Monday, 25 June 2012

Animation Nation: Visions of Childhood part 2

Here's the final part of my transcript of the 2005 documentary series Animation Nation. This part covers the second half of episode three, which discusses children's animation from the eighties onwards, along with adult animation that plays on the themes of children's stories.

Narrator: For many, British TV animation had finally come of age. A more self-assured generation of animators now reached further for their cultural references. Danger Mouse and his hamster sidekick Penfold were a knowing concoction of classic spy heroes for a more sophisticated audience.

 Footage from Danger Mouse.

Brian Sibley: The thing about Danger Mouse was that it took the kind of concepts we were used to seeing in American animation and it overlayed it with a very, very particular British - and British of that particular time - sensibility. It's a sensibility which owes something to 007 and Danger Man, of course, these were the kind of thriller/detective/spy series that we were seeing on television that were very much of their period.

Brian Cosgrove: You've got Penfold, who was an out-and-out coward and doesn't mind anyone knowing it, you've got Danger Mouse who purports to be a hero, but if he gets in a dark spot he'll run. So there's a weakness there, even if he puts up a face of brick.

Brian Sibley: This was an animated series that had wit, intelligence, it was anarchic, it had a cutting edge to it that was zany, but was also very, very English in the voices of David Jason and Terry Scott.

Narrator: Danger Mouse broke away from the storyteller tradition that had long held sway in children's animation. The single engaging male voice was replaced by character actors.

Brian Cosgrove: David Jason loves animation, and when you give him a character, he actually lives it. He really sort of became Danger Mouse.

Narrator: Danger Mouse was the first British animated series to be syndicated in America. Like the spy films it parodied its quintessential Britishness appealed to audiences of many different nationalities and ages.

Brian Sibley: It wasn't just the youngsters who loved Danger Mouse, it began to be their older brothers and sisters, and indeed their parents, so this was an animated series that really extended the range of the potential audience for animation.

Footage from The Snowman.

Narrator: The international success of series like Danger Mouse prompted other British broadcasters to follow suit. In 1982 Channel 4 invested £100,000 to realise Raymond Briggs' The Snowman as a centrepiece of its first Christmas schedule. The Snowman has become a TV classic, drawing a huge audience to its idealised word of childhood memory. At its centre is animation's earliest storytelling device: a child who creates his own magical playmate.

Paul Wells: And The Snowman of course is profoundly lyrical in its output, the whole 'walking in the air'-type idea is very interesting because it chimes immediately with animation, that's entirely it, the magic of walking in the air can, as it were, be achieved through animation, and I think that's very powerful as its engine, we love the magic of the child at the heart of the story kind of having this perhaps imaginary playmate in his embrace of the snowman. It doesn't really matter if it's imaginary or whether it's real: animation makes it real.

Narrator: In keeping with the illustrations of the original book, John Coates developed a complex animated style known as rendering to translate this fairytale word to television.

John Coates: And I met a lot of resistance. Everybody said 'oh, you can't animate that kind of thing, it'll all go like that' [waves hand] and not being an artist myself I was able to say 'oh, for heaven's sake, I'm sure there's a way of making it work', and we ended up with this animation that was really rather good.

Brian Sibley: It had the feeling literally of a drawing that was coming alive before your eyes; it had, because of that, great beauty. It had moments of sheer wonderment. By today's standards the flight with the snowman across the world is not as amazing as stuff we now see on film. At the time, I can tell you, it was astonishing!

John Coates: The idea of the flying sequence is in the book, but he just flew to Brighton Pier in one beautiful centrespread picture, there and back, and we invented the whole idea of there being such a thing as a snowman ball, flying with the snowman up to the North Pole and we introduce Father Christmas.

Narrator: The Snowman's idyllic evocation of childhood was an immediate critical and popular success, an its been shown almost every Christmas since.

Paul Wells: And obviously that lyrical, romantic, magical storytelling scenario that The Snowman embraced matched with the Christmas scheduling, and ultimately, I think, became a landmark in animation accordingly.

Narrator: The Snowman broke the constraints of British TV animation without resorting to comedy or dialogue. It gave British broadcasters the confidence to consider other, more experimental animation, and provided a new generation of animators with the impetus to realise their own childhood fantasies.

Footage from Ken Lidster's Balloon. More stills here.

