Saturday, 31 December 2011

Looking back at 2011

And so, 2011 draws to a close. The troubled economic climate was no better for the animation community than it was for anyone else. There were rumours that Aardman would begin outsourcing, although these were subsequently denied; a cut in Arts Council funding cast doubt on the continued existence of the Animate scheme; and it was reported in October that the government decided against introducing the tax breaks hoped for by the British animation industry. Thankfully there were rays of light as well, with Animation Alliance UK being set up to campaign for independent animators and Oli Hyatt's Animation UK (aka Save UK Animation) campaign soldiering on.

Watch the Birdie, a rare 1954 Bob Godfrey short that was briefly available online this year.

Legendary animator Bob Godfrey turned ninety on May 27. The previous month a debate took place at the Cartoon Brew blog as to how Godfrey's filmography should be distributed: blogger Amid Amidi questioned the decision made by Godfrey's family to close down the YouTube channel showing his films and instead sell them via a view-on-demand process through the official Bob Godfrey Films website, which has since closed. In the comments section Tom Lowe, representing the Bob Godfrey Collection, had his say; the result is an interesting read and highlights the potentials and pitfalls offered by online distribution. (Just to avoid any cases of mistaken identity, I'd like to mention that the commentator named "Neil" is not me.)

Gulp, Aardman's 2011 record-breaker.

Last year the Aardman film Dot set the world record for smallest stop-motion character. Now, the studio has made it into the Guinness book for world's largest stop-motion set with Gulp. The short was made for Nokia by directors Will Studd and Ed Patterson. Another short from Aardman this year was Peter Peake's Pythagasaurus, featuring the voice of Bill Bailey.

Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo & Juliet and The Adventures of Tintin.

2011 saw the release of two more of those rarities, full-length British animated theatrical features - albeit ones that were, in large part, actually animated in America. Neither was hailed as a masterpiece but Aardman's Arthur Christmas was warmly received, while Gnomeo & Juliet was released to mixed but generally fairly positive reviews.

If we count Gnomeo as partly British on the strength of its writers and voice actors then we may as well also give a nod to Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. The Belgian master Hergé's comics were adapted for the screen by a trio of UK writers (Doctor Who's Steven Moffat, Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright and Attack the Block's Joe Cornish) and featured the voicing and mo-cap acting of a predominantly British cast (Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost).

The latest clutch of preschool direct-to-DVD flicks.

On the direct-to-DVD front we saw some more outings for younger children. Thomas the Tank Engine starred in Day of the Diesels; Bob the Builder gave us The Big Dino Dig; and Angelina Ballerina danced again in The Shining Star Trophy.

2011 TV premiers: Little Charley Bear, Raa-Raa the Noisy Lion, Rastamouse and Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex.

On a similar note, a few more preschool TV series premiered this year: Little Charley Bear (covered in depth by Toonhound) stars a CGI teddy and his toybox friends, while Raa-Raa the Nosiy Lion and Rastamouse showcase more work from stop-motion puppet maestros Mackinnon & Saunders. Adult animation was not neglected: Zac Beattie and Jonathan Hodgson collaborated on The Trouble with Love and Sex, an episode of the otherwise live action documentary series Wonderland.

Biffa Bacon stars in the third installment of Viz Blaps.

Some time ago I made a post mulling over the surprising lack of comic adaptations throughout the history of British animation. This year saw an exception to the rule when Channel 4's three online shorts based on the long-running Viz premiered, apparently intended as pilots for a potential TV series. Writing-wise I found the shorts to be a hit-or-miss lot, but with strong voice acting and interesting visual sensibilities there's definite potential.

Latest publications from Stephen Cavalier, Tony White and Aardman.

Of the various books on animation that were published this year, I know of two by British animators: The World History of Animation by Stephen Cavalier and Animator's Notebook: Personal Observations on the Principles of Movement by Tony White. I must admit, I haven't had time to sit down and read either of them yet, but I've skimmed through World History and can recommend it as a broad and lavishly-illustrated introduction to the subject. Also of note is the movie tie-in The Art & Making of Arthur Christmas.

