Last night on BBC Four Holy Flying Circus re-imagined the 1979 release of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Alongside the fine performances and virtuoso storytelling, there was some beautiful animation sequences peppered throughout.
We caught up with Animation Director Jim Le Fevre to find out about the complex production that was involved in creating the title sequence.
Jim Le Fevre writes...
We were approached by Hillbilly Films about doing the title sequence and some animated sections for their comedy drama, Holy Flying Circus, written by Tony Roche, in May this year.
At the first meeting it was apparent that two things boded well for the project, firstly that the budget was extremely low which meant that the passion (from both sides) needed to be extremely high, and secondly that Owen Harris, the director, had a strong vision that, although he didn't know exactly what he wanted, he wanted something passionately different.
Set in 1979, the film was to be a period drama and, for us, there was a powerful starting point in the work of Terry Gilliam who, although he never understood it at the time, was creating a new chapter in the use and technique of animation.
Owen wanted something radically new, but I was at pains to point out that if all the actors and sets were dressed in the detail of the time, were we to radically re-define Gilliam's work using contemporary CGI wizardry it would no longer be honest to his work. It would be like having a scene where John Cleese (Darren Boyd) listens to an iPod.
Owen and Art Director Lisa Marie-Hall were keen for us to mirror Gilliam's passion, craft and approach. He created an utterly ground breaking new form of animation (and comedy) through necessity; on a minimum budget and with dedicated problem solving. Well, we had the minimum budget box ticked...
That was when I realised the Phonotrope technique was ready to be used.
The Phonotrope is a technique I created about five years ago, and involves a record player spinning at a fixed speed (45 revolutions per minute), a camera filming at a fixed speed (25 frames per second) and a sequence of pictures laid out around the circumference which, when filmed, creates the illusion of animation.
Previously my experiments had been restricted to 12 inch record sized discs which, by the workings of maths, limited the length of the animated loop to 1.3 seconds. To create a 90 second sequence, I realised we needed to build upwards and outwards.
Image of 'Goldie – Jump 01'
After planning the Phonotrope on the computer (in 3D Studio Max with the help of some truly fantastic code from Ben Cowell) and creating the animated loops (based on Gilliam's style but telling the story of the 'Holy Flying Circus' film) in After Effects, we laid out the sequences on A2 sheets and had them printed onto the heaviest stock of card we could afford.
From that point the outline of the sequences was taken by Ewen Dickie of Laser/Make and used to laser-cut the animation ‘frames’ out. This was no easy task as there were 2012 of them (plus a few more for the top cloud layers)
Early virtual planning of the Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope
Gordon Allen and Gee Stoughton from We Are The Art Department took up the reigns to physically build the structure of the Phonotrope, with Gordon carefully spending time figuring out a system to be able to revolve the structure at a fixed (and constant) speed with the help of DoP Matthew Day at Clapham Road Studios.
The build eventually took two weeks with help from many extra hands including Sophie Powell and Joe Kirton and the rigging and lighting took three days.
The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope in construction
The final structure was 1.2m wide at the base, 2.1m tall, and weighed A LOT. Each segment was linked through moments of animation which meant that once the Phonotrope was in place there was a final run of sticking and from that moment onwards the only way to take it off was to break the whole thing apart, which Claire Thompson, the producer from Nexus Productions and Matt Day had to do at the end.
The completed phonotrope
We had to use a combination of a motion control rig and a 14” ball-bearing ring to be able to spin the Phonotrope and due to the weight of the tower it took around ten seconds to get up to speed and, as we discovered to our cost, about 16 seconds to ramp down to a stop.
The final stage of the Phonotrope, the clouds and tower, never made it into the film as the linking scene involving chewing gum and a foot that followed it got cut... but you can see that here in the Making Of video!
Watch The Making of the Holy Flying Circus Title Sequence
If you would like to see the structure in it's (almost) entirety it currently stands in the foyer of Nexus Productions in Shoreditch.
For More on Holy Flying Circus, read Rufus Jones on the TV Blog talk about making a drama of Monty Python.
Images copyright Jim le Fevre 2010