Ethel & Ernest: ‘It’s a history of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of an ordinary family’

Director Roger Mainwood and producer Camilla Deakin discuss the challenges of making a feature-length animated film in Britain, and how their hand-drawn adaptation of classic children’s book Ethel & Ernest brought its author Raymond Briggs to tears.

28 October 2016

By Joseph Walsh

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Hollywood may continue to rule the international animation sector, but the UK film industry is ramping up its efforts to make a mark in this space.

Recently, companies like Aardman Studios have made their imprint in the market with their stop-motion features such as Shaun the Sheep (2015). Hand-drawn animated features, however, tend to be few and far between, but London-based Lupus Films is looking to address this with a full-length feature of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel Ethel & Ernest, which chronicles the lives of Briggs’ parents from their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths in 1971.

“I think that knowing [Briggs] over the years has helped tremendously,” says director Roger Mainwood, who has worked as animator on a raft of Briggs’ film and TV adaptations including The Snowman and the Snowdog (2012) and Christmas classic The Snowman (1982). “We have built up a personal relationship with him and a level of trust.”

It was the late producer John Coates (who produced a plethora of UK animation ranging from Yellow Submarine to The Snowman) who first got the ball rolling on Ethel & Ernest.

Before he died in 2012, he passed on the baton to producer Camilla Deakin and her business partner Ruth Fielding, who obtained the rights to the project and brought it to the big screen through their production banner Lupus Films.

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Lupus has a history with Briggs’ content, having most recently produced The Snowman and The Snowdog (which is dedicated to Coates) and Deakin says the company was overwhelmed by the level of coverage the TV special received.

“The general public had such an incredible reaction to The Snowman and The Snowdog, with so much positivity,” she recalls. “Interestingly, with Raymond there has never been a book or a film that hasn’t worked.” She cites the last animated feature film based on Briggs’ work – When the Wind Blows in 1986 – as a triumph: “I am sure that back then it was a challenge to raise the money but I found the number of territories around the world that it sold to staggering.”

Deakin says it’s Briggs’ breadth of work and his sense of nostalgia that endears him to the British public. “There is something timeless to his work but also reassuringly old-fashioned,” she says. “In many ways Ethel & Ernest is a history of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of an ordinary family.”

But Briggs is also a social commentator, says Mainwood: “There are many aspects of this story that are very relevant to today’s society. There are interesting political connections.”

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

However, the challenges of bringing this body of work to the big screen were by no means small.

“Up until six months ago, the biggest challenge was putting the money together,” says Deakin, who now believes the UK is finally coming around to the idea of investing in family movies. “If they are done right, they are the films that make the most at the box office,” she says. “The trick is getting them right. You need really strong source material that will appeal to people in the UK and outside of the UK, which isn’t easy.”

It also takes deep pockets to distribute animated feature films, particularly family animated features, since the target audience is traditionally expensive to reach, coupled with the high level of visibility that US studio animated feature films get in being backed by big budget merchandising and branding campaigns.

The UK film tax relief has always been open to feature films whether live action or animation but thanks to the new incentive for TV animation amounting to 25% of UK spend, the ability to get home-grown animated projects off the ground has become, says Deakin, a smaller mountain to climb.

Deakin, who previously served as commissioning editor for animation at Channel 4, says that now the animation sector qualifies for TV animation under the tax credit system in addition to film, it makes “a huge difference” to the animation production sector.

“For years we were struggling to retain talent or intellectual property and we couldn’t compete with the French, the Canadians or the Germans who all had a level of government support that we didn’t have.”

Mainwood says the film could not have happened without public funding: “The Welsh Government, Ffilm Cymru Wales, the BFI and the BBC in particular have put incredible amounts of money into this film and, while we don’t have a huge budget, their help is tremendously important.”

Deakin says it’s not only sourcing financing that makes putting together a project like this a struggle. She says the changes in the industry and shifts in market taste have posed a challenge. Additionally, she says it’s difficult for UK producers and animators to compete with big studios such as Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, meaning supporting home-grown animated films is somewhat alien to the UK.

“In Japan there is a strong tradition of hand-drawn animation with Studio Ghibli in particular and directors like Miyazaki,” she says. “That tradition also exists in France and other European countries that have a much stronger tradition of supporting their own animated film industry compared to that which exists in the UK.”

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Mainwood points to a different culture in the States: “In the US, hand-drawn films have almost completely disappeared, especially in terms of feature films, whereas in Japan and Europe it is a different story.” The success of films such as Song of the Sea (2014), The Secret of Kells (2009), Persepolis (2007) and Chico and Rita (2010) proves there is an audience for hand-drawn animation, he says.

There is, of course, the other and obvious challenge of hand-drawing each scene, a unique and laborious obstacle that many feature filmmakers never have to face.

“There is no getting away from the time that it takes to hand-draw everything,” says Mainwood. “Not to mention all of the life-drawing skills and illustration skills that are required for a film like this. It isn’t a cartoony film so you need that talent and that time, and it has to be a labour of love because technology can’t do it for you or cut corners for you on a project like this.”

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Twenty lead animators and more than 20 assistant animators compiled the team for the project and Lupus was fortunate with the talent they were able to attract, as Mainwood explains: “We have a very good network. A lot of the people who worked on The Illusionist (2010) are now working on Ethel & Ernest. In that sense, we have been very fortunate.”

Robin Shaw (assistant director on The Snowman and the Snowdog) came on board the project as art director and Peter Dodd (senior animator on The Illusionist) was hired as animation director. “Robin is an incredibly talented artist,” says Mainwood. Shaw even cites Briggs as a major inspiration and influence in his own career. Mainwood recalls: “He even threatened to camp outside of my house until he came on board the film.”

The team produced an incredible 12 drawings per second, which works out to approximately 64,800 animation drawings for the entire film. “That’s not including all the storyboard panels, layout drawings and hand-painted backgrounds,” notes Deakin.

Lupus uses an animation software package called TVPaint and animated on tablets called Cintiqs.

Briggs, keen to keep a hand in a project so dear to him, took an executive producer’s credit on Ethel & Ernest, and was able to have a hands-on approach to the film.

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Working on the script with Briggs, says Mainwood, was an eye-opening journey. “We tend to think of Raymond primarily as an illustrator and forget that he is actually a very accomplished writer with an incredible economy for language that is very finely tuned and easy to get wrong. I found out very early on that he liked exact phrases and words, which was quite a learning curve.”

On the animation side, Shaw and Dodd spent large amounts of time with Briggs, in order to better understand the integral details of the film, such as how Ernest walked, how the couple aged and other particulars, which give the film its colour. “We see it as a good thing that Raymond is so involved and supportive,” says Mainwood. “He has been very encouraging about everything we are doing here.”

Having carefully fleshed out the script, the team put together a storyboard in the early stages of the project before setting out to do the voice recordings.

Jim Broadbent was soon cast to voice Ernest, while Brenda Blethyn was given the role of Ethel. Mainwood says that when Briggs came along to the first voice recordings, their performances had him “in floods of tears”.

“He said it was like having his parents back in the room,” recalls Deakin. “It made for an incredibly evocative moment.”

Deakin stresses that projects like Ethel & Ernest are central to the future health of the UK film industry. “The UK is recognised for being good at animation, and hopefully with this film it is a perfect coming together of great animators and a beautiful book by a British author who is loved by the nation,” she says.

“It is nice to be reviving a speciality that in this country we were very good at, but has waned in recent years. It is a great time to show off the craftspeople and the animators, who are at the top of their game.”

Ethel & Ernest was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

This article also appeared in BFI Filmmakers magazine.

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