When the Plymouth College of Art held a competition for members of the public to make a 60-second film about horror icon Boris Karloff, they probably didn’t expect the creator of an award-winning comedy to Bafta enter.
And while it may seem difficult for amateur competitors, Charlie Higson’s contribution has just been declared a winner.
However, the movie represented something new to the Fast Show star and producer, since it was his first animation – a skill he learned during the lockdown.
He said he first dabbled in art after being asked to revive his shady car dealership Swiss Toni for the BBC’s Comedians: Home Alone series, but couldn’t hope for recreate the distinctive look of the character by himself.
He explained: ‘We had all just gone into lockdown and no one knew how long this was going to last. People thought it was an opportunity to learn a new language or write their next novel, but it turns out that the underlying anxiety of a pandemic makes it hard enough to concentrate!
“I found the same thing, and since I couldn’t do any of my TV projects, I found it easier to focus on smaller projects.
“ During this time I was approached by a TV producer who asked if I was interested in a show about comedians during the lockdown. She asked me if I would like to make a sketch of Swiss Toni, zooming in on her assistant Paul, for example. I said I could write it down, but without the costume, hair, wig, and makeup I look nothing like Swiss Toni! I solved this pretty recklessly by suggesting an animation, and she said, oh great, yeah!
“ So I got my iPad, Apple Pencil, and Procreate and started generating frame-by-frame illustrations for Swiss Toni’s sketch. I would upload pictures of Swiss Toni and use a rotoscope technique to trace them, then apply different mouth shape animations to her head. This is the method I used for Boris Karloff’s short film.
“It took me months! Despite the fact that I’m using a fairly simple technique, it’s easy to forget how many frames you’ll need per second and how many designs you’ll actually need to generate. I actually created artwork for weeks on end, but it was a very welcome distraction for the lockdown. It was a great project to do. ‘
Charlie’s film features some of Karloff’s most memorable characters, including Imhotep in The Mummy (1932), undead Egyptologist professor Henry Morlant in The Ghoul (1933), and the resurrected and falsely accused character of John Ellman in The Walking Dead (1936). And, of course, Frankenstein’s Monster (1931)
Higson, who also wrote the Young Bond books and the post-apocalyptic Enemy series of zombie horror books, added: “ Boris Karloff was at the center of the huge explosion of horror films in the 1930s, and his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster is superb.
“The theme of coming back to life, of life beyond the grave, is something Karloff has never escaped. A lot of his films revolved around the idea of someone coming back to life. I took Frankenstein’s starting point because if you want to do something for Karloff, it’s impossible to escape it. It was by resuscitating him for my animation that I found myself thinking, through the film, that Karloff had truly become immortal. Every time we watch his movies now he’s brought back to life.
“ Cinema has always fascinated me, it’s such a weird idea that you basically turn on lights on a wall, but there’s a living person breathing there. There is a story that you get involved in and the actors, who have been long dead, decades dead in some cases, there they are! In front of you! We are so used to it that we accept it without thinking. I think this is such a fascinating idea, and I tried to put it into a one minute animation! “
“I really like Boris Karloff, but I’m really in the whole horror story. After writing The Enemy, I ended up developing a long discourse on horror, going from the origins of Mary Shelley to the Gothic horror of the 19th century and up to the 20th century and how it all comes together now. .
“Cinema is a great way to explore the fantastic and horror has been at the center of cinema from the start. Horror is a great way to look at those really heavy concerns like death, disease, loss, aging, but with this fantastic filter. It becomes that classic sure fear where you can induce extremely powerful emotions; fear, fear, disgust, and heartbreak can help you solve real world problems.
Plymouth competition judges said Higson’s film – which will now screen at their Boris Karloff symposium on Halloween, “showed imagination and technical skill.”
But the comedian and writer said the tools to make such films are now in everyone’s hands.
“You can make feature films shot on an iPhone,” he said. “And people did. To any aspiring designer, I would say you have the power to do it yourself. It’s in your hands, do things, do things! Ultimately, the traditional ways of making money are still the ways to make the most money, but there are ways to learn and do things that let you grab it.
“People always tell me, ‘I want to go on TV and do a comedy show!’ I normally say, ‘Well me too!’
“ Yeah, it’s easier for me, but there is no secret door that I can go through and they will give me money to do a TV show. There is no magic road, other than learning as much as you can.
“The way the world is changing, it is more important than ever to be open to new technologies and new ways of working. I really could only survive as a writer by changing and doing other things. It’s not a bad thing to keep reinventing yourself and getting excited about what you do. As with all of our jobs, the idea of doing one thing and sticking to it forever has gone out the window.
“You tend to see that the people who do well are the ones who are willing to work and make connections, and that is what universities and colleges have been doing for years.
“It was at university that I ended up in my first group with Paul Whitehouse. Watch what others are doing, figure out how they are doing it. Get as much life experience as possible.
“Another thing I always tell students is to have a life. Paul and I were in our late twenties when we first started acting and in our thirties when we made The Fast Show. We had had a lot of other experiences, we had gone out and met people, we had worked in different situations and had some experience of the world. We had more to write.
“Students don’t need to panic, you bring a lot more to the table if you’ve been out and lived a bit. Keep an open mind and get out.
Published: Apr 27, 2021