Meet the former Wallace and Gromit animator now working in the Yorkshire Dales

How does a film animator from Finland, who set up her own studio in Canada, end up living in a quiet market town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales?

“Love,” says Virpi Kettu a little bashfully. Seven years on, and Virpi and her partner are still together during which time she has also fallen for Skipton’s many charms. Though it wasn’t quite love at first sight.

“When I first came to Skipton, I thought it was quite a boring place,” she says. “But when you get to know it and you see it’s got a castle and snickelways and canals, and has tales of witches and dragons, you realise it’s insanely rich in terms of its heritage.

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“It’s like a postcard here and it’s really inspiring. The quality of life here for me is so much better than in the bigger cities. Compared to Toronto, for example, I have cleaner water and air. There were days when I lived there that I couldn’t go out because of the smog.”

Virpi Kettu with characters and a set for her Dogs’ Dales project. (Tony Johnson).

She also found a community full of kindred artistic spirits. “The opportunities here really surprised me. Everybody I met seemed to be a writer or an artist.” It’s a community that she’s now very much at the heart of, having helped set up Craven Arts in 2017.

Virpi has been working as an animator for almost two decades, starting out with Aardman Animations before moving to Canada and working with the likes of the National Film Board of Canada, DreamWorks and Universal Pictures in animation, production and directing. While there, she set up Kettu Studios, her own animation and film production studio.

She has used her burgeoning animation work to branch out into creating music videos producing work for the likes of Father John Misty, Radiohead and, most recently, Katy Perry on the video for her song Resilient.

The latter won the Best Animation award for Kettu Studios at the recent Royal Television Society Awards. “We made this video with great care and overcame all kinds of difficulties in the middle of a global pandemic and lockdown. Together with my crew, we have shown that world-class, high-quality animation productions are possible in rural North Yorkshire,” she said afterwards.

Virpi's animated series is inspired by real life people she has met. (Tony Johnson).

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Virpi’s story, though, begins even further north – in Finland. As a child, she was mesmerised by the Eastern European animations she watched on TV. “I thought ‘that’s beautiful, I want to do that.’”

She studied fine art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki before going to animation school in Sweden. Then came the chance to do some work experience at the acclaimed Aardman Animations in Bristol. “It was only supposed to be two weeks but I loved them and they loved me and I stayed seven years,” she says.

“I started from the bottom. I made tea for the first two weeks, but that was good because you got to know everybody and what they do. Then I got to be a model maker and then assistant animator and then animator. It means that now I can make all my puppets and sets. It was like the best kind of apprenticeship.”

A still image from the Katy Perry video for her song Resilient, that Virpi created.

She got to work as an animator on the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as well as Shaun the Sheep and Creature Comforts, and worked with Aardman co-founder Peter Lord who she has fond memories of. “He used to leave a bit of orange plasticine on our set and he would come over and talk to you and make you a little Morph.”

Today, Virpi works in stop-motion and digital animation and designs apps. Or, as she more succinctly puts it: “Inventing things and making them real – that’s basically what I do.”

Even as recently as a decade ago, she would have been hard pushed to have such a rural base, but the growth of digital technology and the rise of Instagram and other social media platforms mean those who work in creative industries are no longer chained to the big cities.

“When I started the gear wasn’t affordable to do at home, whereas now I do workshops online and people have access to amazing animation apps on their phones. So in the last 20 years it’s become more accessible, affordable and user-friendly,” she says.

“I think it’s a golden age for little creative businesses like mine – it doesn’t really matter where you are, you can get your voice heard. I feel there is a synergy with everything that is happening and also the fact that more media companies are moving north.”

Sitting talking to Virpi in her Skipton studio, her affection for her adopted home clearly runs deep. So much so that it led to her Dogs’ Dales project – an animated TV series in the making – inspired by some of the people, stories and locations she has encountered across the Yorkshire Dales. The characters are all dogs and the series is made using stop-motion animation techniques, like Wallace and Gromit, with the puppets and props created by Virpi and her team.

She also draws on the well of local folklore for her stories which feature everything from goblins in Keighley to giants in Ilkley. “It mixes up the beauty and adventure of Yorkshire. I want to shine a light on the heritage and history here through a new kind of storytelling that I hope will be accessible to a wider culture and younger audiences,” she says.

“I find the magic in this area so inspirational and important and I don’t want these stories and legends to be forgotten.”

Virpi has been working on the project, which is now in the pre-production stage, with a producer and model makers and is hoping to attract a Yorkshire-based investor and collaborator to become involved in its digital development and support a new creative industry in the area.

As well as a stop-motion animation pilot film and TV series, Virpi has also designed an augmented reality app due out next April: Dogs’ Dales AR. The latter, part funded by Historic England’s Heritage Action Zones, is an interactive trail featuring a map and some of the characters and locations.

It’s the kind of thing that could be used by local tourism and even schools in the future and it’s something Virpi is keen to explore having already taken part in an academic study with the NHS and Leeds University Hospitals, looking at how storytelling and animation affects our information transfer and retention. “It had amazing results. Animation is so easily absorbable, it’s non-threatening and it’s fun.”

Virpi believes that harnessing animation alongside virtual reality technology can transform our lives. “It’s imagination brought to life. Stories are ingrained in human nature and without them we wouldn’t learn as much. And animation can help with this, because learning doesn’t have to be boring,” she says.

“There’s a zone when I’m doing animation where I forget that I exist. You can create a world that comes alive and I feel very good about that.”

For more information go to www.kettustudios.com and www.dogsdales.com. Dogs’ Dales Patreon crowdfunding site is at www.patreon.com/dogsdales