Growing up with grandparents who were painters and a grandmother who, in later years, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, inspired 26-year-old Daisy Jacobs’s extraordinary, BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated graduation film, The Bigger Picture.
The seven-minute film is a darkly humorous depiction of two middle-aged brothers’ struggle to care for their elderly mother. As striking as its pitch and tone, however, is the animation style.
Life-size sets in which 2-D painted characters interact with real-world objects were filmed using stop-motion animation to startling effect–in one scene, a six-foot-tall painted character holding a real vacuum cleaner sucks into the device the contents of a full-size, half-real, half-painted sitting room.
“I wanted to play on the idea of a 2-D and 3-D world existing, side by side,” explains the filmmaker, who says her animation heroes are those whose animation is individualistic and quirky by nature, like Osbert Parker. She adds: “But really the idea came out of my painting.”
Jacobs spent five years at Central Saint Martins School of Art in London–including a post-graduate year in character animation–before studying at the National Film and Television School for an MA, for which The Bigger Picture was her final piece of work.
“Style-wise, the animation is more of less what comes out when I paint–a bit like handwriting,” she says.
“My work is ’60s in style–which is influenced by my grandparents who were both painters, and I grew up surrounding by their work. I’ve always liked painting in acrylics which allows you to add layer over layer, quickly. While at art school, I did most of my work within A4 and A3 dimensions. Then at film school I suddenly got a lot more space …”
The challenge she set herself was how to incorporate her layered, painting style into animation. The answer was to create a set in which she painted life-size characters on a wall. 3-D elements were then attached with staples, glue and tape then blended with paint to resemble the 2-D artwork.
Characters were then given 3-D papier-mâché arms to interact with real-world physical objects.
Trouble was, most real-world objects were too heavy for the arms to hold long enough for each shot to be taken. So she set about making papier-mâché models for the character’s to use which would then become real-world objects again once the object was put down.
The process proved highly time-consuming. Every movement, however subtle, requires a complete re-paint. But there are no cutting corners, Jacobs says, because the idea throughout was for the characters to look obviously large.
“We had lots of challenges making The Bigger Picture as this was a technique that had not been done before,” she says. “The biggest were around how best to merge the real-world with the painted perspective while ensuring the end result looked seamless. Then there was getting to grips with motion control–something I’d not used before.”
Which explains why it took almost a year from start to finish for the production team–led by Jacobs who directed, producer Chris Hees, co-writer Jennifer Majka and lead animator Chris Wilder–to make the seven-minute film: six on the animation itself, and almost as long again spent on storyboarding, writing, designing, making props, and finalizing grading, sound, and music.
The effect, however, is striking–and a novel counter-point to the powerful emotions of the story Jacobs set out to tell.
“I began writing the story soon after my grandmother died,” she explains. “It’s fictional, though inspired by my family. What I wanted to explain was how situations that can arise when you have an elderly, sick parent creates tensions and different views but that ultimately you must forgive each other to move forward.”
Since The Bigger Picture‘s completion in early 2014 the film has been well-received on the festival circuit winning more than 25 awards, including, most recently, a BAFTA, and it’s been nominated for an Oscar. Meanwhile, work is well underway on Jacobs’s follow-up project: a 10-minute film using the same, meticulous technique to explore the repercussions of divorce and how families can drift apart over time.
“It’s taken all my time since leaving NFTS to get the next one going–a huge amount of effort, involving scripting, character design, room design, and model-making,” she explains.
This time, however, Jacobs hopes to realize her vision with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, which just reached its funding target.
“It’s been extremely hard making the transition from seven years at university to doing it on my own–including raising the funds for the costs of the production which, for The Bigger Picture, were covered by NFTS. But I want to find a way of working to make this and other films moving forward. That’s my focus now, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
The Bigger Picture is due to be shown in selected U.S. cinemas along with other Oscar-nominated animated shorts following next month’s Academy Awards.