First-time director Katie Gascoyne helms Blue Zoo’s 2019 festive animation and tells LBB’s Laura Swinton all about it
Blue Zoo’s animated Christmas short has become a mainstay of December. Every year we await their festive film with anticipation. What will we get? A gruesome bad Santa? A satire on consumerism? A grisly hit-and-run? A touching tale of wintery friendship from the animal kingdom?
And this year’s offering certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a 2D animated film that tells the tale of a gingerbread man who’s looking to avoid Christmas with his in-laws. It also doubles up as the music video for a new yuletide track from Scouting For Girls, a song that wallows in the misery of being cooped up with your other half’s family over the festive period.
It’s a well-observed short that is peppered with humourous details – expertly created by the Blue Zoo team and first-time director Katie Gascoyne. Every year Blue Zoo opens the floor to the whole company to submit ideas and this year it was Katie, their recruitment and talent coordinator, who came up with the winning idea. It was a wonderful chance for Katie to draw on her experience– she has a M.A. in Animation and a B.A. in illustration. She had directed projects at university but had never had the opportunity to direct professionally. But now she has the bug, we can’t wait to see what 2020 holds for her.
LBB> Have you submitted ideas to the Blue Zoo Christmas competition before?
Katie> No, this is my first time pitching! Madness!
I had actually discussed missing out on pitching with Tom Box (Blue Zoo Co-founder and Director) last year, just after we’d announced who won the 2018 pitch. I mentioned how much I’d have loved to have pitched an idea, but being in a non-artist role there wasn’t much point.
Tom immediately scoffed at that! He told me the opposite was true and said that he wished I had pitched, as the more diversity and ideas in the mix the better. Because of that there was no question I’d pitch for something this year.
LBB> How did you find your way to the gingerbread man idea?
Katie> It just turned out that the gingerbread idea made the most sense based on what I wanted the short to be: funny, romantic, Christmassy and relatable.
We were given a brief related to the new Christmas single ‘Let’s Not Go Away’, by Scouting For Girls. The short film was going to be a music video, and so the idea had to visually reflect what the song was about. In this case, wanting to spend a peaceful Christmas with your other half in front of the TV - not their peculiar relatives. As a jumping off point, the brief asked for an “odd couple” and the tensions of bringing characters from two different families/existences/species together.
As a gingerbread man is an anthropomorphic, but not overused, symbol of Christmas, it felt like it could be a natural yet offbeat approach to a Christmassy love story. A big inspiration for me was Kristin Lester’s short ‘Purl’, from the Pixar SparkShorts programme, because the clever setup makes you empathise with a ball of yarn! In fact, I toyed with the idea of his partner being a Christmas pudding. But there was no inherent conflict to that, what would a pudding and a biscuit have to fight about!? Living gingerbread man, Dan, and his human girlfriend, Mandy, had more crunch and meant more opportunities for gags.
LBB> Had you ever done anything like this before or harboured any ambitions to direct?
Katie> I’d directed some projects at University during my Animation MA and Illustration BA, but definitely never anything to this scale! I have always been interested in directing, I just thought that would happen in another 10 years or so…
This Christmas pitch opportunity is a big part of what makes Blue Zoo a really special studio - it really does believe in creative experiences being opened up to any of it’s staff, and that a good idea can come from anyone. I really appreciate how lucky I am to do something like this so soon!
LBB> How did you find the experience of directing and has it given you the bug?
Katie> I absolutely loved directing. Throughout this process I have been endlessly amazed by the talent of the 2D team. Even though I come from a 3D animation background, they were lovely and very easy to work with. I mean I knew they were talented, of course - I’d recruited quite a few of them! But the current 2D project definitely didn’t go away during this production… Alongside this they delivered three minutes 15 seconds of animation as a real music video with a tight turnaround of eight weeks. Despite the challenges, the level of artistry was always to the highest standard. I was floored by the talent and dedication from the team.
Animation was a personal highlight for me though, as I’m an animator at heart. Being able to work with the animators, see their process using a different software (as I’m from a 3D background) was so interesting.
I definitely think I have the directing bug now - it was the most rewarding creative experience I’ve ever had! But I’m also aware the more knowledge and experience you get working your way up in the industry, that can only improve your skills as a director, so that’s something that’s definitely still a long term goal for me.
LBB> There's a real humour to the film with lots of chuckles along the way - why was that humour important to you?
