Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Geoff Dunbar's Ubu

Ubu faces the audience in a static shot that lasts for several seconds, ending when he breaks wind.

Ubu is a 1978 film made by Geoff Dunbar, based on Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi. Dunbar discussed the short in a 4mations documentary about his work, Dunbar's Lore:
I think it was the late sixties, and I saw this wonderful production of Ubu on at the Royal Court, and Max Wall was playing his Royal Highness. And it was just astounding, I mean, that was my initiation with Alfred Jarry, I mean, he was quite an extraordinary man. I thought at that time, if I ever got the chance to do it, Ubu would just be the most natural animated picture. I related it to Jarry in terms of animation initially because it was originally a marionette play that he put on at school as a boy, and then he placed it a little bit later in the theatre. And I think it's part of anyone that works in the theatre, it's part of their curriculum, you know, you come across Ubu, you come across the importance of Ubu in breaking the traditions.

...So we developed that style, you know, literally it was blobbing ink. And when we were doing some of the backgrounds - you know, they were very simple, we just drew them in like this, and then I would take a bottle of ink with those plunger things, just squeeze it, and then just whack it right across it, and you'd just let the blobs go.

I remember, it was in the BAFTA theatre, and it was a full house, a lot of people had turned up to see this piece. And it did the job, it broke the mould, I think, of people's conception of animation. I mean, there it was: suddenly there was something else happening on the screen. And it was the most marvellous feeling when it finished, there was a little pause. And tremendous applause, I was really moved by that. I did, at another screening, overhear some people walking out saying it was the most revolting and disgusting film they'd ever seen, and they didn't know what animation was coming to. At which I thought, well, I don't know, I mean, it can't always be little cutie characters.
Oscar Grillo commented on the film in the same documentary:
Jarry's drawings were at the time actually very, very important for Geoff's design of the film... because he's more able to admire an artist than a filmmaker. He' not afraid to leave for four seconds a static character looking at you. I say, if you go to a museum and see Mona Lisa, she's not moving, she's looking at you. So have a character looking at you, that character thinks, that character actually has loads of dimensions.

In the battle of Ubu, which is to my view one of the most powerful, violent sequences in the history of European film, I think only you could find things that is in Japanese films, live action films. Geoff actually managed to convey a lot of brutality and horror. And if you actually analyse the style and the drawings, they are unbelievably simple, childish, call it what you prefer. but the strength and the energy, which is essential in this dynamic form is being put by Geoff, being the fabulous artist he is.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Richard Taylor's Swimsong

Swimsong is a 1982 public information film directed by Richard Taylor; it's one of his most stylish pieces. Animator's Newsletter ran a feature on the short:

Directed by Richard Taylor for the C.O.I. A film to encourage people to learn to swim. This film was presented at last years Cambridge Animation Festival as a fine example of British animation. It uses the innovative technique of colour without outline.

Richard Taylor says: “It is a difficult film to find monochrome or line art-work for because the concept was entirely one of using colour to define form without outline. There were virtually no line model sheets done, each scene was worked out as a complete image and evolved by evolved by interchange between my conception and Roger McIntosh’s execution of the scenes (although there was execution by me and conception by him as well).

Of the drawings shown, the pair from Sc. 5 are perhaps the most illuminating since the shadow tone was separated out into another drawing and the tracer was instructed to omit the line detail in executing the cel. The shadow tone was not of course a single colour but there were two tones for each of the areas to be coloured – flesh, hair, swimming costume etc. By working out a range of colours at the beginning we were able to manage this light and shadow system throughout the film without proliferation of colours although no scene featured the same character or background more than once.

The other drawings come from scenes when the technique had settled down more and, by using coloured crayon, we defined the tonal separation on the one drawing.

In the case of the old woman in Sc. 11 the figure had to be separated into two levels of cel so that the under water parts were on the level below the surface glitter animation.”

Drawings taken from the Animator Magazine website

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ken Clark and the Grasshopper Group

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.

Ken Clark