The Grasshopper Animators – part 3

The Grasshopper Animators

Part Three


When Sir J. Athur Rank’s film Empire ran into financial trouble, he was forced to close down uneconomic enterprises. G.B. Animation at Cookham was one of the Units that came under the axe. A move which effectively prevented a new series of coloured cartoons from reaching the cinema screens. Titled MAGICAL PAINTBOX, they were to have been a fully animated extension to Henry Stringer’s MUSICAL PAINTBOX series.

One of the episodes had been written by Roy Davis, cartoonist, involving a tussle between the British Amy and Indians in the Khyber Pass in 1902. When Roy was contacted he readily gave permission for a revised version to he made by the Grasshoppers. Meanwhile Roy went on to draw a cartoon strip featuring these characters ‘for The Mickey Mouse Weekly comic.

John Daborn wrote the new script and called it THE BATTLE OF WANGAP0RE. Then he drew tiny black and white pictures depicting each scene which he pinned up on a large board for final discussion by the whole team.

In theory, the organisation of enthusiastic amateur animators throughout the land in order to make a fully animated, ‘16mm colour cartoon of 8 minutes duration, with synch-sound, seemed to be the answer to all the meticulous work that lay ahead.

In practice we soon discovered it did not completely live up to expectations. Let any ten aspiring artists copy the Wangapore model sheets and you get ten individual interpretations of the characters, each artist convinced that he or she has achieved maximum accuracy and consistency of line. But place each drawing of Cuthbert alongside one another, observe the many minor changes of detail and the belief is soon dispelled.

A cartoon must look as though it had been made by one hand. Professionals may be expected to provide this exacting standard of draftsmanship but it was too much to expect of our members.

We solved the problem by giving the mammoth task of animating the major part of the film to Richard Horn. Fortunately John and I were able to mix compatible drawings with Richard’s, when the occasion demanded. In the early stages of production I was responsible for all the effects animation: rain, snow, sandstorms, waterspout, etc. but as time dragged on and pressure mounted I animated a few character scenes. Then my wife Jean and I assisted with the tracing and painting.

Full animation was shunned in favor of the more stylised approach. There were many cyclic movements in order to reduce the number of required drawings. Characters were ‘popped’ on or off screen. A single painted cel would be dragged into or out of the screen frame. And often camera movement took the place of animated movement. In fact, every short cut was exploited to such good effect the viewer was left with the impression of a fully animated cartoon – we hoped! Even so, 1,670 drawings eventually went into the making of the 309 ft. long film.

The production followed professional practice: a script was broken down into scenes; a storyboard prepared; character model sheets drawn; John Daborn timed each sequence by mentally visualising the action and operating a stop watch. John’s other job was to paint the backgrounds for each scene. Meanwhile, Leslie Duncombe composed the theme tunes and James Hedley, an amateur orchestrater from Addlestone, developed them and wrote the full score. The Colonel’s commentary was recorded, and we spent a few hilarious hours creating the sound effects. Commentary and FX were mixed onto one tape, music remained on the second tape.

Richard Hodkin, our sound man, obtained three recorders and skillfully compiled a composite track responding to cues marked on his script. This was sent to the lab and in due course we received an optically recorded 16 mm film track. Then the track was read.

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