An Honest Portrayal of Life
Interview with Roger Mainwood on his Animated Feature nominee ETHEL & ERNEST
What is ETHEL & ERNEST about and what attracted you to the project?
The film is an adaptation of an award-winning graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, one of Britain's best loved authors and illustrators. It is a true story and a loving tribute to Raymond's parents. The film starts in 1928 and charts their forty-year marriage through a series of poignant, funny and very honest slice-of-life moments. On one level it is a social history of twentieth century Britain as seen through the eyes of two ordinary Londoners. But at its heart is a love story that has managed to connect very deeply with audiences around the world.
Can you explain how you came up with the style and look of your film and the kind of animation you used?
Our aim was to reproduce the look of Raymond's illustrations. They are made up of subtle layers of pencil, watercolour, and ink, with rich textures and loose line work. This is quite different to the look of a standard cartoon which tends to have flat colours and strong outlines. The animators drew directly into their computers and were encouraged to draw the characters as if they were doing a sketch. Then, to colour them in we used sections of hand-painted watercolour and texture which were scanned into the computer and applied to the characters. This meant that when they were placed on top of the painted backgrounds, and lighting effects applied, they combined seamlessly and looked as close to the original book as possible.
What were the main challenges in adapting the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs?
The main challenge was whether we could do justice to such a personal story. We had to depict real people and not cartoon inventions, and the key to that was getting Raymond Briggs' trust and involvement. He was an executive producer on the film and we worked closely together, especially at the script and storyboard stage. We made sure every detail was authentic, from Ethel and Ernest's speech patterns, to house details like light switches and wallpaper design. Although the film follows the chronology of events in the book I knew that we had to step away a little and bring a cinematic dimension to the story telling. So some scenes that are in the book were cut, other scenes that had been separate were linked together, and some new scenes were written especially for the film.
How did you find the cast for the voices?
Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent were names that popped into our heads almost immediately. When we put the idea of playing the lead roles to them they didn't need any persuading. Both were big fans of Raymond's work. They are friends in real life and had played husband and wife on the stage before. They fell naturally into the parts, ad-libbing on occasions and bouncing off each other with perfect comic timing. Raymond sat in on the recordings and said it was just like having his parents back in the room again.
What audience did you have in mind?
Raymond Briggs does not shy away from giving an honest portrayal of life, and so there are some strong emotional scenes within the film that would not be suitable for a young audience. But it was made with a family audience in mind. In the UK it has a Parents Guided certificate, so it would be suitable for eight-year-old children and above. It has clear appeal to older audience members who will be reminded of the times depicted, but younger viewers will be equally fascinated to see the way their parents or grandparents lived. The story inevitably has a very British context but its themes are universal and we have found the film travels well, resonating with audiences wherever it has been shown.
Who do you consider your influences?
Some critics have seen echoes of the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in ETHEL & ERNEST. They were not in the forefront of my mind when making the film but it is certainly true that I have always been drawn to the cinema of social realism and their work in particular. It was therefore amusing to read one review that said Ethel and Ernest "could have been made by Ken Loach if he knew how to draw."
The animated feature that influenced me most as a teenager was the Beatles' YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968). It was a ground-breaking film in style and content and showed how animation does not have to be restricted to films for children. It was therefore quite a moment for me when nearly fifty years on Paul McCartney agreed to write and perform a song for the closing credits of ETHEL AND ERNEST.
What do you think is unique about European animation compared to films from the USA or Japan?
There is an incredible diversity to European animation. It seems like no style or subject matter is off limits. Maybe the relatively modest budgets of most European features allow financiers to be more daring. Certainly films like PERSEPOLIS, THE RED TURTLE, and THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, to name but three have astounded audiences with their originality. So we were pleased that ETHEL AND ERNEST, a co-production between UK and Luxembourg studios, could be added to the rich list of hand-drawn animated features that have come out of Europe in recent years. Long may it continue!