Wednesday, 29 February 2012

New talent 2012

A while back the British Animation Awards announced their shortlist for the student film category. Let's take a look at the work on show from the country's up-and-coming animation talent...

The list contains three familiar titles: David Prosser's Matter Fisher, Matthias Hoegg's Thursday and Michael Please's The Eagleman Stag, all from the Royal College of Art. This is unsurprising, as they were all nominated for the BAFTA the year before last; time will tell if they will also all be nominated for the BAA.

Moving on to the films which haven't been similarly feted we have Overcast, made by James Lancett and Sean Weston of Kingston University. This will also familiar to many as it was showcased on Cartoon Brew last year. The film revolves around a man who leads an unhappy life because he is followed everywhere by a small raincloud; some solid, if understated, character animation from both the man and the cloud.

Also hailing from Kingston University is Grethe Bentsen's Ex Libris. It's a mixed media piece, short on narrative but quite sophisticated in technique, with paper cut-out creatures emerging from the books in a library when no-one's around.

London College of Communication student Natalie Young managed to make the shortlist not once but twice, with her films Spilt Milk and Cowboy Love.

Both films combine a naive drawing style with digitally-animated textures. Spilt Milk, about a shopkeeper serving a lobster, is a bit loose and meandering; but Cowboy Love, the story of two guys (who happen to be a bear and a cowboy) and their regret for poisoning a mouse, is a tighter and sharper bit of observational comedy.

For my money, one of the strongest of the lot and a definite contender for the final selection is When I was Young, by UCA student Kaori Onishi. A mood piece about a little girl who loves whales, the combination of minimalist line animation an clear, simple watercolour backgrounds make for a charming short.

And then we have You May Now, a satire on 3D cinema by University of West England students Daniel Keeble and Dane Winn. It's a one-joke cartoon, but at one and a half minutes it can afford to be. Like Overcast it's simple but well-made, relying heavily on applying character animation to an unusual object: not a cloud, this time, but some kind of pillow or sack.

Those are the films that I could find online. Others have trailers available for viewing: An Interrupted Story by Ania Hazel Leszczynska (Edinburgh College of Art); The Boy Who Wanted to be a Lion by Alois Di Leo (National Film & Television School); Confusion of Tongues by Emily Cooper (Royal College of Art); Damned by Richard Phelan (National Film & Television School); Dr Cecil’s Sound Surgery by Angus Dick & Frank Burgess (Kingston University); Ernesto by Corinne Ladiende (National Film & Television School); Henhouse by Elena Pomares (National Film & Television School); I’m Fine Thanks by Eamonn O’Neill (Royal College of Art); Safe by Ginevra Boni (London College of Communication); and Slow Derek by Daniel Ojari (Royal College of Art).

I can't find so much as a trailer for the others, although footage from Life Well -Seasoned by Daniel Rieley (The Arts Institute of Bournemouth), The Man who was Afraid of Falling by Joseph Wallace (International Film School of Wales), Bare by Helen Dallat (International Film School of Wales) and Out on the Tiles by Anna Pearson (Edinburgh College of Art) can be seen in the directors' showreels.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance by Barry Purves

Barry Purves' 2008 book Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance is not exactly a beginner's how-to guide. Those looking for help with choosing a camera or building an armature should start with Aardman's Cracking Animation, or something similar.

If anything, the book is an autobiography, albeit one written for an audience of apprentices. Although not necessarily following chronological order Purves recounts his whole career - his childhood influences, his early days at Cosgrove-Hall, his string of famously lavish puppet shorts, his work in theatre, and his recent work on Rupert the Bear.

Anyone who has watched Purves' films will have noticed his interest in theatre: Shakespeare in Next, Japanese theatre in Screen Play, Greek tragedy in Achilles, classical opera in Rigoletto and comic opera in Gilbert and Sullivan: The Very Models. Throughout the book Purves draws on a wide knowledge of performance art, which informs his views on the craft of animation. His account of animation's history begins not with flipbooks and zoetropes, but with conjuring tricks and early stage effects such as Pepper's ghost, leading - naturally - into the work of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal material derived from Purves' work in stage drama, and this unique viewpoint - a focus on the common ground shared by animation and theatre - becomes a key theme of the book.

