Sep 24

The small but mighty film ‘Hedgehog Close’ has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Impact (small budget) and Children’s Award. This 2-minute film is an engaging stop motion animation which shines a spotlight on the plight of the hedgehog in the UK.

We spoke to Film Director Tom Hooker, from Zest Productions, about making this film and the recognition it has received.

Hedgehog close is a really fun little film. What made you decide to get involved with this project?

I wanted to make something fun and different, but with a strong conservation message. After brainstorming a few ideas, I settled on Hedgehogs. They are declining rapidly but this downwards trend could still be reversed by very simple actions. There is an urgency to this and I felt that it could be addressed powerfully through video. Working with a small budget meant scaling everything down and the idea of building models to depict an ‘ideal’ hedgehog habitat appealed to me. This fitted the original vision to create something warm and charming and also seemed like a useful device to tell the story.

Being nominated for the Children’s Award means the film was a hit with our toughest judges: a group of 8-12 year olds! Was the aim at the outset to create a film for a younger audience?

It’s fantastic the film has been so well received by young audiences. This was definitely a priority from the outset and influenced every aspect of production. The most challenging part was writing a script that clearly communicated the key points without sounding too preachy……or dull! Beyond that, the models needed to look appealing and paying attention to small details helped make it more visually exciting. Lots of inspiration was drawn from the brilliant work of Aardman Animations who excel at captivating both young and adult audiences. The film is still being shown in schools around the country and many parents and teachers have got in touch to request copies and pass on positive feedback which has been brilliant.

The aptly named ‘hedgehog at fence obstacle’ shot | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

What does it take for a film to successfully engage with the intended audience?

I think it’s vital to weigh every decision and element against the intended audience. Whoever they are, and whatever age group, people have short attention spans and plenty of other distractions. It’s important to give people a reason to keep watching at every stage. In the case of Hedgehog Close which was distributed on social media, it needed to be short and to the point. There were other models and scenes which never made it into the film as it was a priority to keep it under two minutes. In the end, every shot, and almost every word, had a purpose! As far as the creative stuff goes, the visual style is important and music obviously plays a huge part too, as does the tone and delivery of the voiceover. I think it helped being mindful of all these elements from the outset.

We also created a dedicated twitter account for the film where we tried to push it out far and wide. It was important to me to get the film seen outside a traditional wildlife audience to avoid preaching to the converted. The language used around its promotion was also important so as not to turn people off.

How important was the presence of Gordon Buchanan as the narrator? What did he bring to the production?

Gordon’s voice was the icing on the cake and provided the perfect tone and feel. A warm, friendly voice that simply flows with the pictures without being over bearing or too ‘instructional’. For me, it was important to have a recognisable voice that was trustworthy and genuine. I always imagined it being read softly as a bedtime story before functioning as a powerful conservation film and I feel Gordon’s tone makes it work on both levels.

The film is made by stop motion animation, what is it about this style of filmmaking that lends itself to this particular film?

There are several reasons why stop motion felt like the right choice. For starters, we could make the hedgehogs move wherever we wanted and show this from any angle. I wasn’t too concerned about smooth motion and perfect technique as much of the film’s character lies in its rustic, home-made style. The model hedgehogs fit into the environment better than a computer generated version would have done and, crucially, it was also a lot cheaper! Stop motion also lends itself to a more nostalgic, family friendly feel that I wanted to capture. As a lighting cameraman, I enjoy lighting real objects in three dimensions whilst thinking about textures, shadows and how they interact. Consequently, I think it produces images that are more eye catching and engaging than a 2D animation would have been.

The main point in the film is about connectivity, illustrating the purpose of joining neighbouring gardens and allowing hedgehogs to roam. By using stop motion we were able to show this happening. With 30cm high houses, it was possible to film aerial shots and move between fence-lines without needing a huge crane, big lights and obliging residents! The resultant look hopefully has more charm and visual appeal too.

The whole set with camera on motorised slider | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

There is an incredible amount of attention to detail in the film, how did you go about creating all the scenes? And how long did the entire filmmaking process take?!

Adding the detail was definitely a lot of fun! The basic script just required a living room, shed and a series of gardens. It was only at the time of building them that they began to take on more character and interest……And absorb more time! The basic structures were made from cardboard and balsa wood although many other obscure items were also used, ranging from lolly sticks for roof tiles to coffee granules and tea bag contents for soil. Most of the wallpapers and brickwork patterns were created in photoshop and then glued onto card.

The houses under construction – tiles were individually added to provide texture and some realism | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

The model building process started slowly as it was important to establish the right scale. The models had to be large enough to be workable and allow the desired depth of field, but also not so large that we would have been forced to hire Pinewood Studios! Some sets were built to two different scales to enable certain shots.

Lots of time was spent on the internet browsing houses and gardens which helped inspire some of the designs. I wanted each house and garden to be individual whilst still being in keeping with the overall style. The alleyway was based on a familiar local alley, complete with wheelie bins.

The entire filmmaking process took about six months from start to end. This was from the original idea to the final release of the film during Hedgehog Awareness Week. It was helpful to have a deadline or it could still be going on!

Attention to detail: the hedgehog themed living room (above) and the scattering of moss, lichen and grass | © Tom Hooker/Zest Productions

In addition to two Panda Award nominations, this production has won multiple awards including People’s Choice at the Charity Film Awards. What has been the wider impact of the film since its release?

It would be great to know how many new hedgehog highways have been created as a result of the film! There’s definitely a few but what has also been rewarding is hearing from people who previously had no idea about the plight of hedgehogs and pledged to make changes following the film. I was conscious from the start that we needed to avoid preaching to the converted so found these moments very reassuring. It was initially shared on Facebook and twitter by BBC Springwatch, The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the RSPB but very quickly spread. It was great to see the film being retweeted and shared by various well known people outside of the ‘conservation circle’ including comedians, presenters and Aardman Animations Producer Peter Lord who praised its charm!

The film is still being distributed by the Hedgehog Society and shown within schools and educational settings which is fantastic. This will hopefully continue until a time when every street is like Hedgehog Close and their population begins to recover.

Many thanks for talking to us Tom, the film is available to watch below.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of Festival speakers and screenings!

Hedgehog Close from Zest Productions on Vimeo.

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