A History of British Animation: An Interview with BFI Curator Jez Stewart

Interview by Barbara Nováková

The following interview was conducted on the occasion of a screening organized by P&P students: “A History of British Animation”. This feature-length programme of remastered shorts from 1907 to the 1990s, curated by Jez Stewart (Curator of Animation at BFI National Archive), traces the history of the art and the industry, offering an animated portrait of a nation. In this interview, Jez shares his insight into the tradition of British animation within a broader context, discussing his curatorial approach and some of his favourite films from the BFI´s Animated Britain collection.

Selection

Barbara Nováková: More than 300 films in the selection of films from the BFI´s collection titled Animated Britain are divided into several subcategories (Children ́s, Promotional, Animation & Artists Moving Image, Advert, Sponsored Film, Short Documentary, Fantasy and Comedy). Why genre categories and not, for example, categories based on animation techniques or themes?

Jez Stewart: The animation collection on the BFI Player is aimed at a general audience, so rather than focus on technique we wanted to look more at the way animation was used across its history and development. Rather than genre, the focus of the collections was more about purpose and distribution. Instead of tagging ‘advertising’ as a genre, I think it is much better to understand it as a form of filmmaking that interrupts the feature
programming in cinemas or television by buying its way onto the screen. It’s an
uninvited guest and that very much shapes its form, voice and content. So it is short, for example. It invariably tries to entertain us. And that’s why animation has been used
since the very early days of screen advertising because it’s great at engaging a wide
range of audiences, puts them in good humour, and can visualise complex or fantastical
brand messages into compact, punchy forms. Our collection of animated adverts which
ranges from 1930 to 1985 shows how this has developed over the years as the
distribution pattern and medium have changed – 5-minute entertainment shorts with a
brand message punchline in the 1930s, to 30 second TV spots in later years.
I think this context of how the films were made and shown is also really important so
that’s how we shaped the other collections – amateur animation, sponsored film,
independent artists’ animation. The exception is the collection of the earliest films which made sense to group together. There certainly are many other approaches, and
hopefully as the platform develops we will be able to curate more sophisticated mini-
collections to tell other stories with more context alongside them.

How does your selection differ from the previous curatorial projects, which presented the BFI ́s collection of animated films in the past?

The BFI hasn’t really done a thorough look at British animation on this scale since the
1970s and 1980s. I look back at those programmes and who was involved – Richard
Williams, Bob Godfrey, George Dunning – with envy. They tended to focus on their contemporary scene, whereas we have tried to cover more of the history. But the biggest difference is that where previously it has only been possible to put together 8-10 screenings for paying audiences at the BFI Southbank (formally the National Film Theatre) in London, we were able to take our project across the country with a touring programme, and most importantly spread it online for free. You can access the collection on your smartphone across the UK, and there is a smaller collection on the BFI’s YouTube channel available worldwide. But this also means you can highlight films that might struggle in the context of paid cinema programme. You can showcase a sponsored film which has really innovative design work but might be (dare I say it) a bit dull in its content.

It’s also significant that the most of the online collection is filled with films that were
digitised through a Heritage Lottery Fund project called “Unlocking Film Heritage” which was targeted at “inaccessible” films. We could only select films which were not
otherwise available online or on DVD, so what we were bringing to light were films that had only been seen by the most dedicated researchers if at all for a number of years.

In what way has British animation contributed to the broader history of the art form and how does your selection reflect it? In what way is it “an animated portrait of a nation”?

In short, a prevailing theme when you look across the history of British animation is the lack of financial support. Whether it is because of the shared language or other reasons, it seems that the dominance of American cartoons in the market has been felt more fully in Britain. It is not that these issues don’t effect animation in many other countries, but that the investment has just never been made in the homegrown industry. There is a big exception of a period in the 1980s and 1990s when television took a short term interest, and suddenly British animators were sweeping up all the awards and bringing about successes like Aardman. But after changes in broadcasting took that support away, the opportunities for filmmakers dried up – even for internationally celebrated figures like Joanna Quinn and Barry Purves. Fortunately, Aardman managed to stay around and go from strength to strength. Because commercial animation is locally made for a home market it has often been British animation’s great strength and the financial backbone that has enabled its best practitioners to experiment in other more independent work. Our selection focusses very much on these areas.