Childhood Ghosts. Well, we've all got to start somewhere, haven't we?

For my part, I completed a short cartoon of my own, Childhood Ghosts. It didn't make it anywhere in the festival circuit, but it's a start...

Oscar and BAFTA successes: The Lost Thing, The Eagleman Stag, the Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention website, Flying Monsters 3D, The Amazing World of Gumball and Peppa Pig.

The Oscar for Best Animated Short Film had two partly-British nominees this year: the UK/German co-production The Gruffalo and the UK/Australia collaboration The Lost Thing, the latter winning the award. A Morning Stroll by Grant Orchard of Studio AKA is amongst the ten films shortlisted for next year's award, but it remains to be seen whether it will make it into the final list of nominees. At the BAFTAs, meanwhile, it wasn't a bad year for British animation, with all three nominees for Short Animation hailing from the UK: David Prosser's Matter Fisher; Matthias Hoegg's Thursday; and the winner, Michael Please's The Eagleman Stag.

A smattering of animations graced the BAFTA television awards, with the prize for New Media going to the website for Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention; Flying Monsters 3D , a part-CGI documentary about prehistoric life, taking the award for Specialist Factual; and Fonejacker earning a nomination for Comedy Programme. In the children's awards the UK/France co-production The Amazing World of Gumball won the Animation prize (the other contenders being Grizzly Tales, Muddle Earth and Pet Squad) and its scribes James Lamont and John Foster won the award for Writer. Meanwhile, Ragdoll's Dipdap took the Short Form award; Aardman's The Tate Movie Project won the Interactive trophy; and Peppa Pig took the gold in Pre-School Animation, a category in which it was nominated alongside Octonauts, Little Princess and Rastamouse. Harley Bird, who voices Peppa, won the Performer award.

A few of the festival winners: A Morning Stroll, The Renter, Bobby Yeah, Abuelas, The Itch of the Golden Nit and Save Our Bacon.

At Annecy, the Junior Jury Award for short film went to Grant Orchard's A Morning Stroll; the Cristal for best TV production went to The Quest, an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball; and Michael Please's The Eagleman Stag earned a special distinction. Over at the Ottawa festival, the Best of Ottawa 2011 programme included 12 Sketches on the Impossibility of Being Still by Magali Charrier; I'm Fine Thanks by Eamonn O'Neill; Moxie by Stephen Irwin; The Goat and The Well by Ben Cady; and Electropia, British-based animator Noriko Okaku's music video for the Japanese band Joyz.

At the Bradford Animation Festival Geoff Dunbar was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award; Jason Carpenter's The Renter earned a Special Jury Prize; Grant Orchard's A Morning Stroll won the Award for Best Professional Film; The Girl Effect, animated by Mighty Nice, took the Award for Best Commercial; Sarah Cox's The Itch of the Golden Nit was given the Films for Children Young Person's Jury Award; and the Films by Young Animators Award was won by Bricknell Primary School's I Wish I Went to Ecuador, with Buchlyvie Primary School's Hedgerow Tales the runner-up.

Meanwhile, the student awards at Middlesborough's Animex International Festival of Animation & Computer Games honoured Peter Baynton's Save Our Bacon, which won the 2D Animation Award; and Matt Aldridge and Tim Mehmet's Pollex, which was a runner-up for Games Animation Award.

Wolverhampton's Flip Animation Festival handed out awards for films voted for by the audience. The winners were Francesca Adams's Bertie Crisp; Trevor Hardy's Dead Bird; Ben Smith's Robin Hood; Ravi Maheru's Caged; Alex Hancocks & Luke Geroge's John and Betty; and one foreign film, The Skeleton Woman, by French director Sarah Den Boom.

