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The making of The Jumblies

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At BIAFF 2013 Robert Duncan and Alan Fenemore won an IAC Diamond and the Best Animation Award for The Jumblies.

Still from 'The Jumblies'.
They went to sea in a sieve they did…

Robert Duncan on losing sleep because of his Jumblies thingy

In about 1963 I got really fascinated by the nonsense poems of Edward Lear - you know, the Owl and the Pussycat, the Dong with a Luminous Nose, his non-rude limericks…and especially The Jumblies. They went to sea in a sieve they did…

Because of a lack of career, and mainly complete idleness, I decided to put my energies into something else apart from chatting up women down the high street, and make an animated film. This was before the days of computers, and there was no alternative but to do exactly what Walt Disney was doing rather well with his three hundred animators, and draw the thing frame by frame.

Carefully painted backgrounds and loads of cellophane (or cells) painted on the back with slow drying poster colour. At twenty five of these per second it looked like becoming a long job, but I persevered and finally ended up with enough of my Jumblies translation to last at least forty seconds. My big mistake was filming the thing frame by frame on a mate's 8mm movie camera. This cutting edge equipment was fine for him to be seen showing off on water skis in some far-flung bay, but wasn't exactly of, let's say, Wallace and Gromit standard.

But to see my rather indifferent cartoons springing to life on my pinned up sheet was enough to get me dragging round every long-suffering friend to view the production.

A spilt glass of cider into the box that contained my life's work, the cells, was enough to send me back to peacefully spending my mornings in bed, with occasional appearances to demand bacon and eggs, cider or Clearasil.

Still from 'The Jumblies'.
Still from 'The Jumblies'.
Still from 'The Jumblies'.

But the memory of the Jumblies stuck, and about the middle of last year I suddenly realised I could still recite it verbatim. I couldn't get it out of my mind, and found myself waking up in the middle of the night planning how it should be filmed to the full satisfaction of Mr Lear. On holiday I bought a notebook and started on a storyboard to recreate this masterpiece of the nineteenth century. This time I turned down the notion of thousands of cells, and proceeded to develop a mix-and-match series of visual ideas to tell the timeless story in my current style.

Alan Fenemore

My friend and associate Alan Fenemore, who has shown remarkable patience with me during our frequent speed animation productions, was only too happy to become involved - even when I told him there would never be any money in it, and it was a labour of love. The piece was to be four minutes long, and would be in what I laughingly called mixed media.

Day one, and I arrived at the studio with all my watercolour equipment, determined that this should be the way to go. Now Alan is a very patient man, and he dutifully filmed all my early efforts to get a painty look that we were both happy with. I could waste paragraphs on this, but it's probably more succinct to say that it just didn't work. It was wet, splodgy and reflective - and a very uneasy start to the project.

Deep in the night I realised that pastels were probably the way to go, and called in at my local art shop on the way to Alan's studio for our second day of creative madness. I was beginning to think this probably wouldn't work either, but then I sketched out a rather good stormy background. Alan filmed this on a static camera from above, and also caught the action on a handheld mini-camera. This nice piece of film ended up as the pre-title intro to the final piece. But my problems weren't over. As a professional cartoonist I knew myself well enough to know that I couldn't produce really good stuff without my hand leaning on the surface I was drawing on. Result? I started to smear the pastels on my background when I added the figures and the inevitable sieve.

Still from 'The Jumblies'.
Still from 'The Jumblies'.
Still from 'The Jumblies'.

So, to cut a long story short if it's not too late, it was all about fixative and waiting ages before it was dry enough to draw on. Alan was still practising his legendary patience, but I couldn't help thinking that this could start wearing a little thin. I had colour copies made of my pastel background and then drew my detail as Alan kept filming. I used markers, pencils, crayons, Pentel sign pens (my pen of choice since the sixties) and even a Biro.

By this time we had collected a load of footage, mostly useless (or repetitive) and we had probably only got to the end of the first verse of the poem.


