Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Celebrating the Leeds Animation Workshop

A mainstay of animation in the UK that truly deserves recognition - yet, regrettably, tends to be overlooked - is the Leeds Animation Workshop. The workshop has been for the most part an all-female outfit ("One or two men worked with us until the group decided to remain women only", says founder Gillian Lacey) and is dedicated to socially aware films on a range of subjects including equal opportunities, the environment, child abuse and bereavement; Lacey has summed up the workshop's ethos as the "use of a style that is accessible to a wide audience combined with the creation of cartoon women who do not have huge tits and eyelashes."

The workshop's origins are outlined in Jayne Pilling's 1992 book Women & Animation: A Compendium:
Leeds Animation, a feminist cooperative was founded in 1976 by Gillian Lacey who got women together to make a campaigning cartoon film about the need for nursery education, made from the point of view of children - hence the title Who Needs Nurseries? - We Do! Most of their films use cel animation, in a populist and accessible cartoon style, although more recent films have employed cut-out, collage and live-action.
The book also contains an article by Gillian Lacey reflecting on her time at the workshop:
I worked for many years in commercial animation before moving north and starting the Leeds Animation Workshop. I had made a couple of my own films by then but could no longer find meaning in the world of TV series and adverts. Living in Leeds, it slowly dawned on me that I could use my animation skills in a more political way.


Other workshops were springing up and we were all part of of an upsurge in independent filmmaking, energised by our sense of breaking new ground. We believed passionately in the ideals - the opportunities for women, a flat rate wage, no individual credits on the films, a collective work process.
Who Needs Nurseries? opens with a TV reporter asking members of the public for their views on childcare. The first is a male football supporter, who replies "well, it's the woman's job, innit?"; when asked where his wife is, he says that she's probably shopping. Next, the reporter asks a woman in a supermarket - presumably the man's wife - with three toddlers; when asked about nurseries she expresses doubt: "you never know what they're going to pick up in one of them places, do you? You know, germs and that." She concludes that children "need a mother's love at that age."

After knocking over a shelf and starting an argument between her mother and the reporter, one of the toddlers runs off and finds a nursery. "I can't stand no more of it," she says to the other kids. "Me mum and dad are driving me barmy!" The other children are sympathetic and she delivers a heartfelt speech for them: "you'd think she hated the sight of kids sometimes", she says of her mum. "I'm sure it's 'cause she never gets a break, we're always under her feet and me dad's hardly ever there. When he is he's usually half asleep in front of the telly." One of the boys is unimpressed: "A child's place is at home with its mother. My daddy told me, so there." "Ha! I bet he only says that 'cause he don't have the trouble of looking after you," scoffs one of the girls.

The discussion gets heated ("split it up, you two, you're acting like a couple of adults!") but eventually it is agreed that on the whole nurseries are a good thing; however, statistics are brought in to show that there aren't enough to go round. The end of the film cuts back to the reporter, declaring that, according to his survey, parents think that children are better off at home; he begins talking about nurseries being a waste of public money, only to be drowned out by the voices of the children. The final shot shows the kids holding up a banner reading "Who needs nurseries - we do!"

The workshop has been making films for over thirty years, a remarkable achievement. "The Leeds Animation Workshop is a hardy survivor of the vicissitudes which have brought about the virtual demise of the independent film workshop sector since the early 1990s", reads Screenonline. "Its early objectives intact, LAW flourishes because it has succeeded in securing support from bodies other than the media and arts organisations which were the mainstay of the broader workshop movement, and it continues to attract funding by virtue of remaining focused about the purposes of every production."

The workshop's films have generally emphasised straightforwardness and accessibility in getting their messages across. No Offence, for example, tackles the issue of sexual harassment using the familiar language of fairy tales: Queen Ella finds that several employees of one department in her industrial kingdom (all of them women and/or minorities - Bo Peep, Curlylocks, Aladdin and so forth) have gone missing. She joins the department undercover to find out what's going on: "At once she noticed an unusual atmosphere", says the narrator. "It seemed Bluebeard had appointed a high proportion of male gnomes like himself to positions in the department." "Don't come near us, we don't want to sit next to a bloody fairy!" says one of the gnomes. Eventually it transpires that the missing employees have been turned to stone as punishment for complaining to Departmental Chief Executive Bluebeard; the spell is broken and Bluebeard is turned into a frog until he can find a princess willing to interview him for an executive post.

Jayne Pilling describes the effect of the films as being "Rather like watching an animated version of Andy Capp, in which long-suffering spouse Flo wises up and finds alternative employment, demonstrating a common-sense approach to issues such as health and safety in the workplace, local government, unionisation and sexual harassment." The approach works, resulting in films that are both entertaining and to-the-point, but some may find the films to be too simplistic conceptually. "Audiences can feel patronised by films that fail to acknowledge their ability to 'read' meaning", says Lacey. "Although there is still an audience for 'propaganda' animation in what has become the Leeds workshop's house style, I think that in opposition we need to keep up, not only with the issues but with the means of conveying them."

Stills from the workshop's 1989 short Out to Lunch

After working on the 1983 film Give Us a Smile Gillian Lacey left the workshop for reasons outlined in Jayne Pilling's book:
My vision of the workshop was to expand the group, to have visiting animators from whom we could learn new skills, to have movement within it, working on individual projects, taking on placements, expanding into live action. The others felt they were not ready for that. They felt that all the necessary skills were there within the group and that animation should remain the focus. So I left.
The research that she had done for Give Us a Smile - which, amongst other things, dealt with women being harrassed by the legal system - served as the basis for Blind Justice, a 1987 series of four short films; Lacey directed one short, with Marjut Rimminen, Monique Renault and Christine Roche handling the rest. Each film tackles the issue of prejudice against women in the legal establishment, doing so in a way that is just as sharp as the Leeds Animation films but less literal and more experimental. Lacey's other post-workshop films have dealt with abortion (Mixed Feelings) and her personal suffering from claustrophobia (Gotta Get Out); she has also worked on a number of dance films.

The Leeds Animation Workshop, meanwhile, is still going strong: the "in the works" section of its website lists films on learning disabilities, relationships and sexual health. The site summarises the workshop's current activities:

Since the mid-1980's the Workshop has been run by five women, who between them carry out all stages of the production process, from initial research to final distribution.

The projects are all produced in consultation with organisations and individuals involved in the relevant field. The Workshop specialises in making complex or sensitive issues more accessible to audiences, and at times offering an alternative point of view.

As well as production and distribution, the Workshop has been involved in many other activities, such as organising screenings of films by women and black directors, and providing workshop sessions in basic animation for adults and young people.

1 comment:

  1. L.A.W gave me my first taste of animation some years ago when i went on one of their short courses. I agree they are often overlooked, often unsung, but a fantastic & dedicated studio who i'm personally very grateful to.