Sunday, 25 September 2011

Jayne Bevitt's Blubber Boy

Based on an Eskimo folktale retold in A Kayak of Ghosts by Lawrence Millman, Jayne Bevitt's 1991 short Blubber Boy tells the story of an Eskimo woman who carves a chunk of blubber into a replica of her drowned boyfriend, which she then brings to life by rubbing against her genitals. Unfortunately, the blubber boy tends to melt in hot conditions, and the woman eventually has to carve him afresh from a new chunk of blubber.

The film was narrated by Ruth Avingaq, advised by Co Hoedman of the National Film Board of Canada and made at Whitehorse Films for Channel 4.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

TVC's Charley

Made by TVC in 1965, Charley (not to be confused with the other boy-and-cat cartoon called Charley) is one of those felt tip on paper shorts that used to be common before Flash came along. It takes place in the imagination of a boy, who transforms himself into a clown, an aeroplane and an explorer before running up against an angry hairy creature and a stern policeman.

Of special note is the soundtrack - all of the sound effects are made vocally by Noel Picarda, perfectly fitting in with the overall stream of consciousness aesthetic. It's almost as if you're hearing an animator mumbling and humming to himself as he draws the frames.

The film's credits list George Dunning, Jimmy Murakami, Alan Ball, Ron Wyatt, Alex Rayment and John Williams as its creators, but exactly who did what is not explained. Denis Gifford's filmography identifies Dunning as director and producer, Murakami, Wyatt and Ball as animators, Rayment as editor and Williams as camera operator. The BFI database, on the other hand, credits Murakami and Ball as co-directors and Dunning as producer, as does IMDB, which also lists Rayment as editor. Meanwhile, when the film was shown on Channel 4 in the nineties, it was identified simply as a George Dunning piece.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Animation Alliance UK

A little over a year ago I posted about Save UK Animation, a group campaigning for tax breaks on the British animation industry. Since then I've heard very little about the organisation, but I'm pleased to see that it has been joined by a similar group, focusing instead on independent animation, called Animation Alliance UK. Its member list is a veritable who's who, containing names such as Phil Mulloy, Caroline Leaf, Clare Kitson, Jonathan Hodgson, Jayne Pilling, Marjut Rimminen and many others.

A press release from the group has been posted on Cartoon Brew:

Animation Alliance UK has today written to Lord Chris Smith, Panel chair of the independent review of Government film policy, to raise its concerns about the lack of public policy, strategy and support for independent animation.

The Alliance makes a “straightforward plea” for an acknowledgement of the importance of cultural animation production to the UK, and a recommendation that steps are taken to ensure its continued success.

Animation Alliance UK has a focus on independent animation as cultural cinema and art form. Its membership includes Oscar and BAFTA winners and nominees, and reflects the range of animation practice, across many areas of creative, cultural and commercial activity in the arts and creative industries.

British animated short film has enjoyed amazing success, with British animators winning the Oscar for animated short film eight times, with a further 20 nominations, in the last 25 years.

The letter notes that as support from broadcasters and public funding bodies has diminished, so UK animators are finding financial support from, and relocating to, other countries. It states that the UK Film Council and Arts Council England have failed to work together to provide any strategic leadership:

“Independent animation is a vital part of the UK’s culture and its creative industries. The sums of money that are required to underpin a vibrant independent animation sector are relatively small. But the development of independent animation and the nurturing of its talent base is dependent on its own drive and determination, and this is unsustainable.”

The group's website contains the full text of the letter to Lord Smith. "The UK achieved international renown as a prolific centre of excellent for animated short film came about because of a uniquely British model of sustained public support from public service broadcasters, and public film and arts funding bodies, that allowed creative production free from commercial constraint", it says in one section. "That support has all but evaporated. Ten years ago, both the BBC Animation Unit in Bristol and S4C’s animation unit were closed. In 2005, in addition to its single film commissions, Channel 4 was supporting around 15 short films a year through its innovative open call schemes, in partnerships with BFI, Arts Council England and the National Media Museum. All now gone." The letter's conclusion is as follows:

What is needed
Independent animation seems to languish in a chasm between the responsibilities and remit of Arts Council England and UK Film Council/BFI.

Independent animation is a vital part of the UK’s culture and its creative industries. The sums of money that are required to underpin a vibrant independent animation sector are relatively small. Modest investment in the past has delivered incredible value for money in terms of job creation, financial leverage, and the impact on other sub-sectors of the knowledge economy. This can be done with relatively small amounts of money, yet the cultural returns on any investment would be enormous.

