Friday, 18 June 2010

Joe and Petunia: Death and Rebirth

Between 1968 and 1973 Nicholas Cartoons produced a series of public information films for the Central Office of Information starring a dim-witted Northern couple named Joe and Petunia. Voiced originally by Peter Hawkins and Wendy Craig (Craig was eventually replaced by Brigit Forsyth), the characters appeared in four films: Coastguard in 1968, Water Safety (Flags) in 1970, Acceptance of the Country Code in 1971 and Worn Tyres in 1973. Denis Gifford lists the director of Flags as Nicholas Spargo, of Willo the Wisp fame; I'm assuming he directed the entire series.

Coastguard (analysed in this BBC article) sees the two characters at the seaside, where they catch sight of a distressed boatman. Mistaking his cries of help for friendly waves, they cheerily wave back - until Joe looks through his binoculars to get a better look at the man's speech balloon.

In Water Safety (Flags) Joe is itching to go for a swim after seeing a mermaid through his binoculars, but Petunia - now serving as a straight partner - cautions him against swimming where red flags or warning signs are present. She allows him to go for a dip where there's a coastguard, but the coastguard makes off with the mermaid himself.

In Acceptance of the Country Code the couple drop litter, traipse through a cornfield and let their dog hassle some sheep; they then see a farmer with a purple face ("I expect it's all that sun in the open air") dancing a country dance. Detecting that he isn't happy, the two vacate the scene ("it can't be anything we've done!") The film has its own Screenonline article, discussing the social background to the short.

And finally there's Worn Tyres, in which Joe and Petunia are out for a drive. Petunia sees a sign reading "Worn Tyres Kill" and repeatedly asks Joe if he's checked their tyres. "Not worn, Petunia, they're a bit smooth", he reassures her. The car then skids off the road and crashes into a tree, a which point the film cuts to an identically-composed photograph of a crashed car. Their first lines from the film echo on the soundtrack ("nice view from up here, Petunia") while text reading "Worn Tyres Kill" appears on the screen.

As this was the last film in the series, it would appear that Joe and Petunia are dead. The characters have their own Wikipedia article which comments on their apparent demise:
They appeared in four films which ran between 1968 and 1973, and they became popular so quickly that it was decided to kill them off in the last one in order to prevent public demand for their reappearance.
The article does not provide a source for this claim, and so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but it certainly sounds plausible. Another unsourced tidbit is that there were in fact five films in the series: "They also appeared in a much earlier public information film which showed them learning to use a pelican crossing, but it is noticeably different from the others in the series."

I haven't been able to verify this. The article could be making a muddled reference to Pelican Motorist, a film featuring a vaguely similar (but far more competent) couple who are not named; however, this film was released one year after Joe and Petunia had already appeared in Coastguard. Denis Gifford's filmography - restricted to animation released in cinemas - lists a 1971 cartoon titled simply Joe & Petunia; this is presumably Acceptance of the Country Code.

Pelican Motorist from 1969.

Joe and Petunia may have passed away in 1973, but like the protagonists of a solar myth they did not stay dead forever. In 2006 a revised version of Coastguard hit our screens, with Joe and Petuinia now sporting twenty-first century fashion accessories, marking the Central Office of Information's sixtieth anniversary.

Joe and Petunia before and after their 2005 revision.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Autobahn and early computer animation

In 1979 Halas & Batchelor made a music video, directed by Roger Mainwood, for the Kraftwerk track Autobahn. In Vivien Halas and Paul Wells' book Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History Mainwood relates how he came to work on the film and sheds light on its pioneering - but not very successful - attempt at computer animation:
It was my fortune in the late 1970s to be invited to an interview with John [Halas]. I was still doing my MA in Film and TV at the Royal College of Art and had just started putting out feelers for future employment in animation. At the interview I showed John a few animation pieces from my college course, and also a live-action film I had made in Shetland. It was mostly shots of puffins and gannets cut to a lively jazz track but it seemed to impress John, maybe more than the animation pieces! Anyway, the next thing he said to me was that although they didn't have any puffins on offer, only pigeons, would I be interested in coming to the studio to help make a music film that he was wanting to do? He sent me home with a recording of Autobahn, the influential album from the German band Kraftwerk, and asked me to come up with some designs for a 12-minute animation.


In 1977 computer animation was very much an emerging art and the truth was that we pretty much failed to come up with anything that could be used in the film. The computer was a monster by today's standards, taking up half a room, but what let us down was the method it had for printing out drawings. This involved a long mechanical arm with a humble pen on the end moving in rather jerky movements over a piece of paper. So we came away with a pile of very jagged and shaky drawings that couldn't possibly be used. I ended up having to animate the scene by hand, but of course John's showmanship didn't let a thing like that get in the way of him promoting the film as having computer animated sequences in it - well I suppose we had given it a go!
Nick Yates also describes his experience working on the film:
Technically, we were using a PDP-11 computer with a flat-bed plotter and I only remember using inadequate Rotring drawing pens in it. Maybe it wasn't the pen's fault because the plotter held it straight upright and whacked it down onto the cel/paper and then dragged it around from point A to point B while the operator prayed that the ink would continue to flow. It was fine for straight lines but when the inconsiderate animator insisted on curved shapes from the machine it had to negotiate so many course changes that it lost its way. A circle would then end up looking like a pretty good rendition of a cornflake!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Film & Strip: animation, comics, and opinions

Here are some articles that were printed in a booklet accompanying the 1985 Film & Strip exhibition held at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge The exhibition, set up by Sheena Wagstaff and organised in part by the Cambridge Animation Festival, examined the relationship between British animation and comic strips.

Reproduced below are an introduction by curator Hilary Gresty, a potted history of comics and animation by Sheena Wagstaff, and an opinion piece by animation director Derek Hayes.

Hayes' article (titled "Drawing the Line at Flopsy Bunnies") is the most interesting. It's a provocative piece, calling for the animation community to form a bridge between the ghettoised independent animation of the arthouses and the dumbed-down animation of the mainstream, pointing out that the medium of comics have already made headway in that direction. In the process the article takes potshots at contemporary films Heavy Metal and Nicole van Goethem's award-winning A Greek Tragedy while (with some reservations) praising the Canadian feature Rock & Rule; it also touches on subjects such as the place of animated films in the era of special effects, the relevance of early animation to contemporary work, 2000AD comics, the cutting of the Eady Levy, the recent arrival of Channel 4, and Hayes' own work in collaboration with Phil Austin (namely, The Victor).

The article is dated in some ways, but in others still relevant. It also sheds interesting light on the thinking behind Hayes and Austin's films.

(Incidentally, the illustration on the first page is the work of Hunt Emerson.)