…Go To War

In my last post I talked about my role as a Make Up Artist on the short film Crossed Paths. I talked about how I created make up effects for each of the two leads and gave a brief synopsis of the film, which was made by young people in Crawley.

I also worked as the Art Director for the film, making key props and dressing the locations. A lot of the action in the film takes place in a small square with shops and a pub where the characters hang out.

One scene required filming in a shop where Aaron gets a job. We were lucky to find a shop in the square where we were shooting that allowed us to film on their premises over night. The shop was closing down and the owners agreed to leave behind their remaining stock for us.

There wasn’t enough stock to fill the shop, which was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to fill the front of the shop, the till area and a central aisle. It was a good couple of hours of shuffling stock around while the crew filmed scenes outside. As often happens with set and props work, the crew only ended up using a portion of the set but I was very happy with how it all looked under the lights.

Aaron’s neighbour Hasan has given him a job in his shop, but they soon come to blows over Aaron’s growing right wing views. When Aaron’s new friend and N.E.M. member Joe asks Aaron to post flyers about their march in Hasan’s shop, Hasan objects and Aaron quits.

We used a local pub as the meeting place for the N.E.M. which was conveniently located in the same square as the majority of our shooting, in Gossops Green. The close proximity of our locations lent itself to the sense of confinement and the intensity of these different cultural groups struggling to live side by side.

The staff of the Windmill Pub were extremely accommodating and nothing like the scary looking thugs we filled their pub with. The pub was already decked out in England flags, which made for a perfect backdrop for the N.E.M. meetings. My work at this location consisted of lighting the scenes and rearranging the pub’s interior to accommodate our equipment and make the most of the location. I repositioned a lot of the furniture and decorations to suit the blocking of each scene, added some more patriotic embellishments and filled the pub with N.E.M. flyers, advertising the march.

We first see the pub when Aaron meets Joe and they go for a pint. Joe is in a similar position to Aaron, out of work and angry at the lack of opportunities. He tells Aaron about the N.E.M. who blame immigration and multiculturalism for the lack of jobs. Joe takes Aaron under his wing and encourages him to come to the next meeting.

In the next scene at the pub we see Aaron becoming indoctrinated into the group as the N.E.M.’s leader rallies them for the march. It was a tough scene to shoot as the interior of the pub was quite dark and the number of wide shots necessary to show the whole group meant that we were limited as to where we could place our lights.

As the N.E.M. are preparing to march, a group of college students plan a counter-demonstration to oppose the right wing group. We filmed the scene in the canteen of Central Sussex College in Crawley.

I decorated the canteen using Stop the N.E.M. flyers, which the protest organiser also hands out during the scene. I created a range of placards for the protest scene, some of which I left unfinished and placed around the canteen along with marker pens, paint and brushes so that our extras could be seen working on them. I also created a large banner to be used later at the protest, which I hung as a backdrop.

The action of the film all builds up to the day of the protest when all of these groups face off against each other.

As this was a Council funded projected we were able to close the roads where we were filming, which was great. It also meant that we had police officers with vehicles on hand who were happy to participate, which really added to the look and feel of the scene.

I made a range of banners and placards for the protest scene, some of which were also used in the earlier canteen scene. I wanted the various signs to look homemade and so I used fairly cheap materials. I also tried to create a difference in style between those belonging to the N.E.M. and those belonging to the students.

It was a strange experience creating protest signs for both sides of the protest, a bit like having split personalities – switching from extreme right-wing hate-speak one minute to anti-fascist imagery the next. I was also a bit worried about what my neighbours would think when I had to leave a lot of the placards outside to dry.

The film was used as part of an anti-extremism project by Crawley Borough Council. It was distributed to schools along with an education pack to help teachers explore the issues raised by the film. The pack also contained further interviews with the characters, which lent more context to the story.

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And Now For Something Completely Different…

The third and final First Light funded Worthing Youth Media project was the animated short film Happy Cloud. I ran this project, leading workshops that took the group through the process of developing their idea into a finished film. I helped the group to write and edit their script, design the characters, draw up storyboards and put together an animatic, then led them through animation workshops before the shooting of the film itself. In this post I’ll be discussing the look and style of the film, as well as showing you some of the initial character designs.

