Saturday, 26 February 2011

Interview with Tony Johnson

Tony Johnson, director of the 1996 crime fantasy feature Fallen Angels and the Stonehouse Reunion series, kindly agreed to be interviewed about his life and work.

LC: How did you first get into animation?

TJ: I was tired of working in news graphics at ITN and read a book by Shamus Culhane called Animation: From Script to Screen. Love at first sight. I quit my job and set up an animation school in Cardiff based on the principal: You teach best what you most need to know.

Fallen Angels.

LC: How did you come to direct Fallen Angels?

TJ: Long story. I was trying to get a feature off the ground called Blackwater Rising; I met a producer called Jenny Barrett who liked the visuals but not the story. She asked me if I had any angel stories as her favourite film was It's A Wonderful Life, and I showed her a picture based on Paradise Lost. I made up a little story at the meeting about two of Satan's rebels trying to get home; it was a bit of a post-civil war western - soldiers from the losing side crossing battlefields and enemy territory on their way back to the South.

I took time out to make a documentary for S4C called Winnebago Blues about a journey across I-10 with my brother and ten friends; while I was editing in London I heard of a Japanese company called Fujisankei. I called the secretary who arranged a meeting with the Managing Director, the meeting went well but I didn't hear a word for two years.

Then I got a call from the blue and was invited to meet a lovely guy called Mister Ushikubo. They gave me a small amount of money to write the script, put together some visuals and I got my brother to record some demos; Fujisankei brought in another partner called ITEL (Now Granada) and gave me a budget of £240,000 to make the film. I got to produce and direct it because I was cheap.

Fallen Angels had mixed reviews; although I think some people missed the point I was proud of the achievement. It was the first British film commissioned at the development stage by a Japanese company and the first ever black British animated film. I thought the industry would be supportive of what we'd achieved on such a tight budget - no money for reshoots and a team of unemployed artists trained completely from scratch.

LC: What did you do between Fallen Angels and Stonehouse Reunion?

TJ: I spent the years after Fallen Angels working on other stories and sketches. A Welsh animation company optioned a project called The Island of the Dead and we were awarded £250,000 at the Cartoon Forum in Pottsdam; the development fizzled out after a couple of years so I left Cardiff and moved to London.

When Fallen Angels finished I span out a bit - my studio was robbed before I finished the film and I used the insurance money completing the last five minutes of ink and paint. A couple of months after the film was finished my company was bankrupt and I was homeless; I briefly shared a flat with a bunch of teenage villains called the Stonehouse crew. They used to go out every day and steal enough money each for a bottle of Stonehouse Cider and a bucket of mix; they all ended up in prison.

A friend paid my airfare to Oz, where I spent three months with some ten pound pom relatives. I then went to Beirut to teach for another three months at Notre Dame University.

The first of the Stonehouse Reunion films, which can be viewed online here.

LC: Can you tell us about the Stonehouse Reunion films? Some readers might be familiar with the first one, but may be unaware that it was actually the first in a series.

TJ: The first film was based on Shawshank Redemption. The storyboard, voices and music were recorded before I approached Channel 4; the first was financed by Channel 4 and another six were co produced with S4C. Three broadcast on TV and the others broadcast online. The second featured the voice of Howard Marks and was set in Woolangong.

They didn't turn out so good. Truth is my dad was sick and I only made them to help my mum pay the bills.

I didn't have a great relationship with the production company: as Shamus Culhane said, don't work with hacks.

LC: Who would you say your artistic influences are?

TJ: My biggest influences would have to be Don Martin and Will Eisner; I used to have a vintage Mad Magazine collection when I was a kid and used to spend all my time copying the artwork. I'm also a massive Stanley Spencer fan.

My animation is mostly inspired by Ub Iwerks, Shamus Culhane and Max Fleischer.

LC: Have you enjoyed any animation lately?

TJ: My favourite modern animated film would be Grave of the Fireflies by Takahata and my guilty pleasures would be Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Boondocks.

LC: Any thoughts on your future?

TJ: My apparent lack of success is due to my own personal approach to my career: when I left college I was madly ambitious and as I grew up I realised there's more to life than money and success. I've probably turned down too many gigs for my own good and one mistake I made with Fallen Angels was turning a commission into a social experiment. I don't regret it though.