As to the “animated portrait of a nation”: the question I kept asking myself in all this was “What is British animation?” Is there something that makes British animation unique, or are there some particular traits that stand out? Or is it just an accident of geography that these films were made within the borders of a country by a group of disparate souls? This was never intended to be a Brexit-y exercise that put British animation on a pedestal – and it is very apparent that the industry has always been reliant on a range of talents who have come to Britain from Europe, Canada, America and Australia, have settled there and have made it infinitely richer. I think there are some thematic traits to British animation – comedy, sex, food, class. But they are not unique ones. There are also practical trends: a certain improvised nature that has been necessitated by low finance. But mostly I wanted to suggest that even at their most fantastical, these films represent the time, place and conditions in which they were made. And the personalities of not just those who made them, but who they were made for.

What are the highlights of your selection to which you would like to draw attention?

To pick a couple from the YouTube collection which are available anywhere, then I think Giro the Germ No. 1 (1927) is a good example of the “animated portrait” idea. It’s an information film sponsored by a self-appointed public health body called the Health and Cleanliness Council, which enables a close-up look at Giro and her germ buddies. Technically it is interesting as some sequences make an early use of rotoscope (tracing live action footage to cartoon drawings) for some of the characters, including the germs. What I find so delightful is the fact that as they filmed and traced a live-action dancer to help draw Giro dancing, it means that she dances the Charleston like a tiny flapper of the Roaring Twenties. Despite being a representation of microscopic life, the anthropomorphism involved inadvertently acts as a cultural time capsule.

 

Another nice discovery was The Dream of Arthur Sleap (1972), a forgotten animated promo for the BFI itself. We only held separate picture and sound negatives, so this help make a combined viewing copy. It even has an early piece of computer animation at the end.

 

Presentation

The Animated Britain project was introduced to the public in February 2018. Where has it been presented since then and based on what criteria do you choose films for various events? Are the film reels occasionally projected, or just the digitised versions?

The Animated Britain collection was just was one part of a year-long BFI programme
under the banner “Animation 2018”. Each month we screened a range of animated works at the BFI Southbank, with focusses on Aardman, Yellow Submarine, Watership
Down, children’s television, and Christmas specials, for example. Though mostly British
we showed some contextual world animation, and early in the year I put together a
programme of international silent animation using archive 35mm prints. My role was the more historical programmes, including the premiere of our three-part History of British Animation packages for which we had digitally remastered over 30 animated films from the collection. These have been screened across the UK, and a compiled international package has been screened in Amsterdam and New York. At the BFI, there were a lot of events based programmes with filmmakers involved, and we worked with them on selecting what to show.

How do audiences, both online and live, respond to the films? Is there any difference between the reactions of British and foreign viewers?

The best reactions online have been surprised at the rich and unexpected history that we have helped uncover; although nostalgic reactions at adverts and public information films distantly remembered from childhood have also been common. That is obviously going to be different overseas. Theatrically my favourite reactions have been from the filmmakers whose work we have helped to restore.

With less and less venues screening 35mm film (particular animation festivals), retrospective programmes are often made up of digitised SD tape transfers or DVDs. We have worked at 2K and gone back to the original negatives wherever possible. I particularly remember a spontaneous exclamation of appreciation mid-programme after George Dunning’s short The Ladder (1967) – a phenomenal film that was little known. In terms of the international touring programme we have put together, one of the great benefits of animation is its universality and use of visual rather than spoken language that helps break down borders. Sadly I haven’t been able to tour with the programme until now so I look forward to gauging the reaction at the Amsterdam screening, and perhaps elsewhere in the future.

