11/09/2012 by David Maybury · No Comments
Polly Dunbar has been a favourite around these parts for a while and Polly came to the CBI Conference way back in 2008 to launch her new series Tilly and Friends. And Polly snuck back to Ireland to work with Jam Media on an animated adaptation of the series - due to hit screens next month.
One of the busiest people we know - what with festivals, stage adaptations, books to create and now a TV series (Dunbar was an Associate Producer on the show and involved in every aspect of creating and developing through to animation) - we caught up with Polly to answer just a few quick questions:
You've been involved in the animation of Tilly and Friends right from the start. How did it all come about?
I was very lucky that Tilly and Friends was chosen by Walker Productions (a new branch of Walker Book) to be translated from book to screen, they paired up with the Irish animation studio JAM Media, to bring the books to life. The start of the Tilly animation seems like a very long time ago now, I first met the guys from JAM in 2007. It seems as though animation projects can start off very, very slowly, first you have to gathering ideas, support and of course lots of funding. During this time I was constantly preparing myself that it may never happen, it seemed like a distant dream.
Then all of a sudden- POW! Everything was suddenly in place, it all began to move so fast that I am still spinning! It's a very different pace from making picture books, I tend to spend a week pondering the curl of a characters eyelash..with the production there was barely time to blink!
How different is the process and the business of animation to how you usually work?
It was a very different experience, and I learnt a huge amount at every stage. First, I had to get the balance right between letting go of my vision and at the same time hanging on to it. It was very odd having other writers putting words into the mouths of the characters I had become so close to and protective of.
I worked with the brilliant Ian Carney who was the head scriptwriter, he was so sensitive to the characters and astonishingly chameleon like in his writing. I went from thinking - 'Pru would never say that' to 'I never expected Pru to say that, but isn't it great that she did!' It was thrilling to have all these talented people breathing new life into my characters and may them do and say unexpected things.
It was the same with the visual side. At first I was thinking - 'Tilly would never wear that colour, Tumpty would never stand like that, it's going to be a disaster!!' But after just a couple weeks of working with the animators very closely, I was thinking 'How come they can draw just like me? In fact better than me?? I'm giving up.'
I learnt that animation is all about layers: you have the script, the story board, the voice overs, the music, the sound effects the actual painstaking animation all becoming a vital layer, each one needing huge amounts of skill and patience. It is such a generous art form. You try to make each layer the best it can be but have no idea how it will work as a whole.
That was the magic moment for me, when all the disparate parts suddenly came together to not only capture the essence of the books, but also create something entirely new..the animation is more than the sum of it's layers, it has a heart!
Did you have any reservations about the adaptation?
I'm very happy with the way the Tilly has turned out. I was lucky to be involved at every stage. It's not always the case that the author/illustrator have creative input, I've heard they can be 'paid to go away' and then the animation can lose the quality of the books. I don't have any reservations as such, I suppose I learnt a few things about what you can do in books compared to what you can do on TV.
The first script I wrote was full of 'imitable behaviour' problems; I broke every rule going: falling out of trees, eating furniture, biting friends etc. I had to soften some of my initial ideas - this is why Doodle the Crocodile has a penchant for biting apples and not elephants bottoms. Ah well.
You've worked a lot with puppets on stage - the Long Nose Puppets shows are excellent - did that experience influence the screen adaptation?
Long Nose Puppets has been going for seven years now, we are just working on our fourth show, Arthur's Dream Boat. Yes, my experience of adapting for stage has definitely helped with the making of Tilly. It meant I had a little experience as to what's involved and perhaps a better sense of timing. The great thing about puppeteering is that you can gauge the audience's reactions immediately, you can feel the atmosphere and know immediately if a joke is working or a lion roar is too scary.
Children are very quick to let you know how they feel, be it raucous laughter or tears.
Tom Gray (of Gomez) has written all the sound tracks to our puppet shows, and provided them with what we call 'the magic glue', he has a way of knowing exactly what is needed to make a moment funny, moving and for it to stay in your mind..FOREVER! Luckily the music is liked by parents as much as their kids. Tom has collaborated with the very talented composer Matthew Slater to write the 'magic glue' for Tilly. They have worked brilliantly together to produce music that is playful and modern and at the same time wistful. I have absolutely no musical talent and I am in awe.
You were working with Jam Media in Dublin - how did you enjoy Ireland?
I lived in Dublin for three months to work on the preproduction of Tilly. It was a great experience and a massive learning curve. I had never really worked on a computer to create artwork before, let alone had 'a proper job'. It was all very new and exciting. The team were very patient with me not having a clue what I was doing and by the end of three months I actually made some progress, but I will never be a computer whizz like the guys that I was working with.
My time in Dublin was great fun, I felt very welcomed. I was staying in a red house with a yellow door, which was very fitting, it was so intense half of me feels I spent three months in Ireland while the other half feels like it was three months living in a yellow house with a red door within an aniamtion, the experiences have become entwined.
Tilly and Friends features a crazy house full of eccentric characters - how much of your real life is based inside those walls?
I first came up with the idea for Tilly and friends ten years ago when I was house sharing in London, in fact room sharing- it was very cosy! There were lots of up and downs living together in such close quarters. I went out for a coffee one day with my sketch book, I wondered what it would be like if I put a group of animal friends together in a house, all sort of scenarios started to bubble up. The first was an elephant stealing a chicken's handbag which is a thinly veiled true story.
I can't say that anyone of my friends is a particular characters (not just because they might be offended or feel left out) they morphed and grew to become the final six. Pru the chicken started off as a peacock, there was a blue lion, who ended up in another book called Penguin. It took a while to get the balance of the characters just right, most importantly I needed a wise little girl to try and keep the peace.
If you had to choose a favourite of your books - and characters - who would you pick?
Penguin is my favourite of my books to read out to a group of children. As I mentioned, we're adapting Arthur's Dream Boat for a puppet show, so this a is the book I'm thinking about at the moment. It's hard to choose a favourite out of the Tilly characters, would that make me a bad mother? Probably! In the animation Pru makes me laugh the most, Tiptoe is the one I would probably live with again, if I had to!
You're heading to the Babaro Festival in Galway next month with your Mum, another celebrated Joyce Dunbar - how much influence has her work had on you?
Yes, it's lovely that we have both been invited together, we're looking forward to it. My Mum was writing children books when I was a child, I grew up listening to her stories in first darft and I shared the excitement when the actual printed book would arrive in the post, now with illustrations. It's hard to tell just how much of an influence this has been, probably huge. I sometimes wonder what I would have ended up doing if I hadn't been brought up to think making books was possible.
It is great to have Mum as an ally in the world of picture books; we help each other if we get stuck with a story and I learnt from an early age that it's not always the most easy and straightforward choice of jobs ... but despite that, it's still one of the best! I have just started work illustrating a book written by my mum called Pat a Cake Baby. It will be the second book we have made together, the first was Shoe Baby. The Tilly avalanche has been so huge and exciting it's been a long time since I've illustrated, I'm very much looking forward to splashing some a paint around!