Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Live Action: A Brief History of British Animation by Elaine Burrows

Along with the Julian Petley essay that I named this blog after, All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (published by the BFI in 1986) also contains an essay by Elaine Burrows titled Live Action: A Brief History of British Animation.

Burrows' historical overview starts with Matches: An Appeal; carries on through World War I; covers the postwar adaptations of comic strips; charts the career of Anson Dyer into the thirties; discusses the work from Len Lye, Norman McLaren and the GPO in the same decade; covers Halas & Batchelor and the coming of animated features; talks about G-B Animation and Larkins; goes on to the arrival of TV advertising and its support for animators such as Bob Godfrey and George Dunning; points to Richard Williams' arrival from Canada and his subsequent creation of The Little Island as "something of a renaissance" in British independent animation; goes on to praise the animation studio that Williams later founded; discusses the addition in the late sixties of animation to art school syllabuses; comments on the coming of computer animation, with the work of Cucumber Studios brought up; carries on to cover music videos from other outfits; takes a sideways step into race and gender issues, commenting on Seaside Woman, Sunbeam, Bob Godfrey, the Leeds Animation Workshop and Vera Neubauer; talks about financial support from organisations such as the Arts Council and Channel 4; and comes to rest on children's series from Cosgrove-Hall, Bob Godfrey and Siriol.

The underlying sense given by the essay is that, although British animation has produced a number of masterpieces in its time, something's not right. Burrows laments the poor state of critical discourse on animation and points to ingrained prejudice towards the medium, but argues that British animation itself is to blame for at least some of its failings - "Although British films in general suffered from a wartime influx of American films, it was, in addition, British film-makers' reluctance to move from cut-out to cel which held back British animation for several years", she says of silent animation. She is particularly harsh on perceived racism and sexism:
Seaside Woman won awards at Cannes, Chicago and Zagreb, but was attacked in some quarters for its racist imagery. So, too, was Sunbeam, a slick 30s pastiche made by Paul Vester's Speedy Cartoons company in 1980. Socio-political issues, other than those promoted by the government, have largely been ignored by animators; ignorance or disregard of current debates has enabled film-makers to perpetuate old stereotypes in the name of 'humour'. One of the worst offenders has been Bob Godfrey, with films like Henry 9 Till 5 (1970) and Dream Doll (1979). It is true, of course, that advertising relies heavily on stereotypes; sexism, in particular, is rampant in all forms of promotional material. No doubt financial pressures have an effect on animators, making them unwilling to bite the hands that feed them by taking a strong line on such issues. It is also true that, because 'It's only a cartoon', many people who would be critical of similar images in photographs or live-action film tend not to notice, or turn a blind eye to, animated images.
Such criticisms seem very much of their time - British women animators, a number of them making films with overtly feminist themes, were surfacing at around the time the essay was written (Burrows cites Vera Neubauer and the Leeds Animation Workshop) and would rise in prominence throughout the next decade. Later writers looking at depictions of women in British animation have had a range of more sophisticated portrayals to analyse, and as such I can't think of any other commentators who saw Bob Godfrey's films as problematic. Burrows' underlying argument, however, is that animated filmmakers should be doing more to engage with issues facing contemporary society, and this point remains pertinent.

(Sunbeam, it should be noted, has since been defended by Irene Kotlarz and others - see Karl F. Cohen's Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America for more.)

Burrows concludes the essay by calling for more critical attention to British animation:
It is paradoxical that, when the excellence of the work of British animators is demonstrated nightly in television advertising, and when British films take prizes at all major film festivals, there should still be such a disregard for them in the minds of distributors and exhibitors.

If more work could be done on documentation and research, then perhaps animation would achieve the kind of respectability that live-action cinema now enjoys. A better educated audience might increase the demand for good animated films, and distributors and exhibitors would therefore be encouraged to make more films available. This, in turn, would help the animators' financial situation, making them less reliant on commercial sponsorship, and enabling them to spend time on personal, artistic, and even politically committed projects.

1 comment:

  1. Linda McCartney's Seaside Woman is racist. Is it a hate crime? Borderline case. How did Ringo allow this?