The 95-minute screening will take place on Thursday 6 June, at 7:30pm at Kriterion cinema. Jez Stewart will introduce the films and stay for a Q&A afterwards. Purchase the tickets and have a look at the programme here.

List of films:

Sorcerer’s Scissors (Walter Booth, 1907)

Animated Doll and Toy Town circus (G.A. Smith, 1912)

Ever Been Had? (Dudley Buxton, 1917)

Booster Bonzo; Or, Bonzo in Gay Paree (1925)

Shadows (Joe Noble, 1928)

Fox Hunt (Hector Hoppin and Anthony Gross, 1936)

Adolf’s Busy Day (Lawrence Wright, 1940)

Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit (Biographic, 1959)

Transformer (Trickfilms, 1968)

The Ladder (George Dunning, 1967)

Mr Pascal (Alison De Vere, 1979)

Night Club(Jonathan Hodgson, 1983)

Britannia (Joanna Quinn, 1993)

Queen’s Monastery (Emma Calder, 1998)

 

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Lost and Found: Anniversary of the Revolution. Interview with film historian Nikolai Izvolov

One of the highlights of IDFA 2018 was the world premiere of the reconstructed film Anniversary of the Revolution (1918), which is considered “the grandfather” of the feature-length documentary genre. The film was directed by Dziga Vertov, who captured the main events that led to the Russian Revolution and the first year of the newly established communist state. Vertov complemented his film shootings with several newsreels of the time, creating a two-hour account of the historical events. The film was released on 7 November 1918 to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution and was screened in several cities in Soviet Russia. However, the film prints were soon chopped into small pieces and became dispersed. The re-release was recently made possible by a unique discovery that helped a team of archivists and researchers reconstruct the original piece. The work was led by film historian Nikolai Izvolov, who shares the interesting details of the work in this interview.

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How did you work with film prints to reconstruct the movie?

The film – or, rather, its parts – was stored at the Krasnogorsk archive (the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive – RGAKFD). First, I had to work with the 35mm acetate prints, as nitrate prints of most fragments have not survived. In the old editing sheets, which were compiled in the late 1960s, we found a full reference of the set of preserved materials: there were negatives, dupe negatives, positives, and if it was the original nitrate, it was also indicated. Unfortunately, it was impossible to work with nitrate positives, because many of them are kept as originals and are not available to researchers. After all, I managed to get one of these nitrate positives, and it was very useful because it included intact intertitles in reddish colour. Its RGB characteristics allowed us to select colour characteristics for the titles in the digital copy.

However, the main restorative work was not with the film prints but with the catalogue. Fragments of the film (stored in separate rolls) were catalogued under certain numbers, and before calling them from storage it was necessary to know that they corresponded to the text of the intertitles for The Anniversary of the Revolution found by Svetlana Ishevskaya at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). The correspondence of the intertitles and their sequence was the most significant factor that allowed to identify the film’s main parts. Afterwards, analysis was applied to such characteristics as the sequence of the intertitles’ numbers and the sequence of the frames between intertitles. This was done after the acetate prints were brought from storage, and after viewing and analysing them using the editing table’s screen. Further work was to make digital copies of each fragment and to complete postproduction – that is, to make the film suitable for exhibition.

How can intertitles help the work of an archivist?

Intertitles constitute a very important parameter. By having the list of intertitles, we can identify the composition of different prints. So, if an archivist has this list, it becomes one of his most important instruments. Actually, intertitles can help identify a whole film!

