Rudyard Kipling Tale for Britannica

American Cinematographer, January 1987 | Go to article overview

Rudyard Kipling Tale for Britannica


In early 1985, Encyclopedia Britannica of Chicago began searching for an animation studio to produce a stop-motion version of Rudyard Kipling's The Elephant's Child (or, as it would become, How the Elephant Got His Trunk).

Remembering Monica KendalPs Student Academy Award-winning short, Somnolent Blue, producer Paul Buchbinder asked her and her partner, Ed Newmann, to submit a proposal. (Newmann, an animator from Los Angeles, had previously worked on such films as Lord of the Rings, Pete's Dragon, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown). Then came months of waiting and it was not until August that their newly-formed company, Calabash Productions, was informed that it had been given the project.

Pre-production began in September as Newmann created the storyboards and screenplay. The script, even down to the dialogue, closely followed the original Kipling story of the overlycurious Baby Elephant whose nose is pulled into a trunk by the vicious Crocodile. However, it was decided that the film's narrator should be the Python and so he is introduced much earlier than in the original tale. During this time, Kendall sculpted several versions of the film's star, the Baby Elephant, and sketched designs of the other animals. The dialogue was recorded in December and the storyboard was shot as the accompanying aniinatic.

Susan Kubinski, a graduate of Columbia College and a eel painter, was hired to construct the trees for the film. Nancy Guzik, an animator and student at the American Academy of Art, handled most of the rotoscoping and created several miniature versions of the characters. Christopher Weakley, a graduate of Northwestern University's film and television department, was hired to design several characters and eventually became the production assistant for the entire project.

Shooting began in January of 1986 with Newmann as director and Kendall handling most of the animation. The entire film was shot in their studio located in the historic Tree Studios Building in Chicago.

How the Elephant Got His Trunk was shot in i6mm with a Bolex Rex 5 using Kodak 72.91 film stock. For most scenes, a ii-1 zo Angenieux zoom lens was used; however, a few shots required a single element iomm wide angle lens.

A stop-motion dolly was designed and built by Newmann enabling the camera to truck and tilt to follow the animals as they moved across the set. A tilting tripod head was secured to a small platform which, by turning a crank, would move right or left along a pair of guiding rails. In the opening shot, the camera moves along the treetops, then begins to tilt downward to reveal a trunkless elephant walking through the forest.

Another important piece of equipment for the production was a video-animation system built by Animation Controls, Inc. Unlike conventional video, this system records and plays at 14 fps which allows the animators to test scenes using the same timing and movement increments as for film. For example, a scene in which the Baby Elephant rolls into a tree was tested several times before a satisfactory camera shake and animation speed were achieved. Also, the video system allows the sculptors to check the figures of the replacement animation cycles. "Pops" in the animation can be found and corrected before the figures are final.

The video-animation system helped economize the film stock by keeping reshoots to a minimum. Due to space limitations, only one animation table was used for the film, a 4' ? 8' x ¾" wooden platform supported by saw horses.

Most of the action takes place in and around a watering hole on the African plain. This is the Baby Elephant's home and we wanted it to appear sunny and friendly in contrast to the dark and forbidding Limpopo River.

The stage was a 4' ? 8' platform with a 10' high cyclorama hanging behind it. One iooo watt Colortran quartz lamp (3200 K) set at about a 30° angle, provided the afternoon sunlight. Usually, we let this lamp spill onto the backdrop, too. …

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