To reverse this process of decline we believe that as a first step it is vitally important that the BFI and Arts Council England recognise the role that the independent animation sector plays in British culture.

We would urge your Panel to give due consideration to our concerns, and to raise them with those agencies.

All this is good to see, but I think there's also an area which the academic side of the animation community should be engaging with: namely, what is independent animation in this day and age? The Internet has changed the landscape completely - in the past we had to rely on Channel 4 airings and festivals to see independent animated shorts, but now we can watch them on YouTube. Unfortunately, the Internet also brought with it a culture in which something like this can find over three million viewers. Clearly, there's a gap between the high standards of the old era and the vast potential of the new generation that needs bridging, and doing so could help campaigns such as this no end.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Brian Pickersgill's Oh Whiskers!

About a year ago I mentioned that Brian Pickersgill made a 1939 film with the GPO called Oh Whiskers! but had no more information on either Pickersgill or his film.

Sine then I've managed to see the film in question, and more recently I checked my blog's stats and noticed that "Brian Pickersgill animator" was one of the top search terms - he has a following, clearly...

Rather unexpectedly for a GPO film, Oh Whiskers! turns out to have nothing to do with postal services; instead, it is a children's educational short made for the Ministry of Health, advising kids to wash in the morning, eat healthy food and go to bed early. It stars a knitted character named Whiskers and his stop-motion toy friends, and is bookended with live action sequences featuring child actress Elizabeth Forbes as the toys' owner. The usage of toys recalls Arthur Melbourne-Cooper's pioneering films, although Whiskers' doll girlfriend is more reminiscent of Svankmajer.

According to IMDB, Pickersgill served as assistant director on a documentary short called North Sea in 1938; beyond that I'm afraid I know nothing more about his career.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Henry Elwis and Peter Strausfeld

While I was looking through British Pathé's online film archive I came across several forties propaganda shorts by two little-known animators.

The first is Henry J. Elwis, who appears to have begun his career at British Animated Films, which I posted about here. There he served as producer on two of the three films from the studio that I am aware of, Kathleen "Spud" Houston's How the Motor Works (1936) and John Halas' The Music Man (1938). That is, according to Denis Gifford's filmography - the in-film credits to The Music Man do not mention Elwis; I have not seen How the Motor Works but the BFI database does list an H.J. Elwis as producer.

Watch the Fuel Watcher.

Gifford goes on to credit Elwis with directing the propaganda films The Clothes Moth, AKA The Behemoth (1944); It Makes you Think (1944); A Ticket's Dream (1944); Bristles and Brushes, AKA Take Care of Brushes and Bristles (1944); Bones Bones Bones (1944); More Hanky Panky (1945); Writing's Worth While (1945); Tombstone Canyon (1945; not available online as far as I can tell), Brickmakers (1946) and Watch the Fuel Watcher (1946). After these last two he seems to have vanished from animation history.

The Clothes Moth.

Technically, these films are round about on par with much of Halas & Batchelor's work from the period. Did he work with some of the same staff, I wonder? Gifford does not list any animators besides Elwis himself, so I can't tell. A Ticket's Dream is an interesting short in which the floating outline of a ticket turns into a dancing human figure, a butterfly and a bird. A stream-of-consciousness piece in the tradition of Emile Cohl, it can also be seen as prefiguring John Halas and Peter Foldes' The Magic Canvas.

A Ticket's Dream.

The other animator I learnt about is Peter Strausfeld. According to the BFI database, Strausfeld lived from 1910 to 1980; during the war he made the films Peak Load (1943), Salvage Saves Shipping (1943), Skeleton in the Cupboard (1943), and Tim Marches Back (1944), of which a brief, poor quality clip can be seen here. After the war he worked as a designer on two live action films: George Hoellerig's 1952 Murder in the Cathedral (under the pseudonym of Peter Pendry) and Powell and Pressburger's 1955 Oh... Rosalinda!! This appears to have been the extent of his career in film.

Peak Load.

Strausfeld's propaganda shorts are an interesting lot. Peak Load makes up for its limited animation with its inventive techniques - heavy stylisation in the vein of Larkins one moment, a cutout animated sequence with live-action smoke pouring out of an oven the next. Salvage Saves Shipping is one of many films from this period on the importance of recycling and playfully explores the sight of household scraps literally morphing into armaments - a pile of old books melt like a candle and form a mortar shell carrier, while a hot water bottle and pair of shoes become a piece of abstract art before turning into a gasmask. Skeleton in the Cupboard is reminiscent of Iwerks, necessarily stripped down but maintaining a strong illustrative style.

Skeleton in the Cupboard.