Monday, 31 December 2012

Looking back at 2012

This year British animators got what they had been campaigning for: tax breaks for the animation and video game industries. During his budget speech George Osborne proclaimed that "we want to keep Wallace and Gromit exactly where they are."

"Given that it's f*cking everybody else though, maybe we should be a bit circumspect with the celebrating", tweeted The Pirates! writer Gideon Defoe.

2012 was another productive year for Aardman Animations. To mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Nick Park teamed up with the National Trust to create a short Wallace and Gromit film which was shown at Jubilee parties around the country.

Aardman in 2012: World's Funniest, Reggae Reggae Sauce and Animate It!

This year also saw Cartoon Network dedicate an entire block to DC Comics, including animated shorts between the series; somewhat unexpectedly the Batman shorts were handed to Aardman. Dubbed World's Funniest and directed by Rich Webber, the pieces star oddball incarnations of Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Superman and the Joker; like Creature Comforts they use unscripted dialogue (in this case, from children discussing DC characters). The general aesthetic is a kind of Trap Door-meets-Adam West affair.

On the advertising front, Aardman promoted musician-turned-chef Levi Roots and his Reggae Reggae Sauce with a stop-motion commercial. The designs of the singing foodstuffs are classic Aardman, while the clay likeness of Roots is more reminiscent of Will Vinton.

The company also released a piece of animation software for children, called Animate It! Aardman's first star, Morph, serves as the mascot.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, Sir Billi and Frankenweenie.

Of course, the highest profile release from Aardman in 2012 was the studio's fifth feature, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. The film was greeted with generally warm reviews but was not a great commercial hit Stateside, and it remains to be seen whether the proposed sequel will surface. It did however give rise to an 18-minute short abut the characters, So You Want to Be a Pirate?, which was included in the DVD release.

Sascha Hartmann's Sir Billi was the first Scottish animated feature - that is, if we discount The Illusionist, which was partly made there. Starring the voice of Sean Connery the film received a limited release; Peter Debruge of Variety wrote one of the few reviews of the movie, tarring it as a "woefully anemic" work that "lacks the looks or charm of even the most rudimentary CG offerings being made today". Overshadowing this release was Pixar's Highland-set film Brave, whose release was hailed by First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond. "I fully expect that as the film launches across the world, so will awareness of Scotland increase", he said, also praising it as "the most high-profile film ever set in, and themed around, Scotland, featuring Scottish stars". Footage from the California-animated film was even used in a promotional trail celebrating contemporary British cinema.

Also from Disney was Tim Burton's Frankenweenie; like Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr. Fox it was animated at London's 3 Mills Studios. A loving homage to the Universal horror cycle of the thirties and forties - and an invocation of Tim Burton's own childhood - it was another successful outing from one of the top directors in American feature animation.

A Liar's Autobiography
also saw its completion this year, although it will not be widely released until 2013.

Animate Projects backed another set of artists' films in 2012. One of the more unusual ones was David Blandy's Anjin 1600, which presents the story of William Adams - a 16th century explorer believed to have been the first Englishman to reach Japan - as told through clips from various Japanese anime; the sources are not listed in the credits but I recognised Odin: Photon Sailer Starlight amongst the films used. Talented comic artist Ai "Inko" Takita-Lucas provided new footage to bridge the gaps, but unfortunately this sticks out like a sore thumb next to the decades-old cel animation that makes up the rest of the short. Meant as a kind of pop art meditation on culture clash Anjin 1600 doesn't live up to its potential: the result is a film which would have been better off as a gag video on YouTube than as the recipient of an Arts Council grant.

The Banker by Phil Mulloy.

More successful was Phil Mulloy's enjoyably surreal The Banker, a minimalist short - even by Mulloy's standards - featuring a man arguing with his family about the Mayan End of the World Society.

Ylem by Jo Lawrence.