"I want to burst the bubble that separates animation from the other arts", writes Purves in a chapter entitled "Widening the Scope". "My eureka moment was the Royal Shakespeare Company's nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Seeing this, I became aware of great direction, great storytelling, and the unrivalled thrill of the relationship between audience and cast." He goes on to say:
Spectacle can become animated wallpaper, but with a single actor in front of you, you are rewardingly forced to join in and concentrate. By totally throwing the emphasis onto the puppets I've tried similarly to break down the barrier between performer and audience, even if I cannot help throwing in some telling visuals. I strive to make a moment that matches the sheer emotion of Smike's death [in Nicholas Nickleby], or the finale of Swan Lake.
Purves is not the only contributor. Question-and-answer sections are included at various points, featuring feedback from a roster of several dozen worldwide animators; David Sproxton and the late Mark Hall amongst them.

In an example of necessity acting as the mother of invention, one of the book's most charmingly idiosyncratic touches appears to have arisen due to copyright reasons: Purves includes few stills from other directors' films, and instead provides specially-made illustrations of various well-known puppets by a team of illustrators. Early on in the book, rendered in coloured pencil by Saemi Takahashi, there is a group shot depicting Jack Skellington, Gromit, Cheburashka, Domo-kun, Pingu, the Good Soldier Schweik and some characters with whom I'm not familiar.

Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance will be of interest not only to stop-motion animators and to anyone who admires Barry Purves' films. But perhaps its biggest contribution to animation discourse is the relocation of animation theory from the context of filmmaking to the world of performance art.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Animation Nation: The Art of Persuasion part 2

Here's my second transcript of BBC4's 2005 documentary series Animation Nation. This half of episode one, The Art of Persuasion, focuses mainly on advertising. The transcript of the first half can be read here.

Footage from a Shippam's advert. More stills here.

Narrator: In 1955 ITV was launched, introducing American-inspired advertising breaks. Suddenly animation was in demand - not from government, but from hundreds of clients keen to promote their brands to a potentially massive new audience.

Vera Linnecar: I really think without ITV we wouldn't have had British animation as it is now, because it was the complete underpinning of the money side. It was the bread and butter.

Paul Wells: What this brought to bear was the fact that advertising requires distinctiveness in the ways it got across and sold its products, and animation was the perfect vehicle for that. And this is a very different kind of agenda, because you're selling brands that you want the public to consume. You don't want them to just take away propagandistic ideas, ideology and didactic views, you want them to say "oh, that's entertaining, that's engaging, I'll go out and buy that toothpaste".

Footage from a Cherry boot polish advert. More stills here.

Narrator: Animation's classlessness was one of its main attractions for advertisers and viewers. In the early years, perhaps a third of all TV commercials were animated. Unlike the previous information films that had five or ten minutes to sell an idea, on television animators had just thirty seconds.

Footage from Halas & Batchelor's famous Murray Mints advert.

Bob Godfrey: It was like stagecoaches going to locomotives. They'd give us a jingle, and all we had to do was dance to it, basically! the early commercials were like sound radio.

Footage from a Frear's biscuit advert. More stills here.

Narrator: Television was available in two colours: black and white, and early adverts were quite primitive. With the sudden growth in the industry, many of the more ambitious young animators left the big studios to join smaller companies or set up their own.

Footage from a Rael-Brook advert. More stills here.

Dick Horn: Suddenly, everybody had work, that was the most exciting thing, and then the studios springing up in all directions, you know, from one man and a dog up to the big studios.

Footage from a McDougall's flour advert. More stills here.

Vera Linnecar: It was the very beginning of ITV, and you didn't really need any capital so long as you could get hold of a camera and a few people who knew how to draw, yo could set up.

Footage from a Castrol advert. More stills here.

Bob Godfrey: Suddenly, forty little animation studios sprung up all like mushrooms. Hire equipment, get an Aeroflex, get a Mitchell, for the day!" You know, so you could start a production company in a telephone box! You know, you could suddenly... suddenly you had the equipment, you could do it!