At the London International Animation Festival the award for Best British Film went to two films: Robert Morgan's Bobby Yeah took the judges' vote, while Afarin Eghbal's Abuelas earned the audience vote. The award for Best Cut-Out Film also went to a British production, Elizabeth Sevenoaks' Roots of the Hidden.

2011 also saw a new animation festival held in Bridgnorth - although, technically speaking, it's actually an extension of the existing Bridgnorth Arts and Music Festival, held from 24 August to 2 September. Dubbed ForwardFor, it does not appear to have handed out any awards.

Mark Hall, 1936-2011.

Mark Hall, co-founder of Cosgrove Hall, died in November at the age of 74. Shortly beforehand he had seen his legendary animation company revived with the help of Dublin-based Francis Fitzpatrick as Cosgrove Hall Fitzpatrick Entertainment; this company has been involved in the creation of two new series, Pip! and The Hero Gliffix. A memorable obituary was posted by Toonhound, touching on the little-known stop-motion version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that Hall directed:
When I was growing up, Cosgrove Hall were the biggest name in UK animation. They dominated our teatime tv schedules on ITV, and each year I would scour the Christmas edition of Radio Times, eager to pinpoint the date and time of their next festive premiere. Losing one half of that amazing company name makes this commentator feel like the little boy, left behind by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Sam, Chorlton, Jamie, DM, Toad, Ratty, Mole and so many more favourite characters have been led away into some fading magic hillside, ne'er to return...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Animations of Christmas past and present

Well, as you'll have noticed, Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat. To ring in the festive season, here are some Christmastime shorts old and new to enjoy before you all go off to wassail the orchards.

To start with here's one made by Falmouth-based Christian Topf Design as a gift to its clients in 2007. Very limited in terms of animation, the clip is basically a moving illustration, and rather charming in its way:

Next, here's a 1988 short by Sheila Graber, Toys Will be Toys:

And here we have a characteristically warped festive outing from Cyriak Harris:

Moving swiftly on to something rather more traditional, here's a stop-motion Nativity story made by year 6 six pupils from the Hempstead Junior School in Gillingham:

And now, Walter R. Booth's 1901 trickfilm Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, the earliest surviving film adaptation of Charles Dickens' work. More information can be found on Screenonline.

And finally, an eight-minute BFI documentary about a form of pre-film animation, the magic lantern show. Not strictly pertaining to Christmas (although A Christmas Carol turns up again), it nonetheless seems somewhat appropriate for the season:

Monday, 12 December 2011

Tim Searle's Blue Xmas

Blue Xmas is a music video animated with a stylish (and very eighties) collage technique. It was made in 1988 by Tim Searle, then a West Surrey College of Art and Design student and now better known as the creator of 2DTV and the Have I Got News for You opening. The visual style is alien to his later projects, but his interest in social commentary is evident.

(Incidentally, Searle also wrote the song for the video, a blues number performed by Jo Law).

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Aladdin Bonzo and the Wonderful Lamp

Just in time for the panto season, here are some stills from 1925's Aladdin Bonzo and the Wonderful Lamp. The sixteenth short in the Bonzo series, it sees the puppy hero happen upon a woman relating the Arabian Nights story, causing him to become Aladdin himself in a daydream.

It's one of the most off-the-wall Bonzo cartoons. Before becoming Aladdin, Bonzo takes the spot off his body, turns it into a bouncy ball and gives it to a small boy. Later, with the aid of the genie's magic, the ball is sent out of reality and into Bonzo's daydream via a telephone line (or some kind of radio station's equipment - I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with 1920s technology to figure out what's being portrayed); the detached spot briefly sprouts a face, limbs and the ability of speech in one scene. Gags like this far removed from the fairly conventional slapstick humour of the first Bonzo short, and arguably show the influence of crazy American cartoons such as the Out of the Inkwell.

The short is available on DVD from Cartoons on Film. Unfortunately the surviving print is in poor shape, with the final gag (in which Bonzo struggles to remain seated on a camel's back, and ends up inverting the poor creature so that its troublesome humps are on its stomach instead) having faded away almost to nothing.