Saturday, 21 April 2012

Animation Nation: Something to Say part 2


Continuing my transcript of the 2005 documentary series Animation Nation. Here's the second half of episode two (go here for the first half) which focuses on the Channel 4 era of independent animation and on adult animated sitcoms of the early 2000s.



Narrator: Until the early eighties, the commissioning and funding of challenging animation like The Wall had been sporadic and haphazard. Then, in 1981, a new patron appeared, with a logo that was an animated classic in itself.


Footage of Channel 4's original logo.


Narrator: Channel 4 quickly showed its intent when it commissioned the company behind Yellow Submarine to adapt a controversial book by cartoonist Raymond Briggs, about nuclear war: When the Wind Blows.


Footage from When the Wind Blows.


Narrator: When the Wind Blows became something of a personal crusade for director Jimmy Murakami.

Jimmy Murakami: It was such an emotional, moving thing, a lot to do with my background of being a Japanese and all, and the atomic bomb and the whole memory of the A-bomb and about the people killed. And the way it was written, and the way it was depicted was the right way to do it. I mean, the subject matter was difficult, and I knew I could do something with it so I thought this was the film I was waiting for, to do.

Narrator: The film tells the story of a retired couple's attempts to follow official government advice on how to prepare for a nuclear strike.

Robert Hewison: The couple in the film are deeply conventional ordinary people, and they're very obedient people. They are the sort of obedient people who went into the shelters in 1940, who accepted all the restrictions and rationing of wartime. And the voice of authority in the film is simply the voice of this pamphlet, Protect and Survive, which is an absolutely real pamphlet which told you how to survive a nuclear attack. And all they do - it's a brilliant piece of subversion - is solemnly read out and do the thing that this pamphlet tells you to do. And of course, what happens to this lovely, warm, loving couple? They die!

Narrator: When the Wind Blows was made during years of tension and paranoia as the cold war went into one last spasm of confrontation. In this atmosphere, even animators could be the enemy within.

John Coates: I'm quite sure that my home telephone was bugged at that time. So There was one day I came into the studio and somebody said "do you know your room has been broken into?" I said "Oh, for heaven's sake", and then when I went and looked at my desk I could see everything was there, but it wasn't where I'd left it.

Narrator: The masterstroke of the film was the casting of the actors Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills to provide the voices of the couple.

John Coates: We were in the recording studio and we were down to the last take, and I remember John Mills saying to Peggy what we said, do a read through, and he said to Peggy "we could just do a real run and see what happens", and that's the one that's on the film.

Jimmy Murakami: Raymond was there, John, myself and then Jim, we were in tears. It as just so moving - I mean, when you get it all at once coming at you, never heard it before, and only ever reading the lines, you know, and I just walked in to the studio and Peggy was in tears, and she said "please, Jimmy, don't ask me to do it again", I said "you don't have to. I mean, that's it."

Narrator: Channel 4's patronage not only established animators to create challenging work, but also encourage new voices previously underrepresented in the mainstream. These filmmakers brought fresh energy and invention with highly personal short works of animation.

Paul Wells: This was an incredible leap forward for British animation. I think it chimed in too with the idea that, of course, Channel 4's remit was to bring on board the margins, to look for areas of British culture that had not been covered and represented before in terms of British television and British broadcasting.


Footage from Murders Most Foul. More on it and the other Blind Justice shorts here.


Gillian Lacey: I had the idea of doing four different films with women animators who felt similarly. So we all took a different aspect of women and the law. And so I chose to do this one about murder, because I just felt so outraged at some of the judgments that I'd come across, and that way in which the women were seen as to blame, and men were often given quite light sentences. I used the style of melodrama because there is a sense of theatre in court procedures for me. There's a kind of absurdity about it.

Narrator: The first wave of female animators in the eighties was openly polemical, bringing a feminist agenda to their filmmaking. Candy Guard represented a second wave, less obviously political in their aims , where humour was the weapon of choice.


Footage from Candy Guard's Alternative Fringe.


Candy Guard: I naturally had a female main character and then I did cartoons about, jokes about women's toilets, and, you know, hairdressing and that kind of thing. I just want to make people laugh - but not by being silly, but by being truthful. Then I say, 'okay, this has happened to me', and if people laugh I think 'okay, it's probably happened to you as well then", and it makes me feel better.

Gillian Lacey: I think Candy's work from the beginning was really funny. It was like she was a female Bob Godfrey. It was building on what the generation before, my generation, had had to fight for. And in a sense we fought for a space, and Candy's generation walked into that space.

Narrator: Based the experience of working on her early films, Candy Guard went on to develop the character of Dolly Pond.


Candy Guard draws Dolly Pond.


