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The making of Greenhouse

Tim Jones Best British Amateur Movie, Mini-Cinema Cup for Animation and International Medallion winner.
Tim is Senior Lecturer in Film & Video Production at Canterbury Christ Church University College.  He has been making films and winning awards for many years, following in the footsteps of his father, Colin Jones.  Some idea of the breadth of his talent can be found in comparing the 3D-animation of Greenhouse with the flowing, experimental camera work of the live action Garden Life featuring his young son, Jake, which won a Silver Seal in the same competition.  I interviewed him at Movie 2001:

Where did Greenhouse start?

"Funnily enough it came from seeing somebody else's film. Often if I'm watching amateur films I get inspired. I saw a student's film which was a lovely idea though not particularly well made. It was a model animation about someone who took off their skin, which was like polythene. They looked around and found another skin like silver foil and put that on. After checking the mirror the character put on a gold skin and so on. I love this idea of taking skin off. I talked to the student and got permission to remake them film ... and decided, no, I'd rather make my own.

"The next step was to wonder where the skin comes from ... it could be they've ripped the walls down from the environment. From that came the question: what was the environment?   It might be a greenhouse. Now the actual making of skin is not even in my film but the idea developed from that."

An obvious reference seems to be Heath-Robinson.

still"I wasn't influenced by him but I was influenced by that strategy of re-using junk because I have been brought up in that way. We always recycle, make things from bits-and-pieces and so on. It is a theme of my films, so I was very interested in the making of things.

"Part of the film's development arose from having to build a greenhouse set. I knew there would have to be some sort of machine in it, but I didn't know what it was. I opened my 'useful bits' drawer . This happened to have a clock in it with a lovely big spring and cogs and so on. That's why the film has a machine with a big spring. So in a way I was led by what I happened to have in that drawer.

"So far as my ideas go there are always two things going on. There's the basic philosophical point I'm trying to get across - in this case the environmental message - and on top of that there's usually something I am exploring as a film maker. In a previous film I had experimented with camera movement in animation which is a slow process since you move the camera a fraction, take a frame, move it again, take another frame and so on. In this case I chose to move the whole set. The camera is actually mounted within the set but the whole thing moves.

"The film took any spare time I had over a period of two years to make. I had to really force myself to go into the garage and get on with it. Animation is fascinating when you see it but tedious to produce."

Was the building of that intricate, delicate set a large part of the work?

The protagonist in 'Greenhouse'"No. It took three or four days. To give an idea of scale the man is about seven inches tall. There were two model greenhouses. A small one for exterior shots and a bigger one with detachable walls, a metal floor and wooden walls. The construction was carefully hidden with real plants.

"I always shoot tests. Intending to work in black-and-white I tested in that form using plants made from silver foil. This allowed for an extra element of message, but I realised that real plants would be better. The catch is that the main production period with those plants was nearly a year. I kept them alive which was remarkable for me because I usually kill plants. I really cared for those ones and they doubled in size. So if you watch carefully you can see real changes in the size of the plants during the film. "

Are you worried that some people may miss the message?

"I think it's a film which to some extent can be understood at virtually any level. My son, Jake, would not really understand the environmental issue but he enjoys the story. Some people will get the basic connection: greenhouse and greenhouse-effect. But there are layers of meaning beyond that so, for example, there is a gas cylinder which becomes part of the story. It had O3 written on it - a reference I deliberately kept vague so that only scientists would realise it was Ozone. The idea is that there is Ozone in his atmosphere which he then rips out and throws away.

"The crucial point of the film is in the ending when the character goes on to destroy another environment."

How deliberate was the period look of the film? It seems pre-war, pre-plastic.

still"I think that's me, actually. It's just the way I do it. In fact my next film is about how plastic is taking over. I love mechanical things, I don't like electronic ones - though my job involves me teaching about computers. It may be something to do with being brought up round lovely, beautiful cine cameras which are clockwork. I have been brought up with well-made old things.

"Besides if you have a whole bunch of diodes and resistors what do you do? You can't animate them: they just sit there. I wanted something that was mechanical and would move.

"I must admit that I made this film in a really ridiculous way. The way an idea develops for me is that I have to film it and see it. Then I realise it is all wrong but I know what would be the right way to do it. Then I film it again. This time most of it is right but there are still some bits that are wrong so I film those again. That approach is fine with video and live action - it suits me. But with animation using film it's ridiculous because it costs ... well any money I had would go into paying for the film stock. It could take me two months to animate a sequence. When I finally saw it - because it takes a long time in the lab - it wasn't any good and I had to do it again. I shot fifty-odd minutes of material to make a twelve minute film. I even shot two or three rolls of 16mm black and white film to start with!

"I do not have masses of equipment, computers and so on. I just put all my money into the films though that will probably change in the future. I will have to move onto digital."

Illustrations courtesy of Tim Jones.

The Movie 2001 Competition awards.

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Page updated on 09 October 2011
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