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Dunbar, Geoff (1944-)

Director, Animator

Main image of Dunbar, Geoff (1944-)

Geoff Dunbar established his reputation in animation with Lautrec and Ubu, two films that dazzled, surprised, and even alarmed audiences used to conventional styles and subjects. The intoxicating six-minute Lautrec, completed in 1974, paraded before the spectator figures derived from Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings of can-can dancers, circus clowns, mice, ducks, and the music-hall singer Yvette Guilbert. Four years later the far more confrontational Ubu (1978) arrived with ink splashes, smudges, guttural sounds, and lewd violence: an arsensal entirely fit for adapting Alfred Jarry's late 19th century theatrical fusillade. The design of the monstrous, foul-mouthed Pa Ubu, usurper of King Wenceslas' crown, drew on Jarry's own woodcut illustrations. Both films won major festival prizes, Lautrec at Cannes, the 20-minute Ubu at Berlin, firmly cementing Dunbar's position as a lively and adventurous talent.

Born in Abingdon on 25 March 1944, Dunbar received no formal art training. After leaving school at 15 he passed from one odd job to another before joining Larkins Studio at the age of 21, learning the rudiments, painting and tracing cels on productions made for the Film Producers Guild. After three years he graduated to Halas and Batchelor's animation company, where he began directing (This Love Thing, 1970; The Condition of Man, 1971) and supervising a new commercials division. In 1973 he joined Oscar Grillo at Dragon Productions, co-financiers of Lautrec with the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Seeking more freedom, after three years Dunbar formed his own company, Grand Slamm Animation (later Grand Slamm Partnership). At Grand Slamm Dunbar led the artistically schizophrenic life typical of animation directors, juggling personal projects with the necessary bread-and-butter jobs (including commercials for Guinness, McEwan's Lager, and Dulux paints). Half of the finance for Ubu came from Dunbar's commercials work, but since the 1980s market forces have reduced the chances for ambitious, adventurous projects and designs. Even Dunbar's bigger ventures have necessitated a more traditional animation style, in keeping with family audiences.

In interviews Dunbar has stood up strongly for maturity and a wide expressive range in animation. "Single stick-figures can be just as exciting as 500 flopsy bunnies," he proclaimed during a 1985 interview in Broadcast. Yet by that time work had already taken him from the shrieks and splodges of Ubu to Rupert Bear and the Frog Song (1984). This 13-minute short was mounted with Paul McCartney's M.P.L. Communications as a pilot for a proposed feature featuring the veteran comic-strip bear from the Daily Express. An animation and Rupert fan, McCartney had first planned a Rupert feature in the late 1970s with Oscar Grillo as director. This second attempt also foundered, though the pilot, lightly charming, won a BAFTA Best Animated Short award, and McCartney's 'frog song' 'We All Stand Together' reached number three in the British Singles Chart. In time the flopsy bunnies themselves arrived, along with their creator Beatrix Potter: for television in the 1980s Dunbar directed three episodes of the popular TVC London series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (BBC, 1993-94).

Dunbar's partnership with McCartney continued in the 15-minute Daumier's Law (1992), a partial return to the drive and imagination that had generated Lautrec. Honoré Daumier's drawings provided the visual seed for the pair's storyline about an ordinary citizen buffeted by the system. The film won another BAFTA award. Tuesday followed in 2000, a faithful and beguiling 13-minute adaptation of David Wiesner's picture book for children, describing a nocturnal flying visit by frogs, floating on lily pads through the houses and gardens of American suburbia. As with Daumier's Law, McCartney supplied the soundtrack's music.

Despite the technical brilliance of these later films, one still misses the dash and almost jugular bite that made Dunbar's earlier work so distinctive. With his current company High Eagle Productions, Dunbar has now made his biggest project to date, The Cunning Little Vixen (2003), a 58-minute television encapsulation for the BBC and Opus Arte of Janácek's opera (itself based on a cartoon drawings from a newspaper comic-strip). The images and action come greatly strengthened by the director's gifts for characterisation and comedy, and his genuine feeling for the countryside; though if Dunbar's Pa Ubu saw the film, let alone Rupert or Peter Rabbit, he would probably let loose with rude noises and an expletive.

Griffin, Sue, 'Dunbar: still drawing notice', Broadcast, 11 Oct. 1985, p. 17
Lockey, Nicola, 'From Commercials to Features and Back', Broadcast, 19 March 1979, p. 16

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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