How Trunk made this epic puppet video shot on real film

London animation house Trunk took two days to create an epically ambitious puppet and cardboard-based video for iconic folksinger Shirley Collins’ new album.  Watch the finished project above, shot on real film.

A small but committed team worked meticulously to produce the video for Shirley’s version of Pretty Polly, a track on her first album in 38 years, named Lodestar. The set was inspired by American folk art. Trunk used paint, cardboard and lighting.

Trunk’s small studio housed a combination of 18 animators, scene movers, puppeteers, lighting and camera operators to complete the project.

Shirley’s contribution to the brief was to incorporate a jig doll puppet (which come to life when jigged on a vibrating board), influencing the direction of the video.

This, along with Shirley’s discovery of the Pretty Polly ballad with Alan Lomax in 1959 during a tour of North America, provided the basis of Trunk’s animatic journey of Polly in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1700s. 

Director Layla Atkinson initially considered shooting the puppets on a green screen then adding backgrounds in After Effects, but quickly scratched the idea after the overwhelming thought of trying to key out puppets and creating “handmade” artwork in Photoshop. 

“I wanted to use rough cardboard and simple drawings inspired by American folk art combined with beautiful lighting to form the video’s aesthetic handwriting,” she says.

“I then decided to make my life harder still by keeping the camera locked off at all times and shooting scenes in real time with no edits or cutaways so the final piece would feel more like watching a play than a film.” 

Director of photography Peter Ellmore shot the video on film rather than digitally to honour the spirit of the video. Shooting on film also gave a soft and forgiving drop off within the depth of field.

Each scene could only be shot six times, and there was no chance to see the rushes before the sets were pulled apart. 

Layla worked alongside stop-motion expert John Harmer, artists Jock Mooney, puppeteer Garry Rutter and a small art department team to build and paint the sets and puppets. Everything was made with cardboard, including hundreds of trees each individual painted. Watch how the team put it all together in the video below.

“It was brilliant to be torn away from the computer and to get to work with my hands again, to constantly problem-solve, to be covered in paint and to finally see how everything came together,” says Layla.

Forests, meadows clouds and rolling hill landscapes were created by moveable planes attached to timber runners on fixed blocks, which could be moved by two operators.

Each set was made up of four individual planes that were moved at different speeds and times for effect, dictated by the seconds count of the song. 

To give an idea of the timing and precision involved, during one shot a plane might have to travel four metres at two and a half centimetres a second whilst another plane would have to travel two metres at five centimetres a second.

On top of this, elements were bought into frame for the puppeteers and sceneshifters to match the song’s narrative.

Other more traditional elements to the video include moving the eyes of the song’s hero with a slider behind the cut out eyes, using a lighting rig to create flashes on cannon blasts during the battlefield set.

Thankfully Trunk’s hard work was not in vain, with Shirley describing the finished film as “gorgeous, sweet, charming and full of innocence”.

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