Katie> Ah thank you so much! Humour is always very important to me, I love to laugh and make jokes, and I’m a big, big fan of well placed gags in Animation - it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the industry. Humour is also extremely important to Blue Zoo, and especially the Christmas Shorts of the past, in general.
Daddy Christmas by Rory Cooke and Dan Cripps was the first short film I ever saw from Blue Zoo. It was weird. It was gross. And they got away with it because it was hilarious! This Christmas short doesn’t go nearly as far as that, the gags are lot tamer compared to other shorts (no vomit or bare bottoms here), but I’d still like to think they were punchy, entertaining, and did the Blue Zoo family proud.
LBB> The film is animated in 2D - how did you go about figuring out the look/style and technique of the film?
Katie> Well I pitched it to be 2D and we went for that style because of two reasons:
1. We wanted to show off the talent in the brand new 2D studio, so people could see what they’re capable of until their current production is broadcasted.
And 2. We could go stylised whilst still appealing to the older audiences of the song with a 2D cartoon.
Figuring out the style of the film came down to maximising what we could do in the very short amount of time that we had. We needed to make three minutes and 15 seconds in a period of eight weeks - so we needed to work smarter, not harder.
For background and environment style we went for limited colour palettes, graphic textures and minimal lines to draw attention to foreground elements, so we could get maximum impact with less work.
In character design, I designed characters inspired by a combination of adult TV series favourites like Bob's Burgers, and some younger aimed yet still equally hilarious cartoon series like Gravity Falls. I wanted the characters to feel relevant to a young adult audience of today, and I was inspired by the general young working class of London I see around daily on the tube. A woman with a cool top knot and glasses, keeping cosy in an oversized jumper and leggings? She’s the person who would love this gingerbread man, gumdrops and all. After doing some rough designs these were handed over to our character designer, Tena Galovic, who took them to the next level, ready for the rigging team to work their magic.
In animation it was essential that the acting and relationship between the main couple felt real. There was a lot of emotional, subtle acting shots for quite a cartoon aesthetic, so they did a bang up job of communicating the adult moods and emotions of the characters, without any supporting dialogue.
Comp and FX were also relied on very heavily to use all the tools at their disposal to create both emotionally weighty and comedic moments. A lot of shots we’re very complex for that reason, but they made the most of every detail.
Overall a big aspect that informed the style and look of the film was down to what aesthetic can balance between the themes of an adult relationship and the child like joy of a Christmas cartoon? Our art director for the project, Jacques Gauthier, was a huge influence in the development of this style, and was my main support for the duration of the production. He is a force of nature when it comes to creativity - and I don’t think it would’ve happened without his help!
LBB> How long did the process take and what were your favourite memories?
Katie> All in all we had about eight weeks from start to finish. Early days were spent locking down the story, coming in on the weekends to work with Jacques and Luke Allen (our 2D storyboard supervisor) to furiously rewrite and re-board all day. I really liked that time, despite the stress and pressure of needing to get something out there quick, because it just felt like a huge explosion of creativity across two weeks. We were constantly going through ideas, creative problem solving, and I loved the absolute joy of finding a gag or story point that worked with the lyrics. That was when it finally settled in that I was an actual director and it felt brilliant!
I also really loved seeing the first couple of animated shots come through, especially with their finished backgrounds. The animators really nailed it - I felt like they were going for feature quality at times, which was lovely to see people so invested! I worked very closely with our 2D animators to get the acting and timing just right, and it really exciting to be able to discuss the characters and the story so in depth with some super talented artists.
LBB> How long have you worked at Blue Zoo and tell me a bit more about what you do and what your average day looks like!
Katie> So I’ve worked at Blue Zoo for just over a year. I started at the end of July 2018, and have been recruiting furiously ever since! When I started we had about 100 new jobs we needed to recruit for, with the opening up of the 2D studio and two brand new shows. I really enjoy the business and fast pace of the last year, and all of the creative conversations with artists at all levels and skills within the studio. It’s been great to build up that network, both inside the studio and out of it after visiting multiple schools and festivals across Europe. Overall it’s been a very busy 17 months, but I have loved the fast pace and variety of it.
An average day for me (when I’m not out at a festival, school visit or directing a Christmas film) is mostly about answering emails, reviewing portfolios, and running up and down the stairs to have a various chats, meetings and conversations with people across the studio. Sometimes we talk about future projects, open roles we’re recruiting for right now… or maybe we have a meeting about AnimDojo? Who knows! Mostly, it’s just a lot of variety!