15 Letters by Lone Wolf
It’s not often you get the chance to immerse yourself in a project for half a year, but the journey that ’15 Letters’ has taken me on has lasted precisely that. I started to plan the treatment after I completed the video for Lone Wolf’s ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Road’
My main aim was to make 15 Letters more engrossing and impressive than the previous film, which was a remake and homage to the classic Peter Gabriel video for ‘Sledgehammer’. The result involved making the most complex and detailed stop-motion film of my career to date, and referencing another classic piece of media from my childhood; Kit Williams' ‘Masquerade’...
The picture book fascinated me as I grew up, the illustrations were eerie in their detail and the mystery hidden within the pages of the book intrigued and baffled me for years. I decided to fashion my own treasure hunt and hide it in the fabric of Lone Wolf's new video, with the hope that a dedicated group of followers would spend years trying to decipher the answer.
I set to work plotting the hunt. Using my adopted city of York as a starting point, I devised a series of 15 letter long clues (which doesn't allow for a particularly flexible word count) which would lead the treasure hunters to a spot not too far from my house. The position was perfect - it was close enough from home so that I could go out in the dead of night and bury the prize and then keep an eye on it over the months that followed - and it was the mid point of 4 pieces of architecture that I love and wanted to showcase. A serendipitous number of trees on the street cemented the decision for me.
The prize we put together was unique and really exciting. Paul Marshall (a.k.a Lone Wolf) would write a song specifically for the competition and get a single vinyl copy pressed. No one else in world will have a copy of this recording! Then Bella Union offered a further prize of an IOU entitling the winner to an entire 12 months of free releases from the label. I agreed to give away the model of Paul I would make for the animation and we planned to put it all in a handcrafted chest and bury it in the ground.
Now I just had to make the film and hide all the letters in the sets and the post-production...
The lyrical content of 15 Letters is so vivid and dense that it was an easy task to design the sets for this treatment. The problem was that, although I am accustomed to making small, detailed sets and characters, in designing 11 different locations for the 2 and half minute song to occupy, I had set us a ludicrously difficult task. Me and my team (Kev Roper, John Dean and Janet Dean) worked for almost two months building and dressing the sets, then hiding all of the letters for the puzzle in the tiny props and backgrounds and characters of the video.
We built mountains and valleys, underground burial chambers and the surface of the moon. The hospital and what was dubbed ‘The Hall of Heads’ were particularly detailed and tricky to get right, but I was pleased with all of our results... Kev once again wore out his eyes and fingertips in the pursuit of tailoring all of the exquisite costumes the characters wore. I really enjoy working on this scale, but I think Kev will wring my neck if I ask him to put together another 4” long pair of trousers. My dad, John, did more stirling work behind the scenes. The frames he built to form the foundations of each set were strong enough to withstand a calamitous incident that could have wrecked several weeks of work. Thankfully, when the churchyard fell through the roof of the hospital, only a small section of floor and the Nurse’s forehead had to be rebuilt...
My mum, Janet, did a fantastic job of making props and landscapes. She made cupboards and charts and swords and mountains, anything I could task her to do, she did with enthusiasm and care.
The sheer number of different elements that had to be designed and built for this video was staggering. Every day threw up a new challenge, but with innovation and perseverance we eventually got the sets ready for the animation phase of production.
One of the new challenges I faced with this project was the amount of lip syncing that the characters had to do. I built full teeth and tongue structures into the inch high heads of the principal cast, but after a few lines of dialogue I realised that there was no way of effectively animating that level of detail without ripping the heads off each character for every other frame. I found a neat compromise in small lip movements that conveyed a sense of singing, but I’ll be going back to the drawing board with my next set of puppets on this scale...
My confidence using wires to hold up the characters grew on this project. It is a time consuming process (but what isn’t in animation!) to take them out in post production (and even more fiddly if the camera moves at the same time), but I find it a much more relaxed process than trying to stabilise a puppet from below in each scene. The spinning Letter / Planets at the end however, were a lesson in how not to prepare a scene for post production. I cursed myself for hours as I erased posts and grips from thousands of photos that would have been much easier to hide in real life... However, my dad and I spent 8 solid hours shuffling those sets around in sub-millimeter increments, so any more time spent in that infernal circle might have pushed us over the edge. (Thanks to Marcus Rapley yet again for his wonderful space and light..!)
The shoot took place amid a very busy and important time in my life. I got married on the 29th April so I took a week off from the production for our Honeymoon (apart from a stormy day when i animated the Flash stars and rain... sorry Lydia xxx), and then went on my cousin’s Stag Do the weekend after. My own stag to Barcelona had been diverted back to York by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano the month before (I tried to drink the name of it as an exorcism, but only made it to ‘o’ before the night ran out), so it’s shouldn’t have been a big shock that we were affected for Andrew’s Dublin based adventure.
To my horror on the Sunday morning as we queued for our flight, the ash clouds swooped in and made our flight untenable. We quickly tried to book a ferry and held our breath, there were a lot of other people in the same position, but we were giddy with relief as our confirmation came through. We celebrated with another day of Guinness fueled antics then made our way (a little too) causally to the ferry terminal. We were mini bused to the door of the boat, but with only 20 meters to go, a voice crackled on the radio and said ‘The Captain thinks we’ve made a mistake...’ We discovered the ferry was overbooked and after a fruitless debate, we trudged over to the only other ferry sailing that night, which was for cars only... we didn’t hold our breath.
