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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August 5, 2008

They say the best things in life are free, and in this case it's hard to argue. Since July there's been an exhibition in Manchester called How Manga Took Over the World, and they've been offering free anime screenings that will continue through to September 21. The roster is staggering: there are daily screenings of the first episodes of Astroboy, Tetsujin 28, Noein, Naruto: Unleashed, Otogi Zoshi, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Dominion: Tank Police.

But that's just the appetizer. Every Thursday through Saturday, there are screenings of anime features, many of which have been seen on DVD but really deserve to be shown on the big screen. Drool-worthy entries include Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky (start lining up—it's this Thursday!), the Cowboy Bebop movie, Akira, and the wonderfully old-school Golgo 13. Check the Urbis website for dates and time.

[Thanks, Nausicaa.net.]

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August 4, 2008

Ian Fenton's brilliant little one-minute dissertation on locomotive grannies is in the running for the Virgin Media Shorts 2008 title to be judged by a panel headed by Lex "Keyser Söze" Luthor himself, Kevin Spacey. If The Big Push happens to win, Ian will net a cool £30,000 and the opportunity to work with Virgin Media and the UK Film Council on his next 60 second opus.

Via The Northern Echo.co.uk

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July 30, 2008

Neil Gaiman posted an article from the Guardian about Jamie Hewlett. I was in high school when I came across his work in the pages of Deadline, the UK alternative music and comic magazine. Since then he has blown up, as band member/creator of The Gorillaz, the best animated studio band EVER, among many other projects. The article makes clear how much he has been influenced by a wide variety of SF, comic and animated pop culture, included Warner Bros., Hayao Miyazaki and Rene Laloux.

He and band-mate Damon Albarn have created the opening titles for the BBC's Beijing Olympics coverage and its a stunner.

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July 11, 2008

Well, what do you know? Looks like Britain loves Pixar more than Keira Knightley after all. Variety is reporting that despite the recent economic downturn, Her Majesty's loyal subjects have been shelling out for home entertainment discs in record amounts, with Ratatouille trouncing Atonement as the biggest seller to date.

“History has shown that in times of economic hardship, consumers find even more value in home entertainment when the leisure pound is stretched as it is,” commented Lavinia Carey, director general, BVA.

“As video is one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment we would expect to see continued volume growth in our market as consumers tighten their belts in response to increasing economic uncertainty,” she added.

It seems, according to the article that the Blu-ray format has a lot to do with the recent gains in the market, citing a 506% growth, year to date.

via Variety.com

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March 16, 2008

It's taken almost half a year, but I finally got the "Dance Off!' episode of the Spanish/British co-production Pocoyo on my PVR. I wasn't always a fan; for months I'd spotted the show on my satellite TV grid, but I never stopped to look at it. Then at last year's Ottawa fest I caught "Dance Off!" during the Kids Competition and—along with much of the rest of the audience—laughed my ass off.

During that half year, I recorded every episode of Pocoyo, hoping to find that episode. Since it repeats pretty frequently, that meant I was recording and skimming through three or four of the ten-minute episodes every day. It wasn't a hardship; Pocoyo is not only one of those rare kids' programs that adults can watch and genuinely enjoy, it's an animator's delight. Those two elements aren't unrelated; although Pocoyo is 3D CGI, it's animated somewhere in between UPA and anime. The character designs are simple and expressive; there's plenty of stylized motion and popping from pose to pose; and the characters have distinct body language. Since the show has minimal character dialogue (which, conveniently, makes it easy to translate to multiple languages), the animation has to carry the story. If you want to see what I mean, check out the trailer for the show's second season:

What kills me is that Dreamworks knocked themselves out to create cartoony CGI with Madagascar, and Disney did the same with Chicken Little, then both patted themselves on the back for all the time and effort and technology and research they poured into it. Meanwhile, a handful of animators working at small studios like Peter Lepeniotis (Surly Squirrel) and David Cantolla, Luis Gallego and Guillermo García (the creators of Pocoyo) just quietly and effectively nailed it.

Buy Pocoyo DVDs and more from Amazon.com
, or Amazon.ca

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January 22, 2008
Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 2008 Oscar nominees. For all the concern of Beowulf getting a spot, the worry was for naught. The shorts are diverse, in technique, storytelling and geography.


Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, France)
Ratatouille (Brad Bird, US)
Surf's Up (Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, US)


Even Pigeons Go To Heaven (Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse, France) entire short
I Met The Walrus (Josh Raskin, Canada) clip
Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada) clip
My Love (Alexander Petrov, Russia) clip
Peter and The Wolf (Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman, UK) clip

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October 31, 2007
In 1989, a Briton by the name of Neil Gaiman took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring series of comic books. In 1991, a Briton by the name of Paul Berry took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring and terrifying stop-motion short.

The mythical Sandman brings sleep and good dreams to children by sprinkling sand on their eyelids to weigh them down. But in 1817, German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Der Sandmann, in which the Sandman's origins and purposes are far more sinister. Berry and producer Ian Mackinnon crafted their story around Hoffmann's vision, rooting the look of the ten-minute film in German Expressionism. Any symmetry to be found in The Sandman is accidental, and the shadows and moonlight serve to delineate the aquiline features of the title character and the haunted looks of the unnamed young boy and his mother.

