‘The Astronomer’s Sun’ dir. Jessica Cope & Simon Cartwright

A young man, accompanied by his mysterious mechanical bear, visits an abandoned observatory to confront memories of his past and follow his Father on a journey into the unknown.

Year: 2010
Country: UK
Director: Simon Cartwright and Jessica Cope
Writer: Simon Cartwright and Jessica Cope
Producers: Peter Kershaw and David Bunting
Key Cast:  David Bunting and James Caroll


C8: Where did ‘The Astronomer’s Sun’ sit in your producing career, what had you done before it?

DB: While I’ve been working in animation for over 10 years, “The Astronomers Sun” marked my producing debut for a network broadcaster. I came into animation as a drawn animator and over the years I’ve worked my way through or around most departments. I had just finished a stint at Aardman Animations training in feature film storyboarding and storyboarding on “Shaun the Sheep”. I think my experience in story, and my teaching skills really led 4mation’s executive producer, Camilla Deakin to consider me for the producing role working with Peter Kershaw at Duchy Parade Films on what was a unique talent development scheme for independent animation filmmakers developed in collaboration with the Channel 4 and the UK film council.

C8:  How did you go about the story and character development? Is it the same process as with live action?

DB: The rigorous development process is a key part of the success of “The Astronomers Sun” and so many other films which have helped to make 4mations the gold seal in short British independent animation filmmaking. When I first joined the film, Simon and Jess had an idea for a story and some beautiful concept artwork that set the tone for the film, but Channel 4 wasn’t interested in making the film in that original state. Instead each 4mations Digital Short went through an extended process of script and story workshops to develop the story before it was green-lit for production. It’s incredible to think it now, but in its original outline, the bear wasn’t in the story – that’s how much these stories are born and reborn. There was an incredible amount of support placed around Simon and Jess in this period. We had a brilliant script editor, Alan Gilbey who certainly asked all the same fundamental questions on character motivation, story and dramatic structure etc you would on any live action film. Where the process of story development differed from live action, is our story had no dialogue. Coupled with the fact that most animators think in images and not words, this meant we found scripts had only limited value as a development tool. A lot of our story discoveries happened in the storyboarding process.

C8: For the uninitiated, can you give us a sense of exactly how painstaking this process is? How long does it take to film a scene?

DB: Making this 6 minute film from development to completion took 12 months. Everything you see in the film needed to be designed and built. Take our main puppet; every hair on his head is a real human hair, each one carefully fashioned to the head. Times that by the four replacement heads we needed to covey different emotions and you get some indication of the amount of attention to detail that went into the creation of ‘The Astronomers Sun’. We had a couple of amazing young animators on this production – Jess Cope and Steve Warne and they were meticulous in achieving the highest standards. About 5 months were spent in actual animation, with a shooting ration of approximately 15 seconds a week.

C8: Apart from the inevitable time constraints, what were the biggest challenges in production?

DB: Time was the biggest blessing in this film, because so much attention from all the commissioners was on getting it made right. Therefore the biggest challenge was often financial. We had to be very careful how we allocated resources to sustain the production, and deal with the inevitable surprises every film has. Creatively, this meant a lot of problem solving, which is no bad thing. Simon always said the production was held together with duct tape!

C8: What lessons did you learn that will stand you in better stead for the future?

DB: Speaking personally, I actually learnt just how much I liked producing, at least certainly a creative producing job like this which was so much about supporting and nurturing the creative team and putting in place people and processes to try and help that. Certainly, the opportunity to work alongside my co-producer Peter Kershaw at Duchy Parade Films and our executive producers was a very special opportunity for me for which I’m very grateful.

C8:  Were you pleased with how the film was received and how hard did you work as producers putting it out on the festival circuit?

DB: It has been incredible to see how audiences across the world have responded to ‘The Astronomers Sun’. We’ve screened in over 100 cities and received 16 awards to date, which is a phenomenal achievement. I think when you spend a year devoted to making a film, you owe it to both your team and the film to get it out into the world, so Peter and I were very happy to give it a push. It’s now become the most successful animated short film ever produced in partnership with Screen Yorkshire. It took a lot of persistence to get there and in many ways it’s as demanding as making the film, but just like making the film you hit, if you are lucky, a critical mass where it takes on its own momentum. There’s this chatter that happens between audiences and festivals. Hearing how the film has crossed language barriers and been embraced by people is really special.

C8:  Any words of wisdom for filmmakers struggling to get their work seen at festivals?

D8: First of all, it’s important to say there is a lot of good animation out there that isn’t necessarily right for a festival audience and that’s fine. Broadly speaking, festivals are looking for a piece of work that is a genuine theatrical experience, and that generally involves a compelling story. I don’t think many aspiring filmmakers have any idea just how big job festival submissions are. You may well be able to make another film in the time it takes to place a film around the worldwide festival circuit, and for a lot of people, the joy is in the making. If you do have a film you dearly want an audience to see, then the first thing I’d encourage a filmmaker to do would be sit down, identify some key festivals they would love the film to screen in and read their entry requirements. There are a lot of good interviews freely available on the web from festival producers and what they look for, and those are well worth a read. Then, just treat it as professionally and seriously as you would making the film. One of the key things we found on ‘The Astronomers Sun’ was finding a niche audience who would appreciate the film. For ‘The Astronomers Sun’, the fantasy and science fiction audiences became our biggest fans.

C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?

DB: A good film collaboration is like a good family. It starts in finding the right people who can understand and respect each other and bring something unique to the table. A good collaboration should result in something greater than you could achieve alone. And it should keep you sane during the demanding filmmaking process!

C8: What’s next on the horizon for David Bunting?

DB: Well I’m currently producing and directing a children’s TV series in development with British company 1461, called ‘Boy and the Dinosaur’. It’s been a really exciting year for us in development and I hope to be able to make some big announcements about that project soon. Visit www.boyandthedinosuar.tv for news on the series as it happens. 4mations Digital Shorts was above all else a talent development scheme, and ‘The Astronomers Sun’ launched some incredible careers with director Jessica Cope and animator Steve Warne both going on to animate on Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’. I’m incredibly proud of them all.