Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Art schools and independent animation

The celebrated British independent animation scene of the eighties and nineties grew out, at least in part, from the country's art schools. Unfortunately, as this student animation movement went on largely behind the closed doors of art institutions, it's one of the more poorly-documented areas of British animation history. That said, I know of a few texts that discuss it.

Clare Kitson's book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor identifies student animation as a high point in the otherwise slow decade of the seventies:
There had been some animation quietly going on at the Royal College of Art - an exclusively postgraduate institution - since 1963, within the school of film and television. However, there had been no official teaching, just the use of a rostrum camera and as much exposure to different disciplines as students wanted.

In 1974 the National Film School - also for postgraduates - opened its doors to the first animation students, Derek Hayes and Phil Austin... Soon afterwards, the first full-time animation BA course was instituted at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, a development from the part-time course Bob Godfrey had run at the Guildford School of Art. Here there was tuition, notably from course leader Roger Noake and animation academic Irene Kotlarz.

Starting around 1985, all three would clean up their act and initiate structured and comprehensive animation courses. The other notable undergraduate course of the pre-C4 era was the antithesis of the disorganised norms of the time. Set up at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1980 by eccentric modernist Ray Fields, it was run with military precision, though with an active disdain for the orthodoxies of the animation industry.
Irene Kotlarz - the aforementioned tutor from the West Surrey college - has herself written about the student animation scene of the period. In her article The History of Channel 4 and The Future of British Animation Kotlarz describes how things were in the late seventies:
Art and film schools were encouraging innovative work and creating alternatives to mainstream cartoon practices. There was support for independent and experimental animation from the British Film Institute's Production Board (which funded films in the 1970s by among others the Brothers Quay, and the feminist animator Vera Neubauer), and the Arts Council's Film Department (which gave grants for example to films by Geoff Dunbar and Paul Vester). There were also Regional Arts Associations which gave small grants throughout the country and were themselves funded by the BFI and Arts Council. There were one or two film workshops and collectives which specialised in animation, such as the feminist Leeds Animation Workshop.
Andy Daley's essay Some Observations on Education and Contemporary British Animation, printed in a 1997 edition of Art & Design (vol 12, no. 3/4), goes into detail about art schools and their influence on British animation of the eighties:
The contribution of art and media education to the recent success of British animation (and indeed, to animation generally) is regularly mentioned in popular criticism and reviews, but just what that contribution consists of is hardly, if ever, considered or explained.
Darley examines independent animation as an aspect of British independent cinema as a whole, emphasising the political thought surrounding the movement.
One might mention first of all the waning of cinema generally with the emergence of video and the consolidation of television. But this must also be seen in conjunction with the change of political climate during the 70s and the emergence of a virulent neo-conservatism. The somewhat diverse radical cultural politics which informed the independent cinema movement stood in direct opposition to everything the new regime stood for.
However, one of the legacies of the independent film movement which continued to make a lasting impression, and can be seen as having a significant part to play in the subsequent emergence of a powerful independent animation sector in the 80s, was the continued strength of film history and theory in the art colleges and film schools.
As well as educational institutions and commissions from television channels such as Channel 4, the BBC and MTV, Daley points to a third force in the fostering of British independent animation in the eighties: a new breed of animation festival.
Eschewing the competition format of other festivals, it adopted a bold new strategy which was entirely consonant with new developments in the rest of the sector. Its approach was to be educational. It encouraged (re)discovery and reassessment, historical contextualisation, diversity, and the new practices and styles emerging from the resurgent independents... It was particularly sympathetic to indigenous young animators and students; exposing them not only to a range of old, new, commercial and non-commercial films, but, through shrewd programming, helping them to new ways of understanding and appreciation.
Daley identifies independent animation as providing an alternative to the "rampant consumerist culture" and "technocratic one-dimensionalism" of today's society. "In the past the art and film schools saw as part of their goal the encouragement and nurturing of such practice", he writes. But his comments on contemporary animation are pessimistic.
In the animation world it is possible to discern an unmistakable shift as the 90s unfold towards heightened conformity coupled with increasing commercialism... The irony is that, fed by the constant demand for internal rationalisation and the supposed necessity to produce 'employable' students, the vocationalism increasingly imposed upon schools by zealous managers leads to diluted curricula which both fail to train in the specialised ways required by industry and to educate to the depth that was possible previously.
The essay concludes with a warning:
Further dilution of higher education courses and the erosion of critical inquiry and the ethos of experimentation and discovery carry long-term consequences. The discouragement of difference and dissent, of the holding and representation of views, standards and values which run contrary to the current ideology, can only foster increased cultural stagnation and social impoverishment.

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