Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ralph Stephenson on British animation in 1973

I can't speak for anyone else, but I often find outdated essays on cinema very interesting. Any given overview of contemporary cinema is going to note the changes between the past and what was then the present, and probably also attempt to predict the future in some way. Going back and looking at first-hand accounts of a film scene that has since become part of history can be eye-opening.

Ralph Stephenson's 1973 book The Animated Film covers British and Canadian animation in the same chapter, noting overlapping talents such as Richard Williams, George Dunning, Trevor Fletcher and Gerald Potterton. Stephenson provides a survey of both countries' animation from their origins up to the time when the book was written, and so makes some interesting observations about a point in British animation history now long gone.
In Britain as in other countries there is some divergence of style between the older established studios and the new, younger animators: Halas and Batchelor on the one hand, and George Dunning, Bob Godfrey, Dick Williams on the other. But as in other fields, the divergence is less violent and less marked than in America. The conservatives are not so conservative, the commercial film-makers are not so commercial, the avant-garde is not so avant-garde.
Stephenson picks out Dunning, Godfrey and Williams as three key British animators of the period:
Despite close relationships, the leading three, Godfrey, Dunning and Williams have individual differences. Godfrey is the shaggiest and cuts deepest where sex is concerned. Dunning is more of a stylist and has developed a liquid painting style derived from Bartosch. Williams takes his ideas more seriously and has tackled more ambitious projects. Their work is sometimes called "goon" humour but the description is inexact.
He goes on to outline at length the differences between the three animators in question and the Goons - comparisons between British independent animation and Spike Milligan's comedy troupe were apparently widespread at the time, judging by the amount of ink Stephenson spent on the matter. In conclusion, he writes that
There have been other influences in the English cartoon collectively more important than the Goons. One could go back to the surrealist worlds of Lear and Lewis Carroll, the light verse of Harry Graham, Belloc and T. S. Eliot. In the newspapers there has been the deadpan lunacy of Beachcomber, This England and the "New Statesman," the satire of Giles and his anarchic midgets, of "Oz" and "Private Eye." Again there is the work of objet-trouvés sculptors, Bruce Lacey's crazy collections, the vogue of Victoriana and the like as fun objects, op art, pop art, and even modern fancy-dress fashion modes.
The end of the survey contains the customary mixture of mourning, suggesting that British animation is past its prime, and cautious optimism. In particular, Stephenson places great stock in the possibilities of animation courses:
At the present time the excitement of a new movement has died away, the success of The Yellow Submarine has made shorts seem less of an achievement, and perhaps English animation is in need of fresh inspiration. At the same time (no doubt due to expanding TV and industrial markets) studios seem more prosperous and there are more of them. Perhaps, eventually, new thought will come from schools and colleges where film-making and film appreciation are increasingly finding a place in the curriculum - though not often alas, animation. There is a good case for including animation courses in art colleges and/or universities. English animators, though they have led the way in instructional cartoons and have established a school of eccentric humour, have worked in fairly conventional styles and along conventional lines. There are enormous possibilities for new, adventurous approaches to movement on the screen both graphic and plastic. On the one hand association with the training or trained as artists should bring stylistically broadening influences, while on the other hand the range of academic knowledge to be found in a university should help to make the most fruitful use of new techniques such as computer animation.

1 comment:

  1. First, Dunning and Williams were Canadian, Bob Godfrey Australian, and John Halas Hungarian.
    Dunning was ex-UPA and Canadian Film Board. Williams worked for Dunning for several years. Godfrey worked for Larkins. The Yellow Submarine was never a success, and I don't think generally released.
    Regarding the 'Goon'humour of the'British' animators. I don't recall Dunning, Williams, or Godfrey ever writing their own scripts (Williams did the Little Island though). I wrote scripts for all of them, and also wrote for the Goon show. You will find it listed in the Ralph Strephenson book of above.