Behind the scenes of Ethel & Ernest

How did the animators bring Raymond Briggs' story of his parents to life?

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Raymond Briggs sits at his desk, pencil in hand, brushes in pots and cup of tea at his side. A fresh sheet of paper is ready on an angled desk, and the author and illustrator begins to sketch his parents, Ethel and Ernest Briggs.

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This is how Ethel & Ernest, the film adaptation of Briggs’s graphic novel, begins. On paper. By hand. But immediately the action begins, and we’re in London, 1928, with illustrated houses stretching out as far as the eye can see, horse carts clattering along the cobbled streets and a young Ernest hopping on his bike to work.

Moving pictures. It’s such an old idea that we forget how magical it is to watch someone’s drawing skip off the page and come to life. But that’s what Ethel & Ernest is. Magic.

So, without wanting to spoil the magic, how does it work? How do the filmmakers go from picture book to moving pictures? How did all those animators bring to life the heartfelt tale of Briggs’s parents?

Here’s just a little taste of the amount of work – and love – that went into making Ethel & Ernest.

10 years and over 60,000 drawings in the making

The Snowman producer John Coates first planned to adapt Ethel and Ernest in 2007. He died in 2012, but had already seen a script developed and an initial storyboard. After he passed away, producers Camilla Deakin and Ruth Fielding picked up the baton and got to work. 

Boy, what work.

The Snowman is a loving, brief 26 minutes long. Ethel & Ernest at 85 minutes is an epic by comparison. Over 100 animators worked on the film, drawing almost every individual frame by hand. Roughly 12 drawings are required for every second of film, which works out at 61,200 drawings.

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That doesn’t even include the thousands of drawings that need to be done before the animators can get to work.

Each character has their own its own reference material, producer Deakin explains: “The animation director will do copious notes on each character; they’ll do lots of drawings that do turnarounds of their heads so you can see the head from every angle.”

Animation director Peter Dodd says it’s like giving a “framework” to the animators: “I did a lot of the key poses for the animators, and then give them to the animators to embellish.”

For example, in the picture above, a ‘vowel sheet’ shows how Ernest enunciates. These illustrated templates can be sent to each animator, ensuring that while multiple people are working on the project at any one time, the same style is kept throughout. See more examples in the video below with director Roger Mainwood.

These are Briggs’s parents, remember. They have to ring true to the original book and his memories of them: how they moved and how they spoke.

Deakin says the filmmakers spoke regularly with Briggs in order to capture the characters. “Ernest was a very playful character who was always running up and down stairs, singing songs, dancing a jig. Whereas Ethel was more solid and centred, but always busy,” says Deakin. “One thing you notice from the book and the film is she’s always on her feet, always working, always doing a job.”

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Sometimes, however, animators would find other ways of bringing their scenes to life. One person working on the project used to film himself doing whatever Ernest was meant to be doing in a scene – putting the kettle on, waving his hat – and watch himself back before drawing.

“It’s always worth remembering that animators are in effect actors by proxy; what they’re doing is they’re bringing the character to life,” Deakin says.

Are all the animations in Ethel and Ernest done by hand?

The animators work with a computer software called TVPaint. All the other classic Raymond Briggs films – The Snowman, The Snowman and the Snowdog, Father Christmas etc – have been animated on paper; Ethel & Ernest is the first to be made ‘digitally’.

This software has now become the “industry standard” according to director Mainwood. Animators work on a tablet called a Wacom Cintiq, still drawing each character movement by hand, only on a digital screen rather than with pencil and paper.

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It’s a clever piece of kit: for example, the software makes it easier for animators to sync their drawings with the actors’ voice recordings. Look at the picture below: beneath the main drawing pad is a bar where the audio track is displayed. Animators can jot down what words or vowel sounds are being said in each frame, and match them to the drawings.

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While the characters were animated digitally, many of the backdrops and locations were still drawn with pencil, ink and paint before being scanned into the scene. “We’ve got a lot of hand-painted backgrounds,” Deakin explains, “and a lot of the texture in these images started off as a painting on paper. They’re then scanned into the computer, so you retain the hand-drawn, hand-painted feel, but can work digitally with it from that point onwards.”

With so many periods and real events documented in Ethel and Ernest, it’s these backgrounds that bring the history to life.

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“Every brick, every roof tile, all the detail of the flowers in the front gardens, every car… it’s all very meticulously done,” says Deakin.

Are Ethel and Ernest true to Briggs’s real parents?

What’s the result of all this care, all these hours of drawing and detail? Heart.

Author Raymond Briggs admits he “spent two days in tears” after watching actors Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn re-create his parents’ voices. Now he has seen the finished work, what does he think?

“He keeps saying it’s very like having them back,” Deakin says. “You know, having them back with him. He sent me another message saying he was addicted to it; he kept watching it every day.”

“We’re representing his mum and dad,” adds producer Ruth Fielding. “It’s like we’re bringing them back to life.”

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Ethel & Ernest is on BBC1 at 7.30pm on Wednesday 28th December. To find out more about the people who helped create Ethel & Ernest, check out the video interviews on the Ethel & Ernest website.