I had had an idea, months before I submitted to Random Acts, for a *series of still photographs where I dressed an Oak tree with loads of giant cardboard acorns. I had just made a micro film Duck Shoot using cardboard and really enjoyed working with the material. I like the fact that it's free, and I know I won’t run out! Cardboard is actually very versatile too and you can create lots of different textures by squashing, tearing or bending it. For this film the fact that I was taking a material that originates from trees to the woods (and bringing it back to life) appealed to me too. Initially, I
pitched the film to Channel 4 / Lupus as O.A.K. As well as the obvious reason behind the title, it was also to stand for the
names of the three main characters i.e. Oscar, Albert and Kevin or something like that. In my original idea the discovery of the Oak tree was the ending, and there
was no dramatic twist, so that title was more appropriate to the story at that stage.
This was the
A trio of cardboard creatures on a quest for the
A squirrel, a pig and a bear travel the
countryside scavenging for food. They come across, and subsequently reject,
many synthetic things from a discarded hamburger to, a child’s birthday cake.
And just when they are on the verge of turning on each other they find their
holy grail…A huge tree full to bursting with oversized cardboard acorns and oak
A piece of concept art that I submitted with the pitch
An acorn that I made as a development piece for inclusion in the pitch
(*I would like to create this original stills idea at some point too).
Once I had been commissioned, and before starting on the script, I began making a mood board. This was to help me get a sense
of the look of the film from colour palette, to character and prop design. I find that sometimes ideas come to me more freely when I am just sitting doing something else, so I thought this would be a good way to get a fresh perspective on the narrative.
Two artist's that I greatly admire are Tim Walker and Wes Anderson. Their work often has a playful, innocent quality which is underscored by dark and serious themes. Imagery from Walker's photographs and Anderson's films (especially in terms of colour) really influenced the look of this short. For example Anderson's beautiful film Moonrise Kingdom takes place, for the most part, in a woodland setting and the Scouts wear khaki/cardboard coloured uniforms. So I thought that a similar colour palette would really compliment my characters in their very comparable environment. I found this board very helpful when having preliminary talks with my DP Pete Ellmore. Looking at it, he was able to get a real sense of what I wanted to do with the visuals quite early on. This gave him time to think about how he could achieve this in camera with lenses and filters. This is something that I really like to do, and really admire Pete for. I love the idea of creating the look as much as possible for real on the shoot, rather than doing it in post. Then when you arrive at that stage it's just a question of enhancing and polishing what you already have, rather than creating from scratch.
One of the strongest influences in my work has to be my childhood. I wrote the story with a fairy tale like structure. Genre-wise it is a buddy movie, a quest and a dark comedy. I liked the idea of the 'magic three' characters with different personalities, travelling and working together to achieve a common goal. The acorn is like the Golden Fleece, or The Holy Grail. It is the materialization of all their longings and needs. Therefore I made it physically giant to visually represent how much it means to them when they find it. As you can see, originally I included a title sequence at the beginning of the film. But Random Acts films go out without a title, so I cut that sequence, eventually replacing it with the table scene.
O.A.K (working title)
Dir. Rebecca Manley
Ch4 Random Acts
Ext. woods daytime
We see three characters moving
through the wood. Squirrel, pig and bear. They see something ahead on the
ground, partly obscured by leaves. They approach it and we see from their pov
that it is the word O.A.K (or the title of the film). Squirrel reaches out and
picks up a letter, which he then nibbles on tentatively. Blurrgh! It is horrid,
he recoils and tosses the letter away. The trio looks disappointed.
Music kicks in (it has a beat to
The trio starts walking.
They walk through the woods
traversing logs and negotiating undergrowth, sniffing around as if to find
Suddenly in the distance, at the
edge of the wood, we see an over-sized fast food container on the ground. The
squirrel approaches it and opens the lid. Inside is a giant half eaten
hamburger. Flies gather around it, buzzing and clamoring. Squirrel turns his
nose up and rejoins the group. When he gets back to the others he shakes his head.
They sigh and continue on their way.
They move into a field, and walk
down a dirt path. Alongside a fence they spy a large set of tools, paint tin
and brushes, next to which is a plate of biscuits and a flask of tea. Bear
breaks away from the group and approaches the plate. But just as he reaches out
a paw to grab a biscuit some trainers step into shot and the bear runs away
A man’s voice mutters, “Bleedin’
bear, paws off my Bourbons!”
The bear rejoins the group puffing
and out of breath. They shake their heads.
The trio continues on their way but
by now they are visibly tired and hungry. Sniffing about for food, Bear
momentarily sniffs at Pig’s leg. Pig, unaware of this, sees something and runs
towards it, his sudden movement bringing Bear sharply back to reality.