I haven't really had any dealings with the industry and I'm still surprised that nobody in the UK has managed to produce an independent feature length animation since Fallen Angels.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Know Your Europeans: UK

This Bob Godfrey short was produced by John Halas in 1994, one year before his death. As the title suggests it was part of a series, with other countries in Europe providing their own shorts along similar lines. Christoph Simon contributed the German short, Aidan Hickey the Irish film, and Abi Feijó the Portuguese cartoon; the series as a whole was produced by Halas and Andi Mindel. Unfortunately, the budget ran out, and the Irish and Portuguese shorts were never released (thanks to Andi Mindel for contacting me with this information).

A clip can be seen online here and the complete short is included on both this DVD compilation and the disc included with Vivien Halas and Paul Wells' book Halas & Batchelor Cartoons: An Animated History.

(Anyone else think that skinhead looks a bit like William Hague?)

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Gnomeo & Juliet: a pair of star-cross'd film industries

The world of animated features has seen quite a few UK/US co-productions in the last few years - Valiant, Corpse Bride, Flushed Away, Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Gnomeo & Juliet. Of course, all that really matters is that the crew from both countries involved do a good job - but those of us who are examining a specific country's animation are left with the fiddly task of finding out who did what. On the one hand we have Corpse Bride, generally thought of as an American film but actually animated at 3 Mills Studios in London; on the other we have Jan Svankmajer's Alice, listed by various websites as partially a UK production even though, as far as I can tell, British involvement was limited to funding from Channel 4.

And so, let's take a look at Gnomeo & Juliet. According to IMDB, the three production companies involved are Starz Animation, a US-based studio that also worked on The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything and Space Chimps; Touchstone; and Rocket Pictures, the British company launched by Elton John, who provided Gnomeo's soundtrack.

The film was directed by the Texan Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron). IMDB lists nine writers, aside from Willie Shakespeare: John R. Smith and Rob Sprackling (Captain Butler, Mike Bassett: Manager) apparently wrote the original screenplay, which was subsequently amended by Mark Burton (Spitting Image, 2DTV, Wallace and Gromit), Kevin Cecil (Little Britain, Black Books), Emily Cook (Ratatouille), Kathy Greenberg, (US/Canadian series The L Word, Ratatouille), Andy Riley (the Bunny Suicides books), Steve Hamilton Shaw (worked as a producer on a couple of other Rocket Pictures efforts) and director Asbury.

Voice talents include James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Matt Lucas, Julie Waters, Richard Wilson and, erm, Hulk Hogan. So, it looks like Gnomeo & Juliet is the result of American direction, American animation, a largely British cast, a largely British writing crew, and Elton John's music (and moolah).

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Public information films: sick pay, school leaving and flues

I don't know who made any of these films, but I'd like to find out - particularly in the case of this one, Statutory Sick Pay, which is a lovely piece of cartooning.

"It's Harry, Mr. Barlow - wants a word."

"Harry? Where th'eck are thou?"

"At home sick, Mr. Barlow - I don't reckon I'll be in this week."

"Ooh, I'm right sorry to hear that, lad. (He's better off at home anyway, specially if it's catching)"

"Still, th'done the right thing getting in touch, so's I can get tha sick pay sorted."

"Britain's new sick bay scheme is now law, making it your employer's responsibility to give you the first eight weeks of your sick pay. Look for details in the press, or ask at works about the new arrangements."

"You ought to know, you know!"

Next, here's School Leaving Age, from the early seventies.

"Your dad - ninety years old, bless him - had to leave school at..."
"I left school at eleven!"

"It didn't give him much of a chance in life, did it?"
"Give me no chance in life!"

"This was all very wrong, and the school leaving age was raised."
"It was better for my lad! We made sure he stayed 'til he was fourteen!"

"Yes, it was better for you - but not good enough."

"To give my lad the right start in life he should have ha more schooling."
"That was going to cost money - and there were depressions and wars."
"I was at wipers! EEH-EEH-EEH-EEH-EEH!"

"But now, at long last, all children will get the chance they deserve. For in 1972, the school leaving age will be raised from fifteen to sixteen."

"You make sure that lad makes the best of it!"
"Be patinet with grandad - he's a bit jealous."

And finally, Keep Flues and Chimneys Clear.

"The gas water heater in your bathroom is safe if used properly, but it needs a flow of air in and out."

"A blocked ventilator or a blocked flue can be dangerous. Keep flues an ventilators clear - always."