Stop-motion specialist Paper Panther Productions is proving that even in today’s increasingly digital world, some of the oldest and most tactile animation techniques—such as paint-on-glass, charcoal and sand animation—can still be used for commercial gain.
Launched in 2014 by art school friends Carol Freeman, Eimhin McNamara and Pádraig Fagan, the Dublin-based company now counts animation outfit Cartoon Saloon, streaming giant Netflix and Irish pubcaster RTÉ among its growing list of clients.
On the service side, co-founder McNamara is currently working on a charcoal sequence for Wolfwalkers, the next animated kids feature from Song of the Sea director Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon that will launch on Apple’s streaming service.
The animation technique is a traditional style pioneered by South African artist William Kentridge that uses successive drawings in charcoal, made on a single surface and captured on camera frame by frame.
Paper Panther also delivered a puppeted one-minute stop-motion segment for Netflix’s adult-skewing original comedy series Disjointed in 2017, as well as work for clients like paint manufacturer Dulux. The prodco is now expanding beyond service work into original IPs in the hopes of bringing more long-forgotten techniques to the forefront.
Up first, Paper Panther is riding a wave from its original short, The Bird and the Whale (2018). Funded by Screen Ireland and RTÉ, The Bird and the Whale tells the tale of a baby whale who must find his way home after discovering a shipwreck and its sole survivor, a caged songbird. Written and directed by Freeman, the seven-minute, paint-on-glass film for kids won best animation, as well as best design and art direction at the 2019 Irish Animation Awards. Paper Panther also took home the prize for best newcomer. To date, the film has earned more than 20 awards on the international festival circuit and will be screened at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival as part of Animation Nights New York.
The film is made up of more than 4,300 24×34-inch oil-on-glass paintings, which took an all-female team of five artists more than 14 months to paint. In a light-controlled room, the filmmakers mounted a DSLR camera above layered panes of glass on a customized rig. Each frame of the film was painted using slow-drying paint—a key part of the reusability of the glass since after each frame was captured, the paint was wiped off so the pane could be repainted for the next shot. The final result is a fluid, textured animation that looks like a painting has come to life.
Among the challenges the artists faced in making the short were long hours, paint drying too fast, dust and sore backs. Shaky hands were also problematic, so wooden sticks were placed across the panes for painters to rest their hands on. To put the back-breaking, time-consuming work into perspective, the short’s intricate opening storm scene alone required 70 paintings to complete. Further complicating the process was the fact that there were so few people who could teach the techniques to the team.
The earliest forms of paint-on-glass animation originated in the ’70s and were pioneered by American Caroline Leaf at the National Film Board of Canada. Her 1976 NFB film The Street earned an Oscar nomination in 1977 for best animated short film. (She also pioneered sand animation with her first-ever short film Sand or Peter and the Wolf in 1969.) Decades later, Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov became arguably the best-known paint-on-glass practitioner with his Oscar-winning 1999 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the first animated film to use an IMAX camera.
Despite the challenges (and the fact that traditional stop-motion is faster), Freeman says that at US$51,000, The Bird and the Whale was only slightly more expensive to make than a low-budget short film.
“Yes, it was painful and slowgoing, but it was still a pleasure to make because it’s so rare to get to do paint-on-glass animation,” she says.
As the short continues to screen, Freeman is hatching a plan to create a longer-length series or feature. “When I originally wrote the story, it was a lot broader than the snippet that ended up on the screen,” she says. “There were acts before and after the story. I also want to perfect the technique.”
In the meantime, the company is in early development on its first original stop-motion puppet feature for kids, The Lost Queen, which Freeman will direct. Currently awaiting funding from the Irish Film Board with the aim to launch at Cartoon Movie next year, the feature will follow a sarcastic tween girl who inherits a spooky castle in Ireland.
Additionally, Freeman is set to direct Sullivan Sails, a stop-motion, digital cut-out preschool series about a little boy and a magical garden that’s being produced by Bird and the Whale producer Jonathan Clarke.
And in the spirit of keeping classical animation techniques alive, the company is adapting the workshops it holds for kids, adults and other professionals into a how-to series similar to Art Attack. It’s also using its workshops to incubate talent.
“It’s nice to encourage other people to try tactile animation, and a lot of students have contacted us asking for advice, but I don’t think many are that interested in the art,” says Freeman. “They think we’re crazy and say it’s too tedious. But animation is tedious—there’s no getting away from that.”