Those three characters make up most of the cast of The Sandman; as the clock strikes eight, the boy is sent off to bed with only a lamp to guide him through the seemingly endless stairs of their Gothic house to his room. Every creak and every shadow is a new source of terror for the boy, who finally dives under his covers for sweet relief. But as he sleeps, the Sandman appears in his room, waiting for the right moment to strike.

The Sandman is entirely in pantomime, with barely-there incidental music accenting the creaks, groans, winds and other incidental sound effects that permeate the film with dread. The Sandman himself is a beautiful study in animated acting, as he gracefully stalks about the room, eventually leaping and dancing like a crazed bird of prey. His performance—for that matter, the entire film—is a textbook example of a medium perfectly suiting a story. At one point the Sandman is climbing the stairs and discovers a loose floorboard, prompting him to repeatedly lean into it, taunting the boy with its creaking. That scene, and the flashback it invokes in anyone who ever laid in bed and thought someone was coming to get them as a child, would never have worked without that sense of weight and tactility. Every moment of The Sandman takes advantage of stop-motion's grounding in reality, and uses it to present a fantastic and frightening scenario that everyone can relate to.

One note: if you're watching The Sandman for the first time, make sure to watch it through past the end credits for the one shot that will likely give you nightmares for the next week.

Where to find it: On the British Animation Classics Vol. 2 DVD.

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October 10, 2007
Since Persepolis and Madame Tutli-Putli each screened at Cannes and won awards this year in May, they have appeared at animation and mainstream film festivals to acclaim. Montrealers can now finally see both films by attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which begins today.

Animation seems to have taken on a more important role in the festival with more shorts than ever. However, a few might slip through the cracks if you aren't careful. The visceral Face lies in wait in Competition 1, on Thursday, October 11 and Wednesday, October 17th. Madame Tutli-Putli is showing during Competition 2 this Friday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 16. Selina Cobley's Crow Moon screens in Competition 3 next week on the 17th and 18th.

The National Film Board of Canada Stereo Lab is screening four stereoscopic shorts, which 2004 OIAF attendees might have seen, but this screening includes the premiere of a stereoscopic version of Theodor Ushev's phenomenal Tower Bawher.

Previously on fps
Festival du Nouveau Cinéma coverage
Persepolis coverage
Two Podcasts for Madame Tutli-Putli

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September 18, 2007
Festival madness: Animatu 2007 kicks off its appreciation of digital animation in Beja, Portugal on October 17, featuring shorts like Ark, Codehunters and Guy's Guide to Zombies; in Spain, Animadrid starts off strong on September 28, opening with Nocturna; I'm still a little peeved at Aurora (formerly Norwich International Animation Festival) for dumping the word "animation" from their name because they think it's too restrictive, but damn do they have a lot of cool animation and animators in this year's fest, which starts November 7; Animae Caribe hits the University of the West Indies, Trinidad on October 25 and will feature a history of African animation; and the awesome Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema returns to the tiny town starting November 15, with an undoubtedly incredible lineup and steady supply of excellent hot chocolate.

Two new additions to our Sites We Like blogroll (over on the lower right sidebar, in case you hadn't noticed): Fill This Space is Patrick Smith's space for ruminating on the art and animation that he makes, and that inspires him; Diego Stoliar's self-titled blog features his personal and creative work. I featured Patrick's Moving Along in our Flicker newsletter a while ago, and praised his Handshake ever so briefly in my review of the second Avoid Eye Contact DVD; Diego was a participant in the National Film Board of Canada's most recent iteration of the Hothouse project, and you can see his contribution, One, along with the rest of them here. They'e both great guys, and I hope one day we'll all share beers together.

In the past we've mentioned the weekend animation workshops that the National Film Board hosts for kids here in Montreal; I should also mention that the NFB in Toronto has been running the same kind of program at the Mediatheque, for budding animators aged 3 to 13. The current program runs through to April 2008, but you can jump in at any time.

The Iranian feature Persepolis has been making the festival rounds for most of the year, but it looks like Sony Classics is giving it at least some sort of a theatrical release. I don't know about the rest of the continent, but Montrealers will be able to catch it in English and French starting January 11.

Speaking of Sony, the company is picking up where Disney left off with direct-to-DVD sequels of its feature properties; the first title is Open Season 2. Fans may howl at the resurgence of cheapquels, but I imagine it's hard for executives to ignore the heaping piles of money they generate.

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March 25, 2006

Emru Townsend interviews British animator Phil Mulloy, who was recently in Montreal to host a retrospective of his work at the Cinémathèque québécoise. Phil Mulloy is a prolific animator who has created over twenty films in the last sixteen years, and in many of his works, the landscape and characters are stark and grotesque: rendered in black paint and ink, his characters are mostly in silhouette, with skeletal bodies, large, bony hands, and distended mouths with jutting teeth. Animation is accomplished by manipulating cutouts of his painted and drawn images. And while his plots have varied, they often feature themes of sex, persecution, violence, the body, and religion.

Emru Townsend, Phil Mulloy, and Marco de Blois.

Film Clips
Cowboys: High Noon (1991; 0:43, 2.0 MB, MPEG-1)
The Sex Life of a Chair
(1998; 0:59, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
Intolerance I (2000; 0:59, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
Intolerance II (2001; 1:00, 2.7 MB, MPEG-1)
The Christies: Mister Yakamoto (2006; 0:27, 2.0 MB, MPEG-1)

Phil Mulloy
Cinémathèque québécoise
Lotte Reiniger
David Anderson

Credits: Photo by Tamu Townsend; podcast introduction audio from Intolerance I

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