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At BIAFF 2010 Norman Lilley (Circle 8) won  Best Animation and 4 Star Awards with Days Away.

The catchy title song echoes a familiar railway advertising campaign as we watch a bored young girl in a station waiting-room draw on the steamed-up windows ... and then then imagine herself mischievously  visiting the scenes depicted on famous old railway holiday posters.

Nostalgia
for something I had never known Still from 'Days Away'.

Our last film Hugo and the Runaway Stories (click here for details) was such a success with its target audience (grandson Hugo himself) that at the first showing he demanded it be replayed six times on the trot, literally falling about laughing each time. The fact that it then found so much appreciation by not only family and friends, but also a wider circle of acquaintances, led me to think along similar lines for another in the 'mode'.

The Heroine

At one of the showings was a little playmate of Hugo's, three-year-old Holly Watt, who at that time had a hair cut (as did the women) in the 'bob' style, reminiscent of the twenties. I suppose that this 'between-the-wars' imagery brought to mind the lovely old watercolour style railway posters of that period, which I had always found so atmospheric, and of which I had bought a recent book. Not that they were of places that I had been to, but, when I first saw them, they were of places that neither I nor anyone else could go to, as the war was on and they were restricted both by travel and, probably in most cases, by barbed wire along the beach. Nostalgia for something I had never known - is that possible?

Having decided to bring these facets together and have a go at a film on this basis, I thought I needed to find a girl of about that age for a model. Pictures of friends' granddaughters of that age came out, after I had artistically 'processed' them, to look like teenagers.I still felt that Holly looked just right, except that she was only three. Never mind, let's get Sally (Hugo's mum) to take a few stills of Holly and we would see. Well, we did - Holly came out looking about 7 years old. (So much for my artistic abilities?) Anyway, it worked.

Settings and Action

The ideas of 'what to do' at each stage were often influenced, of course, by each poster itself. If the picture is of a little girl at a quayside what is there to do but make her jump in? If it is of the 'new' electric train, what else but have the heroin go by sitting astride it as though it were a miniature model? And the girl in the Bognor Regis (which is where we live) poster holding the beach ball high above her head was just asking for a poke in the ribs!

Not all the pictures were from the book. Things took on their own impetus as we proceeded. As it was implied that the whole adventures were in the girl's imagination, I saw no need for the scenes to be consistent with each other or retain sensible concepts or proportions. Hence she appears three times in the joke-photobooth scene, and Windsor Castle is relatively the size of a sandcastle in another. Cartwheels and dance pirouettes helped link some scenes to keep things moving, the latter being modelled (one still at a time) by my wife Sandra, an ex-dancing professional. Using an adult body to model a child's movement is largely a matter of adjusting head size.

Still from 'Days Away'.Actually, it is only at this point of writing this piece that it occurs to me that the child might represent me at about 7 or 8, as seen from my present adult retrospective view. They were the lovely seaside visits that a London kid would love to have made. There might also be a slight poke at the things that would not have been available within the class structure of the time even if he/she had, e.g., venturing into the 'posh' hotel, taking the waters like the smart fashionable lady at Royal Leamington Spa (let's suck it down to the dregs with a straw making a slurping noise).

A Simple Tune

On the matter of music, Chris and I have written a couple of 'musicals' together, one of which has been performed on stage, the other lying dormant. We are quite happy to pick up the songs in the latter group where they may come in useful. 'Days Away' was a simple tune meant to accompany a kids' dance sequence in the corridors of a train, so it fitted in very well here.

Actually it was too short, so I had to write a 'middle eight' in. I didn't think it had the 'catchy' quality to stick in people's minds, but I'm glad that it seems to.

Chris and I both write write songs, sometimes together, sometimes separately. 'Days Away' was mine. But Chris is the better singer and only he can play and mix the instrumentals. The next film we are now completing also very largely features another of the songs.

Unusual Artistry

One aspect of making posters come to life is that by moving one of the characters in the picture, you leave a space in the background that has to be filled. To take as an example the Leamington lady referred to, she moves her head down to look at her glass; well the space in the background has to be filled in. And in the Conway Valley electric train picture, while the train is obviously travelling along on a track, there is virtually no track on view in the original picture. My train, with the girl on it, comes in from the right and exits left. I had to create the whole track from scratch. What I am saying is that one is having to fill in with a quality that is acceptable enough to match the original artist!

Having been pleasantly surprised, not to say startled, by Hugo and the Runaway Stories picking up 4 stars at the previous BIAFF, I was equally chuffed at Days Away getting the 4 stars AND the Best Animation trophy. It was also particularly nice to see how appreciative an audience of strangers (although probably mostly empathetic film-makers themselves) were with their laughter in all the right places and applause, both at the film itself and my curtsy after collecting the award.

- NORMAN LILLEY


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