A quaint English village as big as a pool table, a tiny cafe filled with its regular customers, a little clay woman losing her candyfloss. This is the world according to London-based Scale Model Studios, made using a mixture of puppetry, modeling, and stop-motion animation. Joe Zadeh meets founder Jennifer Kidd and some of her collaborators to find out how they create their magical miniature universes.
Jennifer Kidd sits at the desk in her studio and explains to me how she makes miniature worlds. In the corner of the room there’s a tiny 60s-style modernist house with a tiny wheelie bin at its tiny garage door, made to feature in an advert for a shoe company. Behind her, a set of drawers are filled to the brim with fabrics, silicones, papers, gels, and fake furs—the latter, she tells me, are “great for making dogs, wolves, things like that.” And above her head, perched on a shelf, there’s two tree-dotted green hills that had been part of a quaint English village she’d created for a Rag N Bone Man music video.
These are the meticulous creations of Scale Model Studios—the London-based stop motion animation studio founded by Jennifer—and they’re as staggeringly realistic as they are magical. “I think what drew me to stop motion is that every project is so different,” says Jennifer. “You’re constantly trying new things that haven’t been done before, because so much is possible, and each new director wants to be ambitious with their ideas.”
Jennifer is from Ireland and studied fine art in Dublin before moving to London to do a masters in animation at the RCA. The irony, she tells me, is that she spent her early years as an artist working on a massive scale. “I would do these big murals and huge paintings that were 12 feet long,” she says. But as her practice developed she found herself drawn more and more to the precision and craft of smaller works.
Now at the helm of Scale Model Studios, she has around one hundred model makers, painters, sculptors, deck builders, directors, and animators that come in to assist her on each project. Last year, the studio got to flex its full range of muscles on the music video for Hot Chip’s hit single “Eleanor” (directed by Alice Kong), crafting an entire city of grey urban tower blocks, intimate living rooms, and the clay puppet characters that inhabited this world.
In stop motion, you can’t just tell a human actor to smile in a certain way, you need to make the puppet’s smile. “Conversations between the animator and director are vital,” she says. “We’ll be doing live action videos (LAVs) amongst ourselves, asking if it should be more like this,” says Jennifer, with a gleaming smile, “or like this,” with more of a smirk. “All of these micro expressions make the difference: they’re what makes the character.” Then the LAVs are used to aid the animator as they bring the puppet to life.
Jennifer gets a lot of her inspiration from real life, constantly taking photos whenever she finds herself walking down particularly evocative streets or through bustling town centers. “If I see a shop that I think is cool, then I'll take a picture of that. But I'll also take a picture of how the building meets the ground, of all the dirt and everything like that. The crisp packets, the old chips, the pigeons,” she says. On her desk she has a book about the history of brick renders.
All this is important because her worlds need to feel lived in. “You make all these objects really well,” she said, “but then you need to age them. So you add a stain on the carpet, some wallpaper peeling away, dirt on the grouting because nobody really cleans their grouting. We start off perfect, and then we bring it down to reality.”
For those whose job it is to capture it all on camera, like director of photography Bertrand Rocourt, it’s akin to working under a microscope. “I need to get my lens close enough to the puppet while making sure I leave enough space for the animator to access them for several hours, sometimes days,” he says. “It takes a combination of lighting, lenses, and cinematic language to craft different moods and tell the story.”
But these miniature worlds of stop motion come with their own universal laws: in a sense, time and gravity need to be overcome. Unlike filming a live set in the real world, you can only film a few seconds each day, due to the amount of set up and adjustments that go into each scene. “Depending on the feature, we can sometimes only shoot 2-3 seconds per day, sometimes 10 seconds and at most 20 seconds,” says the animator, Henry Nicholson. And because of the heat of the lighting during the day and the colder temperature at night, clay puppets and structures begin to sag and shrink. “So you can’t split a scene over two days, because the viewer will notice that everything is sinking,” says Jennifer.
In the slick and boundless age of CGI, one would think the old school charm of stop motion animation and puppetry would be fading in popularity. Instead, audiences seem to crave it even more. From Guillermo Del Toro’s stop-motion “Pinocchio” to Royal Shakespeare Company’s puppetry production of “My Neighbour Totoro,” there’s something about the uncanny reality of these mediums that truly moves us. That sense of human hands at work; of inanimate objects springing to life; of textures, jolts, flaws and imperfections—these qualities fire our imaginations.
“There is so much experimental animation happening now, and I think it's only going to come through more and more,” says Jennifer. “I think at a time when everything is becoming automated and digital, sometimes people just want to see something that was handmade—something that just is what it is, and there's nothing else to it.”