Released for Halloween 2021, Sean Jones’ haunting animation Spooky Stairwell is a riff on the classic cartoons from the early days of animated cinema. Jones and his team, known as Purple Parasol Animation, set their film within a haunted castle and as the camera descends down its stairwell we witness a plethora of ghosts and monsters who populate its subterranean space. The film is equal parts spooky and charming and begs for a rewatch, allowing you to spot each of Jones’ wonderful creations. Twelve Cabins joined Jones in conversation below to discuss the visual inspiration he drew from early Disney and Fleischer cartoons alongside the musical artistry of Gainsbourg for its classical score.
Where did the idea for a vintage cartoon-style animation come from?
As a studio we have a growing list of potential project ideas, which we are slowly ticking off. A vintage cartoon-style animation had been on our minds for some time, so we decided to run with that for our latest Halloween short. This is the third year running in which we’ve made a short animation for Halloween and the old cartoon style was a perfect fit for our latest project. It’s a style we’ve never fully worked in before so it has been a nice challenge and change from our other videos and client commissions.
How did you find the process of coming up with each of the ghost and monsters and then, in turn, animating them?
Designing the characters and bringing them to life was great fun. We looked back at lots of old Disney and Fleischer cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s to reference throughout the design process. A few of the designs take inspiration from these existing characters. One of the main examples of this is the hooded person under the stairs being a reference to a main character in The Haunted House Mickey Mouse short from 1929.
Each of the characters were drawn frame by frame digitally in Photoshop. One of the main animation rules during the project was to avoid using any kind of brush smoothing tools to create clean lines. This forces you to draw to the best of your ability while knowing you will still make small mistakes. It’s these imperfections which add to the look and feel of the 1930s style and it’s a result I think can’t be replicated as well if you are purposely trying to create mistakes.
We had a short list of characters we knew we would need to start with. Bats, ghosts and skeletons were a must. There are a bunch of designs we missed out on in the end, due to time constraints, but I think we were successful in ensuring there was enough variety in the characters. I would have liked to have seen a werewolf if we had the time but that character lives on in the form of some howling sound effects coming from off-screen. Once the main designs were sketched, we marked out spots throughout the environment where we could place extra characters or props. The aim was to really fill as much of the space as possible, which would allow viewers to take in different characters and details on a second viewing. One of the favourites to draw was the giant plant which sits around half way down the environment.
How long did the whole film take to create from start to finish?
Production took around three months. The animation was mainly put together in the evenings but, without full weeks or months to dedicate to it, we had to travel at a snail pace.
There was an element of feature creep on this project. The number of characters and environment details scaled up dramatically over production. The initial plans we had for the scene pales in comparison to the finished animation, so I’m just glad we were able to pull that off while still finishing on time. There is always more I would like to have added but at a certain point you need to mark it as finished or you run the risk of tinkering with it forever.
I really loved the score. Were you drawing from any particular vintage cartoons when you developed it?
The music is mainly inspired by the theme to the 1970 film La Horse by Serge Gainsbourg. Parts of this piece have a Halloween party feel to it and early on I knew this would be a perfect sound and feel to aim towards. It was common for 1930s animation to have an element of interactivity between the characters and music. An example being a character sliding down the stairs alongside descending piano chords, or xylophone notes being played on the ribcage of a spooky skeleton. We managed to include this kind of interactivity with the rats landing on the steps to the beat and the hands clicking and tapping. The idea of the character tapping the cup was considered early on and played a major part in the looping beat straight from the first draft.
The final version of the music ended up with more of a modern sound, which is less accurate for the time period of the style, but still made for a nice match with the visuals. The track was just missing a few extra spooky themed sounds to complete it. We recorded of one of the team taking part in some evil laughs while adding reverb and pitch effects to it to give it that extra Halloween punch. The laughs were sprinkled throughout the music and we were good to go!
Is this a style of animation you see yourself continuing in the future?
For sure! We have a large scale animation planned in the same style which is much more story focused. A large amount of pre-production work was done on it years ago but it has been sitting on the shelf ever since. This Halloween short has, in a sense, acted as a large art style test for us. It’s proven that we can achieve the look correctly and hopefully we can apply all we’ve learnt on this to the larger animation when we return to it.
What is next for yourself?
I’m always busy with the team at Purple Parasol Animation as we work on new short films and commissions. There is a 1950s UPA style inspired animation I’m currently working on, which we hope will be ready around the middle of 2022. It is the largest project we have worked on before in terms of duration and complexity of animation and I’m really looking forward to pushing it out there once we are ready to talk more about it!