Ruth Lingford: I think during the eighties and nineties animation, to a large extent, broke out of its shackles of having to be for children, having to be funny, and it started to discover all the things it could do, to express nightmare as well as dream, to express madness, to express anything at the darkest corners of the human imagination.

Footage from Mark Baker's The Village.

Narrator: Amongst these animators were emigre identical twins the Brothers Quay.

Footage from Street of Crocodiles.

The Quays: I think in terms of British animation we're slightly just on the edge. We don't intentionally go out to isolate ourselves from the mainstream. We tend to go for objects, for instance like this puppet, we thought that its sort of face had that dazed fragile beauty about it, that potentially he could almost within his gaze represent a fairytale princeling figure.

The Quays showcase one of their puppets.

The Quays: I mean, some of the puppets you find are just eyeless, or maybe they're made of wood, but somehow, put these glass eyes in them and there's a secondary life inside them.

Narrator: Though the style of the Quays' animation was uncompromisingly adult, its essence remained the childlike desire to bring the world of fantasy to life.

Marina Warner: People now, particularly visual artists, in different media are deeply interested - not just in retrieving the child in themselves, that is returning to the person that they might have been - but actually using that state to apprehend the world again. It has become the way of thinking about being a human being, thinking through the child.

Dave McKean: I saw a film by the Brothers Quay called Street of Crocodiles one Christmas. It was like a trace memory, it felt like Id been told who my parents really are or where I was actually born. I rally felt like I knew that place, and it felt really close to me, and everything about it, the sound of it, the colours in it, the dust in it, the textures, everything about it.

Narrator: The Quays' imaginary world was much darker and more surreal than the gentle nostalgia of The Snowman. In stories composed more like music or dance, natural and everyday objects were brought to life to take on other meanings.

The Quays: What we hope to transmit in some of these films is a different form of narrative. After all, even when people go to ballet, they don't ask the dancers to talk - you're forced to interpret gestures, movement, rhythm, and music, in very much the same way as coud apply to our films.

The Quays: I think it's sad that people can't make that connection between ballet, where there is no dialogue, and it's only music, and they go to an animation film and suddenly they think this is something altogether different, they don't see that as parallel.

Narrator: The intense symbolism of the Quays was further developed by young British animators like Paul Berry. Berry's film The Sandman is a throwback to the sinister world of traditional fairytale and hardly safe family viewing.

Paul Berry's The Sandman.

Paul Wells: The puppets... and the Sandman is very persuasive, and has darting eyes, and is angular, and is kind of very threatening and moves through the shadows step by step and clicks his fingers and he's an enormously threatening force, and that's the thing that we're engaged with, you know, the life if the shadows almost, the life of the... kind of the force of the threat, and of course, one of the big preoccupations of both children's and adults, the fear for children.

Marina Warner: And that film is absolutely uncompromisingly against children, I mean, it would be very, very hard to show it to a child, I think, because the Sandman when he appears actually does scoop out the eyes of the little boy, and with his long nails, and feeds them to his horrible children in his nest. So it's very, very dark and sinister and thrilling, with a kind of, you know, shiver you can enjoy as an adult.

Dave McKean: Even when you're going into dark waters, even if you're going into nightmares, a lot of those nightmares, a lot of those feelings of anxiety are born in childhood, I think they come out of our feelings that we had as a child, a lot of the dreams that we have as adults sort of reflect back to anxieties from childhood. I think that's why animation works so well for telling those kinds of stories because you really can get underneath, you really can get deep into the mind, the imagination, get back to those sort of primal fears.

Narrator: In the 1990s many British animators drew inspiration from the power of fairy tale to realise these primal fears. Ruth Lingford used Hans Andersen's fable The Story of a Mother to challenge our ideas about death and childhood.

Footage from Ruth Lingford's Death and the Mother.

Ruth Lingford: I went to my daughter's bookshelf and got out a book of Hans Andersen's collected stories, opened it ant random an read this story which I found so powerful and more challenging that anything else I'd ever done. And it seemed to me that this story was almost like a virus, once I had this story in my head I really had the urge to tell other people the story. An d people didn't always like it, it's kind of a difficult, hard story.

Narrator: Lingford's film ends with the mother willingly surrendering her daughter to death. Though inspired by fairytale, it's a conclusion far beyond the emotional reach of any child.

Ruth Lingford: In a way the story of Death and the Mother felt strangely taboo and when I took it on I felt suddenly prone to a sort of magical thinking that isn't usually the way I work, and I was convinced that if I dare to tell this story then my children would die, you know, I felt that I was really tempting fate, it seemed like something you absolutely shouldn't deal with or look at was the death of a child.

