Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Animation Nation: Something to Say part 1

Here's the third part of my transcript of the 2005 BBC4 series Animation Nation. The series' second episode discusses the more experimental side of British animation; the first half, covered in this transcript, focuses mainly on works from the sixties and seventies.

Footage from the premiere of Yellow Submarine, followed by footage from the film itself.

Narrator: London, July 1968, and the premiere of the latest film from the most famous band in the world. But adoring fans, expecting another madcap adventure with the fab four, were in for a surprise. Yellow Submarine didn't feature real life Beatles but cartoon versions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Nothing quite like this had been seen before in a British animation film. Yellow Submarine was colourful, bursting with energy and invention: it signalled a new way forward for British animation. After Yellow Submarine came a time when animators could free their minds, take risks.

Gerald Scarfe: I satirised everything I could, and I had Mickey Mouse on drugs, oh horror of horrors! I mean, that was something you just didn't do.

Footage from Candy Guard's series Pond Life.

Narrator: Animators could turn to comedy to ask questions of the world.

Candy Guard: I just want to make people laugh. But not by being silly, but by being truthful.

Narrator: Animators could turn your world upside down.

Terry Gilliam: Whatever we were doing was trying to shock people into waking up and looking at the world in a different way. I mean, if it's subversive, it's subversive in trying to change people's perspective of what the world is.

Narrator: This is the story of how British animation got bite, when British animators began to make films with vision, and films with something to say.

Behind-the-scenes images from the making of Yellow Submarine.

Narrator: Yellow Submarine was based on twelve songs the Beatles had been recording during the explosion of psychedelia in 1967. The film took eleven months of frantic activity, a team of nearly 200 animators working night and day in the Soho studios of company TV Cartoons. The overall director of Yellow Submarine was Canadian George Dunning, who impressed on those joining the project what was expected of them to capture the spirit of the film.

Bob Godfrey: He said, "oh, Bob, have you ever taken LSD?" And I said "Oh, God, no, George, nothing stronger than aspirin really, no" he said "oh, that's a pity, because the whole film is a psychedelic trip".

Narrator: From the beginning, Yellow Submarine was unusual: An animated film aimed at grown ups, not children.

John Coates: We wanted to do something that would be appreciated, not by kiddies, young kids, but right across the board, which meant that a lot of the humour and things in the script are fairly adult.

Narrator: The film was a challenge to established animators used to a more disciplined working environment.

Bob Godfrey: I said "where's the storyboard, where's the script" he says "there's no storyboard, there's no script", and I said "well, I see. So what do you want me to do - what do you want me to do, what do we do?" he said "well, you come in, and you tell me jokes." And I knew he didn't like jokes very much, so I said "okay". I got a joke into the Sea of Monsters, there was this terrible monster, and so I had the submarine fire a cigar like a torpedo into this monster's mouth, and then I had the submarine's sort of conning tower sort of open up and became a cigarette lighter, and lit the cigar which the monster puffed at and then it exploded.

Footage from Yellow Submarine.

Narrator: It was to graphic artist Heinz Edelmann that Dunning turned to for the look of Yellow Submarine, the vivid and colourful designs which set its psychedelic style.

Terry Gilliam: To me, that was the sixties, late sixties - it was this brilliant colour, and again it was very great on distorting and being surreal, the way he pushed characters... his artwork I just adored. The thing I like most about Yellow Submarine is just his designs.

Narrator: Director George Dunning was interested in experiment. He wanted all his animators to take risks - to be quirky and surreal.

Jimmy Murakami: He instructed all the animators on how to become filmmakers. He was never happy to get footage from animators that was just safe and workable, he wanted to get something different, exciting.

Gillian Lacey: I was very young and it was my first job there, but it felt so different. You know, I hadn't a great love for traditional cartoon or American features - Disney, at that time, particularly .

Footage from Yellow Submarine's Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence.

Narrator: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds pushed the film's experimentation to the limit. It used an animation technique called rotoscoping, tracing live action images taken from old movies, but then overlayed these with brushstrokes to make the sequence more stylised and surreal.

Gillian Lacey: Don't know what it's about! Dare I say what it's about? But Bill Sewell designed that and it was very free-flowing, I mean it was based on live action sequences, paint was all over the place, so for me it was a quite druggy kind of experience, you know.

