From his studio in a converted Georgian stable block on a peninsula in the west Scotland, John Redfern has been producing animations in which he meticulously captures the workings of antique clocks and watches for 25 years now.
A clockmaker since 1973, when he was 33, Mr Redfern (featured in FT Watches & Jewellery in 1986) worked largely for museums who wanted to repair or maintain their timepieces. He dealt with “some of the most complicated in the world,” he says, including one of William Henry’s “time clocks”, which were used in observatories around the world to set all other clocks by.
The second spring of his career came in the late 1980s, when he was commissioned to deliver a lecture on the workings of an antique clock for the first half of the 19th century. To show his audience how each part worked, he dismantled the clock and produced slides on a computer program, but he became frustrated with the technology available to him — it allowed only still images, not animation, hindering the audience’s enjoyment and understanding.
Animation continued as a sideline, but the recession of the early 1990s — and the cutbacks museums quickly made in their restoration — destroyed most of his business. Soon afterwards, noting that a museum gallery was showing a film, it was then he realised the niche that he had found was, he says, “the future”.
“I haven’t made very many good decisions in my life but that one turned out to be a pretty good one,” says Mr Redfern. He became an animator, and later a film-maker, of the innards of clocks and watches.
Since then he has engineered animations for customers, including private collectors, public institutions like the British Museum and companies like Patek Philippe, for which he spent a year creating a 12-minute film.
In his work, Mr Redfern can spin white lines against a black background into the shape of a pocket watch, then make it appear in full colour before you, twisting and rotating through every angle. His films can make it tick and then take you inside, to the hidden systems: as a mechanism whirls, parts of it disappear to show you the wheels, cogs, springs and pins. The function and necessity of each part becomes beautifully clear, both an education and a pleasure.
His animations and films tend to run from six to 15 minutes and they can take anything from a few weeks to a whole year to make, depending on the nature of the clock and which parts customers want to see in action. Because of the time invested, Mr Redfern says his regular client “has to be rich”: prices vary from “a few thousand on up to six figures”.
“At one end of the scale, you could have a simple animation for a website, and at the other, a full film production with a crew, special effects, sound, music, similar to a TV commercial.”
Before filming a clock or a watch, Mr Redfern needs to dismantle it to take minute measurements of each part. “If we’re talking about something antique, I have to take it apart, I have to draw it, so that means I measure everything, every wheel, every lever, every component,” he says.
He transfers his sketches to his bank of computers, ensuring that dimensions are rigorously respected, and once all the colours and textures are immaculate, “you edit it like a film.” He uses a “very sophisticated motion-control system” which he developed for small items like watches.
For some clients, there may be an aspect of vanity in commissioning Mr Redfern, but he thinks enlightenment is more prevalent. “You can look in the back of a watch but you can’t see very much. I take away all the things that prevent you from seeing and I can leave them sitting there in mid-air so that you can see them clearly.”
For this, he needs both centuries-old skills and digital handiwork not even imagined ten years ago. “Some of the tools I’ve got are a hundred years old and they work absolutely perfectly, but if I don’t have a new updated computer at least every four years, I’m in trouble.” In making his films, Mr Redfern represents an alliance between the physical and the digital, the past and the future.