Footage from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb.

Narrator: With The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb fairytale returned to the mainstream as part of the 1993 Christmas schedule. Though it was commissioned as a fairytale its producers, the Bolex Brothers, created a very different vision of childhood.

Paul Wells: And there might have been the sense that it was going to be another Snowman, that it was going to be a Christmas special that everyone would embrace and engage with as a piece of animation. It could not be further from the truth.

Narrator: What the Christmas audience got was a disturbing and macabre tale in which Tom begins life as a very modern social misfit.

Dave Borthwick: I thought, okay, I'll make Tom, if he's going to be that high, he's got to be a foetus, so in this story he's going to be either the result of a miscarriage or an abortion, you know, really play it quite heavy to start with. And you get this little thing that comes out, but it survives - what do you do? And to me that was really striking home much more at this misfit sort of element that Tom Thumb is - you know, he's a little thing in this big world. And to me, emotionally, that had everything that I really wanted to try and go for.

Ruth Lingford: You can smell that film, really, it's incredibly visceral, it's very, very uncomfortable to watch, but also very seductive, it's a magic world that they create.

Narrator: This classic tale had a contemporary twist, with the the Bolex Bothers using a technique called pixilation, involving animating real actors.

Dave Borthwick: You're working with a human character, and what you have to do basically is treat that character a though he is a model that you're putting into a position, I mean, if you've got the basic principle of animation under your belt, which is the classic move a bit, take a frame, move a bit, take a frame, you know, and that pixilator has to do that in his performance.

Narrator: Actors had to hold their positions sometimes for hours while scenes were animated around them.

Dave Borthwick: I'm asking everything of these performers to do just the physical movements and the expressions, which in themselves are excruciating to perform over a long period of time, just to smile, you know, especially if you're like Tom's dad where you have to look like this [he grins] after two, three hours you know where every muscle in your face is, so the degree of concentration required was, you know, immense. And as it turned out the only people that we could find were colleagues of hours, people who understood the principle of animation, I think we were just lucky at the time because we did have a lot of weird looking friends working in the industry.

Footage from Postman Pat and Bob the Builder.

Narrator: By the 1990s, animated British film like Tom Thumb had become increasingly innovative in style, but also, for many, increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Whilst these modern versions of classic fairytales impressed and disturbed their mainly adult audience, animation produced for children's television seemed to have become almost entirely merchandise driven. 1990s series like Ivor Wood's Trumpton-style creation Postman Pat generated millions from spin-off toys and video sales, and the latest great animation success story, Bob the Builder, was designed specifically to target a preschool audience. From its merchandising sales alone, it's now a multi-million pound brand. It seemed that animation would never again be able to appeal equally to adults and children, but help was at hand.

Footage from A Grand Day Out.

Narrator: When Bristol animator Nick Park first created Wallace and Gromit, he was self-consciously harking back to a long tradition of British children's animation

Paul Wells: I think Nick Park's particularly clever in the way that he draws upon a tradition of children's animation in what he does with Wallace and Gromit. He combines, I think, that small little England world of Gordon Murray's Trumpton or Chigley and he slings outward to things like Postman Pat and the kind of stories that follow in that ilk, but he also links into the Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin magic of something like Bagpuss. The small kind of eccentric world, and this magical nature matched with a kind of English parochialism and English realism, characterised Wallace and Gromit.

Brian Sibley: Many of the things in the world of Wallace and Gromit are thing that are familiar to us in animated television since it began. But why he brings into the world is all the elements from all these other things: he brings in the kind of anarchy of Danger Mouse, he brings in the kind of wild inventions that we saw in The Clangers.

Nick Park: I mean, in a way that's why I like films, series like The Clangers and all these different Oliver Posrtgate, Peter Firmin stuff: it's 'cause they have a kind of slightly quirky element to them as well, and that's the sort of thing I always wanted to make myself, it inspired me to always be looking for a slightly odd angle and a sightly quirky angle.

Narrator: The first time Wallace and Gromit hit the small screen was in 1990's A Grand Day Out.