Happy Cloud was an idea that went through a lot of development. It was originally a short project that I ran workshops for in the summer term of 2008, but when the group’s application for First Light funding was successful, they decided to develop it further.

The original Happy Cloud was a short viral ad in which Happy Cloud smiled gleefully while a narrator spoke to him in voice over. The group had to develop the character in order to find a story for their film. The concept that they settled upon was the idea of a show within a show. Happy Cloud became the star of a children’s television series.

We animated the film using paper cut out animation techniques. We created backdrops and characters using bits of paper, plastic and fabric that we manipulated and swapped between each shot. The whole film has a flat, simplistic style. I really enjoy paper cut out animation as you have to think in different dimensions to stop motion puppetry. Although it looks easier, there are far less options available to you for movement and so bringing things to life can be quite a challenge.

The idea for Happy Cloud’s TV show was to create a playful and colourful world in the style of narrated cartoons such as the Mr Men and Mr Benn. The group decided that this would be a pastiche of children’s TV’s patronising tone and inane characters. We designed a title sequence for the show that would introduce the characters and the premise of Happy Cloud’s TV show and serve as an intro for our film, before pulling back to reveal the set, leading the audience into the ‘real’ world of the film.

Happy Cloud’s narrator speaks over the titles describing Cloud Land as the happiest place in the world, where ‘Happy Cloud makes everyone happy.’ To demonstrate Happy Cloud’s powers, we designed a factory conveyor belt of people forcibly being made happy one by one by Happy Cloud. We wanted to establish the subversive tone of the humour from the outset.

Happy Cloud’s character also needed fleshing out. A cloud who is happy isn’t much to work with. With that in mind the group thought about subverting the idea. They decided that to the viewers of his show Happy Cloud would seem like the perfect role model for children, but only until the cameras stopped rolling.

Offscreen, Happy Cloud is the pampered star of the show – grumpy, vain, money hungry, alcoholic and demanding. We created three different sizes of Happy Cloud to allow us to alter his proportions to suit each shot’s requirements.

We then turned our attention to developing a cast of characters around Happy Cloud. The first was his costar and onscreen nemesis Storm Cloud. We designed Storm Cloud as a foil for Happy Cloud. Storm Cloud looks tough but isn’t. He is a somewhat depressive character who gets pushed around by Happy Cloud.

Next we designed the Director of the show. The Director is the voice of authority for the characters, almost a parent figure. We decided to only show him in silhouette to give him a mysterious anonymity.

The main conflict of the film comes into play when the Director brings in an image consultant to give the show a ratings boosting makeover. He introduces Jiggy Bigwig, an enthusiastic character who claims to be down with the kids.

The team had a lot of fun writing and designing Jiggy’s character. They envisioned a man who wears clothes that are far too young for him, tries to act like he is still a kid but is hopelessly outdated and clueless.

One of Jiggy’s quirks is his attempts to speak like young people so we made a point of highlighting some of his jargon in cut-away shots.

Happy Cloud hates Jiggy but is convinced to accept his input when the Director hints that it could lead to more money and awards for the show. Then there is an accident on set which sends Happy Cloud crashing through the stage.

Unconscious, Happy Cloud has an out of body experience, floating up from the stage as a ghostly form of himself. We had fun designing the Ghost Happy Cloud, who we made out of translucent paper to give him an ethereal quality.

He meets Zany Funhouse, the awards fairy, who acts as his ghost of Christmas future. Zany was partly modelled on Amy Winehouse (this was 2009) and styled as a partied out veteran of awards ceremonies with a tall beehive of hair that’s full of trophies and awards statues.

We decided to introduce Zany with a slow tilt, travelling up and up and up to emphasise the height of her hair. The hair was a character in itself, so we decided that for an added punchline we’d make it exactly that, giving it a face and making it growl and jump off of her head at the end of the shot.

Zany waves her magic wand and whisks Ghost Happy Cloud away to see a vision of his future.
Ghost Happy Cloud finds himself at a glitzy awards ceremony, watching his future self arrive in a limo. This is my favourite shot in the film, as drunken Happy Cloud tumbles out of the limo. Happy Cloud’s anarchic behaviour was great fun to film.
One of the features of the red carpet scene was the paparazzi, snapping pictures at the side of the red carpet. We designed something very simple of this, using two rows of people and then moving silver paper in and out of each frame to represent the camera flashes.
The group used the opportunity of the awards audience to make nods to some familiar cartoon characters.