Candy Guard: Small bosoms, three fingers - no real reason for that, except that it's very hard to do four fingers with a big fat felt pen. Spotty callots, circa 1988, for riding bike, and going for interviews, and going to the park. Sparrow legs, don't know where I got those from but they're good for doing fast walking, which she does a lot of. I wanted to do a sort of multifaceted character who as eternally dissatisfied, always trying very very hard to get certain things, and somehow failing, and going back to square one.


Footage from Pond Life.


Narrator: Dolly became the star of Pond Life, a series directed by a woman, dictated by a woman's view of the world. It was commissioned by Clare Kitson at Channel 4.

Clare Kitson: She just sees right through human nature and you know tells it like it is. I mean, there are some very, very funny scenes that are almost shocking because they're so, so real, you know, and you've been there, you've done that.


Footage from a film which I have not identified.


Narrator: Channel 4 also helped provide a showcase for those emerging from art schools, keen to experiment with both the form and the content of animation. Filmmakers like Jonathan Hodgson wanted animation to reflect the life they saw around them

Jonathan Hodgson: We tended to go out into the environment and observe things, and I made a couple of films at Liverpool. One was about dogs, and people and people with their dogs, the other film was kind of more personal to me, it was about nightclubs and the sort of scene in Liverpool at the time.


Footage from Jonathan Hodgson's Night Club. More stills here.


Narrator: This art school generation were children of the counterculture, taught by children of the sixties to value not only observation but the visual possibilities of animation.

Susan Young: I learnt that animation was more or less an extension of drawing, painting, sculpture, extended into time and space with sound with narrative, with possibly political content, and I thought, well, it's almost the ultimate art form. And that's really what got me hooked on animation.

Narrator: Working in a tradition which valued experimentation, Sue Young created animation which played with line and colour for its impact. Her 1985 film Carnival captured both revelry and tension on the streets of Notting Hill, London.


Footage from Susan Young's Carnival.


Susan Young: It's almost as if you can bring a line to life you can bring a brushstroke to life, you can give it its own personality, its own energy, and I think only with animation can you do that. I didn't really draw anything in advance, because I thought if I drew images in advance I'd start to be focused more on a specific narrative, and I wanted to allow myself some spontaneity. And I think if you're trying to express emotion in animation as well, it feels more relevant to do it in a non narrative kind of way, as a series... it's almost like an observational documentary, but with the animator's own emotions expressed throughout the piece of work.

Paul Wells: Film and television documentary, of course, has always been characterised by that observational style, trying to actually embrace the social world, and here this new generation of animators are taking that on board, and they're working in an observational style too. They're trying to draw from real life experience, trying to deal with the social issues and social concerns of the period. What they're bringing to that party though, obviously, is the language of animation itself, and in many senses able to make those observational documentaries distinctive by virtue of the use of that language, by as it were being able to depict interior states, by being able to show us emotional ideas.


Footage from Jonathan Hodgson's Camouflage.


Narrator: Camouflage by Jonathan Hodgson built on the memory of his mother's schizophrenia.

Jonathan Hodgson: I didn't want to just use my own point of view for this film, because partly, you know, I wanted to open it out and not just talk about me and my mum. So I interviewed quite a few people who'd had a similar experience to me. It would've been pointless in a way to have got an actor to re-read that stuff, because it's real emotion, you know, it's things being said for the first time, and incredibly honest, brave statements.

Narrator: Channel 4 not only invested in animation that observed life using documentary devices, it also commissioned animators like David Anderson to create imagined worlds where the mood was dark and surreal. Deadsy was ambitious, both in its technique and in the complexity of the message.


Footage from David Anderson's Deadsy.


David Anderson: It reflected that concern of nuclear threat that was lurking in in the background, but I think it was also part of the desire to rip open the sort of underbelly of society, that there was a certain amount of thing not being what they seemed, I think, at that point. It was looking at male sexuality and those issues. It was another slant on the business of warmongering. And it was really to stimulate people and get them thinking from another perspective about those things.

Paul Wells: The central figure is half man, half woman, changes gender halfway through perhaps. There's a strong sense in which that figure is also part of some sort of apocalyptic world that's in utter flux and not quite comprehensible. And animation of course had got the language to apprehend all of that.

Narrator: The defining element of Deadsy was a language for his world, invented and narrated by writer Russell Hoban.


Footage of Russell Hoban typing Deadsy's script.


Paul Wells: He used a very corrupted language, a corrupted language that we half understand, half engage with, but also half can't quite comprehend. And this is really the spirit of nightmare, this is Deadtime Stories for Big Folk.

Narrator: Into the nineties, animation for 'big folk' became ever more provocative in the universe created by Phil Mulloy. To give his animation directness Mulloy went back to basics.


Phil Mulloy draws one of his cowboy characters.


