It may be flat, but it sure isn't boring
Tuesday 23 December 1997
Daniel Greaves is one of the unsung heroes of British animation. Think animators and Oscars and, chances are, you'll think Nick Park. In fact, Greaves pipped Park to the Oscar podium back in 1992 with a short film entitled Manipulation. Park, of course, went on to win three Academy awards with a little help from Wallace and Gromit. Greaves, meanwhile, went back to his drawing board. Five years and some pounds 750,000 later and his latest creation, Flatworld, hits TV screens this Christmas.
Greaves sits drinking coffee in his chilly north London studio. It's some months now since production of Flatworld wrapped, but models and cardboard cut-outs still litter the shelves. Greaves is a meticulous craftsman with an awesome reputation within the industry for his skills. Small wonder, then, that even before his latest film makes its UK TV debut, it's already being tipped as next year's Oscar winner.
Watch the half-hour animated adventure and it's easy to see why. Aside from the required mix of engaging characters - road-mender Matt Phlatt, portly cat Geoff, and Chips the fish - the plot involves a bank robber, a bag of stolen money and a striking array of animation techniques.
The action kicks off in Flatworld, a wet and windy three-dimensional city whose inhabitants are cardboard cut-outs that move with the fluidity of traditional stop-frame animation but bend like card as they go through doorways or take a seat. Events take an unexpected turn when a freak electrical current frees the forces of "Flipside" - a parallel cartoon universe of cliched television formats.
"The idea came from a one-off gag involving two-dimensional people driving two-dimensional cars in a three-dimensional world," Greaves explains. "I loved the idea of flat people passing each other, casting shadows but when they turn a corner you're really thrown." He'd already clashed different dimensions in Manipulation, a six-minute film charting the interaction between an animated character and his animator that ends with the flat character becoming multi-dimensional when he steps off the page.
In fact, Flatworld is far more sophisticated in both plot and animation technique. More than half the film is what Greaves describes as "two-and- a-half dimensional". To achieve this, he used traditional stop-frame animation to move cardboard figures in a three-dimensional setting. It was a painstaking process. First, drawings of the characters were animated with 12 different images shot per second to check fluidity of movement. Then, every drawing was photocopied, pasted on to card, coloured and carefully cut out. Each card image was weighted at its base so it would stand upright. These images were then animated, with 12 different card drawings of the same character shot per second. All in all, the film used 40,000 different cardboard cut-outs. Filming the "Flipside" sequence was a piece of cake by comparison, involving traditional Disney techniques.
Greaves, however, was unperturbed. He has always been inspired by technique and has long relished the challenge of animating inanimate objects because "it's more of a test to put character into something that has none".
On Flatworld, he says, "We'd worked out a series of visual puns, then we had to get the characters in the right place at the right time. The film's pace and plotting is as striking as its look. Without dialogue, the narrative rests on visual puns and strong characterisation. The ingenious, fast-moving storyline propels Matt, Geoff and Chips through a series of perilous encounters with characters inhabiting "Flipside", where hair- raising escapes can be made at the push of a button on the TV remote control.
"It was incredibly tricky," Greaves admits - especially for the 100-strong team working over the two years the film was in production. "But when we saw the end result of each day's work in the following morning's rushes, it spurred us on." As did the interest of the BBC's prestigious animation unit in Bristol who's head, Colin Rose, acted as executive producer.
Rose, who has also worked with Nick Park, put up 20 per cent of the budget for Flatworld and helped raise the rest. He worked with Greaves and Veale on storyboarding and also brought on board composer Julian Nott whose credits include - surprise, surprise - Wallace and Gromit. He is quick to counter, however, any suggestion the BBC was simply looking for the next Nick Park.
In fact, the BBC's involvement in Flatworld pre-dates its association with Park, Rose explains. "Having screened Manipulation, the BBC wanted something a little longer - we asked Daniel to develop a half-hour film."
Besides, Greaves's style is very different to Park's. "With Nick's work, while there's much irony there's much sentimentality, too. Daniel's, however, is more sardonic and knowing."
Greaves says he has no plans for a follow-up film. But another Oscar would be nice.
'Flatworld' can be seen on BBC2, 7pm on Christmas Eve, and again on New Year's Eve, 10.30pm.
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