In the beginning…
Mark Baker and Neville Astley are the directors of some of the best loved British animations with their characters – including Peppa Pig and Ben and Holly – known around the world. But their earlier careers, featuring stunning hand drawn films, are less well known.
For Mark Baker, a childhood summer holiday activity turned into a career. Working with his sister to produce flip books and animated films, he was surprised by the immediacy of the results. ‘People always describe animators as having patience but you actually get to see results quite quickly and you don’t need to rely on anyone else. After seeing my drawings move for the first time, I didn’t want to go back to still pictures.’ A chance viewing of Bob Godfrey’s (director of Roobarb among many others) Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit gave him the spur to eventually attend first St Martins in London and then Farnham College of the Arts to study animation. Whilst at St Martins, he was inspired by one particular screening of short animation films that included UBU by Geoff Dunbar, Opera by Bruno Bozetto, The Hand by Jiri Trnka, The Owl Who Married a Goose by Caroline Leaf and The Interview by Michael Dudok de Wit.
‘I love what Astley Baker Davies do. It’s so English! Gentle, subtle, clever, beautiful and extraordinarily funny. From The Hill Farm to The Big Knights toPeppa Pig they’ve always found a tone that respects and charms their audience.’ Peter Lord, co-founder Aardman Animations
For Neville Astley, animation provided a route away from the sober world of Graphic Information (exciting things like bus timetable design). Studying at Middlesex, he began working with Jeff Newitt (later of Aardman Animations) to produce their own animations in their free time. Their first film, The Jump (completed during the mid early 1980s but seen on the festival circuit in 1989), is a short film about two doomed parachutists drawn on paper and almost entirely without colour or backgrounds. ‘We completed it during the Easter term and showed the animation technician one lunchtime. He was impressed enough to say, “OK, you’re not on the animation course but here’s more paper, here’s the line-test machine; you can use it when there’s no one around.” Most days we would sneak down to the animation department in the middle of a typography session, to test the stuff we’d drawn the night before’.
Indeed, the three directors of Astley Baker Davies all have a connection to Middlesex Polytechnic. Astley as a student from 1981-85; Phil Davies, their producer, running the Animation department throughout the ’80s and ’90s; and Baker having taught there in the late-’80s.
First films and Middlesex University
Both Baker and Astley set about making signature pieces to complete their degrees. Baker’s short film The Three Knights (1982) presaged their later work on The Big Knights and is a humorous picaresque about hapless knights. Neville Astley set about making his own animation, Living in a Mobile Home, set to a song by John Hegley and The Popticians. He also demonstrated his skill with stop motion with Trainspotter (eventually premiered in 1996) co-directed with Newitt.
Astley and Baker both entered the animation industry as freelancers, working at studios including Pizazz Pictures (now known as Studio AKA), Richard Purdum’s and Speedy Films. While Astley kept a steady workload of commercials, TV title sequences and short films, Baker undertook a post-graduate degree at the National Film and Television School, a space that would allow him the space to create his first major film, The Hill Farm.
Working on The Hill Farm
Baker gave himself the challenge of setting a film in a fixed location. ‘There was a spate of road movies while I was at Farnham, including my film, The Three Knights. It’s a simple story structure as you can keep adding incidents. But I wanted to get out of the rut.’ Instead, the film is about three groups who are based in, or visit, the countryside. The original concept for the film was based around the farmers’ routine, which fit exactly into the length of a day. Besides a group of hunters whose modus operandi is to shoot anything that moves, a third group of tourists sprang from Baker’s own experience. ‘The tourists are basically “me” visiting the countryside. And the underlying imagery was based on holidays to France with my parents, always returning to the same village in Southern France.’
Astley and Baker meet
Working on TVC’s animation Granpa, Astley and Baker became acquainted, before both attending the Annecy International Animated Film Festival together, both showing their own work (the debut of The Jump and The Hill Farm respectively, with the latter winning the Grand Prix). Working at Pizazz Pictures, Baker was offered studio space to work on a personal short among commercial work, and he sought a commission from Channel 4 to produce what would eventually become The Village. Given a rough budget of £10,000 a minute, he was able to hire other animators, Astley included.
Very much a companion piece to The Hill Farm, The Village tells the tale of an isolated community that holds many secrets and is rife with gossip and intrigue. ‘The Hill Farm is very much a positive view of the countryside but from going to the south of France I knew a lot about the not so good side of a small society. I wanted to show that opposite. The starting point was one character, looking out of a window, tracking everyone’s movement.
