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Look and Learn: TV on Animation

Andrew Osmond profiles Dope Sheet and Splat! two television series which animation fans are not going to want to miss.

Television is the natural medium for animation magazines: a place to simultaneously show and analyze, erasing the myth that a picture's worth a mere thousand words. At the same time, such programmes can't be made with love alone. They need viewers, and to keep viewers interested in a field that's diverse, fragmented and plain confusing. Which strategies work best for providing a TV overview of animation? As a first example, it's worth citing Stay Tooned, a British BBC series for younger viewers which played through much of the '80s (many adults, especially parents, were plainly hooked as well). Stay Tooned was intriguing in that while, like commoner children's shows, it played several shorts per episode, it made a strong effort to provide information meat between entertainments, going a little past US staples like Warner Bros. and MGM.

Expertly hosted by Tony Robinson (who, beyond his most famous identity as Baldrick in the Blackadder saga, is an energetic and intelligent kid's host), the series delved into then surprising territory: for example, specials devoted to Canadian animation -- for many viewers, their first viewing of The Cat Came Back -- and an open-ended discussion of politically-incorrect cartoons, raising rather than answering questions regarding the morality of animated cock-fights and Black Sambo caricatures. Background details were dropped in gently but effectively; for example, a Flintstones cartoon would be introduced with a clip from The Honeymooners, while a Tashlin short would be followed by a snatch from one of the director's live-action comedies. Among the best programmes was a special on the 1955 Batchelor/Halas Animal Farm, now included as a bonus on a video reissue of classic UK animation.

Getting the Dope Sheet Stay Tooned has been succeeded in Britain by the very different Dope Sheet. This is screened in late-night slots on the terrestrial Channel 4, which stalwartly supports domestic animation and imports US hits such as King of the Hill and South Park. (The second season was slotted after the sit-com Bob and Margaret). Aimed at a much older audience, the series leans toward experimental, auteur-driven animation. For example, a feature on Japanese animation went beyond the normal fan-favourites to interview experimenters such as Mitshuo Shionaga, whose short Glassy Ocean was playing on the festival circuit at the time. Dope Sheet is a place to see interviews with Yuri Norstein and Joanna Quinn, often in the context of a wider feature on Russian or women animators, rather than a history of Disney. Other Dope Sheet reports cover the use of animation in forensics, films by people with emotional disorders, and sex toons (the latter with eye-opening glimpses of early US porn efforts). Recent 'historical' features have covered Davey and Goliath and the fate of Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin. Perhaps the biggest asset of the series is that each show is followed by up to two hours of animated shorts under the umbrella title, Beyond Dope Sheet. Plainly intended for timer-recorders, these varied collections have something to suit most tastes, ranging from '90s festival entries to classics from Fischinger, Leaf, McLaren, and a rare terrestrial TV outing for Norstein's The Tale of Tales. "As animation gains a higher profile among adult audiences," says series producer Nick Cory-Wright, "It becomes easier to whet their appetites for more obscure films which may deal with adult themes and be more thought-provoking, but can be just as accessible." So what level of knowledge does he assume of his audience; that they know who Tex Avery is, for example, or Jan Svankmajer? "I suspect most of the general viewers don't know who these people are -- which is why we're here. Having said that, there's a percentage of viewers who are animators themselves, and I can imagine the bite-sized chunks of 'Old Masters' may seem too shallow for them. However, our remit is to try to gain a new audience.

"It's difficult to get an exact handle on the demographic," Cory-Wright confesses. "As it's on late, I know it's not made up of kiddies. As it's on Channel 4, it's fairly safe to say god-bothering Daily Mail readers won't be watching as well. [The Daily Mail, one of Britain's most conservative tabloids, runs an endless campaign against the allegedly salacious channel.] The audience is perceived to be 18-34, but I'm not so sure. We have had enthusiastic responses from a wide variety of people, usually along the lines of 'Where can I see/buy that film about...?'"

