Look and Learn: TV on Animation

by Andrew Osmond

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.

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