Narrator: So he did. Bob set up Biographic with editor Keith Learner, and they were later joined by Nancy Hanna and Vera Linnecar. Biographic had a fresh approach that worked well for the new, faster-style ads.

Footage from an unidentified advert, presumably by Biographic. More stills here.

Paul Wells: One of the kind of interesting things about Biographic, particularly in the shape of Bob Godfrey, is Bob Godfrey's resistance to the whole idea that animation has to be from the Disney style or from a modern art style. He wants it, as it wee, to be much more simple, direct, straightforward, and actually not be full animation - you know, the figures can jump about a lot, they actually don't have to do fluid, lyrical movements, they can just jump from one thing to another.

Footage from a Glenryck pilchards advert, presumably by Biographic. More stills here.

Bob Godfrey: You see, when commercial television came, we couldn't do traditional animation because it was too expensive and it took too long. So we would find quick, cut-out ways of doing things. We were very forward looking, avant gard.

Footage from a Shippam's meat paste advert, presumably by Biographic. More stills here.

Vera Linnecar: I think people were trying to experiment, you know, trying to make different ways of expressing things instead of, you know, following the usual type of drawn animation. I think with advertising you can be as creative as you're allowed to be!

Footage from a 1963 Kit-Kat advert by Keith Learner. More stills here.

Paul Wells: Our commercial work has been hugely appreciated worldwide. It's been recognised for its technical skill, its aesthetic skills and for its sheer invention.

Footage from a Remington razor advert.

Narrator: Animation's broad appeal made it the perfect international sales vehicle, and overseas clients began to use British animators to promote their products abroad. This advert was made for release in West African cinemas, and animated at the Larkins studio, now part of the Film Producers' Guild.

Footage from Put Una Money for There. More stills here.

Dick Taylor: The Film Producers Guild were approached by Barclay's Bank for a film to encourage rural people in West Africa to put their money in a savings bank rather than putting it in the thatch or burying it in the ground. It seemed to be that if we were going to work on something which had to appeal directly to people in West Africa, it'd be nice to have some of the same kind of music.

Narrator: Dick Taylor and his team found a young music student called Sam Akpabot, who came up with a West African street band style soundtrack and told the story in a local dialect.

Dick Taylor: It went down very well once the bank'd gathered the courage to show it, because they'd been persuaded that something that showed caricatures of Africans would in fact infuriate the Africans. But in the end they showed it and the film was extremely successful and ran for years and years, and people used to go along to the cinema especially to see it.

Footage from a Rowntree's cocoa advert. More stills here.

Narrator: Not all animated portrayals of Africans were as sympathetic, as this cocoa ad demonstrates.

Footage from a Spam advert. More stills here.

Narrator: By the mid-sixties , TV adverts had become part of Britain's popular culture, and one of the most memorable campaigns was about a group of city gents working in a flour factory. The Homepride flour men were one of the first successful examples of character branding. They were animated by Ron Wyatt and Tony Cattaneo, although the idea for the little English flour graders had actually come from two Americans.

Footage from various Homepride adverts.

Ron Wyatt: Well, they came in with a matchstick man, and because they were Americans they thought all Englishmen wore bowler hats. An d they aid "we've got this wonderful idea - these blokes with bowler hats all go in this bag of flour, and they throw out all the lumps, and they come out and they wipe this bag - 'cause you don't know what it is yet - he wipes it and underneath, 'cause it's all covered in flour, it's the packet. And because they've been in there they haven't got black bowler hats then, they've got white bowler hats, how about that? What a great idea!" You know, I thought, "eurgh". And anyway, and he said, "and graded grains make finer flour". And I said, "no, that won't work".

Narrator: But graded grains and bowler hats caught the British imagination, and within four months Homepride was a brand leader. Wyatt and Cattaneo went on to animate a host of other commercially lucrative characters.

Footage from various adverts, presumably all by Wyatt-Cattaneo.

Ron Wyatt: I found that if you've got a character or a personality you had a good bit of merchandising property there. You could... you had a product identity.

John Webster: I think every company wants its own property that it can use for a long time, everyone's looking for that.

Narrator: Creating a successful animated character is as hard as finding the next Elvis - it's the holy grail of commercial animation.

