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Shirley Collins | Pretty Polly

Domino Records approached us to create a video for national treasure Shirley Collins’ Pretty Polly, a song on her new album Lodestar. As this was her first album for 38 years we wanted to do something special.
The video set us on a journey that would require turning a mountain of cardboard and timber into forests, meadows, clouds and rolling hills, building a film set, bringing in tons of camera equipment and packing our small studio with eighteen animators, scene movers, puppeteers, lighting and camera operators on the hottest September day in the last 100 years.

Shirley had set only one stipulation, she wanted the video to incorporate jig dolls: Puppets that come to life when jigged on a vibrating board.
Inspired by the timbre of Shirley’s voice and the stripped back music Layla decided to create the piece by making real puppets and manipulating them entirely in live action using only in-camera effects. The expertly made puppets combined with rough cardboard backgrounds, simple drawings and beautiful lighting to form the video’s aesthetic handwriting. Layla wanted the final piece to feel more like watching a play than a film so the camera would be locked off with the scenes shot in real time with no edits or cutaways

After talking to small world genius director of photography Peter Ellmore, it was also decided to shoot on film rather than digital. Using film felt totally within the spirit of the idea and compared to digital photography it gives a much softer and forgiving drop off within the depth of field. However, film reel lengths meant that each scene could only be shot six times and there would be no chance to see the rushes before the sets were dismantled.
Once Layla had created the animatic to tell the story of Polly’s adventure, she worked with stop-motion expert John Harmer, artist Jock Mooney, puppeteer Garry Rutter, plus a small art department team to build and paint the sets, elements and puppets.

All the landscapes were created by moveable planes attached to timber runners sitting on fixed blocks that could be independently moved by two operators. Each set was to have four separate planes which all had to move at different speeds and at different times to create a charming parallax movement

How We Made Pretty Polly

As well as choreographing a ballet of moving scenes, people and elements, other beautiful low-tech solutions were utilised. In one scene the face of the song’s hero is seen in close up with his eyes moving from left to right, accomplished by a slider behind the cut out eyes reminiscentof BBC’s early Captain Pugwash cartoons made in the 1950s.

Peter along with gaffer JonoYates built and managed the lighting rig as the sets had to be dynamically lit during the filming. This was seen to great effect during the battlefield set with flashes representing cannon blasts. With the heat from the lights and the outside temperature hitting 34 degrees during filming it felt at a times like rowing in the bowels of a Roman galley but the atmosphere and spirit that Layla hoped would come together certainly did.
For us one of the highlights was hearing Shirley’s reaction to the finished video. She was heard to say “Isn’t it absolutely gorgeous: sweet, charming, full of innocence, and it made me laugh out loud! Quite quite perfect..”

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The curious Brain

Music and Vocals: Shirley Collins
“The Instrument”: Ian Keary
Drums: Alex Neilson
Commissioner: Bart McDonagh
Director: Layla Atkinson
Producer: Richard Barnett
DoP: Pete Ellmore
Gaffers: Jonathan Yates, Adam Bell
Illustration: Jock Mooney
Art Department Head: John Harmer
Art Department: Layla Atkinson, Rebecca Manley
Art Workers: Adrian Leak, Shirley McNicholas, Leyla McNicholas, Victoria Szelachowska, Lucy Blackhurst
Puppet Makers: Bernard Pilgrim, Garry Rutter, Richard Barnett, Jock Mooney
Puppeteers: Garry Rutter, Rebecca Manley
Scenery Shifters: Fiona Mckiernan, Mehmet Ulusahin, Luca Paulli, Rok Predin, Kieran Letts, Hannah Wilson, Violeta Paez Armando, Alec Kronacker, Pip Piporo
Rigging: Richard Barnett, Chris Heinhold
Grade: Jonny T at Glassworks
Lighting: Panalux
Lab: Kodak

Record Company: Domino Records

Thanks to: Rocket Van, London Diamond Drilling, Jack Wood at Glassworks, Flints, Bernard Pilgrim, Jane Pfaff, Karine Gama and Kelly Amundsen at Panalux, Kodak, Chris Harvey, Duncan Martin at Pro-Motion