Paper cut out animation works by moving pieces of paper, or changing and substituting them frame by frame. Substitution is particularly effective for facial expressions and dialogue. We had a range of eyes, eyebrows and mouths in different expressions and mouth shapes for each character which we then duplicated for each different sized version of the characters.

The shots below show a drunken Happy Cloud falling asleep at the awards ceremony.

With Happy Cloud asleep, Storm Cloud has to accept the award on Happy Cloud’s behalf, but just as he is doing this, Happy Cloud wakes up and storms the stage, hurling abuse at Storm Cloud and the shocked audience.

Then, to make matters worse, he throws up.

I was delighted when Happy Cloud won the award for Best Comedy at the First Light Movie Awards 2010. We attended the ceremony at the Odeon Leicester Square, where the award was presented to our young filmmakers by Bill Nighy and Nick Frost. Thanks to First Light, the film has been screened at film festivals around the world and picked up the Small Film Award at Canterbury Anifest 2010.

If you want to see more from behind the scenes then have a look at how the finished film compares to the animatic. The opening sequence in particular is very close to how we shot the finished version.

An animatic is when you put your storyboard together on a timeline. It can include test shots and sound, although we recorded our sound after the animation shoot. On a larger production the animatic can be used to fill in gaps when full scenes haven’t been shot yet. You might notice shots in the animatic that weren’t included in the film. This is because we had to cut a couple of scenes from the script to fit our shooting schedule.

Scenes That Some Viewers May Find Disturbing

When Worthing Youth Media received funding from First Light, we made three very different short films. The zombie film Outbreak, which I have discussed in previous posts, the animated comedy Happy Cloud, which I will explore in my next post, and the moving drama Teenager. Teenager is the story of Sidney, a 15 year old boy trying to make decisions about his future whilst struggling with a difficult home life. The film was much darker in tone than the other two projects, dealing with issues of alcoholism, drug use and domestic violence.

As with Outbreak, I worked with the Art Department sourcing props and costumes, and dressing the set. In contrast to Outbreak, this film required a level of realism. The key was to make the family’s flat look lived in – food in the cupboards, clothes in the wardrobes, family photos (see opening credits) and also convey the general disarray of their  lives. The cinematography of the film followed the action very tightly inside the flat. It’s a very claustrophobic place. As such, the set details had to be subtle, to provide a lifelike backdrop without detracting attention from the story.

You can learn a lot about characters from the environment they inhabit and so it is important to dress spaces to reflect the personalities of the characters, as you can see from the screenshots below of Sidney and Cassie’s bedrooms.

I was also the makeup artist for the film, and my main job on set was to create injuries for Sidney’s mother, Ann, played by Alison Vermeeren.


The film begins in the wake of a big fight between Ann and Sidney’s stepfather Daniel (played by Andrew Elias) in which she has been badly beaten. The script specifies that Ann has a black eye after the fight, and severe bruises.

To create the effects for the film I used a bruise wheel and fresh scab, which are the most versatile items in my makeup kit. The initial look was intended to be the most shocking. I used red tones to create a swollen look around the eye, forehead and mouth. Applying fresh scab with a paintbrush and stipple sponge I created the illusion of grazing on the nose, brow and cheekbones. When someone is punched hard in the face, the skin tends to break around the areas where bone protrudes, such as the bridge of the nose, the cheekbones and the brow. I also used the scab to give Ann a nosebleed and a broken lip.

In the above shots from the makeup room the colours look very bright, but they looked more subtle onscreen as the film was shot with a low exposure and was given a muted colour grading in post production.

It is evident in the script that this is not the first time that Sidney’s parents have fought like this, so I also worked to create a range of older looking bruises on Alison’s arms. The bruise wheel is very effective for blending colours to create different stages of bruise, and can also be used very faintly to create old bruises that appear to be healing. I painted bruises onto Alison’s neck, collarbone and arms, including bruising patterns such as marks from being grabbed or held firmly.

