Cranky Storytime

A curmudgeonly grandmother offers her view of a classic story in Brown Bag Films’ brilliant Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.

The talented animators at Dublin-based studio Brown Bag Films seem to have a soft spot for unreliable narrators. Back in 2001, under the direction of Cathal Gaffney, who co-founded the studio with Darragh O’Connell, they came up with a wonderful short about a schoolgirl who delivers her own version of the story of John the Baptist. Titled Give Up Yer Aul Sins, Gaffney’s short was nominated for an Oscar. This year, the new short by the studio, Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, offers a twisted take on the classic fairy tale as seen through the eyes of a cranky grandma!

Directed by Nicky Phelan, the six-minute short was originally created as a stand-alone project. ‘There was no thought of it being a series at first,’ says Phelan. ‘But it soon became obvious that the character of Granny O’Grimm had more to give. We’re currently developing a TV series and a Christmas special, and Granny has her own website, Twitter account and Facebook page!’

Phelan and his team of 30 began work on the short in the summer of 2007 and wrapped it about a year later. Made with a ’50,000 fund (about $69,000) from the Frameworks scheme in Ireland (Irish Film Board, RTE, Arts Council), the production was fit around everyone’s TV day jobs at the studio, which works on shows such as Nickelodeon’s Olivia, Chorion’s The Octonauts and Noddy in Toyland. ‘We probably spread four or five months of work over the year. Lots of late evenings and weekends went into Granny O’Grimm!

The actual inspiration for the short was a comedy sketch show written and performed by Phelan’s friend, Kathleen O’Rourke. ‘When I watched her perform it, I could see it straight away as a film split between the two worlds’Granny telling the tale, and the fantasy world of the fairytale unfolding,’ note the director. ‘The script is basically identical to that original sketch with the odd tweak here and there. Kathleen performed Granny’s voice, too.’

The animators used 3ds Max to create Granny’s CG world and comped and graded it in After Effects. The 2D fairytale world of Sleeping Beauty was made in Flash and Photoshop, utilizing lots of ink-washes and again comped in After Effects.

According to Phelan, one of the project’s biggest challenges was getting the voice of Granny exactly right. ‘Performing the character on stage is so different to recording it in a booth for animation,’ he explains. ‘It turned out it needed to be far more caricatured and stylized than Kathleen’s original performance. We also videotaped Kathleen acting the role so we had her gestures and facial expressions for the animators’ reference.’

Granny and granddaughter Annie’s hair proved to be complicated affairs as well. ‘Simulated hair didn’t suit the design and a modeled mass would have looked weird,’ he notes. ‘We found a solution which gave us a stylized look and control of movement that we were happy with.’

Phelan says he is quite proud of the way they were able to convey Granny’s character and the fact that the voice over, character design and animated performance all worked well together. ‘There are some scenes where she really does seem to disappear into her own head, and I’m pleased with them,’ he adds. ‘I’m really happy with Annie, too. Getting a character’s performance to work with no voice, just pure animation, is rewarding.’

One of the main reasons audiences seem to love the short is Granny’s eccentric character, which is very Irish and universal at the same time. As Phelan explains, ‘People seem to enjoy the darkness of Granny herself. It’s kind of unexpected that she has so much rage, that she’s a bit nuts. Subverting the fairytale works well, too, I think’looking at a familiar story from another perspective. I was so nervous the first time I saw it in a cinema with an audience. Kathleen’s sketch worked so well that if it wasn’t funny now I’d done something very wrong to the source material! But it seems to always get the laughs where we want them. I’ve heard a lot of people say she reminds them of their own granny!’

Phelan sites the success of Cartoon Saloon’s feature The Secret of Kells, JAM Media’s Badly Drawn Roy TV series for the BBC and Barley Films’ Annie Award-nominated short The Rooster, the Crocodile and the Night Sky as fine examples of how Irish talent has been able shine in the international animation landscape in the past year. He adds, ‘There’s a lot of talent and expertise in animation here, and some really high-profile work is done here for international broadcasters. What’s really great is films and TV projects created here in Ireland are doing so well internationally. These home produced projects are inspiring and show what’s possible for Irish animation.’ And that’s something about which even Granny O’Grimm can’t really complain!

You can catch the short in its entirety on www.grannyogrimm.com.