John Coates: Everybody sat up and said "hey, we don't have to imitate Disney any longer". I'm not knocking Disney 'cause their films were lovely, but we don't have to feel we're tied down to doing imitations of that, we can go off and do anything we like.

Narrator: Yellow Submarine reflected a message of peace and understanding which looked back to the 1967 summer of love. But by 1968, the mood had changed.

Robert Hewison: to be inn London in 1968 was really rather strange, because on one hand you could go down King's Road and there were all the dollybirds and the miniskirts and there was a lot of fun and affluence and you could go down the clubs. Everybody was having a good time. But at the same time suddenly you'd hear somewhere to your left or right you'd here "Out, out, out!" and suddenly there'd be a demonstration.

Narrator: In 1968 the atmosphere on the streets was harder-edged, more political and found its focus in the protests against the Vietnam war. One film picked up on the sense of unease the war had generated; this was a bold collaboration between an animator and a film director: The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Footage from The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Robert Hewison: It picks up on a contemporary issue, but filters it through a Victorian issue. The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war was a complete cock-up, and basically what they're trying to say in the film is that the people in charge of us don't know what they're doing.

Narrator: To reinforce the anti-establishment, anti-war message of his film, director Tony Richardson wanted animated inserts to punctuate live action sequences. So he turned to animation director Richard Williams.

Richard Williams: It was a metaphor for the Vietnam situation, like today, winding everybody up for a war - England was the policeman of the world, as America now is, and it was just getting everyone ready to be cannonfodder, you know, and to attack the dreadful Russians. And the terrible fear, fear, fear of the Russians, you know, the Russians are coming!

Narrator: The fine detail of the animation meant that Williams' reputation for perfectionism was well-tested.

Richard Williams: It was terrifying, and thrilling, and he stood right by us. And whenever we delivered something good he'd send over champagne, we'd all get drunk and fall on the floor and start again, you know. I have to say it's probably the best job I ever got offered. I had a tiny little unit, about five of us, and we worked ourselves crazy, and we went three or four days at a time, working all day and all night and collapsing, doing all this crosshatching.

Narrator: Using a graphic style and images from the 1850s, but infusing it with the spirit of 1968 created a powerful satire about empire and Britain's role in the world. But despite their quality and invention, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Yellow Submarine failed to make the kind of money which had movie moguls clamouring for more. So the animation houses of London waited in vain for the next big animation gig. But, in a lean period, Bob Godfrey's studio on Wardour Street could be relied on as a source of work.

Bob Godfrey: The animators about that time were coming into my studio from being laid off by Yellow Submarine, you know, because Yellow Submarine was finished and at the end of each feature people get laid off and they'd come round to me and I'd give them work, you know, because they were good.

Footage of Bob Godfrey working in his studio.

Narrator: Godfrey's reputation also attracted those looking for their first break.

Terry Gilliam: When I got to London, somehow his name kept popping up, and I was running around with my portfolio trying to get work, and I went to Bob's studio because people said this was an exiting place to be.

Narrator: Although Terry Gilliam never got a job with Bob, he had a profound respect for his sense of mischief.

Terry Gilliam: It was such a life spirit there, and a joy being crude and childish sometimes - especially when he got into his sex stuff, he just couldn't wait to show tits and bums!

Footage from Kama Sutra Rides Again.

Narrator: Taking advantage of a more liberal climate of censorship, Godfrey made Kama Sutra Rides Again: one man's search for sexual health and efficiency.

Bob Godfrey: He as like, er... screwing for Britain, you know! He was an enthusiast, his wife just went, you know, like wives, "oh, here he goes again, its his hobby".

Terry Gilliam illustrates naughtiness.

Terry Gilliam: It was a very British kind of thing - naughtiness, I think that's what it's about. It's like the postcards at the beach, they're naughty, and Bob just pushed it a little bit further.

Bob Godfrey: I gave each animator a sort of sexual position, you know. "You will do the, er, the hammock, you'll do the hammock" "Oh, thanks!" "An you will do something else, you know, the bicycle"

Bob Godfrey: We were kind of satirising the permissive society, I suppose, really. That's what we were doing.

