How 'mad-looking alien dolls' became animation pioneers

Thu, Oct 18, 2012, 01:00

Irish animation now wins Oscars and Emmys, but the trailblazing work of the Quins made its mark on generations

FOR MORE than 30 years, in attics and sheds from suburban Dublin to Thurles, Jim Quin and his son David have been breathing life into dead matter. Shaping humble pieces of Plasticine, insulating foam, cardboard and tape into human and animal form. Lovingly and painstakingly making the inanimate, animate. Frame by frame, shot by shot, movement by tiny movement, until previously lifeless things become walking, talking characters.

The story of the Quin family’s ongoing adventure in stop-motion animation began in the mid-1970s, when Jim, then manager of film production at RTÉ, decided to make a few short pieces to prove “that animated films could be done in Ireland”. This experiment would eventually lead to the creation of the long-running animated series Baile Beag.

Set in an archetypal Irish village, the show was somewhat quaint and bucolic by today’s standards, says Jim. “It was like Last of the Summer Wine with young lads. We had two lads who’d just wander around the village doing very little . . . in a village in which very little happened.”

Despite the languid pace and the absence of explosive drama, Baile Beag was a hit, and the newly established Quin Films Ltd was up and running. Over the next 10 years the company, which moved its base of operations from Dublin to Jim’s native Tipperary in 1982, would make some of the most fondly remembered animations to come out of Ireland, stop-motion pieces that would attach themselves to the imaginations of a generation: Lug na Lacha, Muintir na Mona (inserts for Dilín Ó Deamhas), and the Bosco inserts: Faherty’s Garden, Gregory Gráinneog and The Tongue Twisters.

While the move to Tipperary afforded the company greater studio space, it also compounded the sense of artistic isolation the Quins felt in those early years.

“We didn’t know what anyone else was doing,” says David. “Without the internet, we had to wait for documentaries every five years on the BBC to tell us what other animators in the world were doing. We were completely on our own.”

Occasional encounters with industry titans such as the late Oliver Postgate (creator of the sublime stop-motion classics Bagpuss and The Clangers) would prove illuminating, but the Quins were, by and large, feeling their way in the dark. Learning by trial and error what materials, processes and techniques worked best. Through it all, and despite odd flirtations with CGI, they remained committed to stop-motion. What’s the attraction?

“Stop-motion is a really dramatically responsive animation technique,” David says. “You’re grabbing the puppet, moving it and acting the character in front of the camera, directly. You take a deep breath, plan what you want to do, and then physically push the character through the scene, bit by bit. It’s a very tactile, physical technique. It has massive sensitivity.”

It is their contributions to Bosco that remain most instantly recognisable and evocative for audiences of a certain vintage. The creations he’s still most frequently asked about, Jim says, are the Tongue Twisters, a gruesome twosome whose elongated necks and high-pitched shrieking made them unforgettable, and occasionally unsettling, Bosco staples.

“The Tongue Twisters dolls were designed by a girl called Monica McCormack,” says Jim. “She did the dolls for an American production about aliens that I was doing that fell through.”

“It was a promo,” says David. “It didn’t proceed. But we had two mad-looking alien dolls and asked could we use them on something, and Joe O’Donnell, head of young people’s programming at RTÉ, said, ‘Jesus, they’d be great for Bosco.’”

In David’s recent work, which he says is being produced “on tabletop setups, with no budget, by one guy”, there are traces of this past. His internet series Rinkydink, featuring a bickering, foul-mouthed hedgehog-and-snail combo, is a twisted Gregory Gráinneog for the 21st century. The ability to showcase work online has proved a huge boon for animators, he says.

Not only does it provide them with a quick and easy way to get material “out there”, it also gives them a chance to develop characters over time, in ways that might otherwise not be possible.

He even hints at casual plans to revive The Tongue Twisters in an online milieu, rescuing them from the obscurity of a Thurles attic and beaming new adventures into the homes of a nation that has never quite managed to get them out of its collective psyche.

David Quin’s favourite Irish animations

Give Up Yer Auld Sins

Dir: Darragh O’Connell. Brown Bag Films, 2001

“I’ve great affection for this short film and for the subsequent series, having worked as part of the production team. It features some great Alan Shannon character animation and was nominated for an Oscar.”

Secret of Kells

Dir: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey. Cartoon Saloon, 2009

“A tour de force. Ireland’s first full-length animated feature, showcasing the artistic skills and the filmmaking potential of the Cartoon Saloon.”

Trouble in Paradise

Dir/prod: Shane Collins. IADT, 2004

“A graduate film from IADT. Simply animated and making the CGI technique look responsive and effortless. A beautiful comic performance.”

The Rooster, the Crocodile and the Night Sky

Dir: Padraig Fagan. Barley Films, 2008

“A quirky, beautiful piece, produced for Frameworks, the scheme established by RTÉ, the IFB and An Chomhairle Ealaíon.”

Admit One

Dir: Steve Woods Camel Productions, 2010

“A ‘pixelation’, produced as part of RTÉ’s Dance on the Box, mixing Steve Wood’s filmic eye, profound animation sense and some punchy choreography.”

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