Andrew Ruhemann: It's like, you know, what makes a star, and what makes just a normal actor. You know when you're in the presence of a star. Well, a drawing is no different, and an animator is no different.

Footage from various Cresta adverts by Richard Williams.

Narrator: Cresta Bear had star quality. He appeared in a series of ads in the seventies and was the brainchild of animator Dick Williams and advertising executive John Webster.

John Webster: We created this bear, who had a kind of spasm which was pinched from Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. When he takes a drip of whisky he goes into this kind of spasm. "Fresh to the day", he says. And this became a feature in all the ads, he did this spasm. And it got picked up by children, and they all copied it and did it in the playgrounds, and it became quite well known.

Narrator: Cresta Bear sold lemonade to thousands of children who'd never seen Easy Rider, but who loved the crazy bear and his catchy slogan.

Andrew Ruhemann: I think animals work particularly well in animation because I think we as human beings have a tendency to anthropomorphise our animals anyway. We give them human personalities, characteristics, even with our pets, an somehow in animation you can actually make that happen. You can actually give them a personality.

Footage from Oscar Grillo's Kia-Ora advert, a Frosties advert, and a Knorr advert.

Narrator: Anthropomorphic ads like these literally brought brands to life, and it was an animated animal that the Central Office of Information turned to in the seventies to get across a message about child safety.

Footage from various Charley shorts. More stills here.

Dick Taylor: I was using cutout animation and the same littery bits of cutout paper could be transferred from one film to the next, so it was a very economic job from that point of view.

Narrator: The very basic animation was carried by the voice track, with the bizarre yowls of Charley the cat interpreted by his young master. Charley was voiced by the DJ and comedian Kenny Everett.

Dick Taylor: He volunteered to do the entire soundtrack, in fact - music, effects, everything. The only thing was that the voice he provided for the boy was terribly transatlantic and not at all nice, and so I used all the work he'd done except the boy's voice, and I recorded a neighbour's child to do it.

Narrator: Kenny Everett and the neighbour's child spoke directly to their audience, proving that in animation the voice is crucial. In the 1980s the idea of using ordinary peoples' voices to sell something was taken a step further. The Heat Electric ads combined the unscripted musings of members of the public with witty animation, and gave Aardman Animation their first break into advertising.

Footage from various Heat Electric adverts by Aardman.

Peter Lord: The great thing about the advertising is it's hungry, very hungry for ideas. The advertising world is full of people who actually are all looking outward, all round the world, and they're looking for something new. And we had something very, very new, there.

Andrew Ruhemann: It was a clever approach - you know, this sort of documentary style - "real people talking, and let's put animals onto those voices". Now everybody's doing it, hundreds of students are doing it every year in their graduate films and stuff, but then it was pretty novel and it was done so brilliantly.

John Webster: It was something completly new. Understated and yet wonderful humour. And if you had to pick one animation house that represents Britain it would be Aardman.

Narrator: When musician Peter Gabriel was looking for someone to rejuvenate his record career in the mid eighties, he turned to animation and to Aardman. The resulting video used stop frame animation in ways that hadn't been seen before, certainly by a record buying public.

Footage from Aardman's music video for Sledgehammer.

Andrew Ruhemann: Just felt like a very... capturing the spirit of an age, really. It was very British. It was one of those points where you just thought "oh, this is something new", and it moved us up another rung, as it were. It just felt like it was kickstarting, potentially, a new era - which it did.

Peter Lord: The big appeal was that every frame of the finished film, that what you see you would've seen if you' looked through the camera at it. There was no post production, there was no electronic tinkering. In the modern day, if you wanted Peter Gabriel's face to turn blue and clouds to cross it, you could do that so easily with electronic effects. But we did it whereby he sat in a chair like this, and somebody painted his face blue, and then somebody painted the cloud on, and then we took a couple of frames on the camera, and then they painted over the cloud, and painted it on again, a bit further, and so on and so on and so on.

Paul Wells: It's always been the case that animation has remained experimental even as it's entered the popular mainstream. And in the British tradition this has been hugely consistent.

