June 22, 2009
The Snowman, Street of Crocodiles, Girls Night Out, Creature Comforts, Screen Play, Bob’s Birthday, The Man With the Beautiful Eyes, City Paradise, Rabbit: A truncated litany of some of the brilliant shorts that since the mid-1980’s have defined British animation the world over, and are jaw-droppingly impressive. What they, and the unlisted others, share apart from their creative potency is, perversely enough, an institution. A government mandated, uniquely funded institution that luckily for all of us was peopled by passionate souls who cared about art and diversity (writ large), and who actively contrived to put money and resources into the hands of the most talented, fecund creators they could uncover. No, not the NFB (but thanks for thinking of us) Britain’s Channel 4 – or Channel Four, more correctly – television network.

In British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for animation throughout the 1990s, has written a humane and intimate history of the ups and downs of animation at the Channel, leavening it with just the right amount of dry wit, personal insight and anecdote. The book is a deft balance between an academic tome offering historical context and background and an eye-opening guide to anyone interested in the many behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that go on to actually get these kinds of films made and-most importantly in Channel 4’s case-on to air.

As an NFB producer, the themes that resonated for me (both for the echoes and the dissonances) are Kitson’s perspective as a commissioning editor rather than a producer, and the Channel’s intrinsic ability (and sometimes inability) to get things onto TV screens around the UK. While these are not mass audiences by most standards, they are certainly much larger audiences than short animation otherwise gets on broadcast television – if our films get onto television at all. Such a luxury, but as Kitson points out also such a curse, was each season’s scheduling matrix even for a broadcaster so committed to diversities of topic, technique and running length.

The Channel 4 Factor is valuable history. But as memoir about what Kitson likes and why, it’s revealing and fun, and already well exceeds the price of admission. The middle section, in particular, reveals the makings of several of the Channel’s most famous films from her own unique vantage point along with the filmmakers’ own tellings of the tale. It’s as a sociological dissection of how such an organization came about, almost from whole cloth, where Clare hits her stride. As a case study, Kitson offers up much of the recipe for success that created and sustained both Channel 4 and the NFB. Indeed, parallels to the NFB regularly caused me pleasant surprise. Compressed in active years, Channel 4’s animation history is like the NFB’s but accordioned into itself three times over.

I suspect many producers see commissioning editors as mercurial demagogues, unaware of real work of filmmaking and blithely changing objectives and mandates from season to season. Kitson quite effectively put that myth to rest. She reveals the very passionate people who created an ethos committed to being background players. Producers boosted artists by giving them money to make films, but more importantly by creating a culture that was willing to take big risks on small films. Here’s the original job posting for Channel 4 commissioning editors:

Television production experience may be an advantage but is not essential. Whether your passion is angling or cooking, fringe theatre, rock, politics, philosophy or religion, if you believe you can spot a good idea and help others realise it on the screen, we are lo
oking for commissioning editors and would like to hear from you.

Clearly, the early, passionate years of Channel 4 were driven by both by its unique mission and by strength of personality and will of its editors and executives. What kind of society is predisposed to permitting such a creature to be born, and more importantly, to live and thrive? Is it peculiar to Anglo-Saxon socialism, which would also explain the NFB?

Kitson writes about diversity and minority remits (but not just about skin colour or ethnicity or orientation) and cultural big thinkers who believed in social change and art as the change tool. She admires a 1980s UK society and a handful of faithful who were ready to lift and be lifted to a new plateau of humanity and criticality, of engagement and responsibility. While not of the same soaring oratory and historic portent of Barack Obama’s presidency, Channel 4 changed the game. I wonder if Mr. Obama might see PBS and the NEA anew were he to read The Channel 4 Factor. I suspect he already carries those convictions or ones quite similar, but I’m quite certain he’d enjoy the animation education he’d get from Kitson's caring and insightful writing.

Of course, there’s no telling what the success-to-fail ratio was for Channel 4’s roster, much as it’s hard to know for the NFB
unless one is dogged and inclined to statistics. There’s a chance many animators are like me and prone to apocrypha rather than evidence. Although I do think it’s absolutely true that reputations are built on equal parts evidence and belief, and it’s only when belief has no tangible, recent success to riff on that paper lions are revealed and fairly scrutinized. The ratios may have dipped a bit in recent years, but Kitson leaves us with hope for British animation by the book’s end, and it’s a hope I share in all my various capacities within the animation shorts world.

We always need a secular, art-centric “city upon a hill” that challenges and binds us. There are precious few such institutions left, but Clare Kitson has given valuable clues and insights in how to go forth and multiply.

Michael Fukushima is a producer in the National Film Board of Canada’s Animation Studio, apparently with a bit of closeted anglophilia.

Where To Get It

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, by Clare Kitson published by University of Indiana Press (North America) and Parliament Hill Publishing (UK).

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