Trip a little light fantastic with episode 35 of the Fantasy/Animation podcast, which marks Christopher Holliday and Alex Sergeant's very own return to Cherry Tree Lane as they visit musical sequel Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall, 2018). Joining them underneath the lovely London sky are Visual Effects Supervisor Christian Kaestner and Compositing Supervisor Frederikke Glick, who both worked as part of VFX studio Framestore’s contribution to the film. Topics for discussion include the construction a fictional London that owes a debt to design of the 1964 original; the ‘keying’ or extracting of bluescreen and greenscreen images as part of the compositing process; the production of the Royal Doulton Music Hall sequence; lighting effects and practical sets in the film’s climactic Big Ben set piece; and the pleasurable fantasy of hybridity when integrating (yet keeping separate) live-action and cel-animated components. Off we go!
Episode 34 sees Chris and Alex focusing on the pleasures, politics and posthumanism of science-fiction parable Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014). To help untangle the circuitry of Garland’s film, they are joined by Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Andrew Whitehurst. Andrew is currently the Creative Director and VFX Supervisor at the Double Negative (DNEG) studio in London, with credits that include Troy (Oliver Stone, 2004), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010), Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012), Paddington (Paul King, 2014), and Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018). In this latest episode, Andrew talks about his role as Visual Effects Supervisor on Ex Machina, a film for which he received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2015. Listen as they discuss the relationship between visual effects and production design; the film’s digital construction of bodies (via facial shapes, skin simulations, and data sets for physiognomies); questions of hybrid performance in the animation (movement, walking, gesturing) of humanoid robot Ava; the erotics of technology; and what Ex Machina has to say about the broader ethics and morality of creativity.
Part-Western, part-dinosaur epic, The Valley of Gwangi (Jim O’Connolly, 1969) is a fantasy that combines the icons and images of the frontier myth together with stop-motion animation directed by Ray Harryhausen, a project that he had himself inherited from his mentor Willis O'Brien. Set in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, and with a plot that involves the capture of a living Allosaurus by a gang of cowboys, The Valley of Gwangi stands as Harryhausen’s final ‘dinosaur film’, one whose effects imagery is the fullest expression of his unique handling of stop-motion creatures. Joining Chris and Alex for episode 33, and to discuss the power of The Valley of Gwangi’s stop-motion puppetry, is award-winning animator Astrid Goldsmith (a.k.a. Mock Duck Studios). Topics include the film’s fantastical treatment (and manipulation) of generic conventions; the organisation of interconnected spatial ‘arenas’ that structure the Western Fantasy narrative; and the interplay of live-action and animated elements during the film’s celebrated ‘rope battle’ between man and dinosaur.
Halloween is well and truly upon us for episode 32, with Chris and Alex getting to grips with spooky stop-motion feature Corpse Bride (Tim Burton, 2005). Joining them is animator Emily Mantell, Storyboard Staff Assistant on the film and currently Head of Animation at University of Wolverhampton. Expect proceedings to take a turn for the ghoulish - if not a little ‘topsy turvy’ - as they discuss the art and labour of storyboarding within animated feature-film production; vocal performances and animating to the voicetrack; the narrative role of ambivalent feminine unruliness embodied in the eponymous corpse bride; themes of outsiderdom and the grotesque; and the broader creative messiness of stop-motion.
For episode 31, Chris and Alex are joined on their swashbuckling adventure by stop-motion animator Richard Haynes (Arts University Bournemouth) to discuss his work on Aardman Animations’ The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (Peter Lord, 2012), as well as a few other animated feature films and television series along the way. Topics include how The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! differs from the traditional shape of Aardman’s exaggerated and lavish fantasy worlds; the production pipeline of stop-motion feature films; the Britishness of the clean and crisp homemade style of the Aardman studio; and the philosophies of performance with (and around) the ‘animated’ character of the camera.
Episode 30 marks a return to the work of both Studio Ghibli and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, as Chris and Alex build on their discussion of My Neighbor Totoro with a journey to Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986), an animated fantasy that follows the magical Sheeta and companion Pazu from a mining community of Japan up into the skies thanks to the floating powers of a mythical crystal. To discuss this early Ghibli feature, they are joined by Dr Robert Maslen, Senior Lecturer in English Literature (University of Glasgow) and founder of the MLitt English Literature: Fantasy, the first graduate programme in the world specifically dedicated to the study of fantasy and the fantastic. Topics include the film’s many imaginative acts of creativity and invention that support its steampunk aesthetic; its articulation of the treasures of learning, knowledge and dreams; Laputa’s links to both the speculative fiction of author Ursula K. Le Guin and the spectre of Japan’s industrialisation; and its multiple levels of space (the dynamism of the air, the land that conveys the work of living, and the underground mines that spark Sheeta and Pazu’s flying adventure).
Chris and Alex return to the work of the Fleischer studios for episode 29, following up their discussion of Gulliver’s Travels with Mr. Bug Goes to Town (Dave Fleischer, 1941), similar in concept and design to its predecessor and loosely inspired by Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck's book The Life of the Bee (1901). The second (and final) cel-animated feature film produced by the Fleischers, Mr. Bug Goes to Town negotiates the conflict between an insect community and the threatening human world, all framed by an environmental narrative of modernisation, redevelopment and urban sprawl. Expect turns to the layered organisation of fantasy spaces and geographies of diverse scales; the film's connection to traditions of ecocritical cinema and contemporary computer-animated filmmaking; the depiction of rapid urbanisation and the metonymic forces of capitalism (and the role of cigars!); and animation’s representational history of blackface and racial coding.
Episode 28 sees Chris and Alex joined in their world of pure imagination by Stuart Messinger, VFX Coordinator on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005), to discuss the part-musical, full-fantasy and live-action/CGI adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular story. Topics include Stuart’s work on the film in digital visual effects at the Moving Picture Company; the collaborative nature of multi-studio effects production on feature-length blockbusters; the practical and artistic challenges of animating live-action plates; the combination of 2D (matte) and 3D (sub-surface scattering) technologies; and the integration of realist aesthetics together with the surrealistic imagery and fantastic stylisations conjured by Dahl’s original 1964 story.
Episode 27 has Chris and Alex swinging their way into a superhero-filled multiverse to discuss the narrative strategies and visual dynamism of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, 2018), the highly-successful computer-animated feature film from Sony Pictures Animation. Caught in the fantasy/animation web for this latest instalment is Simran Hans, film critic and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Observer, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Dazed, The Fader and Sight & Sound. Topics for discussion include Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s unique formal design and flattened style that reinvigorates computer-animated film aesthetics; superheroes, space and moments of stasis; forking path narratives and the fantasy of twice-told tales; and the role of family relationships as the film’s main structuring principle.
For episode 26, Chris and Alex are joined by special guest Barry J.C. Purves, renowned stop-motion animator, director and screenwriter who is also the author of Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2007). The focus of their conversation is the monster epic King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005), the digital VFX-heavy remake of the original 1933 film of the same name, and a film upon which Barry himself worked as part of the animation department. Topics for discussion include the labour involved in the interaction between live-action and digital elements; the economy of King Kong’s symmetrical narrative structure; and the power of stop-motion’s objects as they become storytelling agents, as well as turns to William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Greek tragedy along the way.