The challenge with the makeup for Teenager was that the main action of the film takes place across a period of about two weeks, meaning that the injuries sustained in the first scene needed to be shown to be healing in each new scene.

The first makeup change was very slight, as it was for a scene the next morning. I reduced the redness of the bruising around the eye and the mouth to reduce the visible sting of the injury. I toned down the highlights within the bruise around the eye, then deepened the purple to show the bruise developing as well as blending it out more around the edges and mixing in dull mustard colours. I used red eyeliner to make the eye look sore and the eyelids puffy. I also decreased the bloodiness of the grazes around the mouth, eyebrow and nose, as Sidney’s mother would have had time to clean herself up by this point.

The next scene involving Sidney’s mother takes place a few days later. For this I reduced the severity of the bruise a great deal by reducing the size of it and the intensity of the colours. I used a lighter layer of the purple, darkening it in the corner of the eye and blending out from that point, before adding yellow and a touch of green. I developed the grazes into scabs that frame the injury along the main points of impact  and reduced the swelling around the lips.

A scene from later that day features another fight between Daniel and Ann, which leaves Ann bleeding. The crew filmed the majority of Teenager‘s scenes in long takes, so Alison had to keep the blood in her mouth until the end of the scene for when her lip begins to bleed. I had to stand behind the camera with the blood so that she could take a swig between takes.

The final appearance of Sidney’s mother is in a montage at the close of the film. The scene takes place some time later, perhaps a matter of weeks. The bruises seen earlier in the film have healed but she has clearly obtained more. I created a bruise on the forehead as if she had hit her head falling over, a bruise to look like a blow to the chin, subtle bruising around the eyes and another bloody lip.

The makeup room is usually a fun place to be on set. Transforming people’s looks can be a real novelty, especially working on something extreme like a zombie film. This was quite a different experience, though. Once I finished Alison’s makeup on the first morning it had quite a sobering effect on everyone. This wasn’t extreme gore or slapstick, it was a serious film about things that really happen to people. It was quite unpleasant to depict suffering in that way. We were only playing at it, but there are a lot of people in the world who are living with abuse, and carrying bruises that they can’t wash off at the end of the day.

They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara!

During my time working with Worthing Youth Media we produced the short zombie film Outbreak. The film was funded by First Light, the UK Film Council’s initiative for young filmmakers.

The film was crewed by the members of Worthing Youth Media, who were given assistance and training by mentors such as myself. For this production, I was in charge of the Art Department – running workshops in Production Design for a small team of young people, as well as sourcing locations, props and costumes, dressing the sets and working as a makeup artist on the shoot.

My favourite part of this job was working with the team to design the various zombie characters who would populate the world of the film. I’ll talk in more detail about this in my next post, as right now I want to focus on the props that I made for the film.

Obviously when you deal with zombies, you expect a certain level of gore. For certain scenes, I had to create flesh for the zombies to eat.

The first challenge, was creating entrails for our Zombie Brownie to eat in the opening scene (pictured above.). This led to some interesting home experiments!

The obvious choice was sausages. I purchased several links of sausages from the butcher and untwisted each link to make one long sausage. I then soaked the sausages in food dyes, deciding after a few tests that a combination of red and black would look just disgusting enough, and contrast well against red fake blood. Then, to add texture, I mixed food dye into liquid latex and painted it onto sections of the entrails to look like fatty tissue. I love working with latex as there are so many things you can do with it. Finally, the entrails were placed into a box of girl scout ‘cookies’ made by the props team, which we filled with blood on set.

In a later scene in the film, the heroine’s dog gets eaten by the Twin Zombies.

We see them surround the dog, and then when they reappear, they are chewing on the dog’s severed leg. It was my task to add gore to our dog’s leg prop, and create prop flesh for the zombies to chew on.


Again, I used liquid latex to create the effect. By layering the latex on tin foil I created strips, which I then treated with vinegar to create texture. The vinegar causes the latex to wrinkle, bubble and contort. The result was lots of twisted, lumpy bits of rubbery flesh, which I soaked in food dye and then arranged and layered up on the dog’s leg, using more coloured latex to attach it all. I also twisted some of the strips to create sinewy tendons. Once we added some fake blood on set, it was ready for filming.

