Lazy Susan is no slouch!

As the animation director at Commotion, the rowdy little creative division of the Press Association, I’m often presented with a number of challenges before deciding on how to produce an animation for a client. When Argos approached us to “animate” their new range of pre-school toys called TOTS TOWN we had to turn the limitation of having a toy that doesn’t have movable parts into a strength, with the additional familiar  limitation of only a snappy two week turn around!

How did we rise to the challenge? Firstly, we chucked a disproportionate amount of time into the script – ‘If it can’t animate well, then it better be entertaining!’ Was my initial thought.

So ‘Let’s write this like a radio show, It has to be great fun before we make the imagery’ was my  brief to BAFTA award winning writer and director of pre-school BBC animation; Ooglies.  The internationally successful show features inanimate objects from around the home interacting with each other in a way that spellbinds the pre-school audience.  A natural fit for the TOTS TOWN production posse. Once he had written the version for children, we all sat down and agreed on having one fun adult gag in each of the episodes. The amount of time young parents have to sit with their darlings whilst they watch television should be rewarded with the occasional dollop of sass!

The next challenge was that of creating a flexible creative pipeline that would allow us to animate the toys in a “real” toy environment. Usually this is the stomping ground of Wallace and Gromit style stop motion animation. However this method is as charming and beautiful as it is time consuming. Once you commit to a shot it can take days and we needed those days for approval time and the ability to stay flexible throughout the length of the project…

…Enter the Lazy Susan. Or for the un-initiated, a rotating cake stand! And a former- Dr.Who merchandise and brand manager, to art direct his most unusual photo shoot to date. Without the time to actually animate this project traditionally in a studio and  “within the camera” we had to capture stills of every angle; of every toy in a 1 stop marathon 2 day shoot. By simply placing each toy on our Lazy Susan (yes google it) and rotating it in tiny increments in front of a green screen and from multiple angles. We were able to use his specialism in capturing the toys like product shots,  whilst building a massive library of still content that could then be animated in computer post production whilst still retaining all the charm of stop motion. It’s a process that would not have been possible if the toys were able to be animated in a more sophisticated way.

We had initially wanted to digitally insert mouths and eyes onto the toys too, but the client  pushed back, insisting that they didn’t want new customers thinking that their toys had working mouths and eyes. This would have allowed for the performance of the toys to feature lip synchronisation which would have been nice. Early tests on this process were successful, but given the ever nearing deadline, the decision to focus on the performance on the toys from an emotional level was what we opted for. Without being all method actor about it; we though that having your characters actually move with what the words infer was far more involving than lip sync to the viewer.

Check out the results here!

By clearly identifying the problems within a brief, we revealed the solutions. There’s real satisfaction when forced to deal with tight parameters, as we’re forced to be less precious about the extraneous ornamentation and more focused on the fundamentals of engaging the audience. It’s vital to be open minded to surprising solutions to big technical problems .However the reasons to my being inspired by a Lazy Susan will remain a secret best kept between me the baker and my waistline!


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