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Exclusive Guest Update: Borley Rectory by Writer/Director Ashley Thorpe

By Ashley Thorpe - 21st August 2015

“It was the combination of the subject matter and the way Ashley wanted to render the story. His beautiful ethereal animation seemed to suit the material perfectly; I felt he had a very sure and confident vision for the piece…It’ll take him forever because he’s so exacting but I think it will be fantastic... It’s so engaging and beautiful to look at. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” – Reece Shearsmith

Borley Rectory is 'alive' and well and deep in animation. As a fair estimate I'd say I was about half way through it. After two Indiegogo campaigns (2013 and 2014) the shoots for the film are 90% complete and in my capable / incapable hands with animation and rotoscope in full flow. That's animation, not an edit. The shoots provide me the ingredients, now I'm making the cake. 


The second primary shoot took place at VFX Co London in June 2015. We captured scenes such as the various seances, the Bull sisters’ first sight of the Phantom Nun in the Rectory gardens and Marianne Foysters spectral messages. There was concern about the long delay between the end of the second campaign and the commencement of shooting again – six months – but that was actually the first time that we could organise for all the cast to be in the same place at the same time! In actual fact it still didn't happen (mainly due to child actors and their term-time availability) so a few pick-up shots will be arranged later in the year.


The shoot itself was a great success and apart from capturing everything as rendered in the storyboard, the performances were so strong and imaginative we actually added additional scenes. Surround yourself with improvisers and the shoot will never become stale. I've been blessed with a wonderful cast who are full of ideas, each adding their own particular energy to a fascinating menagerie of characters.

With the footage captured, I've then been working on realising the backgrounds - more often than not, based upon actual photographs of the Rectory provided by Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil, authors of 'The Borley Rectory Companion' – and animating each element together. The remaining interiors are taken from a 3D model of the Rectory based upon original drawings built by Double Farley Creative in New Zealand and then once I have the angle I want, I then 'skin' the background, texture by texture; walls, floor, carpets, paintings, handrails etc. 


As Reece observed in the recent interview above, it's painstaking work. I'm not just compositing the elements together; slapping the photographed actors onto a CG background. I'm 'working into' each composition layer by layer, like I would a painting, changing focal lengths, light and shade, really trying to make this thing feel like it's an old Elstree reel that's been dug out of the ground. 


I want every frame to be beautiful, a real love letter to both the legend and the genre. I feel that both the backers and myself deserve that. It should be beautiful and...'right', however long it takes.


I have been the target of some negativity. I suppose crowd-funding and the necessary social media exposure opens you up to it to some extent. There's a lot of pricks out there. I've been accused on a number of occasions of the production for being a sham, that nothing is being done and that it's been a means for me to pocket people's money - I imagine primarily due to the subject’s seemingly cursed production history (check out the various stalled Borley productions on IMDB) and unusually long production time of my project. 

The process of making a film is an education. Beyond film schools and 'how to' books, the actual process of getting a script together, casting the piece, surrounding yourself with improvisers and innovators, gathering the equipment, organising the shoot and somehow paying for it (and everything else while you're doing it) is the best education one could ever hope for as a filmmaker. It's the only way to learn. And it's an on-going process.


Steering a project from beginning to end can be like running a marathon. It's a difficult business. You have to always hope for the best but you better be ready to deal with the worst. It's easy to become discouraged and the world is full of people (funnily, often not actually making anything) who are happy to point out your failings.


So... where on earth is Borley Rectory

So - to clarify a few things. Borley Rectory is an animated film, not a live action. There is no 'shoot – edit'. Once each shoot is completed literally months of animation subsequently take place. I do not have a team of animators, it's just me doing everything. EVERYTHING. From animation to designing artwork, putting hundreds of posters in tubes and walking them, hanging off a pram, to the post office... everything.


I have fantastic producers who make the shoots blissfully easy for me, ensuring that I can concentrate on the creative but when it comes to animating it, I'm on my own. My previous animated films took approximately six months apiece and they ran at barely a third of the proposed running time of Borley. They were also not subject to the busy schedules of a large cast, timetables of a popular production house, nor the admin of a crowd-funder.  


As for 'pocketing' the Indiegogo-raised budget, ha ha, I wish. When you're hiring cameras, lights, props, costumes and studio space that are devouring nigh on £3K a day there's not much left for carousing. In fact, what's left didn't even cover the cost of posting all those said posters... 