My nerves were shot by this point. I was due on set of another shoot in Leeds at 7am the next day (this ferry was due in at 4am in Holyhead), and that evening Paul and his dad, Peter Marshall, were coming to my studio to shoot the Red Father scene...
So it was with massive delight that a man called Kevin said he would not only give us a lift onto the boat, but he was happy to drop us off in Leeds as well. He was a truly great man and I think I would have imploded without his help. By the time I shot the scene that evening I was a husk (I’d had 2 hours sleep in the last 30) but through the patience of Paul and Peter, we managed to record a scene of quality animation.
It was towards the end of the post-production trawl (erasing wires, putting stars in the sky, inserting Flash animated smoke, breath and rain) that a decision was made that the puzzle was too hard. Paul had been concerned for some time, then Simon Raymonde of Bella Union asked me if it would be possible transplant the whole thing to Green Man Festival. At first I was highly skeptical; the puzzle is very site specific, depending on the winner finding the central point between four towers on the York skyline. But as I thought it through, I realised that this was a fantastic opportunity and with a bit of lateral thinking, the puzzle could be transplanted to the Welsh countryside...
Again, my parents were fantastic help with making and implementing this stage of the project. We spent a week or so making physical representations of the clues for people to discover on the Green Man site. The video was released through Green Man and was promoted marvellously through their mailing list and website. Because there was only now a month for people to solve the puzzle, instead of the several years I had originally designed it for, I had to send a out a few pointers through the Green Man forum. It was really exciting to hear of people trying to solve a puzzle I had spent such a long time devising and implementing.
The best way to reveal where the letters are hidden was to simply make them pop out of the screen... please take a look at this video if you have tried to solve the puzzle but are missing a few letters...
We then had great time going down to the Green Man site and installing the clues. It was wonderful to have free rein of the site, thanks to Greg and Ben, and we soon devised a placement of clues that would lead the treasure hunters to the prize. The main clues were scattered right across the park, and the four York towers were placed so their centre met at an ivy covered wall in the Green Man pub area. The four towers were represented in different ways, so Clifford’s Tower (or ‘Cumberland’s Earl’, which referred to Henry Clifford, the last Earl of Cumberland, who the tower is named after) was a postcard behind the bar of the Green Man pub, York Minster (which is often seen as an architectural relative to Cologne's haunting black cathedral...) was a cheap souvenir, attached to a railing in a tower that was walked past by hundreds of festival goers every hour. The Old Terry’s Chocolate factory was a simple wooden construction placed at the foot of a lighting pole, and Scarcroft school, a magnificent victorian building which stands at the end of my street in York (Dale Street), was rendered in silhouette on a T-Shirt and revealed by Lone Wolf on the Far Out Stage as he played his set on the Sunday afternoon of the festival.
Nestled in the ivy was a brass number 15 and a small iron gate (actually made from doweling and balsa wood), with an instruction to take the number to the Rough Trade tent and type in the code which clues 11 to 14 referred to. The three numbers that had to be multiplied together were depicted by a still from the 15 Letters video (‘The Mirror Shards’, of which there were 15), an illustration of the road in York where the prize was to be originally buried (again, with 15 trees to count), and a T-Shirt which hung in the Rough Trade Shop that referred back to the lyrics of the song that started of this whole adventure; 15 Letters.
So the code required to open the padlock on the box was 15 x 15 x 15 = 3375, but would anyone be able to work it out?
By the time Lone Wolf came on stage and announced that the final clue was on stage with him, there was a quite an air of expectation... Paul dropped a final hint that sent half a dozen people rushing out of the tent towards the ivy wall. There were cries of ‘Take him out’ and ‘grab his legs’ as several younger puzzle solvers tried to get an advantage over the older ones rushing down the hill.
But the wall was longer than they all expected, so a frantic rummage ensued, with heads buried in the ivy and leaves and twigs flying backwards from the eager hunters. Then a cry went out! A group had plucked the Gate, the Fifteen and, in their enthusiasm, the disclaimer that told people what to do if the Fifteen had already been found..!
The party rushed off to the Rough Trade Shop, but were sadly unprepared for the code and were unable to open the box. They rushed off to see if they could find the clues for the code, but there was already a number of people milling at the shop ready to have a go at opening the lock...
The eventual winner was Rod Buchanan-Dunlop, an avid puzzle solving 31 year old from London. He was delighted that hours of watching the animation and deciphering a lot of the clues beforehand had paid off.
The two runners up who found the fifteen in the first place were called Stan and Cam, and are in a band called the Ladykillers
( www.myspace.com/theladykillersliverpool ).
They were gracious in defeat and seemed really happy to meet Paul and have their runners up T-Shirt (The End of Dale Street) signed.
In the chaos of the final race for the prize, the T-Shirt for the 14th clue was given away as another runners prize. Thank you to whoever you were for were for taking part in the hunt, and to everyone who took an interest during the Green Man weekend. And thanks to everyone that attempted to solve the puzzle in its original for before the festival started. The task was huge, but it sounds like you had fun trying to work it all out!
My thanks again to Paul Marshall, Ben and Greg at Green Man and Simon Raymonde of Bella Union for making all this possible. It was an epic project, and one with memories that will live with me forever.
Lot more photos of the making of this project are available on Flickr :