Fishlock released Sir Benfro’s Brilliant Balloon in 2012. The app allowed users to guide Sir Benfro – “a naturalist, scientist and explorer” – through oceans, forests and the centre of the earth, with the aim of keeping him afloat for as long as possible. It was downloaded 375,000 times and selected as one of Apple’s Apps of the Year.
Fishlock had the idea for the app while on holiday in Pembrokeshire. (Sir Benfro is named after the Welsh name for the county, which Fishlock still visits every year).
“When you drive into the county the signs say ‘Croeso i Sir Benfro’ – Welcome to Pembrokeshire’. I always thought that was a great name for a character. I created Sir Benfro in 2005, made a picture book, sent it to half a dozen publishers and heard nothing back,” he explains.
“At that time I was doing a bit of work with Paul Smith and showed it to him. He commissioned a small line of merchandise featuring Sir Benfro – T-shirts, mugs and prints – and sold them in the UK and Japan. After that, I got busy with other things and Benfro was mothballed until 2011 when my friend Giles Hammond, aka Explore & Create suggested we create an app,” he adds.
With its mix of botanical drawings and bold vector illustrations, the app had a distinctive look and feel – an aesthetic Fishlock says was inspired by Victorian botanical engravings, puppet theatres, Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python, animations by Studio Ghibli and Yimou Zhang’s films Hero and The House of Flying Daggers.
“We wanted it to be a beautiful thing where the journey was its own reward. No coins to collect, no scores and definitely no in-app purchases or ads,” he adds.
After the app was released, Fishlock received an email from Josh Weinstein, a producer and writer for both The Simpsons and Futurama, saying how much he had enjoyed it. Fishlock replied, asking if Weinstein would like to collaborate with him on a book, and after a few dozen emails and Skype calls, and two meetings in person, Sir Benfro’s Big Adventure was complete.
“After Josh agreed to write the words for a Sir Benfro picture book, I sent him a bunch of illustrations I’d already produced for an earlier, unpublished iteration of Sir Benfro’s Big Adventure,” explains Fishlock. “Within a few weeks, Josh had sketched out a completely new story. I eschewed about 90% of the original illustrations and whilst Josh developed the story, I started doing a rough storyboard,” he says.
“Once the story was set, Josh would polish a section at a time and I would get on and create the finished artwork. It took me a little while to be confident enough to critique the words of a 4-time Emmy Award winner but Josh was very humble and always respectful that Benfro was a creation very close to my heart. The whole process took about 6 months,” he adds.
The book features the same aesthetic as the app – and an equally bizarre and creative collection of fictional creatures, settings and characters.
“Making a book was how Sir Benfro came about. The idea was always there,” says Fishlock. “Digital can be great but for me there’s no substitute for the real and 3-dimensional,” he adds.
Fishlock has also created a handsome deck of cards for the Tower of London, which aim to encourage teenagers to explore the site. The pack contains 12 cards grouped into four themes – rulers, rogues, prisoners and guardians – and each card features a character and instructions guiding visitors to a place in the tower specific to that character. A Henry VIII card, for example, points to his collection of armour in the white tower.
The pack was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces, and Fishlock says the artwork is inspired by Polish and Czech collage from the 1950s and 60s.
“There’s a beautiful economy about so much of that stuff. I had assumed that HRP would have a huge archive of images I could raid – that wasn’t actually the case and so I had to search hard for material I could use. I ended up using tiny details and crops from all manner of sources,” he explains.
“From the outset, I felt it was crucial that the cards not only looked great but that they felt substantial. I was concerned that if the teenagers didn’t immediately engage with them and feel that they were well produced, then the roofs and walkways of the Tower would very quickly become littered with discarded packs of cards.”
Sir Benfro’s Big Adventure is available to buy online, at Tate Modern and Gosh! Comics. Sir Benfro’s Brilliant Balloon is available to download for free from the App Store to coincide with the release of the book.