Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Autobahn and early computer animation

In 1979 Halas & Batchelor made a music video, directed by Roger Mainwood, for the Kraftwerk track Autobahn. In Vivien Halas and Paul Wells' book Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History Mainwood relates how he came to work on the film and sheds light on its pioneering - but not very successful - attempt at computer animation:
It was my fortune in the late 1970s to be invited to an interview with John [Halas]. I was still doing my MA in Film and TV at the Royal College of Art and had just started putting out feelers for future employment in animation. At the interview I showed John a few animation pieces from my college course, and also a live-action film I had made in Shetland. It was mostly shots of puffins and gannets cut to a lively jazz track but it seemed to impress John, maybe more than the animation pieces! Anyway, the next thing he said to me was that although they didn't have any puffins on offer, only pigeons, would I be interested in coming to the studio to help make a music film that he was wanting to do? He sent me home with a recording of Autobahn, the influential album from the German band Kraftwerk, and asked me to come up with some designs for a 12-minute animation.


In 1977 computer animation was very much an emerging art and the truth was that we pretty much failed to come up with anything that could be used in the film. The computer was a monster by today's standards, taking up half a room, but what let us down was the method it had for printing out drawings. This involved a long mechanical arm with a humble pen on the end moving in rather jerky movements over a piece of paper. So we came away with a pile of very jagged and shaky drawings that couldn't possibly be used. I ended up having to animate the scene by hand, but of course John's showmanship didn't let a thing like that get in the way of him promoting the film as having computer animated sequences in it - well I suppose we had given it a go!
Nick Yates also describes his experience working on the film:
Technically, we were using a PDP-11 computer with a flat-bed plotter and I only remember using inadequate Rotring drawing pens in it. Maybe it wasn't the pen's fault because the plotter held it straight upright and whacked it down onto the cel/paper and then dragged it around from point A to point B while the operator prayed that the ink would continue to flow. It was fine for straight lines but when the inconsiderate animator insisted on curved shapes from the machine it had to negotiate so many course changes that it lost its way. A circle would then end up looking like a pretty good rendition of a cornflake!

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I never knew this was a H&B film. I used to see it all the time on HBO, where it was shown as filler, along with its making-of documentary MAKING IT MOVE. I thought it was some kid's random school project.