Holy Flying Circus animations

I really enjoyed last night’s Holy Flying Circus on BBC4, the part-fact part-surrealist dramatisation of the furore surrounding the release of the Monty Python film, Life of Brian. It had some great animated sequences, too, that paid homage to the pioneering work of Terry Gilliam. Here’s how director Jim Le Fevre made them

I really enjoyed last night’s Holy Flying Circus on BBC4, the part-fact part-surrealist dramatisation of the furore surrounding the release of the Monty Python film, Life of Brian. It had some great animated sequences, too, that paid homage to the pioneering work of Terry Gilliam. Here’s how director Jim Le Fevre made them…

Le Fevre, a freelance director also repped by Nexus Productions, created the opening titles based upon his own ‘Phonotrope’ machine. This technique sees a sequence of pictures laid out around the circumference of a record player which, when spun at a fixed speed of 45 RPM, is then filmed by a camera running at 25 frames per second, creating the illusion of animation.

In Le Fevre’s ‘making of’ film, shown below, the opening titles begin around the two minute mark, though are “an early rough cut to show the sequence in context,” he says on his blog about the project at jimlefevre.com. “The eventual edit of the film had different book-ends which also meant losing the final cloud sequence.”

Approached to work on the project by Polly Leys, Kate Norrish and Owen Harris of Hillbilly Films last year, explains Le Fevre, he welcomed the fact that “the budget was extremely low which meant that the passion (from both sides) needed to be extremely high.” Also significant was that it was to be “a drama that had at its roots a powerful starting point in animation, namely that of Terry Gilliam who, although he never understood it at the time, was creating a new chapter in the use and technique of animation.”

Le Fevre says that his work aimed to mirror Gilliam’s “passion, craft and approach” that had “created an utterly ground breaking new form of animation (and comedy) through necessity on minimum budget and found something through problem solving. Well, we had the minimum budget box ticked. That was when I realised the Phonotrope technique was ready to be used.”

After designing a new, large-scale Phonotrope on the computer in 3D Studio Max and creating the animated loops in After Effects, the sequences were laid out onto A2 sheets and printed onto heavy stock.

Then, the outline frames of the sequences were laser cut (by Ewen Dickie at Laser Make) with over 2,000 produced in all. “Gordon Allen and Gee Staughton from We Are The Art Department took up the reigns to physically build the structure of the Phonotrope,” Le Fevre explains, “with Gordon carefully spending time figuring out a system to be able to revolve the structure at a fixed (and constant) speed.”

The eventual structure was 1.2 metres wide at the base and 2.1 metres tall. “We had to use a combination of a motion control rig and a 14″ ball-bearing ring to be able to spin the Phonotrope,” says Le Fevre, “and due to the weight of the tower it took around ten seconds to get up to speed and, more importantly as we discovered to our cost, about 16 seconds to ramp down to a stop.

“It should be noted that the final stage of the Phonotrope, the clouds and tower, never made it into the film as the linking scene involving chewing gum and a foot that followed it got cut, so you will probably have to wait for the DVD extras to see that!”

The final Phonotrope that was used in the film is currently in the foyer of Nexus Productions’ London offices. For the full story of Le Fevre’s work on the animations for Holy Flying Circus, visit jimlefevre.com. Holy Flying Circus is on the BBC iPlayer, here.

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