Amongst the other films from Animate Projects were Sean Vicary's Lament, which applied digital effects to found objects; Carolina Melis' Regarding Gardens, which used kaleidoscopic imagery to illustrate a poem; Shift, by the Berlin-based Max Hattler, which used found objects to create an abstract piece recalling science fiction imagery; Oliver Harrison's Apocalypse Rhyme, a work of spectacular animated calligraphy; Alan Warburton's Z, an evocative vision of a deserted wartime or post-war urban environment; and Jo Lawrence's Ylem, a visually witty science fiction story.

Brave New Old, Hidden Place and The Last Belle.

Adam Wells is quickly making a name for himself as a hot talent in short films. This year he unveiled Brave New Old, a social satire whose visual style combines minimalism with great depth, along with the two-minute short The Rest is Science.

Stephen Irwin made another thoroughly bizarre film: a two-and-a-half minute short for Channel 4, Hidden Place. Moxie, his film from last year, also became available online in 2012.

Meanwhile, a film from 2011 that received a lot of attention this year is The Last Belle by Neil Boyle. The short was made entirely with hand-painted cels and stands as a monument to a dear departed era of traditional animation; more about it can be read here. Go here for the trailer.

2012 was the thirtieth anniversary of that perennial favourite, The Snowman, and the event was marked with a sequel: The Snowman and the Snowdog. Some would call this sacrilege, but the self-consciously old-fashioned film found a warm reception. "I found nothing to grumble about", remarked Raymond Briggs in the Radio Times.

Channel 4's Full English was one of the occasional British attempts to get a chunk of the sitcom field dominated by the likes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. It managed to prompt a Daily Mail article asking "Is this the sickest cartoon ever?" after a skit involving the ghosts of Jade Goody and Lady Diana, while the sixth and final episode - entitled My Big Fat Gypsy Knightmare - was pulled altogether over concerns that it would cause offense. Leaving aside any controversy over its content the reviews were generally negative, Metro's dismissal of the series as "a Tesco version of Family Guy" being fairly typical.

The ranks of preschool television series have been joined by CBeebies' new Tree Fu Tom. Created by FreemantleMedia Enterprises, the series follows a small boy who transforms from live action to animation and communicates with insects in the land of Treetopolis.

On a similar note there was another batch of preschool direct-to-DVD specials this year, as per usual. Bob the Builder: Super Scrambler, Fireman Sam: Snow Trouble and Angelina Ballerina: Ballerina Princess all added to these characters' ever-expanding filmographies.

Music video highlights: Cerulean and Shine.

From Jack Featherstone and Will Samuel of the London-based studio ISO came a video for Cerulean by Simian Mobile Disco. The short is a hypnotic abstract piece in which a circle rolls and bounces its way around a world of simple geometric shapes, the imagery in the film suggests sprites from early video games such as Pong transformed into plankton swarming under a microscope.

Also on the music video front, director Bram Ttwheam and artist Tristan Stevens collaborated on a promo for Shine by the Nordic Giants. The mixed media video makes use of some memorable imagery.

A Morning Stroll, The Amazing World of Gumball and The Gruffalo's Child.

Some works from last year continued to scoop up awards in 2012. One was A Morning Stroll, the only British animated film to be nominated for an Oscar this year (it lost to William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore). Directed by Grant Orchard of Studio AKA it looks at the same scenario - a man seeing a chicken walk up to a house and peck at the door - taking place repeatedly the space of 100 years. A range of techniques are used along the way: the fifties sequence is pastiche of silent animation, the 2009 sequence a day-glo confection with the rhythmic feel of a music video, and the post-apocalyptic future suggestive of video games.

Meanwhile, just as The Gruffalo was an international success in last year's award season, its sequel The Gruffalo's Child - also a British/German co-production - has been sweeping up accolades.

On the television series front the big success would appear to be The Amazing World of Gumball, which is still pulling in prizes. Also of note is the video game Batman: Arkham City, which took home a BAFTA (it received seven more nominations and an additional award for voice actor Mark Hamill) amongst other honours.

