Best of British at the London International Animation Festival 2013

The rich visions at this domestic showcase tantalise with what might be possible with healthier funding for our animators.

Jez Stewart

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Felix Massie’s In the Air is Christopher Gray

Felix Massie’s In the Air is Christopher Gray

The London International Animation Festival’s annual showcase of the ‘best of’ British animation is a good opportunity to look at the state of the nation in terms of domestic production. It’s easy to pine for the ‘good old days’ of the 1980s and particularly the 90s, when British films dominated the Oscars for animated shorts with 50 per cent of the winners and an even more staggering 70 per cent of the nominations. A large part of this story is an extraordinary group of animators coming to fruition at the same time – Barry Purves, Nick Park, Mark Baker, Joanna Quinn, Paul Berry, Daniel Greaves – but the backbone of their achievements was an intelligent, daring and generous distribution of funds by the BBC and particularly Channel 4 over a 15-to-20-year period.

Those days are now gone, largely due to dramatic changes in the broadcast landscape since the turn of the century, but it’s important to remember that these years were the exception rather than the rule. It’s only through special circumstances that British animation has ever been handed resources and a platform in which to flourish, starting with the outbreak of World War I when established newspaper cartoonists like Bruce Bairnsfather and Harry Furniss began to draw for the cinema screen. This opened the door for the first specialist animators like Dudley Buxton and Anson Dyer to begin their cartoon careers, but competition from America and difficulties in finding profitable screen time meant that the good years were very brief.

A similar boost came in World War II, kick-starting companies like Halas & Batchelor and the Larkins Studio, and there was a brief ‘golden age’ for the industry from 1955 to the mid 60s on the back of the arrival of commercial television, which created a demand for animated adverts. But the general picture, as far as funding is concerned, has been pretty bleak and to make a successful film has demanded not just talent but also a certain amount of financial masochism or personal artistic martyrdom.

Christian Schlaeffer’s The Dewberry Empire

Christian Schlaeffer’s The Dewberry Empire

So what of today? In recent years the graduation film has proved one of the best – and unfortunately often one of the last – opportunities for young animators to undertake a personal project on their own terms. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that seven of the 15 films on show came from this path. Four of those were from the Royal College of Art’s Animation MA, which has produced some of the most exceptional British animations of recent years (as per the 2011 Short Animation BAFTAs, where they oversaw all three shortlisted films).

Daniela Sherer’s The Shirley Temple

Daniela Sherer’s The Shirley Temple

Each film here was very different, from Luiz Stockler’s Montenegro, a minimalist Flash-animated comic meditation on ageing and self-absorption, to Christine Hooper’s On Loop, a Hockney-inspired live-action collage piece on imagination and insomnia. Daniela Sherer’s The Shirley Temple was like an episode of Mad Men, were they to give up on live-action work and put the same efforts and intelligence into extending the credit sequence. Christian Schlaeffer’s The Dewberry Empire was a highlight, mixing a Studio Ghibli style with looser drawing and a narrative reminiscent of a missing scene from David Gordon Green’s George Washington.

Other graduate films were equally diverse. The National Film and Television School’s animation course has a different, more collaborative approach than the RCA, with graduates from the music, scripting and other courses working together with the animation director. Yousif Al-Khalifa’s Sleeping with the Fishes, about a repressed lonely fishmonger and her strangely piscatorial delivery man, is typical of the school’s high production values and assured storytelling.

Yousif Al-Khalifa’s Sleeping with the Fishes

Yousif Al-Khalifa’s Sleeping with the Fishes

Ainslie Henderson’s I am Tom Moody is already familiar on the festival circuit, having won awards at this year’s Annecy and last year’s Animated Encounters festivals. This charming stop-motion film on performance and the past was produced at the Edinburgh College of Art and balances character, humour and emotion with a real maturity. The design and animation of the characters is excellent, particularly the eyes.

Ross Hogg’s [homepageThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, from the Glasgow School of Art, took an altogether different approach, interpreting moments from Oliver Sachs’ book through charcoal drawings on paper, with each carefully rendered frame erased and redrawn to give life to the next.

Ross Hogg’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Ross Hogg’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Channel 4 has reinvigorated its support of animation to some extent since 2011 through its Random Acts scheme, commissioning or acquiring some 30 films a year from animators. With a running-time limit of three minutes, these concentrated little nuggets have been infinitely diverse, exemplified by the four in this programme. Elizabeth Hobbs’ Imperial Provisor Frombold [homepage] features an eighteenth-century vampire narrative carved into small rubber stamps and printed onto 35mm film, whilst Sue Magoo’s Moon River [homepage], a slickly perverted CGI vision of hands on holiday, is an altogether different prospect. (Sue Magoo [homepage] is a self-admittedly poorly chosen pseudonym for Alan Warburton, whose remarkable Z [homepage] was a highlight of the previous year’s commissions.)

Paul Bush’s Lay Bare

Paul Bush’s Lay Bare

That leaves those films made with little or no support by the filmmakers themselves, often sacrificing large amounts of their own time and money in-between freelance work or teaching gigs. Paul Bush’s Lay Bare is a beautiful animation using close-up features of the bodies of over 500 people of all ages and backgrounds; it took over six years to complete but was well worth the wait.

Tom Shrapnel and Cameron Lowe’s Aeolian is another personal project, made over three years for ‘zero budget’ – for which you should read that it was made instead of sleeping, eating and taking holidays, as nothing happens without cost. It’s a simple narrative, mixing live action and animation, of a loveably doughy creature arriving in minuscule size in picturesque countryside scenes, rapidly growing to gargantuan proportions and a new appreciation of the nature surrounding it.

Tom Shrapnel and Cameron Lowe’s Aeolian

Tom Shrapnel and Cameron Lowe’s Aeolian

There were other British films dotted around the LIAF programme, including the festival’s own Best British Film winner In the Air is Christopher Gray (pictured at top), by the very talented Felix Massie. That this film was made under the wing of the highly successful animation production company Nexus says much for the rewards of providing a shelter in which filmmakers can put their efforts into a work.

The British animation industry has always earned its keep through commercial jobs and children’s television, and has reached great heights in doing so. But there are many other more rewarding personal projects out there that struggle to see the light of day, and some 30 years’ worth of frustrated animators waiting and hoping for renewed interest and funding in order to make them. Tax breaks that have recently come into force might offer new opportunities for the industry, but the ‘golden ages’ seem long gone and unlikely to return.

If more considered financial support and attractive distribution platforms (for both audiences and filmmakers) could be found, the talent is there in spades. But there’s already plenty to relish in the works of those determined to get there films made.

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