Peter Saunders is one half of Mackinnon & Saunders which is now one of the world’s leading companies in character development and stop-motion puppet making as Maria McGeoghan reports.
It’s an unusual setting for a piece of Hollywood glamour. An unassuming office and group of outbuildings in a leafy lane in Altrincham is home to some of the most famous puppets in the world. As you walk in the entrance you are met with the striking figures from cult sci-fi spoof Mars Attacks! and in the cosy boardroom I meet Victor and Emily from the Tim Burton classic The Corpse Bride.
Bob the Builder, Postman Pat and the one, the only, Fantastic Mr Fox all look out from their glass cases just waiting to be picked up and admired. Peter Saunders is one half of Mackinnon & Saunders which is now one of the world’s leading companies in character development and stop-motion puppet making.
They have worked on productions such as BAFTA-winner The Reluctant Dragon and Emmy Award-winner The Fool of the World as well as receiving a clutch of Oscar nominations for Hollywood films. “We have lurched between the pastel shades of pre-school television to the black and burnt umber of gothic revival hollywood feature films. And we are delighted to have done so. We love it,” says Peter. And you can tell that he genuinely does.
As he reverently takes Mr Fox out of his case for me to have a closer look, and rummages through some of the original Tim Burton sketches for The Corpse Bride, he is obviously proud of their fantastic body of work. We walk though his puppet kingdom where a team of people are working on everything from creating the metal frameworks that support the puppets to crafting tiny, yet beautifully made outfits for them to wear.
In the sculpture room two masters of their art are creating magnificent figures from a cream coloured plasticine-like substance surrounded by shelf upon shelf of famous faces and creatures. It’s a wonderland of quiet and friendly creativity.
So how did it all start? “I started making models, toys and puppets when I was around five, says Peter, who set up Mackinnon & Saunders with his business partner Ian Mackinnon in 1992.
“I grew up in Rochdale with a Yorkshire Dad and a Cambridgeshire mum.
“I made puppets out of anything I could get my hands on. My parents were very understanding until they tried to plug something in and the plug had gone because I wanted to use the pieces. I hated school. I always think it’s sad when people say they are the best years of their lives. There’s so much more out there.”
He knew early on that he wasn’t destined for the professions like medicine, teaching and law encouraged by his school and opted for art school instead.
“I had a misspent youth!” says Peter with a grin. “ I didn’t apply myself to academic studies but loved model making so I went to Art College - West Surrey College of Art and Design to be precise - where I did a diploma in animation.
“It was wonderful. It felt like I had come home. It was delightful, I never wanted to leave.”
In 1977 Brian Cosgrove of Cosgrove Hall Films was recruiting animators for a film called The Talking Parcel and came to the college’s diploma show.
“He didn’t find any animators for the project but by chance saw some of my puppets and offered me six weeks’ work to finish off some puppets,” says Peter. “I was paid £30 a week out of petty cash. When I got there, there was a bit of confusion because Brian was on holiday and had forgotten to tell anyone I was coming.
“It wasn’t the most auspicious start to my animating career but I stayed for 15 years.”
While at Cosgrove Hall Peter worked on childhood favourites like Chorlton and the Wheelies, the Reluctant Dragon and the Wind in the Willows - working his way up to be head of the puppet workshop.
Along the way he worked with animator Ian Mackinnon, who was working on an animated film called The Sandman with colleagues Paul Berry and Colin Batty, which went on to be nominated for an Oscar and is now part of the curriculum if you study animation.
Just in case you’re off to Google it - be warned. It’s a truly terrifying work of art so don’t let your young kids watch it before bedtime. They’ll be too scared to sleep. Then in 1992 Cosgrove Hall closed down and he decided to set up Mackinnon & Saunders with Ian Mackinnon.
“My wife had just announced that we were expecting our first child so it wasn’t the best of times. I felt a bit out on a limb and we had another mouth to feed. Cosgrove Hall was a delightful place to work. I’d still be there now. They were great bosses to work for. They loved their staff, had no egos, were very supportive and they wanted to do their best.