A selection of BAA winners: Bertie Crisp, Maska and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

The British Animation Awards came and went. A Morning Stroll took Best Short Film; Mikey Please's The Eagleman Stag, a BAFTA success from 2010, won Best Student Film; Best Long Form was a tie between the Brothers Quay's Maska and The Gruffalo's Child, directed by Johannes Weiland and Uwe Heidshötter; and the prize for Best Music Video was taken by Kate Anderson's promo for Liz Green's Displacement Song.

On the TV series front the award for Best Children's Series went to The Amazing World of Gumball: The Quest (which also took Children's Choice); Bookaboo: Burger Boy was picked as Best Mixed Media Children's Series and Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom: Acorn Day was named Best Pre School Series. The Best Commercial awards went to Fx & Mat's Coca-Cola advert Siege (in the 3D category), Vida Vega's Tempo commercial Bike (2D) and Sumo Science's Nokia ad Dot (stop motion), while another Nokia commercial from the same duo - Gulp - was named Best Commissioned Animation. Ben Hibon & David Yates' "Tale of the Three Brothers" sequence from Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1 won the award for Best Film/TV Graphics.

The BAA Public Choices, meanwhile, were Francesca Adams's NFTS student film Bertie Crisp (Favourite Short Film), the Gorillaz video Stylo (Favourite Music Video) and Chris Randall's Pilsner Urquell advert The Day Pilsen Struck Gold (Favourite Commercial).

There was also a separate, one-off award. BAA polled the public on their favourite character in British animation, with the nominees catalogued here.

There were many candidates, with votes cast for Wallace and Gromit, Roobarb and Custard, Danger Mouse and Penfold, Dennis and Gnasher, Tiny Clanger and the Soup Dragon, Superted, Duckula, Peppa Pig, The Snowman, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, Morph, Postman Pat, Stressed Eric, Bagpuss, Simon's Cat, Lola, Evil Edna, Mr. Benn and more - even advertising characters such as the Cresta Bear, Pep the Pepperami, Aleksandr the Meerkat, the Famous Grouse and Clifford the Listerine Dragon had their advocates. But the final winner was none other than Paddington Bear, created by author Michael Bond and immortalised in stop motion by Filmfair.

The BAFTA for Short Animation had another all-British line-up this year, with Robert Morgan's Bobby Yeah, Afarin Eghbal's Abuelas and, taking the trophy, A Morning Stroll.

In the Animated Film category Aardman and Sony's Arthur Christmas and Stephen Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin (which had an all-British writing crew and a mostly-British cast) were nominated, with both losing to Rango. Meanwhile Tim Burke, John Richardson, Greg Butler and David Vickery won the Special Visual Effects award for their work on the final Harry Potter film.

Finally, at the BAFTA Children's awards, The Amazing World of Gumball was named Best Animation (ahead of The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers, The Gruffalo's Child and The Mechanical Musical Marvel); Peppa Pig won in the Pre-School Animation category (beating Rastamouse, Timmy Time and Tree Fu Tom); Blue Zoo won the award for Independent Production Company (the other contenders were 4T2, Boom and Plug-In) and Ben Bocquelet, James Lamont, John Foster of The Amazing World of Gumball were the winners - and the only animation nominees - for the Writer category. Meanwhile, Arthur Christmas was nominated in the Feature Film category but lost to The Hunger Games, and The Grumpy King and Ooglies were amongst the Short Form nominees but lost to Share a Story 2011.

Some of the British winners in the international festivals: Will Anderson's The Making of Longbird, Ainslie Henderson's I Am Tom Moody and Timothy Reckart's Head Over Heels.

There were only two British winners at Annecy this year: The Gruffalo's Child (Best TV Special) and Will Anderson's The Making of Longbird (Best Graduation Film).

At the Ottawa festival Ainslie Henderson of the Edinburgh College of Art won the Walt Disney Grand Prize for Best Student Animation and the Ottawa Jury Media Award for her film I Am Tom Moody. A Morning Stroll won the award for Best Narrative Short, and Pete Candeland's Red Bull advert Music Academy World Tour was named Best Promotional Animation.

There was one British winner at the Hiroshima festival: Head Over Heels by Timothy Reckart of the National Film And Television School, which won the Audience Prize.

