Author & comedian Charlie Higson wins Boris Karloff 60-Second Film Challenge
Back during the first national lockdown, Plymouth College of Art and Plymouth Arts Cinema joined forces to bring students, staff and members of the public the opportunity to enter the Boris Karloff 60-Second Film Challenge.
Open to all styles and genres, entrants were asked to submit a one-minute video taking inspiration from the life and work of English actor Boris Karloff, most famously known for his role as Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931) and later sequels.
The Boris Karloff Symposium committee, made up of academics from Plymouth College of Art including Head of School of Design + Communication Peter Barker, Head of Academic Research Professor Judith Noble, Assistant Head of School of Arts + Media Lucy Leake, Lecturer on BA (Hons) Animation & Games Dr Eddie Falvey and Director and Film Programmer of Plymouth Arts Cinema Anna Navas, chose author and actor Charlie Higson’s film as the winner.
The committee said that the film “showed imagination and technical skill and encapsulated the theme of our forthcoming symposium on the enduring appeal of Boris Karloff’s work.” Charlie’s prize includes having his one-minute movie circulated by Plymouth College of Art, as well as participation in the Boris Karloff Symposium, which takes place during Halloween 2021.
Charlie Higson is best known for his work as an author, TV writer, actor and comedian. Starring in The Fast Show in 1994, he quickly became a household name with characters such as Swiss Toni and Ralph of Ralph and Ted, who he played alongside comedian Paul Whitehouse. Later, Charlie found success as an author, in writing the hugely successful Young Bond series, which has sold over a million copies in the UK and has been translated into over 24 different languages, as well as The Enemy, a series of zombie horror books for teens. But now, he’s trying his hand at animation.
Charlie said, “We’d all just gone into lockdown and no-one knew how long it was going to last. People thought it was the chance to learn a new language or write their next novel, but it turns out the underlying anxiety of a pandemic makes it quite hard to concentrate! I found it the same, and since I wasn’t able to do any of my TV projects, I found it easier to focus on smaller projects.”
“During this time, I was approached by a TV producer who asked me if I was interested in a show about comedians during lockdown. She asked if I’d like to do a sketch of Swiss Toni, zooming his assistant Paul, for example. I said I could write it, but without the suit, hair, wig and makeup, I don’t look anything like Swiss Toni! I rather rashly solved that problem by suggesting an animation, and she said, oh brilliant, yeah!”
“So I had my iPad, my Apple Pencil and Procreate and began generating frame by frame artwork for the Swiss Toni sketch. I would download images of Swiss Toni and use a rotoscope technique to trace them, then apply different mouth shape animations to his head. It was this method I used for the Boris Karloff short.”
“It took me months! Despite the fact I’m using quite a simple technique, it’s easy to forget how many frames you’ll need per second and how many drawings you’ll actually have to generate. In reality, I was creating artwork for weeks, but it was a very welcome distraction to lockdown. It was a great project to do.”
Charlie’s film pays homage to Karloff’s mastery of character acting, noting his performance of horror characters Imhotep in The Mummy (1932) to undead Egyptologist Professor Henry Morlant in The Ghoul (1933) and resurrected wrongly accused John Ellman in The Walking Dead (1936).
Charlie said, “Boris Karloff was in the centre of the huge explosion of horror films in the 1930s, and his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster is stunning. The theme of coming back to life, living beyond the grave, is something that Karloff never escaped from. So many of his films revolved around the idea of someone coming back to life. I took the starting point of Frankenstein because if you’re going to do anything about Karloff, it’s impossible to escape that. It was when I was resurrecting him again for my animation, that I found myself thinking, through the medium of film, Karloff truly did become immortal. Every time we watch his films now, he is brought back to life.”
“Film has always fascinated me, it’s such a bizarre idea that you’re essentially flashing lights onto a wall, but there is a living breathing person there. There’s a story you get involved with and the actors, who are long dead, dead for decades in some cases, they’re there! In front of you! We’re so used to it, we accept it without thinking. I do think that’s such a fascinating idea, and I tried to put that into a one-minute animation!”
“I really love Boris Karloff, but I’m into the whole history of horror really. After writing The Enemy, I ended up developing quite a long talk about horror, going through the origins from Mary Shelley right through 19th century gothic horror and into the 20th century and how that all comes together now. Film is such a great medium for exploring the fantastical and horror has been at the centre of cinema right from the start. Horror is a great way to look at those very heavy concerns like death, disease, loss, aging, but with that fantasy filter. It becomes that classic safe scare where you can induce some extremely powerful emotions; fear, dread, disgust, grief, and can help you process real world issues."
As the animation industry booms through the pandemic, with Disney+ breaking their own five year goal, to reach 60 to 90 million subscribers by 2024, in just 11 months after launch, Charlie reflects on how the creative industries have changed over the years.
“One of the biggest changes, and one of the most interesting areas of change, is that technology is now in the hands of anyone, really. You can make feature films shot on an iPhone, and people have. To any aspiring creative, I would say you have the power to do it yourself. It’s in your hands, make stuff, do stuff! Ultimately, the traditional ways of making money are still the ways to make the most money, but there are ways of learning and doing things that get that within your grasp.”
“People always say to me, I want to get on TV and make a comedy show! I normally say, well so do I! Yes, it’s easier for me, but there is no secret back door that I can go through and they’ll give me the money to make a TV show. There’s no magic route, other than learn as much as you can.”
“The way the world is going, it’s more important than ever to be open to new technologies and new ways of working. I’ve only really been able to survive as a writer by switching it up and doing other things. It’s no bad thing to keep reinventing yourself and being excited about what you’re doing. As with all our jobs, the idea of doing one thing and sticking at that forever has gone out the window.”
“You tend to see the people that do well are the people who are prepared to put the work in and make contacts, and that’s what university and college has been for years. It was through university that I ended up in my first band with Paul Whitehouse. Look at what other people do, work out how they do it. Get as much life experience as you can. That’s another thing I always say to students, is get a life. Paul and I were in our late 20s when we started getting into comedy and were in our mid 30s when we made The Fast Show. We’d had a lot of other experiences, we’d gone out and met people, we’d worked in different situations and we had some experience of the world. We had more to write about. Students don’t need to panic, you bring a lot more to the table if you’ve gone out and lived a bit. Keep an open mind and get out there.”
Head of School of Design + Communication and member of the Boris Karloff Symposium committee, Peter Barker said of Charlie’s submission: “We chose Charlie's film not only because it was excellently conceived and made, but it completely chimed with the spirit of the Boris Karloff Symposium on the great man's life and work that we will be hosting at Plymouth College of Art on Halloween 2021, covid willing!”
Check out Charlie’s new podcast Charlie Higson & Friends where he chats to friends from the world of comedy about classical music and their own personal musical journey with all sorts of nonsense in between. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and more.
You can watch Charlie’s tribute to ‘The Hero of Horror’ Boris Karloff on Plymouth College of Art’s YouTube channel.