How Guy Manwaring sent The Famous Five on a Great Western Adventure

27 July, 2023

How did the story for the film evolve?
The concept of having the kids racing their Aunt and Uncle to the beach – train vs car – was locked in from script stage, and it always seemed like an obvious fit for the campaign, allowing us to highlight the comfort and efficiency of train travel.

Part of the creative challenge came from creating a visual cohesion between these two separate journeys, finding ways to flow between them, whilst also looking to heighten the contrast between the various characters’ experiences.

This is something that I expressed as being important from an early stage, and I was able to bring in subtle ways to help us transition between the two journeys, such as using the traffic exhaust to fade through to the steam from the tea, or using the dialogue in the kids’ “Look! The sea” to Aunt Fanny’s “I can’t see!”

These small details are subtle, but they help to create cohesion as we cut between the two parallel journeys.

The soundtrack brings the adventure to life, can you tell us a bit more about it?
The soundtrack has been consistent throughout the campaign and it is actually a library track that was found for the first ad. It’s been a really great find as it has the perfect energy to drive the drama in each of the stories.

With this particular script, we had to find a way to cut the music so that we didn’t bring too much drama to the kid’s more relaxed experience. There had to be a noticeable change in energy as we cut between the two journeys. Luckily we had all the stems to the track, which gave us a lot more control.

What’s the creative process like when working on an animation of this scale? What were the difficulties of combining 2d, 3d and animation?
From a storytelling point of view, I tried to approach it exactly as I would have had it been live action. I even spent a lot of time using Google Earth looking for specific train stations, crossings and seaside towns along the GWR network that we could use as references to make sure that the look felt authentic to the areas we were depicting.

However, the beauty of working in animation is that it also frees up your creative decisions as you can literally put the camera anywhere you like, and be very precise with timing and performance etc.

That said, it’s a much more collaborative approach with the agency and client, as every decision needs to be made as you go along. After all, everything has to be designed from the matte painted backdrops through to the paper cups the kids drink from on the train.

How did you decide which British landscapes to feature?
The adventures depicted throughout this campaign are always a great opportunity to show some of the great British landscapes along the GWR network, and this was something that the client was really keen on. The Westbury Horse seemed like a great choice as we wanted to show a location that was inland before the kids reached the coast. It also gave us the opportunity to bring a bit of scenic scale to the sequence as the train cuts through the landscape.

The beach location ended up being a bit of a hybrid between a few different towns, as I really wanted the platform to be close to the beach, whilst also having steep hills for the car to careen down after losing their brakes.

Are there any interesting hidden details we might miss at first watch?
As you can imagine, it’s full of tiny details to look out for, such as the GWR employee’s name tag reads ‘Mary Pollock’, which was Enid Blyton’s pen name, and the number plate on Quentin’s car is ‘ENID B’ – a nice little nod of appreciation to the Five’s creator.

This is the fourth film in the series, was there a pressure to ensure it lived up to the others? Did your experience of creating the first three films help you push this film further?
Absolutely. I feel that there has been a natural progression throughout this campaign, with each film raising the bar from a craft and narrative point of view. The first ad did a great job of establishing the look and tone of the campaign, but had a much simpler storyline, whereas Jetpack successfully brought a lot more drama to the narrative.

We were really keen to continue this progression with this film, but we also knew that the action had to be dictated by the story and not the other way around. With this concept, it was important to know when to go big with the drama and when to show restraint, as the Five’s idyllic experience had to contrast with the aunt and uncle’s chaotic journey.

At a time when many brands are turning to AI to reduce production time and costs, did it feel important for you to continue working with traditional animation?
From the moment you decide to use animation as the creative approach, you are embracing the fact that it is a slower, labour intensive craft. In fact, this is what you want as this is where the charm comes from. The speed you work when creating animation forces you to pay attention to every detail. Nothing happens by chance as it might on a live action shoot.

There are no outtakes, and nothing is left on the cutting room floor, which really focuses your attention on ensuring that you are maximising every beat of the story.

Was it difficult to stay true to the nostalgic, old-fashioned aesthetic of The Famous Five whilst accurately portraying the landscape of modern Britain?
I’d say yes and no. This is obviously something that needs to be considered throughout, but the right balance between the old-fashioned and contemporary aesthetics actually find themselves quite naturally if your decisions are all made for the right reasons.

The countryside and beach locations help to give the story a timeless feel, whilst the modern GWR train obviously grounds the story in the present day.

What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this project?The first preoccupation is always story related, as you have to get that right before focusing on anything else. This is especially true in animation, as you essentially start with the edit and work backwards, building up the layers of craft as you go along.

With this particular project, we were also working at the tail end of the pandemic, so there were the obvious additional challenges that this imposed. But this didn’t actually affect us too badly, as animation allows you to work remotely anyway. The team at Headless are based in Barcelona, which meant that we spent the best part of five months connected via Zoom.

Once the film was completed, it then ran into delays due to the train strikes. But that’s another story – and perhaps different adventure altogether!