Channel 4: commissioning and purchasing animation – Page 2

Please write in, don’t phone, because there are so many proposals coming in that if one spoke to everyone on the phone one would never have the time to actually think about them. I would like to see a fullish outline and some idea of what the film is going to look like. If you are in a position to do a draft storyboard or an animatic that obviously makes it much easier for me to see what you are trying to achieve. Give me some idea what it is going to cost. If you have an idea suitable for getting co-finance that would be very welcome because the commissioning budget is very, very small when you consider the range of things my predecessor managed to do with it. My budgets for 89/90 and 90/91 are already virtually committed and I will begin planning the 91/92 films during the second half of 1990.

Those without a track record have to start somewhere and there are two schemes I want to put money in next April. I am discussing with the Arts Council a scheme whereby we jointly fund four short films a year made by new directors. That scheme will not be open to students but the other one is, namely a joint venture with the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank. They have an animation studio with some rather good facilities to show the public how animators work. Animators have been using it on an informal basis but now we are going use it in a more organised way. We will fund the equipping of the studio and pay the animators a small wage. It is going to be offered to four animators a year. To win one of these places they must come with an interesting proposal that they want to spend three months developing at the museum. Where the developments seem worth continuing Channel 4 will put them into production.

That gives you an idea of the area I deal with. There are other places in Channel 4 where animation is bought and commissioned. There is a lot of interest in animation in the Youth Department, the Education Department has commissioned a great deal of animation, the Music Department is interested in animation and of course my fellow speaker Rod Stoneman has commissioned enormous amounts of animation in his time.

ROD STONEMAN: I don’t know if the Independent Film and Video Department’s involvement with animation deserves that prodigious adjective. I would like to start by talking about our relation to animation (defined as films made frame-by-frame) and move on to some more general questions about the role of experimental work in this field.

Over the years there have been programmes about such experimental animators as Robert Breer and Len Lye commissioned within the Department. There has also been an erratic, small number of actual animations commissioned such as Vera Neubauer’s trilogy (or is it quartet by now?). And there have been occasional unexpected, marvellous elements of animation within other projects. For example this year we have made a very large commitment to a feature film called Silent Scream. It is being made in Scotland and is about Larry Winter who died in Barlinme prison about twenty years ago. It contains fragments and moments of experimental animation within the format of a feature film but in a totally integrated, appropriate way. Projects such as Silent Scream, and Vera Neubauer’s work, implicitly contest the purist conceptions of animation which exclude hybrid combinations, creative mixtures.

We are mainly committed to inventive and experimental animation. In terms of visually based, avant-garde work generally we have begun to shift from our original policy of purchasing completed experimental work, to trying to initiate new, and mainly British projects, by putting money up front.

Speaking on a purely personal basis and slightly exaggerating the polemical dimensions of my views in order to provoke debate, I would suggest that experimental animation~ s main function is to challenge the dominance of narrative animation. I understand narrative animation as spanning Disney’s dreary emotional realism to the more recent and more stylish variants on display at this Festival. They all share a linear logic, a tendency towards anthropomorphism and an underlying ideology of specious humanism.

Perhaps it is wrong to cite examples without going into a sufficiently detailed critique but The Man Who Planted Trees or The Snowman are obviously relevant here. Line drawings which err on the side of sentiment, despite their higher achievement in aesthetic terms, perpetuate the retardation of that form of narrative animation. Another dimension of narrative work that experimental animation challenges, is its mono-dimensional construction. The frame is simply constructed and generally drastically limited in terms of its visual dynamic. No matter how many cels are used it is visually reduced to the (narratively) centered frame. The result is a very clear cathartic, emotional experience in one viewing that isn’t worth repeating because there isn’t enough going on in the picture.

Much of this still comes from Hollywood. The children’s Saturday morning sci-fi shows, which although not computer generated, are computer arranged, remind me of Captain Pugwash, a programme from my distant childhood. It was an equivalently impoverished form of animation, mainly for children, visually mono-dimensional. Perhaps Pugwash retains a certain charm value, and it was arguably less aggressive and disturbing than the current American and Japanese children’s kitsch. Perhaps the Quay Brothers, Jan Svenkmeyer and Joanne Woodward should be commissioned to produce more children’s animation.

Ideologically from another place in space the Eastern Europeans have their own variations of mono-dimensional work, often involving the meagre manipulation of paper or puppets. I think all this animation can be placed in a category which should not be too much of a priority for an innovative television channel.

Against those dominant forms of narrative animation and mono-dimensional animation I think experimental work introduces, hopefully at all levels, imaginative forms of discontinuity. The most obvious is frame-to-frame; the ability to work in interstices of 24 or 25 frames a second. They also decentre the image and play with something which is a more ‘busy’ and less centred visual construction. Discontinuity between image and sound is explored rather than their constant parallel reinforcement. Such discontinuities may perhaps go some way to counter the seamless webb of the consumerist audio-visual that is television.

These formal strategies are insufficient alone; without an engagement with ‘content’ and meaning (dare I say politics) they are reduced to the merely decorative – the mannerist adornment of many animated title sequences (The South Bank Show for instance.)

By supporting a range of this work we would hope to help a thousand animated flowers to bloom and promote pluralism and diversity beyond the limitations of dominant narrative work.

To return to current and concrete problems: a major television block on scheduling this animation is, to invent a new leftist category, ‘sizeism’ – the difficulty of coping with anything that doesn’t fit the schedule in terms of length. Channel 4 is pulled by the financial motor of the ITV system into a scheduling grid which means that a half-hour is actually 26 minutes, an hour is merely 51 minutes 45 seconds, and so on. Of course it is possible to evade this if you want to show work of ‘non-standard’ length, but evasion relegates one to the tundra, the cold periphery of the schedule.

There are other strategies such as Clare has mentioned. You can package animation together which gives it a ‘critical mass’ and a better profile in the schedule. Or you can look for gaps left when other programmes come in under size. Instead of filling them with trails one can place animation programmes in these small gaps. This is a useful supplementary strategy because an audience encounter something without the prior intention of seeing it, and perhaps they are drawn towards the more substantial animation programmes and seasons.

This article is published with permission of Clare Kitson and Rod Stoneman.

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Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)