Narrator: Because of the video, Sledgehammer made number 1, not only in Britain, but also America, where it was showcased on the new international music channel MTV. Like ITV in the 1950s, MTV provided a new influx of commercial clients for British animators.

Footage from the Gorillaz video Clint Eastwood and a second music video which I'm not familiar with.

Robert Hewison: I suppose what you could say about MTV is that finally the commercials take over, because what, after all, is a pop promo, but a commercial for a pop record? So what you actually finally end up - which I suppose is the glorification of commercial television in the end - is you have wall to wall advertisements, only they're called pop videos.

Narrator: The music industry has become new of the biggest consumers of animation, where it can be used to enhance or repackage a band and create a world around them. And the introduction of computer generated images or CGI has given the industry a whole new world to explore -the key word for advertisers being "new".

Footage from Shynola's video for Junior Senior's Move Your Feet; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's video for Oasis's All Around the World; two videos I can't identify (the singer in the first may be Bjork); and the Gorillaz video Rock the House.

Andrew Ruhemann: I think one of the most powerful things about commercial animation is it's constantly pushing for new things. The most common thing you here is, from an agency, is "we want something that looks different". And because that's the most common brief it really forces people like ourselves and our competitors to look for new things.

Footage from Tim Hope's video for Don't Panic by Coldplay.

Narrator: This award-winning video uses CGI, but in ways that software designers probably hadn't imagined. Drawing on old fashioned animation techniques such as cutout and modelmaking, Tim Hope experiments by bringing a new depth to computer imaging.

Tim Hope: I never liked computer graphics, it always looked dead, and the characters were dad, and the worlds were ugly. So I always said "well, actually you can scan pictures in, stick it on a shape in 3D and move it."

Bob Godfrey: I've been in animation a long time nearly always I can tell how things are done. But when I saw his work it completely blew me away, because I quite honestly didn't know how it was done. And I said "how does he do it? I mean, how's it done?" "Oh, he does it on a computer." "Oh, on a computer! Use a lightbox?" "No, he doesn't use a lightbox, no, he makes it up as he goes along, you know, and he just does this." I was just amazed by it.

Narrator: A strong element of Tim Hope's work is carrying on what the best of British animation has done for a hundred years, which is to sell its customers a vision of Britain.

Footage from Tim Hope's video for My Culture by Faithless.

Tim Hope: I think is very British. The architecture 's all based around London, and it's Dixon's and Curries and housing estates and masses of satellite towns. the high street is so uniform now, I think that's a defining thing of modern Britain.

Narrator: Computer technology means that reality and fantasy can now co-exist on screen. When this is done to promote a serious message, as in a recent charity public information film, the effect can be disconcerting and powerful.

Footage from Passion Pictures' NSPCC advert. Live action by Frank Budgen, animation by Russell Brooke.

Andrew Ruhemann: The NSPCC ad, I think that was a script that really needed animation because, here was this ad of a very sort of dark, grungy live action setting of a real person beating up an (albeit animated) kid. And we're used to seeing, you know, if you think Tom and Jerry, we;re used to seeing violence n animation where the characters do bounce back. I think it had to be animation, I don't think people could've tolerated it as live action, it'd have been too much.

Narrator: British animation's ability to create this kind of impact means that new clients are using its services, and old clients keep coming back. The government still uses animation to get a political message across. But today, it's democracy rather than war which needs selling.

Footage from an Electoral Commission film encouraging votes in the 2004 European Parliament election.

Narrator: Propaganda and advertising have come a long way since Arthur Melbourne-Cooper broke new ground promoting patriotism and matches. Today, British animation continues to be at the forefront of new ideas and techniques.

Footage from Matches: An Appeal.

Andrew Ruhemann: It's all about strong graphics, strong colours, fast cutting, new looks, new techniques, and quite frankly I think we're the world leaders at that, I don't think there's anyone to beat us.

Footage from a Murphy's Irish Stout advert directed by Mamoru Oshii at the Japanese studio Production I.G.

Narrator: And British animators continue to push the medium as an art form, whilst still delivering the sponsor's message.

Footage from Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes' 2004 Honda advert. All together now: hate something, change something, hate something, change something, make something better...