“It’s an endurance test,” Michael Mort says after screening an extended highlight reel from Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires. “We’ve been working for two years now, and we’ve got about 65 minutes completed and about 18 minutes still left to do.”
To be fair to the writer-director, his latest production is a far cry from the previous short his ’80s action hero Chuck Steel starred in. That shoot took place in his basement; the Animortal studios in Bridgend houses multiple stages and takes MyM a good hour to tour. “This shot here is just a green screen pass… we’re shooting a hospital scene here – he’s about to hit the wall and bounce back… she’s just had a horrible vampire death… there’s a big monster in here, like a Ray Harryhausen moment, with two monsters having a scrap,” Mort says, his comments just a snapshot of the sights pointed out as we tour these mini-marvels of set design.
Night of the Trampires certainly hasn’t taken the easy option when it comes to creating its stop-motion animation. Most modern productions would use rapid prototyping and 3D printing to create thousands of character parts, rather than having animators ‘sculpt through’ – changing facial expressions for each scene.
“You need a huge amount of money for that process, to do it really well and have the amount of replacements you want,” Mort explains. “We’ve stuck to the technique that I did on the Chuck Steel short, which was done very simply. We wanted the same look so we tried to make it work.”
The other feat this movie-length Chuck Steel pulls off is the sheer number of characters it uses. “Mike decided not to have just three puppets in this film, he wanted the most, which was 400-odd,” Sam Holland, head of puppets, says with a grin. “I did advise the other producers that our script had too many characters,” Mort jumps in, before Holland counts down the cast: “We have something like 100 main cast puppets, including 20 Chucks, then the trampires, the tramps and the crowd for all the circus scenes. “We’ve got about 70 background characters for the scene in the circus,” Mort adds. “A lot of films would do shots like that using CGI but we’ve done it all using puppets. Those big wide shots took months. And when a lot of animated films do background characters, they all look very similar. I wanted to make everything different and I think it stands out that you can see that huge amount of variation.”
That level of detail doesn’t end with the extended cast of characters. As we wander the many intricate sets, their backgrounds, the newspaper Chuck’s boss holds and the posters on the walls all display the love the set-design team has poured into the film.
“We design all of the sets and the artwork and any background design. Things like the newspaper, where the gag is someone holding up a picture of the same thing and it goes on into infinity, I think if you read it there is actually a story there – it’s ridiculous,” says Mort. “There’s lots of little background gags in there. One scene includes a poster for an old short film I made years ago called Deadly Tantrum, which was a live-action horror.
“Whether that’s even readable in the end, who knows. I don’t want to be saying, ‘Look at what we’ve built.’ But you know it’s there. It’s all atmosphere at the end of the day. You just want it to feel like a full set and a real place. But because it is a horror film, when you light these scenes things are dark and you sometimes think, ‘Oh, look at all that detail we’ve lost.’
“Have you seen the composite for the last shot?” animator Leo Nicholson asks. “I know, you can’t see the background characters!” Mort responds. “That’s the thing, you do it because you might see them and then you don’t. Yes, we’ve probably done all the things you’re not supposed to on an animated film. Sculpting through, multiple characters, no CGI. There are ways around what we’ve done on this. Next time we’ll set it all in the dark and everyone wears face masks so you don’t have to animate the mouths. I’m kidding, obviously.”
Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires is released autumn/winter 2017. The full interview and set visit appears in Issue 62 of MyM magazine.