Director Dougal Wilson of Colonel Blimp Productions, London, first got the idea of parodying the black-and-white '50s BBC show "Muffin the Mule" (in which a very simple mule puppet dances and does little songs on top of host Annette Mills' piano) when he heard the rhythm to Dizzee Rascal's song "Dream."
"It had this lovely, innocent quality to it, kind of childish and happy," says Wilson. "It contrasts with the subject matter of the song, which is about growing up in the east of London and trying to get by. I thought it'd be interesting to shrink Dizzee down onto the piano and have his character contrast with this very posh lady."
Most of the effects for the one-day shoot were achieved in-camera. Real '50s puppets were scavenged from the Internet and oufitted with new costumes. "We gave them little sweatshirts and hoodies, so they looked like they lived on the street," says Wilson.
For the first half of the day, puppeteers controlled the miniature puppets dancing on the piano from a platform above set. A gap was left for Dizzee in the middle of the puppets, with lighting references such as a block of wood or a stick to get a shadow where he would later be placed digitally. Hard light was shone onto the actress at the piano to replicate the look of the original show, where film often responded to highlights by burning out.
Later, the crew shot Dizzee against a green screen, where Flame operator Marcus Wood of Rushes, London, composited Dizzee into the piano set. However, Wilson wanted to achieve a certain level of interaction between the rapper and the puppets. "I wanted to constantly cut between the big-scale and small-scale so that you could never really put your finger on which shots were effects and which were real." Giant costumes were scaled up from the miniature puppets, so that Wilson could shoot Dizzee performing amongst actors his size. "The studio was filled with these giant '50s puppet breakdancers talking in French," Wilson recalls. "It was actually quite disturbing."
The telecine session [also at Rushes] was crucial in achieving a vintage Technicolor look, when budgets didn't allow Wilson to transfer his 16mm negative to print stock.
"Usually you do your telecine after your offline, so you're only telecining the pieces of film you're using and can concentrate on everything with a little more detail. But because of our budget, we telecined everything to begin with and then we did our edit."
Wilson purposely chose bright wardrobe colors on set so that he could take them down in telecine. "It gives a slightly desaturated quality – you have the option to pop one color out among lots of other desaturated colors – we kept the reds and yellows popping, but then we pulled everything else back. With old film, sometimes colors deteriorate more than others, and that gave us the look we were trying to achieve."
Once Wilson and crew went back to the online to add effects, they discussed adding more grain. "We didn't just want to use the grain sparks that were in Flame. They're OK, but they're a little mechanical. The button for ‘Old Movie Look' puts these repeated scratches on it." Instead, Rushes' Wood found an old roll of film that had only been exposed to grain and layered that on top of Wilson's film. "That was much more authentic," says Wilson.