The Pulcinellas had a few British and part-British winners: Amazing World of Gumball was named Best Series for Kids, A Morning Stroll won the award for Short Film, and finally another Short Film nominee, The Gruffalo's Child, was named Best European Work.

At the Bradford Animation Festival David Browne's Heads for the Hills won Best Commercial, The Gruffalo's Child took Best Film for Children, Michael Bicarregui and Ollie Sayeed's Warp Cops was named Best Film by Young Animators and Gervais Merryweather's Buy Buy Baby earned the Audience Award.

The London International Animation Festival had two main UK winners: The Making of Longbird by Will Anderson (Best of the Festival, judges' vote, audience's vote) and Moxie by Stephen Irwin (Best British Film, judges' vote). My Face is in Space by Tom Jobbins and The Pub by Joseph Pierce both took audience awards.

At the Annies, Arthur Christmas was nominated for Best Animated Feature, while Adventures of Tintin was nominated for Best Animated Feature and Writing in a Feature Production (it was also nominated for Editing in a Feature Production and took the awards for Animated Effects in an Animated Production and, thanks to John Williams, Music in a Feature Production)

Of individual crew members, Peter de Seve's work on the film was nominated for Character Design in a Feature Production, Kris Pearn was nominated for Storyboarding in a Feature Production, and two actors were nominated for Voice Acting in a Feature Production: Ashley Jense (Bryony) and the ever-reliable Bill Nighy (Grandsanta), who took the award.

The Amazing World of Gumball won Best Animated Television Production - Children, and Mic Graves & Ben Bocquelet's work on the series was nominated for Directing in a Television Production while Ben Locket's contribution received a nod for Music in a Television Production. Logan Grove, who voices the title character, was nominated for Voice Acting in a Television Production.

Some of Gnomeo and Juliet's crew members were nominated: Kelly Asbury, for Directing in a Feature Production; Nelson Yokota, for Storyboarding in a Feature Production; veteran American voice actor Jim Cummings, who played Featherstone, for Voice Acting in a Feature Production; and the writing crew for Writing in a Feature Production.

Ludorum's Chuggington was nominated for Best Animated Television Production - Preschool, while Good Night, an advert for Statoil from Studio AKA, received a nod for Best Animated TV Commercial. And finally, David Lowry and Mike Hull of London-based Double Negative Visual Effects each received a nomination for Character Animation in a Live Action Production due to their work on the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy Paul.

Ronald Searle (left), shown with Walt Disney.

Sadly, 2012 saw the passing of a number of beloved figures from the animation world.

The legendary Ronald Searle was primarily a print cartoonist and the best-known screen incarnation of his creations is the live action St. Trinian's series. He also dabbled in the animation industry, however, working on projects including Dick Deadeye or Duty Done and Energetically Yours. In addition his distinctive style has influenced many animators over the years - here is a short St. Trinian's animation by Uli Meyer. He passed away on December 30th, 2011 at the age of 91; his death was announced in early January.

Richard "Kip" Carpenter led an illustrious career as a screenwriter for children's television, penning such fondly-remembered series as Catweazle, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, The Adventures of Black Beauty and, for an older audience, the cult favourite Robin of Sherwood. The majority of his credits are live action but he also scripted several episodes of the 1979 cartoon series Doctor Snuggles. He passed away on February 26, aged 82.

Jim Duffy was born in the US and, since the eighties, worked in the American industry on series such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rugrats and The Adventures of Chico and Guapo. He grew up in the UK, however, and worked in Britain in the late sixties and seventies, making the short films Toby (1971), Digging (1971) and Dandruff (1973) along with TVC information films including Discovery Radar, How Not to Lose your Head while Shotfiring, Horses of Death, Safety Senses, Teamwork and The Devil May Care. He passed away in his sleep on March 23, aged 75.

Edd Gould was a young animator known for creating the online Flash series Eddsworld, which he worked on from 2004 to 2011. He died of leukaemia on March 25, aged 23; his teammates on Eddsworld made a final episode in his memory.

