Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Birth of the Robot and the stop motion of Len Lye

Image from the Harvard Film Archive

New Zealand-born Len Lye is best remembered for his 2D abstract films, but in 1935 he directed a stop-motion puppet film entitled The Birth of the Robot.

Promoting Shell oil, the film is themed around machinery: even the Universe is mechanical, hand-cranked by Father Time. Meanwhile, a man resembling something out of a Trumpton/Only Fools and Horses crossover drives merrily around Egypt only to run out of petrol and die in the desert; the goddess Venus, represented as an automaton on Father Time's machine, takes pity on him douses his skeleton with Shell oil. He is revived as a robot (apparently this was Shell's logo at the time, although I have come across no other usage of the character), the desert is paved with a motorway, and he jets into the sky in a swish new automobile.

The film was scripted by someone named C.H. David while the puppets were designed by John Banting. According to Screenonline Lye felt the brief to be too restrictive; the film is certainly unlike most of his work. It may possibly have been influenced by the advertising films that George Pal was making for British audiences at around this time, although as it uses conventional stop motion puppetry rather than substitution of models the actual animation style is very different.

As far as I know, Lye directed only one other stop motion film: a two-minute independent short identified by its title card simply as "Experimental Animation, 1933" (it is also referred to as Peanut Vendor, after the song which it is based around). It features a strange dancing monkey character who prefigures Jack Skellington in his lanky design.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

General Tiddles, mascot of

One of Channel 4's more interesting - if, alas, shortlived - experiments with animation in the last few years was a website that served as a spiritual successor to the channel's animation strand from the nineties, 4mations. Clare Kitson discussed the plans for the site in her book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor:
Camilla [Deakin] and Ruth [Fielding]'s major hope for C4 animation is the new broadband channel named, nostalgically, 4mations. It is built and designed by Aardman and modelled on the already functioning, and highly successful, FourDocs broadband channel. The new channel is to give equal weight to archive material (with classic films but also interviews, filmographies and curated seasons); work from Animate and the successor scheme to AIR and Mesh; information on such varied topics as software, festivals, games and colleges; and user-generated content.
When the site went live in July 2008 its focus was very much on user-generated content, with a range of classic Channel 4 shorts added to the mix as time went on; in essence, it was a YouTube for animators. The new 4mations also served as a funding scheme: shortly before its launch a call for ideas was sent out, giving animators the chance to pitch three-episode series, short films of up to one-and-a-half minutes and Flash games.

Chad Banger, one of the first batch of 4mations creations.

Amongst the series to be commissioned by 4mations were Jon Dunleavy's Hoodeez; Madevi Daily & Andy Fielding'a Life According to Dinosaurs; Max Crow's Alien Invasion; and Rhona Rummond, Chris Watson & Rufus Wedderburn's Neddy Bear. The call for submissions specified work that was "[f]unny, sick, madcap, odd, surreal or just simply a bit wrong" and that seems a fair description of the resulting cartoons; this was a 4mations for the South Park, Adult Swim and Newgrounds generation. "We are now working with 14 different teams on some really funny and often very dark material", said Camilla Deakin. "One thing this has proved to me once and for all is that UK animators are very talented but also very sick and twisted!"

A couple of games were also made for the site, although one - Mr. Mucky Pest Control - was apparently deemed rude enough to warrant the entire site being temporarily taken down, according to The Guardian.

Later that year another call for submissions was put out, now focusing on shorts rather than series and with no mention of the sick-and-twisted ethos emphasised a few months previously. This more traditional approach was part of a larger change for 4mations: in 2009 the broadband channel was removed, the Channel 4 shorts and a few of the more popular user-submitted films moved to a YouTube channel, and the main body of replaced with a blog. "We have woken from our slumber and like some kind of giant bug-eyed bug popping out of his chrysalis we are new!" said the blog's first post, very much putting a positive spin on things, and the two comments posted were both supportive of the change. But with the video channel gone, this was really the end of the 4mations site as it was originally conceived.

Updates to the new blogsite incarnation of 4mations were initially regular but gradually petered out - at the time of writing, no posts have been added since July 2010 - and no more calls for submissions have been made since the second one in 2008., it seems, is effectively dead.

But at least it went out with a bang. The second and final batch of commissions resulted in such successes as Joseph Pierce's Cartoon d'Or finalist A Family Portrait; Jon Dunleavy's Crash! Bang! Wallow?, which was something of a viral hit; the Brothers McLeod's fĂȘted The Moon Bird; and Emma Lazenby's BAFTA-winning Mother of Many. This was the kind of thing that made Channel 4's name in the animation community, so if nothing else 4mations went some way towards putting the channel back on the animation map.

Mother of Many

Friday, 20 May 2011

Geoff Dunbar adverts

Here are some stills from three adverts directed by Geoff Dunbar; I believe all of them were made in the eighties. First, an advert for the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, featuring one of the more benign animated interpretations of the Sandman.

Next is a Heineken advert. Dunbar designed the characters, while Dave Unwin provided character animation.

And lastly, another Heineken advert.