board in The Usual Suspects, everything to do with the plot of the film was on the notice board or related to objects on the desk.


We are not going to explain this in any detail as it would be a major plot spoiler if you have not seen the film.


The notice board was our inspiration.

So, during a 50 second pan all the characters, events and locations seen in the previous stories are displayed in drawings and photographs on the girl’s notice board and the objects on her table.

We see and hear her day and then we witness her arriving back in the bedroom.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (dir. Steven Spielberg - 1998)

Or rather - the opening 27 minutes.


The first time we saw this at the cinema we both wimped out and averted our eyes. Missed much of the screen action but could not avoid the sounds .

It won Oscars for Sound editing and mixing. The sounds of the bullets striking different materials, traveling through water...stunning.


During the Cat’s story we needed it to experience a shocking and violent event. It was to be a complete contrast to anything seen in the previous stories and to show what a dangerous life it led.


So we staged the attack on the Cat in an alley and remembering the impact sounds of the bullets on the beach we spent a great deal of time creating the sounds of the stones hitting the brick wall, trash cans, concrete and the wooden pallet. We made the audio experience as realistic as we could.


We were of course concerned that some teachers or parents may find it all a bit too strong, indeed we were also worried that younger children might find it upsetting.


After several hundred performances, so far, not a single complaint.

TRAFIC (dir. Jacques Tati - 1971)

Not a great film but it was the direct inspiration for giving the bugs vehicle related voices.


Originally we created odd and rather cute sound effects for the bugs and it just did not work.


We watched Trafic and the bugs soundtrack practically wrote itself:-


speedy bug -Harley Davidson

old bug - clapped out banger

rhino bug - reversing lorry

etc


It transformed the bug story, so, thank you Monsieur Hulot.

THE RED BALLOON (dir. Albert Lamorisse - 1956)

The red ball, shape or object has often featured in our work over the last 37 years:-


During rehearsals we used a real red ball to illustrate where we wanted to focus the attention of the audience at any given point.


Very early clowning based shows featured not only the red nose but small round red puppets that regularly appeared in comic subplots.


Even in our street shows the little red ball was used in mock magic routines.


It has been a visual leitmotif in all our work.

It’s even in our logo.

So when we were writing the stories and introduced the idea of the girl losing her balloon what other colour could it be?

SCHINDLER’S LIST (dir. Steven Spielberg - 1993)

A clear, simple and direct influence.

Originally the balloon in the white world was white.


No problem with that, perfectly natural and obvious.

Seen the film?

That’s where we got the idea.

And the final nomination for “other influence” also goes to Mr. Spielberg for:-

Then we we saw Schindler’s List and the very next day both the model and digital versions of the white world were changed.

NODS & HOMAGES

We are big fans of Mr. Hitchcock.

A visual storytelling genius.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK

One of his trademarks was his cameo appearance.

We thought - why not?


So, don’t blink or you’ll miss it, that’s Bill driving the white van during the transition wipe from the girl’s story to the cat’s story.

Making our kind of highly detailed non verbal theatre takes a long time, a year to make a show is the norm.


Compared to creating animations, we discovered, it's like the blink of an eye.


Creating entire digital worlds you have time to remember favourite films and moments and are tempted to include some references.


It's a fun thing, it's a personal thing and apparently it's really quite common.


Here are a few we put into ‘small worlds’

THE SEARCHERS (dir. John Ford - 1956)

Absolutely love this film, from the moment the door opens in a totally black screen revealing the vivid desert outside through to the iconic image of John Wayne saying farewell at the end.


Storyboarding the moment when the girl finds the injured cat in the factory we went straight back to that final image in The Searchers.


We did experiment with the girl adopting the gesture Wayne makes but it just didn’t feel right. The figure framed in the doorway was enough.


The stance he takes is a tribute to an old colleague, Harry Carey, as this was his trademark gesture.


The reason Wayne did it: Carey’s widow, Olive, was on the set - watching. This was Wayne’s tribute.

So it turns out our little nod

is an homage

to a tribute,

or something like that.

SPIRITED AWAY(dir. Hayao Miyazaki- 2001)

We knew we needed a bridge so we looked around for ideas and plumped for basing it on the bridge to the bath house in one of our favourite animations.

No it’s not an exact replica but this is technically ‘a minor nod.’

Talking of Miyazaki, it would have been really neat if his 1989 film “Kiki’s Delivery Service” were the inspiration behind the Cat & Girl in bed set up.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

But it’s not.


The idea of telling the stories of the cat and the girl through their dreams is based on 20 years of watching our cat sleeping in front of the fire.


Buster, yes we did name him after Keaton, would suddenly start twitching his whiskers, the legs would get going and the tail flick up and down.


Clearly something exciting was going on.

The model/puppet we made is a faithful copy of our sleeping Buster. The whiskers twitch, the belly rises and falls and, most important, when the action heats up the tail goes into action.


It’s our small homage to our much missed little friend.

PIXAR

Surprise, surprise we are fans.

Yes the cloud wallpaper is a minor nod to Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story.

Toy Story,1995, brilliant, ground breaking, inspirational, a real eye opener and it effectively created a new cinematic genre.

But for us it really began 9 years earlier.