Let me let you into a little secret. Well, I say secret, as I thought that I'd made these things quite clear during the last campaign. I am not a full-time filmmaker, at least not for Borley. Borley Rectory is not a 'waged' production. Generally, a director receives a fee for his work on a project. For Borley I do not receive a fee, for script, direction, animation, editing, whatever. Being a crowd-funded project, the budget raised goes directly into the shoots and not much further.


I'm a freelance animator and teacher and as such spend the majority of my time working on paid projects to support my family. I'm a working dad and I have regular jobs and responsibilities just like everybody else. As much as indie filmmaking has a tendency to be a hobby for the middle classes, I'm afraid that for me it's actually a job so the highest paid contracts often get priority. Borley Rectory is literally being animated evenings and weekends.  I wish it wasn't so but I'm not earning anything from making Borley Rectory. In fact, as much as I love it, it's actually making me penniless.


A positive distraction came towards the end of May in the guise of Axelle Carolyn's 'Tales of Halloween' feature with Neil Marshall & Mike Mendez among many others, wherein I animated the opening title sequence. A fantastic gig (my first bona fide paid 'Hollywood' commission) and great opportunity that I won due to the first Borley clips (specifically the 'Rectory pop up' as seen in the clip launched on Halloween 2014). Epic Pictures were a fantastic team to work with, plus the sequence allowed me to both learn new skills and hone and refine old ones. For Borley however, it meant two months in limbo. 

As of July 2015, I am back working on the project in my 'full-part-time' capacity and absolutely loving it. I'm still on course for a finished cut to be released early 2016 (though this will of course to some extent depend upon the availability of Steven Severin to compose the score). At this juncture, there is a very good chance that two cuts will exist – a festival cut just under 30 minutes (to get us into as many festivals as possible - 30 minutes is a no-mans land as far as festivals are concerned) and a complete cut which may run a full 10 minutes longer. We have been approached by two parties interested in seeing it expanded to feature length, but let's not go counting chickens.

So, I apologise that my animation is taking so very, very long. Being caught in other people's expectations will drive you crazy. It was certainly a slow start for a variety of reasons; clashing schedules, budget shortfalls, the birth of my daughter in Feb 2014, etc. But aside from practical reasons that first batch of animation (2014) started off particularly slowly because I was searching for 'the look'. It was incredibly important for me to get just the right 'tone'. 


The last thing I wanted was for this thing to shoot off in completely the wrong direction, especially as this first sequence was going to help validate the whole project and show that it could be done. That initial sequence with Reece as V.C Wall recounting the Mirror report had been so vivid to me during the storyboarding process that I wanted it to be a microcosm of the film; the look, the feel, the pace and the tone. There was a period of necessary experimentation. I wanted to surprise myself and hopefully present ostensibly quite familiar material in an unfamiliar way. 


The animation since December 2014 has been far more confident as the look and tone are all in place. I've also been experimenting with some physical model composites and apart from working guided by the storyboard, have actually added shots here and there to perfect the pace and mood of the scene.  It's growing organically now and cutting together really well.  I've just finished animating the sequence after the foggy summerhouse vigil for the Nun wherein Wall, Price and the Smiths reflect upon that evening’s phenomena before being startled by the key suddenly flying from the lock. 

There's that great feeling when you're animating when it all just starts to come together and you just know what has to happen next, regardless of what's boarded. The thing starts 'cooking'. Halfway through animating the dinner scene, I suddenly imagined the soundscape and it seemed very important that it was raining outside.


I wanted it to feel like the Rectory and its grounds are almost leaning in on them. So I went back and worked back into each shot, made a new external composite of the Rectory being lashed by rain and added an animated rain streaked plate over the wide shot of their discussion, lending an interesting obscuration whilst also suggesting that they are being watched. With at least six months of solid animation ahead, I basically made more work for myself. 

Am I mental? Possibly. Obsessional? Almost certainly. I'd like Borley Rectory to be something wonderful. It won't please everyone. It's quiet, eerie and textural. It's not going to be the most comprehensive study that was ever committed to film, but I hope that it will fascinate, chill and enchant whatever audience it finds in the same manner as those Usborne panels bewitched me as a child. 

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