They're big in animation circles, and
what's more they're most enthusiastic about
their work - especially their current
production "Peppa Pig". The three big fellows
concerned here are Neville Astley, Mark Baker
and Phil Davies who each give
their surnames to their company name of Astley
Mark Baker and Neville Astley have been collaborating
since 1994. Mark
had previously directed two Oscar-nominated
films "The Hill Farm" and "The
Village", whilst Neville arrived from
a successful career in commercials.
In 1998 they brought us the piratical
delights of "Jolly Roger". This fabulous
little film garnered yet another Oscar-nomination,
and served as a springboard
in to the triumphant BBC series The
Big Knights. This gem featured Sir Boris
and Sir Morris, brave knights abroad in the
modern-medieval realm of Borovia.
The show was a big fat hit with those who caught
it, shoehorned at odd times
in to the BBC schedule, and the knights
won themselves a most enthusiastic
And now there's "Peppa Pig".
Peppa is an altogether different creation, a high
profile pre-school series produced by
newcomer to the team, Phil Davies, and
snapped up by Five and Nickelodeon. Peppa and
company are just your regular,
everyday suburban family, except that they're
pigs. Though the target audience
is younger, fans of the film makers will
instantly recognize the distinct design
and animation on show. Like the "Big Knights",
the series is created using
Celaction. Big round characters are juxtaposed
on screen with mini midgets.
Most noticeably, the stars heads are brilliantly flattened,
with the eyes appearing
on the same side of the face - and heck, Daddy
pig even sports a whisker
beard and spectacles, just like Sir Morris!
52 episodes of this curly-tailed series
have been commissioned, and the team are
current mid way through production, up
to their eyes in scripts and storyboards.
With so many episodes to play with, they've
been able to shoehorn in lots of fun
for fans of their work - like a splendid
guest appearance by the parrot from
"Jolly Roger" - and be you a big
piggy or small piggy, it's certainly a series to
snuffle out and enjoy!...
Neville and Phil took time out from their crazy schedule to share a
words with The Hound, and as always, my questions
I'm sure it doesn't need explaining, but with
the answers, M&N stands for Mark
Baker and Neville Astley, whilst Phil
is of course, producer Phil Davies...
So tell us, how did "Peppa Pig" come about?
M&N: When "The Big Knights" ended we wanted
to make a series for preschool
children. "Peppa Pig" is basically about a young
child and her family but the fact
that all the characters are pigs gives us a bit more room
for humour and mischief.
What kind of mischief?
M&N: Well the starting point for the stories was
the everyday lives of 3-4 yr old
children. We tried to come up with as big a range of storylines
as possible, from
the obvious (playschool, flying a kite, at the beach)
to such things as Peppa
helping Mummy Pig work at her computer. As in any family,
there are tensions
and sibling rivalry.
You created 13 episodes of "The Big Knights".
For "Peppa Pig" you're
putting together 52 - that's a Big Leap!
Phil: Yes, for me it was quite a task of calculating
the best and most cost effective
way to get it made and how that might work within the constraints
we had set
ourselves. For some kind of perverse reason I actually
enjoy this kind of challenge!!
Was the production kept "in house"?
Phil: Yes indeed. We really wanted as much of the
process as possible to happen
in our own studio. I know from experience that as soon
as a part of the production
process happens outside the studio, that’s when the
problems start. As a
consequence, we came up with the following plan for the
We actually animate 2 episodes every 2 weeks with 2 teams
They seem to have managed this OK with not too many
late nights!! Each week
Mark and Neville storyboard an episode of Peppa. Yesterday
they storyboarded the
episode “Daddy’s Movie Camera”, for example. This then
goes to our wonderful
production assistant Lucy who scans each episodes storyboard
and gives it to our
editor Ben, ready to make the animatic (or as some
people call it "Leica").
Lucy does all sorts of things around the studio – from
making tea to pulling out
sound takes from the original sound recordings. Ben then
cuts together the
animatic with the sound that we recorded last year
with the voice artists with
Mark and Nev Directing. He also edits the first assemblies
and the fine cuts
for each episode. For those of you that are interested
he uses Apples “Final Cut”
software to edit the series. While this is all going on
our design department has a
rolling design schedule. Even though the "look"
of Peppa is fairly simple and clean,
there’s an enormous amount of design in each episode. The
episode “School Play”
is a particularly design heavy episode...
Moving around the studio next is Layout, we have one person
(Glen) who lays out
each episode from the storyboards that Mark and Neville
provide. After Layout the
animators are assigned their scenes by the Director of
Animation, Joris. He’ll also
help out if there is something particularly complicated
to do, or sometimes take on
difficult scenes himself. After the scene is animated it
goes to Ben the editor for
incorporation in the final episode. The person that manages
this weekly mayhem is
Claire – she is the calming influence that steers us through
each weeks production,
as well as handling many of the technical aspects of our
production. For example,
Claire coordinates the daily rendering of the scenes
from the animators.
So that's the production process smoothed out,
but what about storylines.
Has it been tough coming up with so many story ideas?
M&N: It was surprisingly not too difficult to come
up with 52 ideas, mainly because
all the stories revolve around family life and everyday
experiences. In fact we have
already come up with another 52 stories for the 2nd series!