Narrator: Kama Sutra was a hit on the adult film club circuit, but had limited distribution in the cinema. In the early seventies it was a new television show which brought an animated kind of subversion to a mass audience, and gave Terry Gilliam his big break. Gilliam's cutout animation from Monty Python, with its bizarre juxtaposition of familiar images, had a vital role in this surreal form of comedy. The animation's visual humour broadened the Pythons' appeal.

Terry Gilliam: I keep hearing this as a I get older and people come out of the woodwork and say "John wasn't really funny, Mike was a bit boring, Terry was over the top, but your animations - that's why I watched the show."

Narrator: As Gilliam demonstrated on Bob Godfrey's very own TV show, his own style of cutting and assembling images was simple but effective.

Terry Gilliam: Sometimes I really felt the technique was dictating the material I was doing. By staying within those limited parameters it forced me to deal with certain things in certain ways, and I guess the violence came out - 'cause crude actions, boom! Do that - you couldn't do beautiful, articulated flying creatures that wafted around the place and were incredibly beautiful, they were just simple, they went DUM DUM DUM, BANG!

Bob Godfrey: Terry's work used to link the other things, and I thought it fitted in terribly well, because it was surrealist, and a lot of their sketches were surrealist.

Footage from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Terry Gilliam: I was torn in some ways 'cause I love these paintings, I love them just for being beautiful paintings. But just because it's beautiful and wonderful and classical and done by a great artist doesn't mean I can't fuck it up. We did that, the Michelangelo one during the age with Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, these were the great censors that were out there trying to stamp out all the indecency in television in particular and there was something about - you know, you take a classic statue like Michelangelo's David, everybody's seen it and it's nude. So, well, I put a fig leaf on it. Finally, it's pulled off and it's Lord Longford's face rather than Michelangelo's genitals.

Terry Gilliam: It was very juvenile, what we were doing, basically. If there was somebody who was in a position of authority, somebody who was pompous, something that was hypocritical, you go for it because they need to be attacked all the time, because the world sort of aspires to pomposity and seriousness, and if you can undermine it you're doing, I think, some important work.

Robert Hewison: Suddenly, there it was in your living room. Suddenly, the kind of surrealism of the Pythons was part of a mass medium, and of course it changed the way people acted, it changed the way people spoke, it changed the way people thought about the previous hierarchical world of deference and authority.

Narrator: If Python and Terry Gilliam's animation mocked authority, then in the hands of political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe it became a more savage weapon of satire with a darker portrayal of the world. In 1973, Scarfe decided to turn to animation to record a trip to America. He used the medium to satirise the sacred idols of American power and culture.

Footage from Long Drawn-Out Trip. More stills here.

Gerald Scarfe: In the 1970s film A Long Drawn Out Trip there was very much an effort to satirise America. I mean, I love America, and when I was growing up in the fifties in England everything exciting and fantastic was in America - Elvis Presley movies, automobile cars and so forth, but when I went there since I was known as a satirist in this country, I knew that that's what they wanted from me, and yes, I satirised everything I could, and I had Mickey Mouse on drugs, oh horror of horrors! I mean, that was something you just didn't do.

Narrator: Long Drawn-Out Trip attracted the attention of Pink Floyd, who invited Scarfe to provide animation for a new musical project they were planning: The Wall. Rock star patronage gave Scarfe the freedom to produce a series of iconic images which defined an era as the seventies collapsed into the eighties.

Footage from The Wall.

Gerald Scarfe: I think when I was working on the images in The Wall there was a political purpose there behind them. It wasn't really specifically against any government or any personalities in particular, but it was against The System, a system. I was an asthmatic child and therefore missed a lot of my education, and at what schools I went to I was always behind, and I was always scared of the teacher, and I kind of had this feeling that I was being shoved through some kind of mincing machine, through some sort of system. And being made to come out the other end, not exactly cannon fodder, but some kind of fodder. The Wall itself is about the way we all build up walls within ourselves, to stop our vulnerability being damaged. Anyone can get in, past and get to you and upset you, you build up a kind of defence against them and that's the wall. When I had to think up something for the forces of oppression, I tried to think of something unyielding, something unforgiving, something thoughtless and something that was blind to any kind of feeling . After a while, the image of the hammer became so obvious to me.


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