Animator’s happy feat with dancing penguin

Duncan Maclaren and team
Duncan Maclaren and team

FAMILIES across the region will be familiar with the Academy Award-winning smash-hit family film Happy Feet, but many will be surprised to learn that it was an animator born and raised in Newmarket who helped to create its sequel.

Duncan Maclaren, a freelance animator who now lives in Sydney, Australia, worked as a lead motion editor on Happy Feet Two, which returns to the icy landscape of Antarctica to follow the adventures of Mumbles, a tap-dancing penguin, voiced by Elijah Wood, and his son, Erik, who lacks his dad’s talent for choreography.

Duncan Maclaren

Duncan Maclaren

After ten years working in television and film, Duncan, 38, took a break from freelance animation to work on the film between August 2010 and November 2011, at Carriagework Studios in Sydney.

The former Newmarket College pupil was one of four team leaders of a team of 30 motion editors, whose job was to examine scenes of performance captured on stage and make sure all movement, dancing and acting was correct according to how penguins should move.

He said: “Most of the time, I had to correct the feet moving too deep through the snow, correct the flippers, which would sometimes intersect with other characters or themselves, and sometimes re-animate a movement or pose that the animation director or dance choreographer preferred, because re-recording a scene on stage would be too costly or time consuming.

“In some scenes, there were only one or two penguins, which one person could do by themselves, but sometimes the scenes would have 30 penguins in them, in which case, I would have to delegate penguins to other editors.

“The motion capture departments worked on all the penguins and all the other animals, such as leopard seals, elephant seals and krill, which were all key-framed in the animation department.”

Duncan was lucky enough to work alongside Rob Coleman, an animation director who worked on the last three Star Wars films, and George Miller, who directed and co-wrote Happy Feet Two, co-directed Happy Feet and created the Mad Max trilogy of films.

“I loved working with Rob Coleman. George Miller was also a fine director. He was very humble when I first met him in a room full of superiors. I said ‘hi, I’m Duncan,’ and he replied ‘hi, I’m George’, as if I didn’t know who he was. No ego at all.”

A former pupil of All Saints Primary, St Felix Middle School and Newmarket Upper School, Duncan studied art and design at West Suffolk college in Bury St Edmunds.

He was first published in the Newmarket Journal when he was 15 years old, in 1989, when his cartoon strips appeared on and off for a few months.

Duncan’s career began in London in 1995, where he animated chidren’s favourites, including Wind in the Willows and Mr Men.

He began animating full time in 1997, initially at Interactive Entertainment, and then at Broadcast in Sydney and London.

He has lived in Australia since 2002 and now has dual British and Australian citizenship.

In Australia, he animated television adverts and a series, Erky Perky, shown in Australia and Canada.

He returned to the UK in 2006 to work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carey and Meryl Streep, and again in 2009 to work on a BBC children’s television series, Kerwhizz.

Since the Happy Feet contract ended, Duncan continued to work in freelance animation in Sydney.

“Working on a movie certainly has its perks, such as seeing the film take shape over many months and watching the final cut at the premiere before anyone in the world watches it. That’s not to mention the breakfast, lunches and dinners that were catered for.

“Hopefully, I’ll get to work on another feature film soon. I really love the magic behind the scenes and the passion that drives it.

“I forget that since working on the cartoon strips for the Journal I’ve always done what I wanted to do, and that is animate. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that.”

Find out more at Duncan’s website,