Pig approaches a dog food bowl on
the ground next to a brick wall (farm in the countryside or at least an
isolated building surrounded by parkland). The bowl is full, pig approaches,
but just as he is about to put snout in bowl a dog’s head lurches into shot and
sends him running. They all run, scared out of their wits. They run into a
patch of dark shadow, but panting and exhausted it takes them a moment to
realize and look up at the cause…
There before them is a giant acorn hanging on an Oak tree. Squirrel and Pig are overjoyed. But Bear is looking
at Pig nervously. In his eyes, pig transforms into a pork chop on legs.
Squirrel runs towards the tree. But when he looks back for his friends, only
Bear is left…slowly, contentedly, he licks a paw...(cut to black).
It was somewhere around this time that the idea of Bear hallucinating Pig as a pork chop materialized. I was chatting to a friend about the film, over coffee and giant marshmallows in Shoreditch (you know who you are!). I don't know how we got onto the subject but we were talking about the device in old cartoons like Tom & Jerry, where Tom sees Jerry as a chicken drumstick or in a swiss cheese sandwich etc. And I realized that this would be a really funny image to incorporate into the film. And so the new ending was born. Who says sugar and caffeine aren't good for you!
Apart from the visual gag itself, what appealed to me about the twist (the idea of Bear eating Pig) was that when the going gets tough Bear reverts to type, back to his true nature. Friendship goes out of the window - and who hasn't born the brunt of that sort of behaviour at one time or another? I also liked the idea of this 'dog eat dog theme' juxtaposed with the cute look of the characters. So I went away ruminated over this new ending... When I mentioned it to Chris Shepherd he advised me to look at the cabin scenes in the Charlie Chaplin film The Gold Rush. There is a particular section in the film where The Little Fellow (Chaplin) and a character named Big Jim are trapped in the middle of nowhere in a log cabin without food, and they are starving. Eventually Big Jim hallucinates that The Little Fellow as a chicken and tries to kill him. I used this scene for inspiration for the shot selection in this section of my film.
A still from 'The Gold Rush' 1925
To make it more clear at the beginning of the film that the characters are hungry, I came up with the idea of the trio sitting around a table with plates, cutlery, napkins etc. In my mind, it's like this is a regular thing for them - They meet up once in a while and have a meal together. They take it in turns to bring the food, but this time Squirrel has turned up empty-handed, and so they are forced to go and forage for something in the woods. The addition of the napkins provided me with a device to make the ending a bit clearer too. I designed Pig with a yellow napkin tied around his neck. This helped to make him seem very eager to eat at the start of the film, and then at the end, when we see bear wiping his mouth with said napkin, we know for sure that Bear has eaten Pig. (Logistically I couldn't cut to a wide here, and show that Pig is definitely not there, as of course the puppets don't have legs, and I needed to frame out the puppeteer). Making this section of the film as clear as possible was one of the main challenges that we came across in the edit. But I'm very happy with the result. Avye's subtle change of body language (on pork chop), even with such a basic puppet, gave me the raw material (excuse the pun) to be able to put across the moment of realization, on the part of Pig, that he is in trouble. I used a wide lens on the final shot of Bear too, as I felt the slightly strange look it gave us would help both to separate him visually from Pig/pork chop, and to put across that he has finally surrendered to the hallucination and his natural instincts.
Meanwhile I was making mood boards and concept design sheets for the characters:
To make these sheets, I gathered lots of images online, from illustrations to photographs and three dimensional work. Then I cut them up and stuck them back together - digital collage. I used this stage to help me get a sense of the character's personalities and how I could express each one through physical appearance. And although the puppets ended up looking very different from the above designs, it really helped me to work through my ideas and either eliminate thoughts or bring them forwards for further development.
Before drawing the storyboard proper, I worked through a couple of thumbnail boards. Doing this always helps me to be really loose with the shots and the action, and not get distracted by being too precious with the drawings themselves. Then when I have worked out the flow of action and basic shots, I can move on to more detailed drawings. I also began making the puppets and went on the first location recce before starting on the final board, so that I could get a better idea of the camera angles and possible backgrounds that I wanted to use. I find it really helpful to take snaps of possible shot angles on recces so I can use them as reference for my drawings. In the end I did a couple of different versions of the storyboard. But here is the final final version:
Animatic: Because I come from an animation background, I am used to making an animatic for every project that I direct. So even though this film is live action puppets, I did an early animatic just to give me a sense of the pace of the film and what I could fit into the 3 minutes. It was useful for those reasons but I didn't refer to it much or do more than one version, as I didn't want the action to become stilted. I wanted to leave a bit of room for manoeuvre and ideas to develop.