Dope Sheet is often breathlessly paced, using the disorienting edits and eccentric angles favoured by 'youth TV,' for example, in a whirlwind profile of six young British animators. "The speed of the programme isn't as manic as MTV, but we keep a certain pace to ensure the channel-surfer isn't threatened or bored with any given piece, whether in the style being shown or the subject itself. The presentation indicates another piece will be along soon enough. It would be preferable to do longer profiles and run longer clips, but the channel doesn't give us the time or resources. Interestingly animation in clip form, with a great variety of styles and execution, can also lead to an illusion of hectic pace. The eyebleed factor of more experimental forms can be high." The first season of Dope Sheet used a 'virtual' male host, subsequently replaced by a voiceover. At a panel in last year's Cardiff 'Vital' festival, he was by far the least popular element with the audience. "The host, though I was quite fond of him, wasn't a great success," Cory-Wright remembers. "He was created in Virtual Puppeteering, which is not ideal for small budgets. Animators disliked the relatively 'crude' style, and the loose sync which sometimes occurred. I also think the character came across as unsympathetic. The show now uses animated sequences as linking devices. These give the programmes an overall 'animated' feel and gives breaks to young animators, who also do the titles."

Canada's SPLAT!

A more widely distributed TV series is SPLAT!, screened in over 100 countries by broadcasters such as Discovery International, Canal+ and Teletoon. Now planning its fourth season, plus a series of one-hour 'SPLAT presents' specials, the series was created by Stephen Price, executive producer of the Toronto-based Red Giant Television Inc. Brash and lively (the opening image of two figures sledgehammering a TV sets the tone), the series falls between Stay Tooned and Dope Sheet in audience terms. "I aim for the tone an animation lover would use explaining stuff to his twelve year-old nephew," says Price. "From the fan e-mails we get, I would say the most enthusiastic viewers are between 9 and 29, with a core of 12 to 18. SPLAT! stories must be accessible (not too technical), somehow related to people's lives, and they have to be backed up by lots of technically good animation." SPLAT! aims to strike a balance between more and less mainstream material, with Pixar, Coca Cola Polar Bears and Dancing Babies rubbing shoulders with Frédéric Back retrospectives and regular looks at the output of animation schools. Like Dope Sheet, SPLAT! pays close attention to students. "We love to profile student work because it provides a link from the average kid who loves animation to the profession. It is also the best place to find fresh, interesting and innovative work. The kids are always pumped to get their films on television and that enthusiasm is like a rush of adrenaline for me." The show also finds space for five or six historic items a season, although Price notes this has practical difficulties: "A lot of the Golden Age guys are gone now and archival footage can be expensive." Subjects covered include Chuck Jones, the early years of Nelvana's Clive Smith (including extracts from Rock and Rule), the Fleischers, and the lesser-known story of Hungarian animator Fernc Rofusz, who was denied a visa to collect an Oscar for his 1981 Oscar-winner The Fly. "Much of the time we are saying, 'Hey, if you like animation you have to check out this film/person,'" notes Price. Despite the need to cram a lot of information into a short time-slot, SPLAT! lets the content dictate the length and pace of the story. "There are few rules. For instance, we've done two very different stories on great animators in their seventies. The piece on Frédéric Back was a very relaxed story. It was anchored by a quiet interview with him and his dog in his sunny backyard and backed up by his lyrical animation. But the story about Myron Waldman (a Betty Boop animator from the Golden Age) was cut to upbeat period music and was very energetic because this Brooklyn-born guy is a real character. "We wanted to make a show that experienced animators and the general public could both enjoy," Price concludes. "SPLAT! is not trying to change the world. All we do is show people how amazing the world of animation is. If a kid is inspired to become an animator because of it, fabulous. But the chance of a show like ours affecting the taste of major networks and distributors is the same as being hit by falling space junk." Our thanks to Nick Cory-Wright and Stephen Price for their kind help with this article. Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specialising in fantasy media and animation.