Montreal-born Jake Eberts was a film producer who helped to raise money for Watership Down early in his career. He went on to produce dozens of acclaimed live action films such as Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Dances with Wolves; his animation credits include Chicken Run, The Nutcracker Prince, The Thief and The Cobbler, James and the Giant Peach, Renaissance and The Illusionist. He passed away on September 6, aged 71.

John Coates, a nephew of famed film producer J Arthur Rank, began his career working at his uncle's company; around ten years later he became the business director of George Dunning's company TVC. Coates was not directly involved with the artistic side of the company's animation but his skills as a producer helped to bring classics such as Yellow Submarine, The Snowman and When the Wind Blows to fruition. He passed away on September 16, aged 84.

Run Wrake's following in the animation community goes back to his 1990 student film Anyway, which was shown in MTV's Liquid Television, but it was his 2005 film Rabbit which left the largest impact. Rabbit is actually an uncharacteristic film as it uses a strong narrative drive; Wrake usually composed his pop art animation as though it was music. He was diagnosed with cancer in November 2011 and made the eight-minute short Down with the Dawn as a response to this incident. He passed away on October 21, aged 47.

Dave Borthwick was one of the founding members of the Bristol-based collective the Bolexbrothers, creators of a range of idiosyncratic films including the stop motion/pixilation feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. At the time of his death he was working on Grass Roots, a stop motion feature based on Gilbert Shelton's underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. He passed away in late October.

Gerry Anderson began his career with a desire to make big-budget spectacle features, and resented being hired to make puppet shows. He responded to this situation by making puppet shows which drew heavily on action movies, developing the "Supermarionation" process for such iconic series as Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet. Although best known for his live action puppetry he served as a producer on two stop motion series - Dick Spanner, P.I. and Lavender Castle, the latter of which which he also co-wrote - and revived Captain Scarlet using CGI mo-cap in 2005. He passed away on Christmas Day, aged 83.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Halas & Batchelor's Handling Ships

I recently got the chance to see Halas & Batchelor's 1945 film Handling Ships, which was directed, written and edited by Allan Crick, an animator with a naval background (although Denis Gifford's filmography identifies the directors as John Halas and Bob Privett). It's a bit of an oddity from a historical point of view: at seventy minutes long and predating Animal Farm by a decade it is technically Britain's first feature-length animated film. However, it was not intended for public viewing but for a specialist audience: the Admiralty. As the title suggests, Handling Ships is an instructional film about how to navigate sea vessels.

The film is primarily stop-motion, with a model ship manoeuvring a set, but there are a few bits of drawn animation. These are mainly diagrammatic, representing waves and currents, but the opening uses some trademark Halas & Batchelor character animation with anthropomorphic portrayals of the wind and tide.

For anyone who has no plans to manouver a ship any time soon, Handling Ships is one of those "for historical interest only" films; Animal Farm should remain the true beginning of British animated features. Handling Ships is undeniably a great example of instructional animation, however.

All images in this post are from a print purchased from the Imperial War Museum by an acquaintance. Go here for a full description of the license.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Stop-motion Nativities from budding animators

It's time to take a bit of a break from blogging for the festive season. Just to wrap things up, here's a quick look at some aniamted Nativity plays made by schoolchildren across the country.

First is this project from Clifton Primary School:

Next, one from Grassmoor Primary School, which presents the story as a Strictly Come Dancing parody:

 Pupils at Leesland Junior School in Gosport made this Nativity animation using Playmobil figures:

Finally, this one was made at the Evelina Hospital school in London:

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Halas & Batchelor's The Candlemaker

Something festive, here. The Candlemaker is a 1957 short directed by John Halas and Joy Batchelor for the United Lutheran Church in the US. It was animated by Brian Borthwick, Reg Lodge and Vic Bevis with designs by Philip Stapp; Stapp also co-wrote the film with Joy Batchelor.

The film tells the story of a man who makes candles for the church, and of his son who is too busy playing with his pet mouse to learn to make candles properly himself.