How The Big Knights changed the way animations are made

23 Oct 2015 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

7 mins
The Big Knights still
The Big Knights still

Galloping onto the big screen for the first time is British animated comedy The Big Knights. Originally made for TV, The Big Knights follows in the footsteps of other cult TV shows such as Doctor Who in using a theatrical release or cinematic 'event' screening to bring its audience together for a shared viewing experience.

Sir Boris and Sir Morris are two larger-than-life knights who live in Castle Big, just outside the village of Borodzo, in the imaginary modern-day Eastern European country of Borovia. The knights are always ready to come to the rescue of the townspeople- who live in fear of witches, dragons, trolls, asteroids and malfunctioning nuclear power plants! However, despite meaning well, when the Big Knights go forth with their weapons to sort out the townspeople's issues, it usually ends up doing more harm than good.

The animators chose this unusual mixed setting of Medieval and modern because it opens up the story to all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. The Big Knights always try to apply traditional chivalry in situations where it doesn't quite fit - in one episode they offer to chaperone princesses Lucy and Loretta on horseback to stay with their aunt (so far so good) but hold a burping competition along the way. If you like Horrible Histories, or remember Maid Marian and her Merry Men or Blackadder you'll enjoy the clever jokes that hint that perhaps not everything has improved despite the advances made in history- some things will always be the same! Fans of classic British comedy Fawlty Towers (Prunella Scales, who played Sybil Fawlty, has a voice role in The Big Knights) will also enjoy the slapstick comedy used when Sir Boris and Sir Morris have to find a way to get themselves out of some very sticky situations.

Some more of the film's voice cast may also ring a bell. Brian Blessed lends his distinctive booming voice to Sir Morris, while Sir Borris, rather more cool-headed than his compatriot, is voiced by David Rintoul - Grandpa Dog in Peppa Pig. If Sir Morris sounds familiar, it might be because Brian Blessed also played the Pirate King, in the brilliant The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists.

Getting the voices right in animation is crucial - characters need to be entertaining and believable enough to draw in the audience and immerse them in the world of the film. With an animation such as this, where comedy and adventure play a big part, you need voice actors that are funny, larger than life and with great comic timing - as the voice track is recorded separately from the visuals the actors really have to make their spoken performance count.

You may not have heard much about The Big Knights - but you will probably be familiar with the deceptively simple style of animation, which is the hallmark of creators Mark Baker and Neville Astley, and actually, very pioneering - in fact, Mark and Neville worked closely with computer programmers to develop a bespoke animation programme, CelAction 2D, which brings their work to life.

Mark and Neville have been working together since the 1980s when Neville was an animation student and Mark was teaching at the National Film and Television School (alongside Nick Park, one of the founders of the iconic Aardman Animations). Mark and Neville created several short films, earning some Oscar nominations in the process, before they came up with the idea for a comedy series aimed more at the family which resulted in The Big Knights. They are still working together now in 'The Elf Factory', the headquarters for their animation company Astley Baker Davies, where they produce Peppa Pig and Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom.

So, with having created such popular television shows as Peppa, why haven't we all heard of The Big Knights? When it first came out, due to the cleverness of the jokes the television schedulers weren't sure if it was for children or for adults and so put it on at varying times. Instead of being in an after-school or weekend morning slot like most animations for young people, it was put on in the evenings or late at night and so never achieved a regular audience among the families it was intended for. However it still went on to win awards for Best Animated Series at the British Animation Awards (BAA) and Annecy International Animated Film Festival attracting a cult following of people who enjoyed the wry humour. It also won another award at BAA for the Best Use of New Technology in Animation.

Hand-drawn animation is very time-consuming and labour intensive as hundreds of near-identical drawings need to be produced, but the introduction of computer programmes such as CelAction has made the process much faster and easier. Another benefit of the technology was that production could remain in London and be under the direct control of the animators at The Elf Factory. You can read more about the continuing popularity of hand-drawn animation, and more information about animation processes here. However not all hand-drawn animation has to be labour-intensive; Mark Baker was inspired to become an animator after helping his sister out with a flip-book project where he was amazed by how quickly a sequence of moving images could tell a story. Why not have a go at flip-book animation with your class? You never know where it might take them.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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