Catherine Prowse’s painterly stop motion animations tell relatable stories of resilience at work
In series two of Intuit Mailchimp’s All in a Day’s Work, the London-based animator reveals the rollercoaster of small business ownership through familiar stories and tactile craftsmanship.
Stop motion has long been used to convey complex emotions and tell profound stories. Through each painstaking movement, every subtle adjustment and tiny prop that intentionally blends into the background, this time-honoured and meticulous medium has the ability to foster intimate connections between the characters and their audience. It also embraces imperfections, breathing life into new narratives through the charming idiosyncrasies of its protagonists and raw, relatable storylines.
This is precisely what London-based animation director Catherine Prowse strives to achieve in her episodes for All in a Day’s Work – a collection of original films for Intuit Mailchimp’s Mailchimp Presents, made in collaboration with It’s Nice That, which celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit in creative and relatable ways. Alongside Effie Pappa, who also directed six episodes for the series, Catherine has crafted six heartwarming tales of work challenges and the resilience needed to overcome them. All of which are designed in her signature style that oozes emotion. “What’s magical about stop motion for me is the tactile, tangible quality of the medium,” she says. “I really love seeing the ‘fingerprint’ of the artists who made the sets and puppets. It really heightens the emotion.”
In an episode entitled Best Foot Forward, a story unfolds as a stubborn boss clashes with a younger, more talkative employee – eventually their differences lead to a shift in perspective. In another, Competing Flavours, a work conflict arises between two business partners at a brewery who are butting heads with their ideas. Each film narrates a familiar work-related challenge, and what can happen if you shift your focus away from the conflict and onto the resolution.
The stories are Intuit Mailchimp’s “love letter to marketers, business owners and their customers,” says Julie Douglas, senior manager of Mailchimp Studios, “exploring the ups and downs of running a business.” The second season expands on the first’s themes, exploring “all-too-familiar challenges – there’s an episode for everyone.” One important constant across the two seasons, though, is the lack of dialogue. “You could be a business owner or marketer in Sydney, Madrid or Amsterdam and immediately connect with these miniature worlds writ large,” says Julie.
“I really love seeing the ‘fingerprint’ of the artists who made the sets and puppets. It really heightens the emotion.”Catherine Prowse
These are all stories that Catherine – and many of you, we’re sure – can resonate with. As a freelance filmmaker, she’s undergone inevitable struggles that are similar to the small business owners depicted in the series. “I’ve definitely taken unexpected work calls at inopportune moments [as seen in Tough Call], or tried desperately to promote myself on social media when work isn’t coming in [like the character in New Business Drive],” she says. The characters she relates to the most, however, are Dulcie and Anton from the episode, Got Your Back, where Anton starts feeling let down about Dulcie spending too much time at the nail bar. With such a workload on her shoulders, he unconditionally shows up to help. “Telling their story was a wonderful opportunity to show a woman’s partner being supportive in her pursuit of her career dreams without judgement,” she explains. “I didn’t want the takeaway to be ‘look how hard it is for women to ‘have it all’. I wanted you to see Dulcie and Anton facing their challenges and adventures together.”
“Strangely, it was often the outfit that came to be first in the character design, as clothes are such an expression of character.”Catherine Prowse
To match the tone of the stories, Catherine wanted to achieve a painterly and tactile feel with the design of her characters. A pillar to her work, this look is achieved by scraping into the clay with a scratchy brush to mimic thick paint. “Strangely, it was often the outfit that came to be first in the character design,” she says, “as clothes are such an expression of character.” During the process, Catherine had some cable knit baby knits that she wanted to transform into Ena’s chunky knitwear from the episode No Deal, which sees a sustainable knitwear designer reject an unsustainable offer from a department store. “The whole character design grew around that,” she adds. “It seemed logical that the buyer would be wearing dreary grey colours to contrast with Ena’s wonderful bursts of colour.” The puppet clothes designer also offered up some yellow socks as a last minute add-on which, to Catherine, suggested a hint of “vanity and pomposity” about this character.
As for the set design, Catherine wanted to make the spaces feel as real as possible. This means adding in an abundance of tiny props to make the space feel warm and authentic, even if they blend into the background. One of her favourite props is a tiny pair of nail clippers which appear in a close-up – her way of justifying the labour and craftsmanship that goes into the stop motion process. “I compiled pages and pages of real-life reference imagery from all the businesses that feature in the series, to see what little details I could add,” she says. Another key consideration was the colour palette, which Catherine says deviated with each episode – each has a handful of colours that are used to present the emotional tone of both the episode and the protagonist. “Dulcie’s salon, for example, was cluttered and lively, and the nail varnishes provided little props of colour. But I wanted to keep the wall colours quite muted and pastel so her bright magenta jumpsuit stood out as the most eye-catching moment. By contrast, I wanted there to be much warmer, deeper colours in her home with Anton so it felt cosy and inviting.”
“I thought 2D animation was the perfect medium for making that moment look beautiful visually but also feel a bit silly.”Catherine Prowse
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Catherine Prowse: Behind the scenes of Tough Call – All in a Day’s Work (Copyright © Mailchimp, 2023)
While Effie’s animations are lively and vibrant, Catherine’s are more pared back and illustrative. Both, however, use humour to tackle topics related to the world of work. In Tough Call, where the protagonist takes some time off after a big pitch only to be surprised with a call in the spa, Catherine wanted to be more playful with the storytelling and visual approach. As such, when the character goes into a dream sequence while utterly relaxed at the spa, the animation style switches to a floaty, flowery 2D scene. As one of the few episodes that relies on comedy entirely and doesn’t have any kind of “emotional crisis”, she explains how it felt refreshing to mix up the format with an unexpected twist. “The episode is all about the contrast between whimsical fantasy and mundane reality. I thought 2D animation was the perfect medium for making that moment look beautiful visually but also feel a bit silly.”
“Their conflicts and circumstances are kind of ordinary but, because they’re fully realised individuals, the way they respond is really interesting.”Catherine Prowse
The episodes came together with a small team who worked on the project for almost a year. Their system involved shooting one episode, building the next and designing the episodes after. A true multitasking experience, Catherine recalls how the animator, Anita Bruvere, also made props while knitting the title card for No Deal. “We try to re-use as many props and bits of set as possible,” she adds. “There’s one mini photocopier that appeared about eight times across the series because it was such a good prop to have lurking around in the background.”
There were, naturally, some challenges that arose throughout the process. One of the biggest, according to Catherine, popped up while creating the brickwork for Competing Flavours, the one about the work conflict at the brewery. Describing it as a “fiddly job” on a big set, it took a week for the team to cast the brick pattern, fix it to the brewery wall and paint. “I wanted the building to look like a big old warehouse that was repurposed as a microbrewery and tap room, which we definitely achieved, but it was quite an undertaking.”
No matter the hurdles, Catherine and the team came out on top with a series that places peoples’ stories at the centre. “Their conflicts and circumstances are kind of ordinary but, because they’re fully realised individuals, the way they respond is really interesting,” she says. “I hope people see something of themselves in some of the characters.” While not all of the episodes are success stories, there’s an unmatched sense of positivity running as a thread throughout. “I think they all feel quite hopeful. All the characters have passions and desires that they’re working hard to achieve, and that’s a fundamentally inspiring thing.”
Catherine Prowse: Got Your Back – All in a Day’s Work (Copyright © Mailchimp, 2023)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.