Sunday, 28 March 2010

More late 2000s CBBC idents

A while back I made a post about the set of CBBC idents that premiered in 2007; here are a few more stills.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Skwigly: The Big Animation Magazine

A few years ago there was an animation site called Skwigly that published what I believe to be the UK's second ever animation magazine (the first being Animator, which ran from 1982 to 1995).* Unfortunately, the magazine - which was only sold online - never reached its second issue, but deserves a bit of recognition.

The one and only issue, dated April 2005, has a feature on Valiant (remember that?) as its centrepiece; news on the likes of Gordon the Garden Gnome, New Captain Scarlet, Bromwell High and Loonatics Unleashed; interviews with Pixar's Travis Hathaway and Ghost in the Shell 2 producer Mitsuhia Ishikawa; features on Studio AKA's Philip Hunt, BB3B and the video game Stranger's Wrath; a curiously erotic guide to storyboarding; sketches by storyboard artist and character designer Jez Hall; an opinion piece on the artistic merit of CGI; a section on the animation students at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication and their views on their course; a hefty preview of Sean and Barrie Robinson's Andersonesque puppet series Project Cobra (which doesn't seem to have materialised; the creators have since moved on to Agent Crush) and finally reviews of various books, DVDs, animation programs and websites.

Since then two more British animation magazines have emerged - Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal and Imagine - but Skwigly had its own identity, being far less academic than the Interdisciplinary Journal and somewhat less industry-focused than Imagine. If anything it was a UK-centric equivalent of the American Animation Magazine, catering to animators and animation viewers alike.

Skwigly had an afterlife of sorts, with the site that spawned it being reconfigured as an online magazine (essentially, a pay-per-view website) called The Big Animation Magazine. The site has since gone the way of the mag, although a Facebook page for its forum members remains active.

UPDATE: The Skwigly website returned in early 2011, complete with its own forum.

A few scans from the magazine:

* By which I mean a magazine covering animation in general. Skwigly was predated by several British magazines that focused solely on Japanese animation and comics, amongst them Anime UK (later renamed Anime FX); the mostly comics-centered Manga Mania; the still-active Neo Magazine; and numerous fanzines such as Animura, Animenia and Futuranime.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

British contributions to Heavy Metal

"This is best seen when one is thirteen, a boy, and a budding antisocial", said science fiction novelist John Scalzi on the 1981 Canadian-produced anthology film Heavy Metal; "the further one gets from this demographic, the more ridiculous the overall film appears to be."

Still, whatever its conceptual shortcomings, Heavy Metal is worth a look for its visual style, an adventurous attempt to translate various comic strips from the titular magazine to the screen. It's also relevant to anyone who wants to learn about British animation as two UK-based outfits were amongst the studios involved: namely, Halas & Batchelor and TVC. In addition the overall director, Gerald Potterton, started his career at Halas & Batchelor before moving to Canada.

Carl Macek's tie-in book The Art of Heavy Metal: Animation for the Eighties contains plenty of concept art and behind-the-scenes information.

TVC handled the first segment of the film, Soft Landing, which was directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. The sequence uses photographic cutouts of a car taken from live-action footage and composited onto drawn backgrounds.

Comparison between a piece of the storyboard and a frame from the finished film.

A model house that is used in the sequence, built by Brian Borthwick.

Halas & Batchelor provided two sequences; the first, Grimaldi, follows on from Soft Landing and was directed by Harold Whitaker.

Two rather gruesome animation cels.

Comparison between Lonnie Lloyd's concept art of the little girl character ("A little Tenniel influence?", comments Macek) and her final appearance.

The second sequence provided by Halas & Batchelor is So Beautiful & So Dangerous, directed by John Halas and based on a comic by Angus McKie.

Above is a model sheet provided by Angus of the story's female lead; she eventually evolved into the character seen in the Neal Adams drawings below.

The alien characters changed quite a bit during the making of the film, too.

Computer animation was used in the development of the Pentagon scene.

And finally, there's Den, directed by Jack Stokes and based on Richard Corben's comic work. The sequence was originally assigned to Halas & Batchelor, but as the studio had its plate full with Grimaldi and So Beautiful the staff working on Den had to rent space in Bill Melendez's studio, forming an temporary outfit called Votetone Ltd. TVC head John Coates served as production manager.

"The style is unusual, since it couldn't be used as a working board for the animators", says Macek of the above storyboard.

Character designs. The female character was drawn by Jack Stokes.