“It was like an extension of art college but you got paid. Our new company was about making puppets for stop motion animation which was very specialist. We were a one trick pony.
“I’m incredibly lucky to be in business with Ian. He’s a renaissance man. He excels at everything he turns his hand to including running a business. We work hard and have a dedicated team of 82 at the moment.
“We respect everyone we work with here. I’ve got great admiration for them all.
“I’d say to anyone setting up their own business that they need to be patient. Success doesn’t come overnight and it shouldn’t really. And don’t try and take on too much debt.”
Their big break came one Tuesday evening in March 1995 when he got a call from Laurie Parker who was Tim Burton’s producer on Mars Attacks! - a film that was a homage to 1950s science fiction.
“For the first five minutes I thought it was a wind-up and that someone in the office was pretending to be her. I had to apologise later for my indifference. It was a total shock and a relief. We had a few beers that night.”
Ten days later they were flown to New York, put up in a plush hotel and met Tim Burton at the Carlisle hotel. “Tim had just done the Michael Keaton Batman movie so everyone knew him but he had no airs and graces or entourage. He’s lovely. Successful companies have a lucky event that helps them get off the ground. This was our lucky event.”
Within four weeks Mackinnon & Saunders had set up a design workshop in Hollywood. “The team were put up in Gore Vidal’s old house and from the back you could see the Hollywood sign. We were right in the heart of the film industry and it was crazy and lovely. And a long way from Rochdale.”
Peter oversaw the creation of the puppets and when they were ready they were packaged up very carefully and flown from LA to Manchester on their own plane seat - even though they were only 12 inches tall. “They came via Chicago and they were put on a buggy to travel through the airport,” says Peter. “Money was no object. It was fantastic.”
But nine months later Warner Brothers decided to use CGI instead of stop motion to get the film finished on time.
“We were disappointed but Warner Brothers gave us a very generous pay off which allowed us to buy this building outright. Warner Brothers and Tim Burton treated us incredibly well.”
Mackinnon & Saunders then went on to work on Bob the Builder for ten years ‘on and off’.
“It was delightful,” says Peter. “We were being paid to design Tonka Toys for a living. Bob was filmed in a unit in Altrincham Business Park. Not a lot of people know that!
“A huge empire has been built on one little sketch.”
Then in 2002 they got the chance to work with Tim Burton again on The Corpse Bride, a classic spooky tale of love and death which was an immediate hit and is still much loved around the world.
“We did it from start to finish, says Peter. “It was exciting but we were nervous because The Nightmare Before Christmas was such a classic. By then the internet had kicked in and it was a Godsend to get answers the day after we had sent something over for feedback. Emails bounced around between London, Manchester and the USA.
“It was launched at the Venice Film Festival and we breathed a sigh of relief when it went down well. It was a magical experience. We were ferried in water taxis to a reception at the roof garden at the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal.
“I walked down the red carpet with Helena Bonham Carter who was the voice of The Corpse Bride, and she wanted to talk about how we had made all the puppets.
“During the reception I stood quietly to one side and watched it all thinking ‘how did we get here?’ I wanted to take in as much of the experience as I could to bottle it and remember it forever.”
An Oscar nomination followed for The Corpse Bride but they were pipped at the post by Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
They went on to work on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, which were also nominated for Oscars. “We didn’t win. We’re always the bridesmaid and never the bride,” says Peter and adds generously: “The Wrong Trousers is just about as perfect as an animated film can be.”
Series of Postman Pat, Twirlywoos and Toby’s Travelling Circus soon followed and in 2013 they opened a joint venture digital studio in Altrincham, Mackinnon & Saunders Digital Studios Ltd, with Komixx Entertainment.
Through this they have produced the children’s animated TV series called ‘Wanda and the Alien’ for Channel 5 and there are other projects in the pipeline.
But it is this little story which sums up Peter’s love and respect for his craft.
“We were asked to renovate the Postman Pat models which means taking them apart and seeing what they are made of. We decided we couldn’t take a scalpel to such a loved character as Jess the cat so I asked a friend of mine at Manchester Royal Infirmary if he could X-Ray her instead. And he did!”