Phil: I always love the way Mark and Nev undervalue
what they do – they have a
remarkable talent for coming up with ideas that interest
and engage with audiences
of all ages.
Has "Peppa Pig" changed since the pilot?
M&N: In essence no, as the pilot was the template
for the series. Everyone
seemed to like the simplicity of the pilot so we have tried
to maintain that.
However technically the series is far more complicated
than the pilot due to the
demands of the stories and locations.
There are big plans afoot with licensing, aren't there?
Phil: Yes. Contender Entertainment Group have big
plans for Peppa. We’re
already seeing proofs for the first 2 picture books that
will be launched next
year (2005) and the first 5 toy lines are well into there
We’re absolutely delighted with Contender and their plans
for the series. The
stuff we’ve seen to date is really high quality and well
thought out. People should
start seeing things in the shops next year. Nickelodeon
and Five already have
Peppa areas on their websites and Peppa’s own website is
There is already a simple painting game at www.peppapig.com.
Let's move away from "Peppa Pig" now.
Can you tell us more about that
other BIG project you were developing recently; "The
Phil: "Big World" was a series that
was developed at the same time as Peppa – it’s
great! – and may well surface in a few years time when
we have some free time to
think about it some more.
And then, of course, there's "The Big Knights"
- still a fan favourite.
When did you discover Borovia?
M&N: "The Big Knights" characters
came first, Borovia came to us during the script
sessions as we got to know Sir Morris and Sir Boris. We
needed to create a place
that was far enough away from modern Europe to allow for
the existence of dragons,
ogres, trolls and witches. The real breakthrough came when
we realised that "The
Big Knights" could be set in the present day. This
allowed us to also incorporate
such things as dodgy nuclear power stations, televisions
and mobile phones.
You had a fabulous voice-cast for the show...
M&N: Yes, we were writing with Brian Blessed
in mind as Sir Morris from early on.
The difficult thing was to find someone with an equally
powerful voice to play his
brother, Sir Boris. When David Rintoul (the Shakespearean
actor) came in to test
read for the parts we quickly realised he was born to play
Sir Boris. In fact, we liked
David’s voice so much we got him back as Grandpa Dog and
Dr Brown-Bear in
How come we only got one series?
M&N: Ask the BBC…we’d love to do another series!
And how about a DVD? The Knights came out on video,
but we've not
yet had a shiny disc to view...
M&N: There are plans for a DVD
So now, let's hear more about yourselves. For a while there
Mark Baker and Neville Astley, otherwise known as
When did Phil come on board?
Phil: This is a curious story because in the
80’s I met both Mark and Neville
while I was working full time at Middlesex Polytechnic,
but weirdly Mark and Nev
maintain that they never knew or met each other at Middlesex.
I was responsible
for a tiny animation department from 81-87 at the
Cat Hill campus. Neville was a
student at Middlesex where he made the wonderful “Mobile
Home”. He left in 1985,
and then in 1985/6 Mark came to teach the students part
time while he was making
“The Hill Farm” at Film School. So they missed each other
by a matter
M&N: We first met whilst working as sequence animators
on the TVC special
Granpa in 1989.
After that we occasionally worked together on commercials
at various animation studios in London. Then in January
1994 we set up in a
small studio in Soho as Astley Baker. We worked mainly
on commercials but
right from the start it was our intention to develop TV
series, and in 1995 we
started development on "The Big Knights"...
Phil: So I’d known Mark and Neville for many years
when we got together to set
up Astley Baker Davies Ltd in 2002. I suppose it happened
because Mark and
Nev were looking for someone as Claire Jennings, their
producer on "The Big
Knights", had moved to HIT entertainment. I was also
looking for pastures new.
For much of the 90’s I’d been producing animation for Channel
4 TV, and of course,
in 2001 Channel 4 closed its animation department, so I
was at a bit of a loose end.
Incidentally I’m still producing the occasional short for
Channel 4’s AIR scheme.
M&N: After finishing "The Big Knights"
in 2000 we put all our efforts into developing
new ideas. Over the next year we developed 7 projects,
of which "Peppa Pig" was one.
Development is a very exhausting process - writing out
a complete project-including
concept, characters, storylines, design.. – and all this
without any guarantee that
it will actually be made.
Actually, I was thinking about those earlier films
"The Hill Farm" and
"The Village". Have you thought about rounding
out a trilogy?
You could make "The City" next!
Mark: Maybe ..but I was thinking more on the lines
of "The Forest"!
So whats next for the three of you?
Phil: Well ….. we are hoping for a second series
of "Peppa Pig". That would
be wonderful. But if it doesn’t happen we have a number
of other interesting
ideas to pursue...
Or BIG ideas, indeed. Gentleman, thank you very much
for your time!
And with that, our three little piggies went back
to the production trough.
Neville, Mark and Phil were splendidly generous during
our exchange, and
they kindly supplied The Hound with all of the images
you see on this page too.
"Peppa Pig" is a top series from a top team,
and like I said earlier, is well
worrth setting the video for.
Meanhile, you can find out plenty more about Mark,
Neville and Phil on
- Till next time!
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