Friday, 13 May 2011

Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex

The 11 May episode of the BBC2 documentary series Wonderland, titled The Trouble with Love and Sex, was billed as a breakthrough: the first full-length animated documentary made for British TV. Conceived by Zac Beattie, it followed a group of people undergoing counselling with Relate; for reasons of privacy only their voices were heard, set to animation provided by Jonathan Hodgson and the Sherbert studio. Concept art can be seen at Hodgson's blog.

Much of the action is a fairly literalistic representation, often taking place in the counselling rooms of Relate. However, there are a number of sequences that are more playful and experimental. Some are straightforwardly allegorical, such as when a couple who feel themselves drifting apart are shown literally drifting apart on a breaking ice flow; others are more expressionistic; and one, in which tiny figures of Adam and Eve appear in the hands of a man describing Jordan and Peter Andre's I'm a Celebrity romance, is played for laughs. Shades here of The Ricky Gervais Show.

Facial animation and broader bodily movements are drawn frame-by-frame, but other movements - tilting heads, shrugging shoulders, extending arms - are rendered with digital cutout animation, à la Waltz with Bashir. The two techniques don't entirely gel - the more obviously digital movements distract from the frame-by-frame animation and end up watering down the film's drawings.

The constraints of television are evident, but so is the presence of experienced and confident hands behind the project. Such a dialogue-heavy piece of animation risks ending up as illustrated radio but Love and Sex avoids that pitfall: characters tap armrests, fiddle with wedding rings, straighten their hair and make excited hand gestures, ensuring that the film is always watchable.

"[F]or the brilliant and generous people who let me crouch in the corner of the counselling room to record their weekly sessions, being hidden behind the animation was critical", says Beattie in a blog post. "It gave them enough privacy to feel able to talk freely about infidelity, erectile dysfunction, and their deepest family secrets in a way I don't think they would have in a traditional documentary."

The programme was praised by Telegraph reviewer Ceri Radford. "Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex (BBC Two) was a wonderful surprise, a bizarre idea which turned out to be something quite beautiful".

"At first, I suspected this technique would safely insulate the viewer from what was being said, as well as making everything rather trite", said John Preston, another Telegraph reviewer. "In fact, the opposite proved to be the case. The jerky movements of the animated figures were a strangely apt and touching accompaniment to people’s halting delivery, while the one moment of violence – when a man was describing how his father had tried to kill him – was all the more powerful because it overturned all one’s usual preconceptions about cartoon violence." This last observation was also made by Radford, who described the scene as "a startling subversion of what we expect from cartoon violence."

"It also transformed what could have made for excruciating listening into something eminently watchable", says Guardian reviewer Tim Dowling of the programme's animation. "With your eyes closed it was unbearably bleak; with your eyes open it seemed hopeful, uplifting and instructive."

The comments made on Beattie's blog post were similarly glowing, and a number singled out the animation for comment:

enjoyed program greatly...didn't expect to as animations not 'my thing'.

Amazing, please more series or programers [sic] like this. Animated documentary is a genius idea. Thoroughly enjoyed this programme and looking forward to more series.

Seeing animated tears welling up was strangely touching. The gestures and facial expressions of the animated characters were perfect echoes of real life.

The animation community routinely tells itself that the rest of the world sees the medium as being suited only to children's entertainment and the occasional lowbrow adult comedy. But the positive reception given to The Trouble with Love and Sex - not to mention its very existence - suggests that attitudes have, in fact, moved on, and probably moved on some time ago.

As an aside, The Trouble with Love and Sex belongs to a tradition that goes back at least as far as Animated Conversations in the seventies (a series which, according to Beattie in the comments section of his blog post, the Love and Sex crew watched as research). As a format for adult TV animation, it clearly has merit.

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