Nick Park: Whenever I find that it's kind of getting a bit normal or a bit predictable, I have to, like, think there must be another way, there must be another way to get from this point to that point without being kind of linear. And it's nice in A Grand Day Out to have a story that kind of organically develops: they have to get to the moon to get cheese, so they have to build a rocket, and Wallace is so stupid he builds it in his basement. And that's one example - there has to be an underlying absurdity to everything about Wallace and Gromit.

Brian Sibley: So you've got this technological idea of people  travelling to space with this totally fantastical, fairytale concept that the moon is actually made of cheese, because the world of Wallace and Gromit at that point is as bizarre as the world of The Clangers, because the moon is no more made of cheese than the Clangers' planet is filled with soup.

Narrator: Wallace and Gromit's world may have been whimsical but it had more in common with the adult comedy of Tom Thumb than The Clangers.

Dave Borthwick: Nick's stuff is obviously much more geared for family consumption, really. But that difference I think really is pretty superficial, I mean, we were both creating an equal, kind of, how do you say, escapist world, if you like, you know, a fantasy world, and it's down to the individual appetite really whether you want that to be dark or cosy.

Footage from The Wrong Trousers.

Narrator: And as with Eric Thompson before him, Park's comedy has its roots in a more adult worldview.

Nick Park: For me, I think we've got this whole kind of bedrock of Ealing, you know, and Ealing comedies and Norman Wisdom films. I mean, I just love the Ealing comedies, and you know, if anything I try to reflect the most, even dimly, is those, really.

Narrator: Like many previous British animators, Park found the inspiration for his world of eccentricity in the paraphernalia of childhood.

Nick Park: You know, my main source is childhood, really. I just remember the toaster we had as a kid, or the iron, you know, or the... even the little things - there's a little radio in the rocket, and that's the one I had, I got it for my seventh birthday; I made it out of a matchbox. And then I was inspired to use plasticine. You're directly linked with the character, you're sculpting and you're feeling your way through it, and I think that allowed me... the technique of Plasticine allows you to be a bit more eccentric and a bit more slapstick.

Narrator: And like Park's heroes, Wallace and Gromit quickly became a modern British institution, finding their natural home at the heart of the Christmas TV schedule.

Brian Sibley: I find it extraordinary when you think of all the programming that is put out over the Christmas season that Wallace and Gromit ended up having the cover of the Radio Times. They became the focal point of Christmas each year, and even after there weren't any new films, or even between the films, the other films were being shown, and it was still an event. We wanted to see Wallace and Gromit's latest adventure or their last adventure and we wanted to see it again and again in the same way - in the same way! - that we wanted to see The Snowman year after year after year. It just became instantly and undyingly part of British culture.

Narrator: Now Nick Park and British TV animation stand on a threshold: the world of Wallace and Gromit is about to go global in a multi-million dollar feature financed by the Hollywood studio DreamWorks. But the timescales of a Hollywood production present their own problems.

Behind-the-scenes footage from Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Nick Park: I'm just always completely astounded at what a different kettle of fish it is to make a feature film than a thirty minute film. It's far more than two and a half times - probably more than a hundred times more, easily, easily. The biggest problem I find is that jokes you thought of four years ago are starting to get old on you, so you're starting to rewrite everything, and think everything's rubbish! The danger is you can... you lose that kind of initial inspiration and freshness.

Narrator: Park and his Aardman colleagues may now work to Hollywood budgets for a global audience, but their cultural touchstones remain closer to Postgate and Firmin than Disney.

Nick Park: The best way to describe it would probably be - it's a vegetarian horror movie. There are many more characters in this one, but the most important thing in the whole film is the relationship between Wallace and Gromit, and this film pushed that relationship to the extreme. You know, they have a problem that is bigger than anything they've ever had before.

Footage from the Curse of the Were-Rabbit trailer.

Narrator: In the century since Arthur Melbourne-Cooper first realised his Dreams of Toyland, British animation has used childhood inspirations successfully to appeal to an ever-growing audience. But it remains to be seen if the parochialism and whimsy that once characterised this television world can ever really win over a global cinema audience.

Brian Sibley: Wallace and Gromit are the crown jewels of British animation, they really are. and you know, for Nick, they are more than that, they're family, they're friends, you know. Not to make it whimsical, but that's what they are, they're people he knows. And therefore, to let them go out into the big bad word of feature-length movies is a risk, it's a risk. I'm sure they're up to it, and I'm sure they're going to have some pretty... you know, some good inventions up their sleeves to pull it through, and I hope they do. I wish it well, I just... I fear for them, in that mad world.



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