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.
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.
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)