Animation studio Plastic Milk on visualising the true events of a family affected by cancer

London animation studio Plastic Milk teamed up with UK illustrator Thomas Pullin to create a moving short film based on the true story of the Pearcey family for Princess Alice Hospice.

The film visualises a narration based on the words of Martin Pearcey, the father of three children and husband of Sarah Pearcey, who eventually died of cervical cancer. Princess Alice Hospice helped the family to transition.

Princess Alice Hospice runs a families together campaign, highlighting the role they play in supporting families while a loved one suffers from a life threatening illness. The vector-based animation short by Plastic Milk helps to visualise this, and it’s been shared on their website and social media page. Watch the film below. 

Plastic Milk creates animation for a range of educational, corporate and medical clients such as the BBC and a number of charities. The studio was formed by the animation team behind BBC children’s TV series Numberjacks.

Creating the animation accompanied by a voiceover of Martin Pearcey’s own written words, Duncan explains the challenges involved in working with a sensitive, and true, story. Duncan also discusses how the project came about and the creative process.

How did the film come about? 

"For a couple of years we had been getting more and more work from companies that were covered by NDAs. The quality of the work we were producing was increasing, and we were getting lots of referrals through word of mouth which was great. But when we looked at our website everything felt fairly old and stagnant. A lot of our best pieces of work contained sensitive information and couldn’t be put online, which started to become very frustrating. As a studio we were really moving forward but our online presence wasn’t.

"As many in our industry will know, you get hired based on your portfolio, and generally get asked to do work very much in line with what you have done before. So we started looking for a project that would allow us to use our newly acquired skills, and create something special that we could show to the world. After doing a lot of corporate work we also really wanted to do something that was for a positive cause. We had just started looking into charities and social enterprises that we could approach when Nigel from Princess Alice Hospice got in touch." 

How did you decide on a concept?

"We went for a tour and met lots of the staff. They really are quite a remarkable organisation. Not at all what you would expect when you hear the word ‘Hospice’. It’s such a warm and joyful place, full of a lot of positive people. We read through lots of stories of people they had helped in the past, and how much difference they had made to their lives. When I read Martin’s story I struggled to hold back the tears. It’s such a touching story, partly because it’s so sad, but also because of the incredible difference that support can make when it’s needed most. It’s amazing that an organisation exists that provides such incredible level of support for free."

How was the script developed?

"We knew we wanted to use Martin’s own words, but there were nearly 3,000 of them in total – seven pages of A4. We needed to get that down to under 500 to make a three-minute short. It took a lot of passes, and a lot of analysis to work out which parts of the story were absolutely crucial, and which parts we could manage without. The team worked together on identifying the story points that made it so moving, mapping the highs and lows to maximise the impact. 

"It’s a very interesting process when compared to writing fiction. All the rules and structures are the same. But you know there is a really powerful story there already, or it wouldn’t have such an effect on you. Only by understanding the story structure behind it can you make sure you keep all the bits you need, and let go of the ones you don’t."

How important was the production of the film? 

"I’d seen Thomas Pullin’s work at the D&AD New Blood exhibition a few years ago, and had wanted to work with him ever since. We’d been in touch over that time and were just waiting for the right opportunity. I’d worked with the composer Rob Lewis before, and knew he was really well suited to this job. So much of our work is driven by fast turn arounds. See his creative process below.

"You look at an animatic and ask, ‘Is there anything that desperately needs fixing?’, when you know you should be asking ‘What can we do to improve each and every aspect of the visual storytelling?’ But for most jobs there is no time for that. We wanted to cut a new path with this one, try a new process, to do things the way we thought they should be done instead of the way they had been done before. To finally get the chance to do all the things we wanted to but never had time."

Talk us through the creative process.

"We all loved Thomas’s portfolio, but he’s an illustrator rather than an animator, so we needed to find a way to work with his style. His illustrations are wonderful because they communicate a lot in a single image, but from a film making perspective, they are almost always wide shots. As an animation director you want to have the full range of shots to play with from extreme close up to wide open landscapes. We couldn’t see how close ups on character’s faces were going to work in this style, so we decided to take a bit of a step back, as seen in the sketches below.

"A stage actor has to use their whole body to communicate what they are feeling, whilst on film, a subtle move of the eye can be enough. We decided to rule out character close ups, and think of the acting more in terms of stage than film, knowing the power of Thomas’s compositions and a careful use of colour would carry more weight in the overall film than having a fuller range of shots. We also knew we had a lot of other tools in the film making toolbox that we could use to bring the story to life.

"We didn’t want to lose Thomas’s input on composition whilst we were directing the film. We kicked off storyboarding with very rough thumbnail sketches, and kept chopping and changing until we were happy. Thomas did the next pass, re-sketching each shot in the way he wanted it framed, but still in a very rough form. He also suggested a few alternative ideas for shots, which we incorporated where possible. He had some good ideas around a more minimal approach to backgrounds, which really helped and is not something that comes naturally to us.

"After that it was into the more normal production pipeline for us, except with a lot more iteration, and improvement at both the storyboard and the animatic stages. It was great to be able to tweak the script and add or cut shots during the animatic development, rather than having to stick diligently to a ‘signed off’ script. That was all down to the client, they were a real pleasure to work with, and very open to us tweaking things as we went if it improved the overall film."

What was it like to animate a true story? 

"Working with such a sensitive true story brings its own challenges. Julia at Princess Alice did a great job of keeping Martin up to date with everything as it developed and making sure he was happy with it. We didn’t get the chance to meet him until the film was completed, and he actually came into the studio to watch it for the first time. I was very nervous that he wouldn’t like it. I’ve never met anyone I’ve animated before, but fortunately I didn’t need to worry. 

Martin Pearcey said, "I like the fact that people can hear our story as it may help others. Talking is important. The Hospice looks after the whole family, not just the individual and you don’t know how much the Hospice does to support people until you are in that position. I want the Hospice to be able to offer this kind of support to every family who wants and needs it."

You can donate to Princess Alice Hospice here.

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