Flickerpix Animation Studio Aim High

The Holywood animation studio has adapted their educational short film, Macropolis, for a new iPad and iPhone app

In a quiet County Down business park, a company of talented artists and filmmakers are leading the way in Northern Irish animation. From hilarious stop motion avatars of radio personalities to heart-warming stories of misshapen toys, Flickerpix’s output is of the highest quality.

Formed in 2003 by creative director, Joel Simon, the studio was, at the time, the first of its kind in the country. ‘I just wanted to make animated films, and there was nowhere in Northern Ireland that practised it at the time,’ says Simon

Flickerpix is no run-of-the-mill operation, however. It's varied output includes work for CBBC, including Jedward's Big Adventure, advertising work for Progressive – Flickerpix animated the building society's current television campaign from original characters developed by acclaimed Northern Irish illustrator and children's book writer, Oliver Jeffers – and a forthcoming project based on the work of one of Northern Ireland's foremost poets.

In addition to stop motion, 2D production falls within the studio’s brief. It is currently developing a series involving the kind of drawn-digital technique presently evident in television staples such as The Simpsons. Despite this, clay animation, for the time being at least, is still at Flickerpix’s core. Simon admits to a continued ‘hankering after all things stop motion'.

Indeed, adorning the shelves of the company’s busy Holywood hub is a collection of its 3D characters. Notable among these is Gerry Anderson, legendary Radio Ulster DJ and star of the highly amusing On the Air series.

Anderson’s synthetic counterpart appears alongside a host of plasticine friends: long-time producer Sean Coyle, a comically replete Stephen Nolan and a veritable circus of weird and wonderful callers. The models are animated against the backdrop of real, and famously rambling, audio from the broadcaster’s radio show. While it might seem a strange, and slightly left field combination, the results are undoubtedly raucous.

For Simon, originally from Belgium, the story behind the series is a fairly personal one. ‘I’m sure Gerry would love to be called “a muse”, but what made me decide to work with the voice tracks from his radio show is the fact that I was a big fan from way back in the 1990s, when I first came to Northern Ireland.

'It was one of the things in the media landscape I liked the most. I’m not particularly into history or politics here but I love that show. It’s a voice of the people in Northern Ireland that you don’t otherwise hear from.’

In Simon’s estimation, ‘it is intrinsically very funny'. The callers ‘are not trying to be funny, and I think if they did it would immediately sound very stale, very facile. There is a rapport there that is magic, I think. So when I listened I had all this imagery in my head of cartoon characters speaking.’

Another recent success has had a much wider scope. As part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad – and with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Unlimited programme for disabled artists – Flickerpix produced Macropolis.

The short film tells the tale of two impaired toys. Discarded by their factory, they nonetheless set off on an adventure around Belfast in search of their friends. Cat has one eye and Dog has one leg.

Using a mixture of stop motion filming on locations in the city, and time-lapse photography, Simon describes Macropolis as a ‘really interesting project'. He was excited by the opportunity to take his characters and animate them outdoors. But for the Arts Council’s support, he says, ‘It’s something I would never normally be able to do'.

Simon and his colleagues experimented with techniques, which he hopes to put to future use. ‘I always liked time-lapse photography, it can look quite interesting. So I wanted to combine that, where clouds move in the sky and shadows move across the ground, with claymation models that move in their own time frame. I clashed that with the background time frame, which was much quicker.'

In February 2013, the studio released Macrophonics, a lovingly designed iPad and iPhone app featuring Cat and Dog. Its purpose is to aid young children in learning the sights and sounds of the alphabet.

Simon suggests that, in spite of the complex methods used to produce it, the film’s message was far simpler. ‘It’s about misfits who try to find their place in the world.' He feels privileged that Flickerpix could be involved in presenting a positive image of disability to the public.

‘I was in London for the Paralympics,’ Simon recalls. ‘It was incredible. The Games, and everything around them, allowed people to see that disabled persons form a part of everyday communities and life. It’s given me a lot of pride in this place. We’re at the very forefront of that movement.’

The studio has a surprisingly varied slate for what remains a relatively streamlined entity. Simon takes pride in this fact. ‘What’s really good about Flickerpix is that everything changes all the time. It’s very rare that two projects that follow each other are alike.’

When asked if the aim is for Flickerpix to grow in size, to attempt to emulate the achievements of the likes of Aardman Animations – creators of Wallace and Gromit – Simon points out that while there is no particular desire ‘to remain a small company’, accomplished results are what he ultimately aims for.

‘What I want to do more than anything is to produce really interesting animated projects, be they for TV or for cinema in the future,’ says Simon of Flickerpix’s long-term goals. Ultimately the size of his studio allows for a bespoke quality of work that might otherwise be difficult to attain. ‘I don’t think small is necessarily bad,’ he concludes. ‘You can be small and be beautifully shaped.’