The rubbery texture  of the latex was perfect for the scene, as it allowed the twins to bite and stretch the fake flesh, even snapping bits off. It also produced some fantastic squelching noises. I also created a small piece of flesh for Zombie Chef to chew on in the same scene, using the same method but with less texturing effects. Here’s how it all looked on set –

The finished film was nominated for Best Drama at the First Light Awards 2010. You can see the finished product below. If you want to just skip to the gory bits, you’ll find the entrails at o:50 and the dog eating at 3:05. I’ll be talking about the various makeup effects created for the film in my next post.

Walking On A Dream

For my major project at University, I wrote and directed Elysium, a short film based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film combines live action with stop motion animation. I also designed and built sets and puppets for the film.

In the original story, Orpheus’ lover Eurydice is bitten by a snake on the day of their wedding. She dies, and Orpheus travels to the Underworld to beg Hades to return her to him. Hades agrees, but only on the condition that Orpheus leads Eurydice through the Underworld and back to the land of the living without looking at her. Orpheus finds Eurydice and leads her through the Underworld, but at the last minute he looks back to see her and she dies a second time, this time forever.

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In our adaptation of the story, Chris is the Orpheus character and his wife Laura, Eurydice. Laura is in a coma and the doctors have told Chris that there is no hope of her waking up. Chris visits a strange organisation, who offer him the chance to bring Laura back by travelling into her dreams to wake her up. The real world is filmed in live action, on digital video, and the dream world is animated with stop motion puppetry.

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We constructed a hospital set in the studio, using flats that we wallpapered and painted and then hiring hospital props to give it an authentic feel. We visited an amazing company in London that had a huge warehouse full of hospital equipment.

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We wanted the film to have a very stylised look. As we were dealing with fantasy it was really important that the film have a dream like look and fluidity. This was the opening scene and I wanted it to be moving and enigmatic. I chose cold blue lighting and arranged it to look like a spotlight around Laura, focusing attention to the centre of the screen and making the edges of the shot shadowy and vague.The idea of this scene was to introduce Laura and her plight in a way that was heightened, as if it was Chris’s nightmare. I wanted to represent Laura as a Sleeping Beauty and suggest the danger that she is in. I decided to show this by using an imperfect match cut from the tubes in Laura’s hand to a snake coiling itself around her wrist, drawing on the imagery from the original myth.

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We used a real snake for this shot. We hired it from a taxidermist. It hadn’t been stuffed yet and it was being kept in a freezer. We needed to defrost it and keep it in the fridge between takes. It smelt horrible, and it was a pretty gross thing to handle. Our actress had to be really patient and keep her hand perfectly still while we animated it frame by frame. I was really pleased with the final effect.

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For the organisation itself I wanted to create the idea of the afterlife as an inefficient bureaucracy. I had in mind that any organisation that deals with the public en masse – the tax office, the passport office, the job centre is a place of waiting rooms, queues and endless paperwork. If there is an afterlife, then in centuries of human existence it will have been inundated with souls that would be a nightmare to process and organise. For this reason I saw the lord of the underworld as an overworked filing clerk or administrator.

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The passage from the waking world into Laura’s dreams was a difficult one. Not only did the character need to cross a metaphysical plane, but we also needed to make a transition from live action to animation. I have always been attracted to the illusion of cinema and so I decided to represent Chris’s journey as a magic trick of sorts.

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Later in the film we mirrored this shot with the animated Chris.

To further the magic trick imagery we built a box for Chris to climb into. We wanted to create a magic and shamanistic method by which he could make this journey, and we used images of boxes and doors being opened throughout the film.

Chris is shut inside the box with a poisonous snake. We wanted to use the snake to link Chris to Laura through this experience, and also to suggest that the snake’s venom would cause Chris to hallucinate. Chris loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, he is a puppet inside Laura’s mind.

For the first dreamscape, I wanted to create a sort of Dali-esque wasteland. This set represents the outskirts of Laura’s mind which at this stage I wanted to show as a sort of cluttered lost property of artefacts and memories. As we are now in the realms of the imagination and dealing with dream logic, I wanted to create a confused sense of scale. I also love to combine real objects with puppets when I animate which is a theme I developed throughout the sets for this section of the story.

