Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Is There Intelligent Life on Earth? - a forgotten British animated feature?

In an earlier post I wrote about Bruno Edera's book Full Length Animated Feature Films. Published in 1977, the book lists eight British animated features that had been released at the time, along with the honourable mention of And Now for Something Completely Different. Of the eight, one is very obscure: Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?, worked on by none other than John Halas. It isn't mentioned by name in any other book on animation that I own (although Vivien Halas and Paul Wells' Halas & Batchelor Cartoons briefly discusses its creation), I can find only a few short references to it online, and the only image from it that I have is the single black-and-white still printed in Edera's book (above). So, just what is this forgotten British animated feature?

Thankfully, Bruno Edera answers that question for us at length. The reason for the production's obscurity is simple: it was, in fact, a live stage play that incorporated two hours of filmed footage. The filmed component was directed by John Halas and contained one hour's worth of animation; the play itself was conceived by Ralph Alswang, who also created the "Living Screen" process that combined his work with Halas'. Edera describes it:
'Living Screen' combines the techniques of screen and stage to create a new form. It is a combination of recent developments in film production, stage lighting and picture screens. This set up gives the illusion that a living actor on stage can walk through the cinema screen and become a film personality; or walk out of the screen and appear on the stage in the flesh in perfect visual continuity, or appear with his own screen caricature or his own double, and conduct a dialogue with himself.
The system was tried out for the first time in London in 1964 in a screen-stage play entitled Is There Intelligent Life on Earth? Later a shorter version of this production was presented at the New York World Fair using mainly the animation sections.
Edera also summerises the play's plot:
Three Martians (actors on stage) arrive from the Red Planet in a flying saucer to discover what deterioration has taken place on Earth since they last came. After probing the situation and asking searching questions of the mortals whose behaviour they are witnessing, they decide to return home as fast as possible.
Edera quotes, with irony, the 30th March issue of Review: "Well, we all know what happened to the talkies and those who forcast their early doom. Today a big breakthrough appeared which awaits the judgment of time. It is a process called 'The Living Screen'. It's here to stay". Despite this reception, no further Living Screen plays had emerged by the time of the book's writing.

See also Is There Intelligent Life on Earth? - the programme.

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