Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Testament: Elijah

Another episode of the 1996 series Testament: The Bible in Animation. Directed by Derek Hayes, Elijah was a co-production between Cartwn Cymru and the Spanish studio Alfonso Productions. Judging by the names in the credits the key animation was handled in Spain and the assistant animation and inbetweens in Britain.

The character designs were provided by the 2000 AD artist Mike McMahon, using a cartoony style reminiscent of his work in Sonic the Comic.


Friday, 27 July 2012

Recommended blogs

My blogging schedule's been a bit disrupted by computer problems, so instead of the article I had planned for today here's a brief list of recommended blogs...

This month has seen the opening of a new blog, Discovering Dad, which is run by Terry Gilliam's daughter Holly. So far it's been updated almost daily, and fans of the cult animator look to be in for a treat. Holly's even managed to dig up those iconic roses...

Back in January 2011 Jan-Willem de Vries set up a blog devoted entirely to Harold Mack. This little-known animator is remembered primarily for directing the George Moreno-produced Bubble and Squeek cartoons - themselves pretty obscure - in the late forties; but as de Vries makes clear Mack also worked at other studios, including Halas & Batchelor and G-B Animation. At the time of writing the blog has only two posts but they comprise probably the most throrough biography of the man ever written. It's good to see that figures on the margins of animation history have enthusiasts willing to pay them their dues.

As far as more recent work goes, Dundee-based animator Vicki Haworth runs a small blog, mainly for her concept art, which is worth a look; see also the blog of Sketch Group Scotland, to which she belongs. Iona Whytok has some nice work on her blog Up the Ziggurat, and I also enjoyed the blogs of Helen Piercy and Tori Davis.

And finally, the production blog of Neil Boyle's recent cel-animated labour of love, The Last Belle, is very thorough and well worth a look.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kathleen "Spud" Houston

Kathleen Houston at the 1987 Annecy festival.

The name of Kathleen "Spud" Houston will often come up if you dig into the history of British animation, but very little biographic information has been written about her. This is most likely because, while she had a long career lasting from the thirties to the eighties, she directed very few films herself.

Born Kathleen Murphy, the first film she worked on was The Fox Hunt, a 1937 short directed by Anthony Gross, Hector Hoppin and Laszlo Meitner. An article in a 1987 issue of Animator Magazine gives a brief overview of her formative years:
Kathleen “Spud” Houston was all set to become a dress designer following a five year Fine Arts course in Edinburgh. Then by chance she took a job at London Films in 1935 where Foxhunt by Hoppin and Gross was in production. There she discovered painting, tracing and animation.
The next year she worked with Anson Dyer on an advertising film called The King with the Terrible Hiccups, and for British Animated Films on How the Motor Works - Denis Gifford credits her as the sole animator on this production, so this may have been her directorial debut. She would not make a personal film until much later, however.

She continued to work as an animator on Dyer's advertising shorts, namely The Queen was in the Parlour (1939) and I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (1940) and put in a personal appearance in You're Telling Me, a 1939 documentary about Dyer's studio.

After this she began working for two fellow British Animated Films alumni, John Halas and Joy Batchelor. She served as an animator on a string of early-forties and propaganda films from the illustrious pair: Train Trouble, Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard, The Fable of the Fabrics, Filling the Gap, Dustbin Parade and Digging for Victory.

As Kathleen Houston - she appears to have married sometime in 1942 or 1943 - she worked on the Abu series, Tommy's Double Trouble and Six Little Jungle Boys.

According to Animator Magazine, Houston worked in Bombay from 1944 to 1948 for Information Films of India. However, Denis Gifford credits her with animating for a couple of Halas & Batchelor shorts in 1947, so I am unsure as to the exact chronology. She continued to work at the studio from 1948 to 1952 on a number of shorts, most notably on the Charley series of propaganda films.

Animator Magazine states that she worked on a Larkins short called The Potter and his Daughter during this period. I can find no other references to a film of this name; it is possibly an alternate title for Enterprise, a 1950 Larkins short which is about a potter and his daughter, but the BFI database does not list Houston in the credits.

After this she spent twenty years in New Zealand, helping her husband Ian, a fellow animator. In 1968 she made Petunia, her first personal film.

She returned to Britain and, from 1970, worked with Bob Godfrey on Henry 9 Till 5, Ways and Means, Kama Sutra Rides Again, Noah and Nelly in SkylArk and Roobarb; and for Larkins on The Electron's Tale, The Gas Genie and This is B.P. She then returned to Halas & Batchelor and worked on Kitchen Think (1974).