I wanted this to clearly be a female landscape, and so I littered the set with items you might find at the bottom of a woman’s handbag. Laura’s condition throughout the film makes her a distant character, as these sets represent Laura’s internal world, they are a way to provide small character details visually.

Now that Chris has left the physical world, dream logic rules over everything and that includes the dimensions of the sets. Items move between shots and each set was designed to overlap so that we moved between scenes in a fluid way, as if dreaming. The staircase leads up to a landing where the next scene takes place. In order to overlap the two sets we built a detachable stairway into the landing set, so that it could be used for Chris to travel from one set to the other. We also tried to blend the stairway into the wasteland set, covering it in sand so that it seemed to have risen up out of the set organically.

The landing set is a deeper level of Laura’s subconscious, where we begin to see elements of her memories and dreams. The scene is actually based on a recurring nightmare I had as a child, about trying to walk along  hallway without waking someone up. In the layout and lighting of the set I wanted to convey a sense of unease and tension. The landing is narrow and the bannisters of the stairs cast threatening shadows.

We constructed the base for the sets out of dense polystyrene, which I tend to use as a base for most animation sets as it is a good material for pinning the puppets into. This might be the most difficult set I’ve had to build. Firstly, it had so many dimensions, two staircases and landings that needed to be measured out and fitted together perfectly. The staircases then had to be carpeted with adhesive velvet that needed to be cut to fit, then we had to build railings and bannisters. I also needed to be able to remove one set of stairs to slot into the wasteland set for the transition from that scene to this one and in the second scene this set was used for the whole thing needed to fall apart on screen. We had to do a lot of planning and make sure we had all of the shots we needed from each scene before filming the final destruction.


The third set built for the animated segment was the nursery. This scene is probably the most abstract in the film and deals again with a combination of  Laura’s dreams and memories that are difficult to interpret.

With this set we played around with scale again, using a combination of real childhood toys alongside doll’s house furniture and toys that were made to a much smaller scale. I like the strange quality it gives to everything. As we weren’t trying to represent the real world we were able to have a lot of fun with the set and characters for this scene. the Rocking Horse is my favourite puppet, which I will talk about in more detail in a later post. We also created a nightlight effect by cutting stars and crescent moons out of paper and moving it across a spotlight throughout the scene.

Hungry Like The Wolf

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The Hunger was my first stop-motion animated short, which I made with friends at University. It’s a twisted take on the Red Riding Hood fairytale.

There were two main sets involved in the production. One was the forest (pictured above) which we created using a combination of cardboard cut-out trees and papier mache trees on a base of fake grass. We also created a simple backdrop of the night sky, including a light up full moon in 3D relief. We wanted everything to look quite homemade and infantile, as it was an adult take on a children’s story.

I had worked on some basic claymation experiments prior to this, but the Big Bad Wolf was my first fully articulated puppet with an armature. I used styrofoam to shape and bulk out the wolf, whilst keeping the puppet light. I gave him large rounded shoulders, and sank the neck into his chest to give him a more hunched appearance. His posture really helped to bring the character to life, as it informed how the puppet would move. The wolf is hunched over as he creeps through the forest, but he is also a comedy character and so he is cumbersome and loud as he stalks Red Riding Hood.

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We had fun reversing the idea of the Big Bad Wolf, and turned him into the unwitting prey of our Red Riding Hood/Princess character. As the wolf stalks her, he fails to realise that she is luring him into a trap.

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Red Riding Hood kidnaps the Wolf and drags him back to her castle, which was the second set we built for the production, using a combination of fabrics, paper linings and decorations from Doll Houses. Once she has the Wold entrapped in her room she produces a pair of clippers and begins to shave the unconscious wolf, revealing a man beneath the fur.

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The clippers were a puppet in their own right. We produced the effect of the blades moving by creating removable blades of varied lengths that we could alternate in each shot. For ease of animation we made a small pair of clippers for the full sized puppet to hold, and then a larger, moving version in an enlarged puppet hand, which we filmed in extreme close-up. This was one of my favourite shots in the film because of the exaggerated shadow. It has a very B movie feel in its melodrama.

Here is the full film so you can see it all in action plus there are more shorts at my YouTube page.