In this particular case, the film could not be reconstructed for almost a hundred years because the list of its intertitles was not available. The list had neither been preserved in Vertov’s personal archive at RGALI, nor as part of the archive transferred by Yelizaveta Svilova in the early 1970s to the Austrian Film Museum. So, until the list of intertitles was found among the materials of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s archive at RGALI, reconstruction could not be launched in principle. When we had this list, we had the exact plan, and it became possible to build up the main body of the film: its visual material. I believe that this work was done in a well-reasoned manner, because in addition to the correlation of the intertitles’ text, across the entire film there is also a correlation between the intertitles’ sequential numbers and the sequential numbers of the so-called “starts”.The list of intertitles is also important because Vertov not only used separate shots from other peoples’ films but frequently incorporated entire ready-made, edited sequences. I had to know exactly where Vertov cut fragments from the source material, and it is impossible to determine this without the list of intertitles. Therefore, lists of intertitles constitute one of the most important parameters for the restoration of silent films.

 

Did you apply any photochemical or digital restoration to the material?

Unfortunately, while reconstructing the film, I did not have the financial resources to do a complete work – that is, to carry out the wet gate scanning that is necessary to remove scratches.  Reconstruction began without a production budget, and only the good will of the RGAKFD administration brought the work to its logical conclusion. All the work was done by 2K film scanning, and then the scans were computer-assembled. Thus, no photochemical treatments of the film were carried out.

Certainly, there is still a possibility, if there is a bigger budget, to carry out this work at a higher technical level, with the use of wet gate scanning, 4K scanning and a specialised software which removes all of the defects that have appeared in the film since its production. However, we must bear in mind that in 1918, Vertov, having obtained positives for editing, duped them – that is, many scratches that had appeared as a result of exhibition by that time were already firmly imprinted on the film. The audiences in those years saw already badly scratched material. This brings up the question: do restorers have the right to improve the image in the Vertov film, or do we have to recreate it in the form in which it was seen by the audiences of that time? This is not an idle question, because if we can now find the original nitrate positives used by Vertov, as well as the non-duped materials, then we can employ wet gate scanning in order to get clear samples. However, from a historical point of view such samples will not be quite genuine because Vertov used scratched ones.

Of course, during restoration any intrusion into the original material is unacceptable, with one small exception. In some cases, it was necessary to insert titles that were not preserved in the existing fragments of The Anniversary of the Revolution. There were two options. The first one was to simulate fonts used at the time of the film’s production and to recreate intertitles which would be visually indistinguishable from the originals. I did not go with this option because it would have produced a clear fake, so I instead chose the other option. When I had to insert the missing intertitle it was inserted with the use of modern fonts so that contemporary researchers could determine what exactly was inserted in the film by the restorer. I believe that this is quite a correct way to work with the material of the film. This is the only digital, computer intervention I allowed at this stage of work. Titles were also coloured on the computer; unfortunately, authentic colour which was in the original nitrate positive (which served as the source for determining the colour) can only be achieved when working with actual film. As we were unable to work with film, our objective was to achieve the colour of the letters but not of the background. The background turned out not quite black, but this was not crucial in our case.

Are there other lost movies from the Soviet Russian film heritage? And if yes, which are the most sought after?

As for the loss of our film heritage, the statistics are almost the same for all countries – for Russia, for European countries, for the United States. Approximately 80% of all films shot during the silent period of cinema are lost. A huge number of films perished – we know about them only from the descriptions in textbooks, in the press, in memoirs. To list them all would be too difficult because the list of just their titles would make up a whole volume. As for my personal preferences, I would very much like to find Alexander Medvedkin’s film Hey Fool! What a Fool You Are!, a 4-reel fiction film made in 1932. I also would like to find the negatives of a considerable quantity of footage of Lenin, which vanished mysteriously in the early 1920s.

Interview by Paulina Reizi and Janka Barkóczi

IDFA 2018: AMIA UvA’s Top Picks!

IDFA-logo-BLOCK-NAME_DATE_panoramaSource: idfa.nl

This year’s program for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is comprised of interesting films, discussions and lectures. IDFA has already started and will be running until 25 November, so there will be many opportunities to come and see the past, and also current landscape of documentary filmmaking.

