Saturday, 28 November 2009

Clare Kitson on British animation's great moments and Channel 4

Clare Kitson served as commissioning editor of animation at Channel 4 throughout the nineties, and so her 2008 book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor provides an invaluable inside look at the creation of some classic animation.

The book begins by relating the history of British animation, from the silent period up until Channel 4's golden age. As Kitson summarises:
British animation has experienced several great moments. It was great for a while in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. But in the late 1980s the animation world had to acknowledge that it had hit its best form ever.
Aside from the work of Anson Dyer, Kitson largely dismisses Britain's contributions to the silent era ("While Emile Cohl in France, J S Blackton in the USA and Ladislas Starewicz in Russia where deploying extraordinary technical prowess in quirky, witty vignettes, the British pioneers were still enjoying the novelty of getting things to appear, disappear and move for a bit") and instead points to the thirties as the point when British animation hit its stride. She attributes the change to the coming of foreign talent - George Pal, John Halas, Peter Sachs, Lotte Reiniger, Hector Hoppin and Len Lye - and the creation of the General Post Office Film Unit, which she describes as giving both funding and a degree of creative freedom to animators in a similar way that Channel 4 would decades later.

Kitson's coverage of the thirties provides an interesting contrast to Giannalberto Bendazzi's. Bendazzi's Cartoons gave the decade a very brief overview as far as British animation is concerned, portraying it more as a short transitional period between the coming of sound and the founding of Halas & Batchelor and Larkins the following decade.

The next great moment in Kitson's overview began in the mid-fifties with the emergence of TV advertising and ended with the recession that followed the 1973 oil crash. During this period, animators used advertising revenue to fund more personal projects; this is when we saw the release of films such as The Flying Man, Automania 2000, The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit, A Christmas Carol and Yellow Submarine. And then the eighties, of course, brought about an arguable golden age of British animation thanks largely to Channel 4; as this is the main focus of the book, several chapters are devoted to the channel's history. Between the two points, Kitson notes, interesting work was being produced by students at the Royal College of Art, the National Film School, West Surrey College of Art and Design and the Liverpool Polytechnic (for more about student animation of this period, see this post).

The majority of the book consists of chapters on thirty works (twenty-six short films, two feature films and two series), each one giving a lengthy behind-the-scenes story. Almost all of the works spotlighted are readily available either on the 4mations YouTube channel or on DVD - or, in some cases, both. The exceptions are the Pond Life series, which is partially available across a long out-of-print VHS and its own YouTube channel; and The Victor, which, as far as I know, has not been released since its appearance on a VHS compilation in 2000. Here's a list for anyone who wants to give them a look:

The Snowman: DVD
The Victor: VHS
When the Wind Blows: DVD
Street of Crocodiles: DVD
The Black Dog: DVD
Alice: DVD
Girls Night Out: DVD
Feet of Song: Online
Lip Synch - War Story: DVD
Lip Synch - Creature Comforts: DVD
Deadtime Stories for Big Folk - Deadsy: DVD
Deadtime Stories for Big Folk - Door: DVD
Secret Joy of Falling Angels: DVD
A is for Autism: DVD
Screen Play: Online
The Mill: Online
Bob's Birthday: Online
The Sound of Music (AKA Eldorado): Online
The Village: Online
Abductees: Online
Crapston Villas: Online
Many Happy Returns: Online
Pond Life: VHS and online
Death and the Mother: Online
Silence: Online
The Man with the Beautiful Eyes: Online
Home Road Movies: DVD
City Paradise: Online
Rabbit: Online
Peter and the Wolf: DVD

The remainder of the book is spent charting the decline (in terms of quantity, not quality) of Channel 4 animation, Kitson's departure from the channel, and finally, the future of independent British animation.

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