Houston's next jobs were Bill Melendez's 1975 feature Dick Deadeye or Duty Done, the the 1977 H&B Noah's Ark, the 1978 classic Watership Down and the 1979 Bob Godfrey/Halas & Batchelor/Zagreb collaboration Dream Doll. IMDB also credits her with working on the Hanna-Barbera series Scooby's All Star Laff-A-Lympics in 1978, but I can't confirm this.

In 1980 she completed How the Kiwi Lost its Wings, a personal film which she began in 1976; based on a Maori legend it was presumably inspired by her time in New Zealand. Afterwards she worked on the Marjut Rimminen-Christine Roche shorts I'm Not a Feminist, But... and Some Protection, made in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

Back in 1984 she had began working on Children of Wax, based on a folktale from Zimbabwe, and finished it in 1988. This appears to have been her last piece of work as an animator.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain copied of any of her personal films and so can say nothing about Kathleen Houston as an artist. But it's clear that she had a long and remarkable career, lasting from the days of Anson Dyer to the era of Channel 4's experimental animation, putting her in the employ of John Halas, Joy Batchelor, Marjut Rimminen, Bob Godfrey, Bill Melendez and others, and spanning Britain, India and New Zealand.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Sid Griffiths and Jerry the Troublesome Tyke

According to the BFI database, Sidney G. Griffiths lived from 1899 to 1967. IMDB credits him as an actor in the 1903 short A Desperate Poaching Affray, but this obviously contradicts the BFI's chronology; the actor is probably a different Sid Griffiths.

Griffiths' first film, then, appears to have been 1925's Jerry the Troublesome Tyke, which he wrote, directed and animated. Jerry went on to star in 41 subsequent films as part of the Pathé Pictorial magazine, the last of them appearing in 1927. This was one of the longest British animated series in the era of theatrical animated shorts, and the first animated series to be made in Wales.

Jerry is a sort of hybrid of Felix the Cat and G.E. Studdy's Bonzo, but lacking either the iconically stripped-down design of Felix or the delicate rendering of Bonzo. He's actually a little disconcerting: from the neck down he looks like a swollen, naked human.

The Jerry cartoons, although reasonably good for their era, haven't aged as well as some of their contemporaries. What saves them is their general sense of playfulness: the first carton introduces us to Jerry's parents, an anthropomorphic pen and inkpot, while Griffiths is always on the lookout for new locales for his character to visit, often placing Jerry in front of like action backgrounds (In and Out of Wembley is a particularly good example of this). Even the shorts which are generally unremarkable tend to have a good sequence or two, such as the train ride in Honesty is the Best Policy.

My personal favourite is Ten Little Jerry Boys, which doesn't bother trying to tell a story and instead strings together a set of gag sequences. This seems to have been Griffiths' strong point.

After the Jerry cartoons, Griffiths appears to have worked on only a handful of films. In 1930 he, Brian White and A. Goodman co-directed Tropical Breezes, a short cartoon about two castaways. In 1933 he worked on two shorts written by the popular cartoonist H.M. Bateman: Colonel Capers (directed by Adrian Klein, animated by Griffiths and White) and On the Farm (Directed by Griffiths, White and Joe Noble).

In 1935 Griffiths began working as a supervisor at Anson Dyer's studio Anglia Films, beginning with Sam and his Musket and staying in this role until Gunner Sam in 1937. Griffiths does not appear to have worked with Dyer during the latter's stint at Publicity Films, but the two worked together again when Griffiths provided animation for You're Telling Me, A.G. Jackson's documentary about Dyer's studio

This would seem to have been Griffiths' last piece of animation. I can find only three more credits for him, all as a camera operator at Halas & Batchelor: Animal Farm (1954), The Candlemaker (1957) and Man in Silence (1964).

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Spacelings

Record sleeve image courtesy of 45cat.

In 1985, Wise-Z Records released an LP containing a cover of Ed McCurdy's Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, with Silent Night as the B-side. The performances were attributed to the Spacelings: a trio of cartoon aliens named Zara, Zig and Zog.

Accompanying the record was an animated music video made by Moon + Parrot Productions, a small company founded by Simon Holden and Keith Graham. The studio became the Holden Film Company  in 1986.

As far as I can tell, there were no further Spacelings projects, although it appears that they may have been intended to become a franchise in the manner of Alvin and the Chipmunks.