LUXOR Jr. (dirs. John Lasseter, William Reeves - 1986)

This 2 minute short just popped up on our TV one night and it was one of those very rare occasions when you knew with absolute certainty that you had just seen the future.


It took us a long time to get to the point where we could consider making animations but this short film was our starting pistol.

It’s also clearly something special to the people at Pixar.

So, what is our Luxor Jr. nod?


When we tell you that the green alarm clock on the girl’s desk took us 3 days to make and another 2 just to get the hands rotating in the right direction and at the right speed you’ll realise that making a lamp was out of the question.

So we opted for the big ball.

During the fly in to the bedroom you only get the briefest glimpse of the ball so for this guide we went back to the original files and gave it a nudge forward.

Final Pixar nod: they often put references to earlier work in each new film.


We had a go at that.


The poster by the mirror is from our previous show.


Our first, and only,

product placement.

And our final Cinema example is a mix of nod, homage and influence.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (dir. Robert Mulligan - 1962)

Or rather - the title sequence.

A voice for the girl.


All our shows are:-


Non verbal


Feature clear accessible narratives


Contain no culture specific references

Blurring the identity and ethnic

origin of the girl was easy to do visually.

Silhouettes are useful things.

So are rear shots.

As are extreme close ups.

And misty morning shots on a river.

Whizzing past on a fast bike helps.

As does appearing reflected in a balloon.

Or simply as a shadow.

The thing that could spoil the ‘everygirl’ - ‘it could be any girl’ feel we wanted would be her voice and, of course, her language.

We had solved the problem of creating the voice. Jen ran around our local park delivering the dialogue we had at that point such as:-

“Hey”

“No”

“Byee”


We fed these into the computer and the faster you played them back the younger the voice became.

The problem of delivering expressive and nuanced vocalisations without revealing too much about the girl remained.


We sat down to watch Mockingbird for the nth. time and there it was in the title sequence. The humming, the sighs, the slight inhalations and the “boom, boom, boom, boom.” Expressive but unspecific.

So we wrote new dialogue, and non dialogue, recorded a wide range of hums, ho’s and ahhs.


We experimented with different non specific phrases but decided to use the original “boom, boom, boom, boom.”

Those with a keen ear will have noticed that the girl in the Mockingbird title sequence does actually say another word.


When the marbles collide she says “Bing.”

So does ours.


When the toast pops out of the toaster she delivers her “Bing.”

Does it work?


If you see ‘small worlds’ you can decide for yourself but judging by the number of young girls who come and talk to us after the performance, and clearly identify with the character, we think it did.


We know for sure it did with one particular individual as throughout the story we could hear her telling her classmates “That’s me, that’s me, that’s my bike, that’s my cat.”

Finally - a non cinema nod and - a non cinema influence

GEORGES PROSPER REMI (Hergé)

As we said earlier, making the films took a long time and as we have to make everything ourselves we have the chance to put in some personal references.


Hergé had to be there. We made a simple digital model of his moon rocket, took a digital photo of it and applied to the rug in the bedroom.

Looking at this still shot it is quite clear but in the actual film it just flashes by.


To date only once has a voice piped up in the audience and said

“That’s Tintin.”

SHIGERU MIYAMOTO

Using contrasting styles throughout a show is one of the things we do.


In ‘small worlds’ the bugs are natural, the geese are like toys,

the cat story  is photorealistic

the girl story is animated childlike drawings.


The tricky one was the fox story.


It comes right in the middle of the show.


It is 100% puppetry.


No film at all.

Our first attempt used the same natural looking materials that featured in the bug’s story.


It was bulky and it was fussy.


We tried it, we tested it, we binned it.

We redesigned the course the fox would follow.


We plotted a new path as the fox jumps from rabbit hole to rabbit hole.


We simplified and lowered the whole landscape.

It was cleaner, neater, more compact but we still didn’t know what it would look like.


The fox puppet does not walk, it hops and jumps along the set.


It was while rehearsing its journey that little bells started going off.


This reminds us of something.

After enough bells had rung - a penny dropped and this was the result.

How did we get to here?

First, imagine little green tubes where the rabbit holes are.

Then remove the jumping fox.

Replace it with a short, plump, Italian plumber.

Nintendo clouds, Nintendo hills, Nintendo flowers.

If you’re a Nintendo aficionado you may have spotted that the daisies come from “YOSHI’S ISLAND.”

That’s how we got the look.

So there you go - some very long answers to two short questions:-


“Where do the ideas come from & what are the influences on the work?”

So, what did we take from it?


Two things:-


The idea of using a Child’s drawings

&

A voice for the girl.

It was during a viewing of the film we first asked the question: Would it be possible to tell the girl’s story using her drawings?


After many experiments we developed a simple but effective way of animating them.

Many people make this claim, and good luck to them.

In our case “small worlds” IS a child of Rashomon.


We can do lots of things and we can do many of them well

but one thing we can’t do is write extended, developing narratives.

So when we hit on the Rashomon approach we were well pleased, and relieved.

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Tinkety tonk old fruit, and down with the Nazis.


Jenny & Bill

UPDATE
In a recent  overhaul of the show the morning sequence was taken out.
The girl is now Bingless.