To save you time, we have compiled a small selection of films and events which could be of interest to anyone curious about the various uses of archival film footage and its presentation to the contemporary spectator.

Check out our picks and please do come along!

Anniversary of the Revolution (Dziga Vertov, 1918)

Starting with the prolific documentarian, Dziga Vertov, his feature-length film survived only in a 12-minute version until recently. However, after years of searching, Russian film scholar Nikolai Izvolov located the film in its entirety in the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the film and IDFA audiences will have the unique chance to view this carefully restored footage accompanied by a live score. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to witness Lenin addressing the cameraman or speeches by Leon Trotsky!

https://www.idfa.nl/en/film/0f2c8073-a21d-4c9b-be28-2dc30b262723/anniversary-of-the-revolution

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A New Year, A New AMIA UvA Student Chapter

The UvA AMIA student chapter for 2018-19 is officially established. The chapter is comprised of AMIA UvA committee members and Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image (P&P) MA students.

Executive Committee

Cristina Kolozsvary – President

Sophie Tupholme – Vice President

John Jacobsen – Secretary

Bea Harbour – Treasurer

Olivia Hărşan – Communications Coordinator, Twitter

Supporting Members

Janka Barkóczi – Facebook

Kamilla Gylfadóttir – Instagram, Branding

Barbara Nováková – Blog

Paulina Reizi – Communications Advisor

Pia Bechtle, Lee Russell Elmore, María Hernández and Jaka Lombar

We have already planned some upcoming projects including the digitisation of Otto Schuurman’s films and we are in the midst of organising a number of film-related events through collaborations with private film collectors, institutions and viewing spaces across Amsterdam.

It is beginning to look like an exciting year and as such we’d like to invite any other film studies students to join us. Just shoot us an email, we’re a friendly bunch!

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We couldn’t wrap up our year in Amsterdam without one final diary log from the projection booths of Amsterdam. Likewise, we headed to Lijnbaansgracht to find the welcoming arthouse cinema Cinecenter, tucked in between the now legendary pop-culture venue Melkweg and the always-lively Leidseplein.

Cinecenter is an intimate arthouse cinema right in the center of Amsterdam that combines an independent and arthouse film programming with special English-subtitled screenings and film meet-ups directed to Amsterdam’s bursting community of expats. Cinecenter opened its doors for the first time in 1979 in a building originally designed by the architect Gerard de Klerk.

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Farewell from the 2016-17 Officers

 

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L-R: President Krystel Brown, Secretary Jim Wraith, Treasurer Fatma Amer and Vice-President Niamh O’Donnell.

On behalf of the 2016-2017 UvA Student Chapter Officers I would like to thank everyone for their contributions and support throughout the previous academic year and in all of our endeavours. It has been a year filled with many challenges and great opportunities and we successfully ran a series of talks, visits and travels that furthered out knowledge in the field whilst also meeting really great people.

To finish out tenure there will be one more “Booth Diaries” by Sofia Pires and we hope you enjoy her final musings and great photographs before welcoming the new officers.

To the incoming officers – we wish you all the best in your endeavours over the forthcoming year.

Thanks again,

Krystel

P&P Alumni Interview: Guy Edmonds

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Photo of Guy courtesy of https://www.cognovo.eu/

 

Guy Edmonds was part of one of the earliest Master classes in Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image graduating in 2006. He was worked for many years as a film restorer and archivist at EYE Film Institute, Christie’s Camera and Photographic auctions and The Cinema Museum in London, among other institutions. He is currently pursuing a doctorate at Plymouth University, in the CogNovo programme, facilitated by the EU Marie Curie initiative. His research focuses on affect and cognitive phenomena associated with moving image viewing, examining the role of projection technologies using electroencephalography (EEG) analysis. He has written extensively on early cinema, the electrophysiology of spectatorship, amateur film and projection. As well as being a member of AMIA, Guy is also a member of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image and the artist-run film lab cooperative, Filmwerkplaats.

 

 

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