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The BFI and Animation

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Although the BFI never had a specific remit to fund animation, its Experimental Film Fund and Production Board backed approximately thirty animated titles between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s. As with the BFI's film output as a whole, many of these were one-off oddities that have faded into obscurity, but the line-up also included important work by such key animators as John Halas, Bob Godfrey, Vera Neubauer and the Quay Brothers.

The initial batch of five animated titles made between 1952 and 1956 give some idea of where the BFI's interests lay. After agreeing to distribute the allegorical cartoon Animated Genesis (1952) by the husband-and-wife team of Joan and Peter Foldes, the BFI backed their subsequent A Short Vision (1955). This stark, despairing portrait of nuclear war was in the tradition of Halas & Batchelor's near-contemporary feature Animal Farm (1954), though considerably more disturbing in its despairing images, especially those featuring humans being gradually reduced to skeletons. The sculptor Peter King's Dante-inspired silhouette animation Thirteen Cantos of Hell (1955) had similarly morbid preoccupations.

On a much lighter note, Bride and Groom (1955) made use of pixilation to comic effect as a newly married couple is harassed by an overly persistent salesman. It co-starred Bob Godfrey, who had just started his own career as an animator. Perhaps the most surprising project to receive BFI funding was Round the World in 80 Days (1955), also known as Indian Fantasy - this was a completion of two sequences from an ambitious Technicolor adaptation of Jules Verne's novel, initially funded by Alexander Korda's London Films but abandoned when war broke out in 1939.

After this quintet, the BFI seemed to lose interest in animation for a decade. Although the Experimental Film Fund provided support for Halas & Batchelor's The Axe and the Lamp (1963), it was more an experiment in rostrum camera techniques than an animated film per se. However, John Stoddart's Bluebeard's Last Wife (1966) made use of animated cut-out photographs to create a psychologically acute portrait of a woman longing for an emotional outlet but who finds herself imprisoned by her fantasy marriage. Gillian Lacey's The Wanderings of Ulick Joyce drew on Irish folk tales about an outcast king perpetually haunted by a mysterious hag that turns out to be the product of his own fevered brain.

1969 saw the BFI Production Board fund what turned out to be the only animated films by two renowned newspaper cartoonists: Mel Calman's brief vignette The Arrow and Abu's political parable No Arks. Tim Wood's Full Circle (1971) used a technique he called Dynamic Plastanimation (i.e. plasticine animation) to depict a history of the universe from molten lava through to evolution and finally mankind, which inevitably sows the seeds of his own destruction. Similarly ambitious was Deanne Wisbey's cut-out Globe of Delights (1971), which presented the world as a vast carnival in which clowns imitate the greed and avarice of human beings, as strange machine-creatures battle each other to the death. On a much smaller scale, Roy Evans' Love Affair (1971) was a mournful parable about the infatuation of a bee for a buzzing electric razor that has fatal consequences for its human user.

John Gibbons' Windows (1972) made use of the animated juxtaposition of still images of windows and doors combined with live-action footage and line animation. Equally experimental was Stephen Weatherill's The Walker (1973), which combined stop-frame and slow-speed camerawork to depict a walking figure moving at the same pace while the world moves at different speeds around him. Peter Hickling's Generation Gap (1973) saw his starkly simple, almost childlike images brought to life by Bob Godfrey to examine the problems between generations. Relationship strife was also at the heart of Chris Majka's Dialogue (1974) saw a couple witnessing a mysterious edifice emitting strange signals, but they cannot agree on their interpretation.

By the mid-1970s, the BFI Production Board was producing animated shorts on a regular basis. London Film School graduate Antoinette Starkiewicz's High Fidelity (1976) was a wickedly subversive take on Hollywood glamour, while Donald Holwill's The Adventures of Flutterguy (1976) analysed the Superman myth by means of animated collages of re-tinted photographs. Stan Hayward's The Mathematician (1976) was one of the first films to make use of computers. Jack Daniel's The Mirocle (sic, 1976) was a surrealistic portrait of an escape from "the prison of egotism", using a visual style influenced by Paul Klee. Anna Fodorova's Loop (1977) was about animation itself, in which a live-action man's movements are mimicked by means of various animated techniques.

After this peak, the BFI Production Board would fund relatively little animation for its last two decades - though it would also help nurture the careers of some outstanding animators. Vera Neubauer saw three of her films funded by the BFI, including the self-reflexive Animation for Live Action (1978), the polemical The Decision (1981) and La Luna (1999). Even more far-sighted (though it helped that their old art college friend Keith Griffiths was on the BFI Production Board at the time) was decision to back the work of the Philadelphia-born Quay Brothers. Although they now virtually disown Nocturna Artificialia (1979), their first puppet-animated short and earliest surviving film, it acted as a calling card that enabled them to get backing from the Arts Council and Channel Four for much of their early work. Still acknowledged as their masterpiece, the Bruno Schulz adaptation Street of Crocodiles (1986) was made for a huge budget of £80,000, put up by the Production Board and Channel Four.

By then, Channel Four had largely taken over responsibilities for funding British experimental animation, and despite considerable activity on the BFI's part in promoting animation in general (not least through its distribution activities on both film and video), its home-produced animated output was relatively sparse in the Production Board's last decade. George Snow's Muybridge Revisited (1987) was a portrait of the pioneering motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge, using his photographs as the basis of animations intercut with experimental video graphics. Martyn Pick's Signature (1990) was a heavy-lined, crepuscular portrait of a hellish workplace. Daniel Simpson's h (1994) combined Aardman-style claymation with the hellish visions of Hieronymous Bosch to depict what befalls a medieval stonemason sculpting a gargoyle. Matthew McGuchan and Simon Faithfull's Isle of Dogs (1996) used pixilation and stop-motion animation to turn a then-derelict patch of London into a bizarre living landscape. Finally, in the last year of the Production Board's existence, Vera Neubauer's La Luna (1999) was an absurdist thriller set in a world where knitted rats act like humans.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Arrow, The (1969)Arrow, The (1969)

Animated debut by the newspaper cartoonist Mel Calman

Thumbnail image of Axe and the Lamp, The (1963)Axe and the Lamp, The (1963)

An animated examination of a Pieter Breughel painting

Thumbnail image of Decision, The (1981)Decision, The (1981)

Animated short using fairytales to explore gender politics

Thumbnail image of High Fidelity (1976)High Fidelity (1976)

An animated fantasy of a girl in pursuit of a dream

Thumbnail image of No Arks (1969)No Arks (1969)

Animated and politicised retelling of the story of Noah's Ark

Thumbnail image of Nocturna Artificialia (1979)Nocturna Artificialia (1979)

Debut Brothers Quay: nocturnal puppet animation about dreams and trams

Thumbnail image of Round the World in 80 Days (1955)Round the World in 80 Days (1955)

An ambitious Technicolor adaptation of Jules Verne's novel

Thumbnail image of Short Vision, A (1956)Short Vision, A (1956)

Notoriously vivid animated depiction of a nuclear holocaust

Thumbnail image of Signature (1990)Signature (1990)

Wordless animation about a soul-deadening office job

Thumbnail image of Street of Crocodiles (1986)Street of Crocodiles (1986)

A nightmarish netherworld populated by strange and sinister puppets

Thumbnail image of Thirteen Cantos of Hell (1955)Thirteen Cantos of Hell (1955)

Silhouette film illustrating aspects of Dante's Inferno

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