Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The early days of the Cambridge Animation Festival

I came across these old Times articles covering the first editions of the Cambridge Animation Festival. First is a short piece from 1 November 1967:
CAMBRIDGE, suitably, is to play host to an Animation Film Festival from November 16 to 19. The city has put up £2,500, and tickest are selling fast. The British Film Institute has been benign encouragement as well as giving practical help, and many hope the festival will take root an become a hardy annual.

As well as new films from our own animators, such as Bob Godfrey and George Dunning, a number of the more successful cartoons from other festivals have been invited; and the Yugoslavs, whose animation ranks among the best, are doing a survey of their own work. This began in Disneyish vein in Zagreb in 1956, later became influenced by twentieth-century art, and after an abstract period turned to comedy and a strongly marked style of its own.

Recently a few of the best known international painter-animators became an action group called Mouvart, which is evolving a new art form. Their first "manifestation" will be manifested in Cambridge. Other visitors will include Adrienne Mancia, curator of the film division of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The festival is really the brainchild of its director, Richard Arnall: two years ago, while still an undergraduate, he organized a little pilot festival sponsored by the Cambridge Film Society. The city council liked the idea, and now two years later, after due deliberation, have taken it up.

The second edition of the festival was covered in this 12 Novemeber 1968 column by Ralph Stephenson entitled "Cambridge brings out the best in animated film". A spotlight is placed on the American animators John and Faith Hubley's short A Windy Day; it was, incidentally, the screening of this short at this very festival that inspired Bill Mather and Colin Thomas to create the Animated Conversations series.

Now in its second year, the Cambridge Festival seems established as an annual event, provided the City Corporation continues to support it and Dick Arnall to act as organizer. And why not, for they have every reason to be satisfied with the result. The performances I saw were well attend and the films enthusiastically received.

Programmes were varied and generous: over the four days subscribers could see about 115 shorts and three features. Performances fell into two groups, one presenting the best animated films of the year, the other a retrospective view of French animation over the past 40 years. In addition there were two lecture sessions: one on animated films in industry introduced by Edgar Anstey, the other a personal appearance and film-show by the legendary Len Lye, who originated the technique of drawing and painting direct on film and since has worked in New York as a creator of abstract, moving sculpture.

Outstanding among the short films were Norman McLaren's Pas de Deux and John Hubley's Windy Day, both typical examples of their directors' styles, both a pleasure to watch and superb in their technical mastery. McLaren's film by lightning and lab control creates a black-and-white shadow composition from two ballet dancers. The resulting flow of patterned imagery is surprisingly warm and sensuous and yet with a remote beauty. As in all his films he uses complex and difficult means to achieve a simple, immediate result. Hubley's Windy Day shows two youngsters outside playing make-believe games and before our eyes changing into the most unlikely, whimsical monster,s errant knights and maids forlorn. On the soundtrack, innocent and inconsequential, the sweet, childish voices burble on - until the bell goes and everything stops for tea.

All the programmes were given a lively send-off by the festival film, Cambridge Steam Engine, made by Charlie Jenkins and Heinz Edelmann of Yellow Submarine fame. Queen Victoria sits unamused, screwed firmly to the screen, while coloured railway-engines cavort behind her, growing stranger and more tube-like until the last one, an op-art octopus, sinks slowly beneath the surface, the captain at the salute on the bridge. Also deserving mention were Halas and Batchelor's The Question, Bob Godfrey's latest Two Off the Cuff, a light-hearted Hungarian film Diary, and an aggressive abstract-design cartoon by John Latham, Speak.

The Question is conventional in style but with a bright idea: the usual "little man" goes round with a sickle-like question-mark presenting it to representatives of different groups - churchman, scientist &c . - who each interprets it and answers in his own way. Finally, still unsatisfied, the "little man" meets a "little woman" who has her own sickle-like question-mark - put together the two question-marks make a passable heart, and the two go off together in a cloud of bliss. Bob Godfrey's Two Off the Cuff was also from ideas by Stan Heyward [sic] - Masks and Happenings both rather fierce and dead-pan and in Godfrey's wild, whooping style.

The director of Diary, Gyorgy Kovasznai, kept his stream of still photographs going at a spanking pace to suit his frivolous subject of two young men and a girl, a triangle situation resolved by the punch-line: "We told her to choose between us - she disappeared." The men make the best of it and decide to work harder at their exams. John Latham is now well-known for his compositions of books burnt and sprayed with colour, one of which is in the Tate. Speak, we are told, "burns its way directly into the brain". So it does and very unpleasant it is. I would rather be brain-washed in some less obvious way.

And finally, what would have been the third edition of the festival is touched upon in this 29 October 1969 column, "Film animators' new challenge," by Henry Stanhope. It goes on to discuss wider issues facing British animation.

One of the several common interests binding 30 people who are gathered in earnest conclave in London this week is a mortal debt to a mouse called Mortimer.

Mortimer was the mouse who shared the supper sandwiches of a struggling young artist called Walt Disney in 1920, when Disney still had sandwiches for supper, and who inspired his immortal alter ego, Mickey Mouse. The industry still regards Disney with affection as the great popularizer of its art.

The people are leading members of the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation (Asifa), the august 10-year-old organization of men who make films of fantasy.

It is the association's first annual congress to be held on London and it was to have taken place at Cambridge to coincide with the city's third international festival of animated films: but the city council cancelled the festival at the eleventh hour.

Mr. John Halas, an Hungarian-born Londoner, who is director general of the association, says this is the golden age of the animated film, adding that Britain's contribution is richer in quality than quantity. Even so, the industry is struggling to find outlets among Britain's 1,600 cinemas.

In America the film cartoon is almost a national cult, and expansion of the comic strip. In Japan it is accepted as an important medium for children's entertainment and rivers of film flow out through television and cinemas.

In parts of western Europe animation is regarded as a kind of hors d'oeuvre for specialized sophisticated audiences. And in eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, animated films are state subsidized and nurtured as a matter of national pride, like Covent Garden or the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"But in Britain cinema managers do not regard animation on its own merit. They think of it on the same level as other short films, to fill time before the main feature", Mr. Halas said bitterly.

The sad corollary to this is that British animators are being forced to concentrate less on making cartoons for entertainment and more on making animated scientific and educational films, the most promising new field.

Mr. Halas's firm, Halas and Batchelor, which is internationally famous for, among other things, its Hoffnung cartoon films and its big success with Animal Farm in 1954, has been making films about new mathematics and other subjects.

The firm also looks hopefully to a future of video cassettes. In a year or two, Mr. Halas predicted, people will be buying films in cassettes and projecting them on television sets.

British film animators' talent has been abundant: but is must be admitted that several have been British only by adoption.

Mr. Halas, aged 57, the doyen of them all, is a polite, Dubcek-like figure, who came to Britain 33 years ago. Two others, Mr. Richard Williams and Mr. George Dunning, are Canadians who worked in Paris before settling here.

The animators' world output is increasing. There are 20 new feature films this year.

The animators are spending this week discussing changing attitudes and techniques - they can now use computers - and watching each other's films. The week will reach a sort of mid-way climax tonight with a late night gala performance of this year's outstanding animation before an invited audience at the Classic cinema, Baker Street.

Don't forget to also read the contemporary reviews of the 1983 and 1985 festivals on the Animator Magazine website.

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