“Basically, it’s 25 frames per second and it’s a very insane way of doing things, really,” says Phoebe McCaughley of her painstakingly crafted animations. Working with scraps of fabric and leftover packaging – which she uses to build her characters – McCaughley has found an innate talent for recreating natural movement. She’s also shown a deft hand for dealing with the big topics such as motherhood and mental health, which she manages to explore with an element of light-heartedness.
Not only is her work charming and relatable, it’s a reminder of just how enjoyable stop motion can be, when it’s done right.
Creative Review: What got you interested in stop motion animation?
Phoebe McCaughley: I applied for my illustration animation course just for my love of drawing, and I think I was leaning more towards the illustration side, but in the second year I chose animation just to try and use a new skill. I made a few mediocre hand-drawn ones, but then I tried out stop motion and absolutely fell in love and haven’t looked back. I think the direction my work has taken over the years has always pointed towards stop motion, because I made models and sets out of scraps of paper and packaging as a child. I think what made me hesitate for so long [before trying it out] is there are horror stories of gravity being the enemy, and it’s so tedious and frustrating. I think they’re not exactly false, but I’ve realised I do have quite a bit of patience when it comes to my own work, and making my vision come to life.
CR: What is it that you love about making these miniature worlds – is it the satisfaction of the craft?
PM: Definitely. I think all of my films have been hand-made and that’s the magic of stop motion – being able to watch a film and notice a tiny detail, and know that’s been created and moved by human hands. I think you can always feel stop motion with your eyes. I made this short film called Hand In Hand, and I was celebrating the craft behind stop motion. So it was these miniature hands that I made out of wire and fabric, and they’re crafting with these tiny scissors and sewing, but then I filmed myself animating it, sped it up and put it inside the film. So you can watch me struggling to animate these things, and move these tiny objects, and it just gives the viewer a better understanding of patience and time. I think it’s quite satisfying to watch my massive hands control these tiny ones.
CR: What’s the story behind your film The Fourth Trimester
PM: I don’t actually have children myself, but for some reason I have this real interest in hearing parents talk about it – because it’s so other to what I’ve experienced and seems like such a dramatic time in life. In mainstream media there’s so much about the birth, but there’s quite a big gap because it’s really common for parents to experience mental strain. I thought making stop motion would be quite interesting, and I’ve noticed the technique of handmade and hand-moved puppets on set works well, and deserves human care. There is also some humour in the film as well, because I picked up on some relatable things from my research that parents would talk about, and I thought having a light-hearted side to the film would be good to make it more appealing and start a conversation letting people know it’s so normal to struggle. It’s regarded as a taboo topic, because people think everyone else is having the most special time. I used this technique of reversing the roles of mother and baby, just to get through ideas of the vulnerability of the mother. So I included things like the baby swaddling up the mother, and the mother fantasising over the baby bouncer and pushchair.
CR: And how do you make your characters, is it always bits of leftover material and packaging?
PM: My dad still collects so much packaging for me and I still keep it, but I never get to use it. I always find when I go home that he’s saved some interesting things for me. He saved crab shells for me to make things out of. I realised it’s so good that I make these miniature worlds because my family lives around Shepherd’s Bush Market, and on Goldhawk Road there’s loads of fabric shops. The best thing is that [they have] these scrap boxes, and most of the time they let you take them for free. I think fabric is really nice to work with. It gives this textured look that’s quite nice under the camera. I tried clay for my first stop motion, but it’s really horrible to use because it melts and gets dirty. Someone said that they think fabric works quite well with my film, The Fourth Trimester, because it’s like the mother’s being held together.
CR: It seems like you’ve got a natural ability to recreate realistic movement. Is that something you already knew, or you figured out over time?
PM: When I animate I’m always acting it out as I go, and I think it’s just practice. It’s so key in animation. It will show so much, the more you put in. I did this workshop with Tim Allen recently, and I’ve just realised I’ve got so much to learn. I think it’s more about if something goes wrong, you have to have it in you to be like, ‘no, that’s not how the movement goes’, and go back and try and make it more realistic.
CR: And what are your plans, are you hoping to stay freelance and make films?
PM: I think that because I’ve done it all myself so far, I’m open to any roles within stop motion because I love making and animating. I also like the concepts, so directing as well. Hopefully I’ll be able to be on a production, but I definitely want to keep making my own films as well.
CR: Are there any subjects that really intrigue you?
PM: Mental health is a big one, but I think most of my work takes more of a light-hearted approach. I think that’s sometimes OK, if it’s done in the right way, and maybe it draws more attention to it. I think I just like to look at the everyday, and notice things that maybe other people don’t pick up on, or things about humans. So I made this weird film about the button on the Tube that doesn’t work, and it’s such a known thing that it doesn’t but it’s quite embarrassing to push it, and also quite human. I made a film about a girl that loves to press it. I like weird films.
CR: How do you feel looking back on university now?
PM: I absolutely loved my degree. I think first year is hard for everyone, but Kingston is designed so well to get you thinking in a certain innovative way. Everyone there has a Kingston way of thinking, and an understanding so they can critique each other. I loved it, and the tutors are really engaged. I think uni definitely changed my way of working for the better. I think a lot of people on my course have gone in thinking they’d do one thing, and come out the other side doing a completely different thing. It’s definitely beneficial.