The word that springs to mind upon watching James Wignall's latest short is 'twisted'. A Tale of Slap Dash begins as a traditional, whimsical, old-fashioned stop-motion animation: woodland shapes grow and flutter next to the title sequence, a hand opens a book... and then things go weird.
The human hand is replaced by one apparently owned by a pencil-wielding werewolf (and this hairy creator spends its time scribbling and muttering to itself). A cute bird-like character, created by the hairy hand, squeals "I love you" before its quirky co-star - a bipedal mammal of some sort - responds bitterly with "I hate you", then kicks the bird over. Elsewhere, in a woodland scene, a little girl approaches a colourful monster that playfully lifts her up (how sweet, you might think), and then gleefully bites off her head (at which point, you change your mind - or laugh).
Button Moon this is not, but it does feel like a strange trip back to the past - almost a subversion of childhood animation and fairy tales. "The entire basis for the short is a very simple one: misunderstanding," explains Wignall, summing up the entire animation in a word. Regarding its darker moments, he notes that his sense of humour is on the warped side, and he works with whatever makes him smile. "Also, this is how life can be sometimes, but reflected in a more humorous way," he says. "Everyone knows that nice guys finish last!" For Wignall, this appears to be an entirely natural foundation for a project: "Humour is very important to me - it's what makes me tick, and so it's always transferred to my work. I was brought up on Tim Burton films, The Fast Show and The League of Gentlemen. They all lend a hand in some way!"
Perhaps surprisingly, given the high quality of his animation and production, he practically stumbled into the world of animation: "I studied multimedia technology in Leeds, and we did a module on After Effects. Once I got my head around it, I was hooked. Although it's time-consuming, it's worth it when you see your worlds and characters come to life." Despite animation not being a life-long dream, he claims that he always had an "unhealthy interest" in the subject, noting that when growing up he used to make flipbooks from his schoolbooks.
To some extent, this combination of old and new - flipbooks and After Effects - is apparent in A Tale of Slap Dash, which combines stop motion, modern camerawork and effects, and includes a sequence where hairy hands 'stretch' characters by manipulating them like a user of Microsoft Surface. "I do love combining old techniques with new methods," confirms Wignall. "A lot of the animation in the short is pretty much traditional stop-motion animation, but done digitally. To achieve some of the movement, I needed to keyframe each frame. This gives the piece a 'non-perfect' feel, which I really like - it makes everything feel cosy, and the viewer isn't sure what to expect." This is particularly important in this piece, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security more than once, resulting in an overall feel that James calls "sinisterly cute".
The combination of old and new infiltrated all aspects of the production. While Wignall's PowerBook (along with stalwart applications Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects) was used to work on the digital side of things, pen and paper had its place. "All my characters start life as a sketchbook page or a doodle that gets built on, altered and erased," he says. "Eventually I'm happy, and the character makes it to a digital incarnation."
A huge amount of preparation wasn't required, since he had a clear idea of what he wanted: "The piece is quite modular, so creating it was quite an easy process. The hardest part was going from one section to another. And although I storyboarded the two main scenes, things like the titles and the credits just kind of evolved."