Two stills showcasing the approach to shading termed "Corben lighting", which proved extremely difficult to pull off and was largely scrapped.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The hunt for a British Simpsons

Candy Guard expresses her frustration at Pond Life's scheduling woes in Televisual magazine.

In her book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, former Channel 4 commissioning editor Clare Kitson relates how she first saw The Simpsons in 1990 and realised the potential of adult comedy animation. "My own enthusiasm to commission adult series stemmed from a recognition that it could be a brilliant genre," she says. "I also hoped that adults, unused to watching animation of any kind, might come to it via comedy series, discover its many virtues and so think of giving the auteur shorts a try."

In the latter half of the decade a slate of three adult cartoon series appeared on Channel 4: Crapston Villas (created by Sarah Ann Kennedy and premiering in 1995), Pond Life (Candy Guard, 1996) and Bob and Margaret (David Fine and Alison Snowden, 1998). Crapston got good ratings, while Bob and Margaret turned out to be more popular in the US than in the UK and Pond Life was scuppered by poor scheduling (read Kitson's book for the whole sordid story); all three were strong series that received good reviews. Well, none of them had the longevity of some of their American counterparts - Pond Life and Crapston Villas both lasted two seasons each, while Bob and Margaret mustered a more-respectable-but-not-exactly-up-to-Simpsons-standards four seasons - but that's British TV for you. Let's not forget that Fawlty Towers only had twelve episodes.

Later, in 2005, came Bromwell High, which was a flop: "it notched up barely half a million vewers," writes Clare Kitson. "This failure signalled an end to peaktime, expensively-animated narrative sitcoms."

BBC and ITV have also commissioned adult cartoon series, and it's interesting to note that almost all of them have been sketch comedies. There's 2DTV, Monkey Dust, Aaagh! - It's the Mr Hell Show and Headcases; Creature Comforts could also be included in the list as a mutation of the genre. I can think of only two notable series, Stressed Eric and Rex the Runt, that aren't sketch-based. Ironically enough, Channel 4 rejected 2DTV when it was pitched to them precisely because it was a sketch show and not a traditional narrative sitcom.

Blind Justice. See this post for more information on the series.

One thing that's worth noting before I close is a body of work that generally isn't included in lists of animated TV series yet, technically speaking, fits the bill. I'm talking about the likes of Lip Synch, Blind Justice, Sweet Disaster and Animated Minds, series that fall outside traditional TV show formatting and are instead usually regarded as packages of themed short films. Generally speaking each short is handled by a different director using a different technique, and there are no recurring characters or settings to link the shorts, only a broad theme (mental illness in Animated Minds and feminist criticism of the legal system in Blind Justice, for example). This unusual approach to making an animated series has recently been adopted by Hollywood: with the help of Japanese studios, Warner Brothers has been producing similar sets of themed shorts, albeit ones with a far more commercial leaning (instead of social issues, they take their inspiration from The Matrix, Batman and the Halo video games).

On a similar note most of the series discussed in this post have short running times - ten or fifteen minutes an episode. This may at one point have been looked upon as a disadvantage when compared to half-hour series from America, but seems far more acceptable now that short-form web series such as Homestar Runner have demonstrated that less can indeed be more. Perhaps these adult animations were ahead of their time.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Gerald Scarfe's Long Drawn-Out Trip

Long Drawn-Out Trip: Sketches from Los Angeles is a 1971 animated short made by Gerald Scarfe, better known for his caricatures. As Scarfe relates in this interview, the short came about when the BBC sent him to Los Angeles to try out the "Dejoux" animation system, which was designed to allow sequences where one image dissolved into another. Scarfe made the film in LA using the system and added a soundtrack back in Britain, where it was screened on TV and caught the eyes of Pink Floyd, who recruited Scarfe to provide animation for their film The Wall.

The soundtrack that Scarfe put together was to prove troublesome, as it consisted of copyrighted clips from various sources ranging from a Cheech and Chong stand-up routine to John Wayne films. "In order to re-show it, they would have had to pay so many royalties to so many artists... it's not likely that it will ever be shown again," says Scarfe in the interview. "So it's a lost piece."

Fortunately, since the interview was conducted the film has indeed been screened again (in 2005, tying in with BBC4's Animation Nation series), and so I was able to bring you these stills:

It appears that royalty issues cropped up, however, as the short was not screened in its entirety: the Animation Nation documentary itself contains a sequence from the film that was not shown in the actual broadcast. It depicts a naked woman undergoing a series of transformations, eventually ending up as an American eagle.