Characters from The Battle of Wangapore adorn issue 3 of Animator's Newsletter
The Grasshopper Group was a team of independent animators active during the fifties and sixties. The group began when Ken Clark - an amateur animator, inspired by silent pioneer Anson Dyer - teamed up with John Daborn of G-B Animation, who had the idea of a team of animators who communicated by post. Norman McLaren was picked as the group's president, and the first two shorts - Two's Company and Bride and Groom - made by the team were pixilated films, the latter starring Bob Godfrey and Gerald Potterton.
The team's filmography grew to encompass shorts such as A Short Spell, Oodles of Doodles, Raving Waving, Billowing Bellowing, Linden Lea, The Rejected Rose, the partly live action The Spark, Spring in the Air, and Chiffoonery. Amongst the people who worked with the group over the years were Derek Hill, Jim Nicolson, John Kirby, Stuart Wynn Jones, Richard Horn, Kevin Brownlow (just 14 years old when he worked on The Capture in 1956) and Daborn's twin sisters, who were paid with aniseed balls. Meanwhile, McLaren was later replaced as president by - of all people - Peter Sellers.
The Grasshopper Group's most praised short was 1955's The Battle of Wangapore, a drawn animation that took three years to complete and won multiple awards. It was originally conceived by Roy Davis as an instalment of a series called Magical Paintbox; this was to have been a follow-up to G-B Animation's Musical Paintbox series (which I covered here), but was scrapped when the studio closed. Wangapore was followed up with a live action making-of documentary called Let Battle Commence.
The group began to decline during the sixties, appears not to have made any films at all in the seventies, and was formally dissolved in 1982. Interestingly, however, the BFI database lists the Grasshopper Group as the production company behind Arion and the Dolphin, a 1997 animation by Catherine Collis.
Clark went on to research the history of British animation in the hopes of having a book on the subject published. He wrote a number of articles for Animator's Newsletter in the eighties, including a three-part history of the Grasshopper Group (part 1, part 2, part 3) from which this post is largely derived. In 1982 he had this to say about the team's work:
The experiences of my early Grasshopper days are as true and relevant as the experiences of amateur animators in the 1980′s. There is very little that is new under the sun, just new twists on old ideas. And since so many good ideas are lost in the passage of time it does no harm to remind ourselves of some of them.
This is still true today, perhaps even more so: the arrival of the Internet and affordable animation software has given amateur animation a new lease of life. Perhaps groups such as Grasshopper are an ideal model for independent animators today.
Ken Clark passed away in 2009. The Watford Observer ran an obituary for him, painting him as an animator, animation historian, dancer, and loving father.