‘The first thing I thought of was the woman running through the house to make sure she didn’t miss anything that she could gossip about.’
Despite having enjoyed two Oscar nominations at this point, Baker was still far from a household name. Although in Eastern Europe and on the festival circuit his shorts were lauded, Channel 4 struggled to find space in their schedules for the films they’d commissioned.
Making Jolly Roger and The Big Knights
The pair rented a tiny studio space in Silver Place, Soho from 1994–98, where they made Jolly Roger for Channel 4 and developed The Big Knights for the BBC with Claire Jennings as their producer. Both had always wanted to make an animation series and were inspired by the simplicity of Bob Godfrey’s Roobarb series as well as other animation series from their childhoods such as The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers.
Jolly Roger proved a breakthrough for Astley and Baker’s methods. For the first time, they were able to composite their hand drawn work digitally. This meant that complex fluid movements, such as the rocking of boats, could be done with relative ease. Amiga computers that were primarily used to time the animation, were also used for some computer graphic tests that would eventually lead to the computer techniques used to make the Big Knights. The film, a battle between two very different pirate captains, yielded Baker’s third Oscar nomination.
The Big Knights, a thirteen episode series, was the first time that Baker and Astley would make extensive use of voice talent in their own work, assembling an amazing team of Brian Blessed, David Rintoul, Alexander Armstrong, Prunella Scales and many of the voice and writing talents of the comedy sketch show Absolutely, including John Sparkes and Morwenna Banks with the music being composed by Pete Baikie (also from Absolutely).
‘The Big Knights was originally going to be a traditional cut out animation because it was potentially quick to do. But then computer animation became more possible,’ said Baker. ‘We took the genre of knights in armour (dragons, princesses and witches etc) and then added the twist of being set in 20th Century Eastern Europe (mobile phones, nuclear power stations),’ continues Astley.
‘At the time most TV series were shipped abroad to be animated, however, we wanted to keep it all in-house, in London, though we were not sure how we could produce enough footage for the tight schedules and budgets of TV series work.’
‘One day I was messing around animating a cut-out character on our Amiga computer line tester, then Mark used the D-Paint package to colour in the frames and we suddenly realised we could make a series this way….sort of. After a few false starts we commissioned a games company to create a bespoke animation programme for us that eventually became CelAction. This was 1996, when we weren’t even aware of TV shows like South Park or animation programmes like Flash.’
The Big Knights episodes were shown over Christmas 1999 period. But alas, the series was scheduled without a regular slot and then disappeared without trace. ‘The BBC had difficulty knowing whether The Big Knights was for children or adults. We had intended it to be for the whole family,’ laments Astley.
Developing Peppa Pig and Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom
In 2000, having learnt the importance of demographics, Astley and Baker proceeded to develop four projects aimed at specific age ranges: The Big World; Peppa Pig (both for pre-school children); Power Girl (for 6–7 year olds) and Little Planet (for adults).
Of the 4 ideas, they picked their favourite two – The Big World and Peppa Pig, to make into two three-minute trailers.
Additionally, they were working on developing series from existing children’s books. For example, I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child, which eventually became the highly successful Charlie & Lola series produced by Tiger Aspect.
When producer, Phil Davies came onboard in 2001, as well as pursuing the Charlie & Lola project they developed a Peppa Pig presentation to take to Cartoon Forum in 2002. Contender Entertainment Group (CEG later to become eOne) bought into the project and between 2003 and 2004 ABD made the first series of 52 episodes that were shown July 2004 on Channel 5 and Nick Jr.
After ABD completed the first series of Peppa in 2004, whilst waiting for a re-commission, they developed Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom and took it to Cartoon Forum in 2005. ‘For us the difference between the series is that Peppa is about a child who has never left the house without her family,’ said Astley. ‘Peppa has everything done for her. She’s only four and she doesn’t have real control. Ben and Holly are allowed to go and do adventures on their own, though we did include Nanny Plum as a sort of guardian. Everything happens in orderly fashion in Peppa and it’s a good feeling for younger children; In Ben & Holly you start introducing disasters, trying to to get back to The Big Knights territory.’
Again CEG bought into the new project and following the completion of Peppa series 2 in 2006–07 they produced the first Ben and Holly series in 2008-09. To date, they have made 210 Peppa Pig and 104 Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom episodes with Peppa shown in 180 countries.