Soundtrack time, and my friend Tim Rice had agreed to do the voiceover - but he is a busy man and it was difficult to pin him down. So I made the earth shattering decision to narrate it myself. I spent a very satisfying few hours at Black Frog Studios under the kindly and patient direction of Steve, and came away with a pretty good vocal track. No music. No effects. But more of that later…

Back to Alan for yet another day of experimenting with techniques. In our business life he very often films me drawing mono cartoons and then makes the results go at ever changing speeds to fit the dialogue. So the section of the Jumblies when Edward Lear lists the things they picked up on the island covered in trees (An owl and a useful cart, and a pound of rice and a cranberry tart, and a hive of silvery bees…) was home territory for us. Alan's filming of this is totally faultless - every object is being drawn just as it is mentioned vocally, and the camera pulls out in a random way to frame every element perfectly.

The Sieve turned round and round

More problems…the poem demands that the sieve goes round and round (and everyone cried 'You'll all be drowned…') and I found it difficult mastering the inter-relationship of the four Jumblies, their tobacco pipe mast and their crockery jar. So I came up with an answer as I lay awake at about 3.30 in the morning. I made a clay model of the sieve and its contents, and took twenty four photographs of it revolving. I then traced the resulting pictures and voila! (or something…)

Photograph of the plasticine model.Job done. That took care of ten seconds. Alan then placed them on a piece of film of the sea that I had taken with my iPhone, and for about the hundredth time showed off his talent, commitment and patience by moving the resulting spinning sieve to follow the flow of the waves. We decided we should use the drawings in their transparent state and not colour them, because otherwise it would appear as a rather bad bit of animation as opposed to a simple sketch idea. Happy with that, we decided to use the drawings again in a flick book. I made this out of photocopies and, amazingly, we filmed it in one take.

We were flying now. The Jumblies wrapped their feet in pinky paper all folded neat, so we did just that - me drawing the feet on pinky paper and then folding it up. We dragged on pieces of lined paper and used them at angles over the main scene. We screwed them up and pushed them away. We used paper with the serrations you get when you tear it off a wiro-binding. We even drew a section on an iPad but it never made the final edit because we didn't think it was quite in the spirit of the thing.

In short, we drew and filmed loads of material, using every visual gimmick we could think of, and gradually assembled what we considered to be the best bits. Walt Disney probably did the same thing…

With the visuals nearly ready we set about adding sound effects to the narration. Lots of thunder and splashing waves. A coppery gong that Alan found seemed ideal for the bit that demanded a coppery gong. And all was complete, but sounded somewhat empty.

Music - that was the answer!

Still from 'The Jumblies'. A morning spent listening to library tracks left us unimpressed, and I finally had a golden moment… I remembered that I had bought an iPad app for two quid, with all the musical instruments you could possibly imagine. Trouble was, I hadn't played a musical instrument since prep school, and then my piano sounded like a bad impersonation of Les Dawson. But what the hell? Let's try it. After all, The Jumblies had sort of grown organically. Thorough examination of the app revealed that choral voices were a possibility, and could be played on a keyboard (which happened to be in the app) like any other instrument. "Keep it in fours" I said and, as Alan ran our movie, I played along in real time. Double-tracking the result with percussion (which included whistles) completed the symphony. Thumping drums taking us through the end titles was the final icing.

Tim Rice said later that the music went well with the narrative. So there.
My darling wife Cathy, who knew I'd been missing for ages, but didn't know what Alan and I were doing, was totally impressed with what we had produced, and came up with the idea of entering The Jumblies in film festivals. The amazing result is that we not only won a Diamond award at the IAC British International Amateur Film Festival, but we won Best Animation too.

Are we chuffed? Damn right we are! We had a lovely weekend in Chesterfield with Cathy and Alan's fab wife Anne, and came back thinking the whole thing was totally worth it… and what could we do with the Owl and the Pussycat?                                  

Who knows?

Probably nothing - but I'll try not to spill cider all over it…
Robert Duncan, Linda Gough and Alan Fenemore at BIAFF.
Robert Duncan, Linda Gough, Alan Fenemore

Watch The Jumblies now. Bet you can't wait:

- Robert Duncan

Find out more about Robert Duncan's work on his own website: www.duncancartoons.com

For anyone unfamiliar with the poem ... first watch the film, then read on ...

The Jumblies by Edward Lear

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!’

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!’

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
And all night long they sailed away;
And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.
‘O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
In the shade of the mountains brown!’

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
 And they went to sea in a Sieve.
They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And everyone said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


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