Phil Mulloy: I made a decision, okay, I'm just going to use a brush with ink, and I'm going to use it on A4 paper, and the reason is so that all the materials I'm using are dirt cheap. I dodn't want it to be about "look how good my animation is".


Footage from Phil Mulloy's Cowboys.


Narrator: In his series of shorts Mulloy deliberately played around with the iconography of classic cowboy films like High Noon to fuel his satire.

Phil Mulloy: You're accessing this kind of language, all these films that people already have in their heads, which they're running when they watch any other film, which they're comparing it with. The other aspect is I wanted to do with it... a kind of maleness, which cowboy films are associated with. And I suppose that I wanted to in some way poke fun at that.

Clare Kitson: What i think is marvelous about all of Phil's work is that it's terribly moral. I mean, Cowboys could've been done in the manner of Aesop's Fables, you know, and nobody would have watched them, but they're all fantastically moral about - you mustn't be greedy, you mustn't, you know, do all these awful things. And of course in certain respects they're rude, they're direct, you know, you can't miss the point of Phil's films because he sort of hits you over the head with it.

Narrator: Cowboys took adult animation to a whole new place in its treatment of the tricky world of male sexuality.

Phil Mulloy: For me, it's not about the degradation of the female, primarily. It's about males using their sexuality to gain status and power over other males and in the process degrading women. You know, who's the alpha male, who's got the biggest prick in the room. It's, I mean essentially it's men boasting in a pub, you know. They're boasting about how they have sex, you know, and this is what they do. And in the end they run off and fuck horses.

Narrator: When Cowboys was transmitted it was late-night viewing on Channel 4. By the end of the nineties animation of this kind could only be found in the margins of the schedule. Funding continued, but the channel's dedicated animation unit was closed.

Clare Kitson: Perhaps what we were doing was a little bit kind of artificial anyway. You know ,the fact that it resulted from the remit and from just a freak of fate that there was a lot of money coming in from the advertising. Maybe, you know, there isn't really too much of a future in the short films; I mean, I think the future is in series.

Narrator: By now, the success of American series like The Simpsons had shown TV executives how animation could be subversive, and popular, and get ratings and critical acclaim in am ore competitive multi-channel environment. One by one the channels began to invest in home-grown animated series. In 2001 ITV commissioned 2DTV to put satire back into its schedule.

Giles Pilbrow: one of the great things when we started was that there were some great international characters - Bush, obviously, he's easy to be funny about, he's a walking joke himself, you don't need to put much of a spin on him, he's a cartoon character before we even begin.


Footage from 2DTV.


Narrator: 2DTV was deliberately pitched at a mainstream audience.

Giles Pilbrow: We're a very accessible show and we want to have all the characters that everyone sees every day and people love having a pop at celebrities. There's this, you know, obsessive celebrity culture nowadays - Heat magazine, Zoo, Nuts, all these magazines that just totally live around celebrity. And so, yeah, I think a big percentage of the show does cover that. But there are some... there's a nice crossover with celebrity and politics nowadays.

Narrator: On BBC 2 the success of new wave comedy like The Office, League of Gentlemen and Alan Partridge encouraged the idea that animation could also be used to break new ground.

Paul Wells: These kind of satiric works kind of link across again to the possibilities for animation, and of course this has prompted, you know, sort of Monkey Dust, and I Am Not an Animal, for example, and these are kind of animated versions, really, of that kind of social caricature that's being carried out in British comedy.


Footage from I Am Not an Animal.


Narrator: In I Am Not an Animal, comedy star Steve Coogan featured in the wild story of animals on the run from their science lab hell. Then, a new digital channel emerged, with an ambition to commission animation. In 2002, Monkey Dust first appeared on BBC Three.


Footage from Monkey Dust.


Harry Thomson: It was saying that, you know, maybe it'd be fun to actually attack the construct of groovy Britain, of Cool Britannia, the whole idea that everything's perfect and amazing and everyone's having a great time under New Labour and nothing's wrong, and there's no misery and there's no poverty and there's no... you know, we aren't going off and invading other countries. So it was just to do the underneath of that shin world that we keep getting fed. I wanted it to be sombre, and I wanted it to be slightly morose, but at the same time I wanted it to be really beautiful. i didn't want it to be just... I didn't want it to be ugly at all. So although a lot of the things that happen might be a little bit ugly or might be a little bit shocking, I wanted it to look really, really nice. And that was the brief, always go to the animators, is "can you make it look great?" you know, "really want it to look lovely."

Narrator: Monkey Dust is now on its fourth series. Its young animators keep the questioning, subversive spirit of British animation alive. They engage with and observe the world like the art school generation of the eighties, and their work links today with the questioning animation which began to emerge so colourfully four decades ago with Yellow Submarine.

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