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The making of The Jumblies
They went to sea in a sieve they did…
Robert Duncan on losing sleep because of his Jumblies thingyIn 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.
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 FenemoreMy 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.
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.
SoundtrackSoundtrack 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 roundMore 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…)
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!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.
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