You may not recognise the name Tim Allen but chances are you’ve seen his handiwork. An acclaimed stop-motion animator with over 20 years’ experience, Allen has leant his steady hand and keen eye to a range of productions; from blockbuster films to low-budget passion projects, beloved childrens’ shows and primetime adverts. His work – not to mention teaching gigs and film festival appearances – has taken him all over the world, but it’s London City Island that Allen calls home.
‘I moved to London City Island in November 2016, so I’m pretty much a founding member of the community,’ Allen explains. ‘When I first heard about the development, it looked absolutely idyllic. The idea of being surrounded by water and by so much history; the potential for community, which was naturally enclosed within its border – it all made so much sense.’
Animator Tim Allen has lived at London City Island since 2016
Allen originally lived around Limehouse Cut to be close to the Three Mills Studio while working on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Aside from the easy commute, it was the area’s natural beauty and maritime history that made him want to put down roots, and the apartments at London City Island ticked all the boxes.
‘From the day I moved in I wanted to get to know the staff and the neighbours. I saw it as one of the only places in London where getting to know your neighbours is so easy. We’re all grounded as Islanders; we’re all part of the same living experience.’
This communal way of life has only grown stronger throughout lockdown, Allen insists. While work has kept him busy, and he admits to enjoying the downtime, Allen couldn’t resist getting involved in a community-centric lockdown project, which will be unveiled at this year’s Unity Festival. Using friends and neighbours, Allen has created a stop-motion short via ‘pixelation’, a technique that turns photographs into moving images.
Tim Allen working on Wes Anderson's film Isle Of Dogs
“We’re all grounded as Islanders; we’re all part of the same living experience.”
That was a really lovely way to bring what I do for a living and use it with the community, for the community,’ he explains. ‘Emotionally, the theme is about separation from others and that we need to connect and how much better we are together.’
Like many children, a young Tim Allen loved comics and cartoons, and he cites the Beano, Garfield, The Wind in the Willows and Morph as major inspirations. But he also displayed artistic talent, which his mother nurtured by encouraging him to enter various competitions and to pursue art at college. Unsure of where exactly his talents could take him, Allen had a serendipitous moment at Bournemouth University while initially waiting to learn more about the school’s modelmaking course. Asked if he was there for the animation tour, his interest was piqued. ‘I’d never heard of an animation degree, I didn’t know it was a thing,’ he says. ‘I was absolutely hooked; it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.’
Tim Allen worked on the Oscar-nominated animation My Life As A Courgette
Over the past two decades, Allen has accumulated an animator’s dream CV, and worked with many of his childhood heroes. As a student, he was fascinated by Tim Burton’s groundbreaking The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). A few years later, he found himself working with many of those same animators on Corpse Bride. Allen has also worked with American indie darling Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018), which involved recreating the quaint, unpolished aesthetic of stop-motion on a Hollywood scale.
‘People like to see that it’s handmade, it’s imperfect – they find that endearing,’ Allen says of the enduring appeal of stop-motion in a digitised world. ‘There’s also something intrinsic within us that probably harks back to early childhood; that magic of watching Bagpuss come to life – we can all relate to the idea of our toys coming alive and living out stories with them.’
A signed poster of Wes Anderson's Isle Of Dogs
“People like to see that it’s handmade, it’s imperfect – they find that endearing,”
While he acknowledges the blockbuster productions as realising ‘his student dream’, Allen is equally proud of small-scale projects, such as the recent short Nobody is Normal, created ‘in a basement’ with just two others. The feature was made for the charity Childline and explores themes of isolation and anxiety. Like many stop-motion productions, it is short, simple and has no dialogue – yet has had a powerful emotional reaction from viewers.
But whether it’s a 30-second advert or a 2-hour feature film, one thing that underpins all stop-motion animation is that it is a labour of love (with emphasis on labour).
Patience is the first word that springs to mind on the subject of stop-motion, but Allen prefers the terms ‘methodical, painstaking and laborious’. He describes his job as ‘problem solving’ with the ultimate goal being to capture the director’s story.
Tim Allen working on Fantastic Mr Fox
‘Animation is in no way glamorous, it’s a bit of a time warp,’ Allen explains. ‘A fast project would be creating 18 seconds of animation in an 8-hour day. Fireman Sam was 10 seconds in a full working day, Shaun the Sheep was 6 seconds. Something like a Tim Burton film, you get less than 2 seconds in a 10-12 hour day. I’m making all these little adjustments to a puppet and analysing how that looks and feels. I need the audience to feel the correct emotion and to get the mood. So it’s not that you’re patient; all you’re concerned about is getting the right result.’ Twenty years on, it’s the variety that keeps Allen going. Whether it’s creating ruffled dog fur or figuring out how to make a real peach twerk in a recent Lidl commercial, stop-motion offers endless variety, creative challenges and collaboration. And it helps that the end result always puts a smile on someone’s face.
‘I have no interest in having a job where I do the same thing every day. For me it’s about progressing, improving on myself, and my knowledge. With animation, you never know what’s going to get thrown at you, but at the same time that’s what makes it so interesting.’
Words: Gemma Billington
Photography: Buster Grey-Jung
Tim Allen has mastered the painstaking art of stop-motion animation