The No. 2 to Kettering: from Derngate to Disney for animated film director

Liza Rhea brought her experience as a Northampton schoolgirl to a new experimental Disney animation

Friday, 8th October 2021, 7:30 am
Liza Rhea (nee Hassan) who grew up in Northampton

It's a long way from our county to tinsel town. It hardly seems possible that the world's most famous and best-loved animation studio would produce a film about a Northamptonshire bus ride - but that's exactly what has happened.

Animated mini masterpiece 'The No 2 to Kettering' has been written and directed by Northampton ex-pat Liza Rhea, living the Hollywood dream, working for movie giant Disney.

Liza, a former pupil of Cherry Orchard Middle School and Weston Favell Academy, was invited to put forward an idea for Disney's Short Circuit series of animated short films and used her own experience of catching the bus in her hometown.

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The colourful star of the short boards The No2 to Kettering

The team at Disney loved her heart-warming story featuring a schoolgirl's journey on a red double decker - catching the number two bus to Kettering - and commissioned the work that is now showing on the streaming service Disney Plus.

Speaking from California she said: "I got on the bus just off the Wellingborough Road at Portland Place. It was a red double decker bus. One day someone exiting the bus smiled at me.

"My immediate reaction was 'oh no don't look at this person, don't interact', then I just realised that actually that felt really nice. So then I wanted to - without being the crazy girl on the bus - I wanted to just catch someone's eye on the bus and smile at them. I got the nickname 'the smiler' from all the bus drivers."

The two-minute long film follows a schoolgirl as she gets on a bus in a rainy and grey Northampton. The character's colour and positivity is gradually drained away after encounters with a series of unhappy commuters who don't want to smile or interact.

The No2 to Kettering

As her colour and happiness slip away, making her like the rest of the monochrome passengers, she spots a rattle and attempts to return it to the baby who has dropped it. At first she gets short shrift from the baby's mum but delighted by a sound made by our heroine, the baby triggers the world to burst into vibrant colour with a chortle that cascades throughout the whole bus.

Working on the tiniest detail of the film, Liza used her love of stop motion animation to give the style of a handcrafted Aardman-style feel but all created using CGI - from the texture and colour of the seats of the bus that she vividly remembers from to the fluffy bobble on the girl's hat. She even gives a knowing nod to Northampton using the colours of her old school tie and blazer.

It was while she was a teenager that Liza signed up to Saturday morning theatre school at the Royal and Derngate Theatre - at secondary school she was known as 'one of the acting kids'.

As well as improvisation and acting classes, the young Liza was glued to the TV watching cartoons.

Liza Rhea at the BAFTA Brits To Watch event held in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

She said: "I'm a massive, massive fan of cartoons. I used to watch The Care Bears, The Simpsons, Super Ted, The Clangers, The Sword and the Stone, Robin Hood and the Aardman stye had a huge influence on me. We couldn't get enough."

Her love of theatre led to her to choose a move to Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA) to study stage design.

While working on a production of Swan Lake her animation approach to her work caught the eye of colleagues who suggested she should work in the business.

Combined with her love of cartoons from childhood, her passion for design was realised. To pursue her dreams, she signed on to study at the University of California, Los Angeles Animation Workshop on a BAFTA Los Angeles Fellowship scholarship.

Her skills rapidly put her on the 'Brit To Watch' list compiled by BAFTA . Snapped up by Nickelodeon, then at DreamWorks Animation, she worked on series including Madagascar spin-off All Hail King Julien, Dinotrux and Voltron: Legendary Defender. She joined Disney in 2017 as an apprentice modeller.

The No. 2 to Kettering team of 50 including Liza, writing and directing production staff, modellers and musicians, took six months to complete 90 seconds of animation that Liza describes as 'quick' turnaround.

She said: "It's a lot of hands that are all very talented. In the back of my mind it's potentially an audition. They want people to express, to be experimental."

Liza still goes back to Northampton to visit mum Deanna Harrison and they still travel on the bus to Weston Favell shopping centre.

She said: "I do get back to Northampton and I'm going to be heading back soon.

"I'd like to give a shout out to my French teacher Mr Weinberg at Cherry Orchard Middle - he was a great teacher.

"I miss the Balloon Festival, the fair in Abington Street and the Weston Favell shopping centre. I still get on the bus as mum doesn't drive - they'll say 'hey it's the smiler'."

Liza added: "We have such a huge impact on one another. We are all going through something, and sometimes the smallest act, even if it's just a smile, can really help brighten someone's day."

To watch The No. 2 to Kettering go to https://www.disneyplus.com/home and search for Short Circuit. Liza's film is part of Season Two.