ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.6 - SEPTEMBER 1999
The History of Channel 4 and The Future of British Animation
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Channel 4's Early Commissions
Isaacs and Madden loved the two films Aardman showed them, and commissioned five more to be ready for Channel 4's opening week in November 1982 -- by that time less than a year away. Aardman, up 'til then a two-person show, had to put together a production team to handle the volume -- five films of five minutes each. This proved difficult, and they missed the deadline by a year. The films, under the series title Conversation Pieces, were instead transmitted in triumph during the Channel's first anniversary celebrations in 1983, stripped across the week in competition with the BBC's Nine O'Clock News -- a piece of scheduling of which Paul Madden is particularly proud. Aardman's phone began ringing off the hook with ad agencies, and the studio was launched as a commercial success.
Madden went on to commission several more Aardman films, including 1984's hauntingly powerful Babylon (part of a series Sweet Disaster, conceived by producer David Hopkins which also included David Anderson's equally haunting Dreamless Sleep), and the 1989 series Lip Synch which included their first Oscar triumph Creature Comforts. Other films in the series of five films included David Sproxton's Going Equipped, an animated monologue by an ex-prisoner. Like Babylon, it shows a thoughtful, darker side of Aardman's sensibility, as does the poignant Creature Comforts. Aardman agree this edgy element has been missing from their work in the 1990s, perhaps a sign of the times.
Isaacs and Madden were also approached early on by TV Cartoons' John Coates. He was looking for a new direction for his company following the 1979 death of its co-founder and star director, George Dunning. Sick of making commercials, in 1981 John Coates read the government White Paper on the fourth channel and its remit for independent producers and thought, 'That's me!' He had an idea for a film based on the best-selling author and illustrator, Raymond Briggs' book The Snowman, and pitched it, in animatic form, to Jeremy Isaacs and Paul Madden, who went for it immediately.
They put up £100,000, which Coates thought was untold riches, and although probably less than a quarter of the half-hour film's final budget, it was nevertheless a huge sum compared to the kind of money television previously put into animation, which were usually low-budget children's series. Coates managed to scrape together the rest of the money from sources including Hamish Hamilton, the book's publisher, and eventually mortgaged his house to make up the shortfall.
The Snowman (directed by the late Dianne Jackson) was a gamble which richly paid off as the film was broadcast to great acclaim during Channel 4's first Christmas. It has been a holiday classic for British audiences ever since and is apparently still making money.
The Snowman carved out a niche for TVC, which went on to make a succession of classy half-hour family specials based on books, the most recent being The Bear (directed by Hilary Audus). The studio also made one of only two animated features the Channel has commissioned until recently. Also based on Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows (1985, directed by Jimmy Murakami) is the story of an elderly couple coping with a nuclear holocaust. It was a brave venture into a dark subject, and was theatrically successful in Britain, Germany and Japan, but despite a long run in New York, was not picked up in the USA.
The other Channel 4 animated feature from this time was Czech director Jan Svankmajer's Alice, (1989), based on Lewis Carroll, and designed to work both as a theatrical feature and as fifteen-minute episodes for television. Producer Keith Griffiths says the film came from direct intervention from the top; Jeremy Isaacs, who leapt at an opportunity to nurture new talent, considered Svankmajer a genius and that was enough to greenlight the film. (Svankmajer is currently in production on a new film for Channel 4's feature division, Film on Four.)
Keith Griffiths is also producer for the Brothers Quay, and secured many commissions for them in the 1980s. Their first two Channel 4 short films, Leos Janacek - Intimate Excursions, and Igor - the Paris Years Chez Pleyell (both completed in 1983), were inspired by the Czech composer Janacek and Stravinsky respectively, and commissioned by the features division Film Four. Their highly successful Street of Crocodiles (1987) was commissioned by the Drama department, while Paul Madden commissioned Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988).
The Quay Brothers' unique vision in these and other animations they made for Channel 4 up to The Comb (1991) was undoubtedly challenging to audiences. Keith Griffiths believes such experimental films were balanced out by the more popular strand represented in The Snowman. The two elements were opposite sides of the coin of a new genre which conformed to Channel 4's remit for innovation and exploring new areas of programming.
In those heady days a number of different departments took an interest. The Scottish-based Lesley Keen made Taking a Line for a Walk (1983), a computer animated work inspired by the work of Paul Klee, for Education Editor Naomi Sargeant. Vera Neubauer's feminist mixed-media Midair (1986) about witches was made for Commissioning Editor for Experimental and Independent Films Alan Fountain. National Film and TV School graduates Derek Hayes and Phil Austin made the science-fiction Skywhales (1983) for the Drama department, while Candy Guard got her first commission from Current Affairs with her animated vignettes including Fatty Issues and Alternative Fringe which were part of a documentary series Woman in View (1988).
Cowboys by Phil Mulloy. © Phil Mulloy, Spectre Films.
Jeremy Isaacs believed no-one should stay in a job at the Channel for more than five years and, true to his principles, he left in 1987. He was replaced by Michael Grade, a professional TV executive from the BBC, whose job it was to steer the Channel into its next phase when it would no longer be supported by the other ITV station, but would have to sell its own advertising.
Paul Madden, who had been freelance and part-time for some years, left in 1989 on a high note, since it was a vintage year for animation, producing not only the Lip Synch series, but David Anderson's Deadsy, and Erica Russell's Feet of Song. They premiered at that year's Bristol Animation Festival (which had moved by then from Cambridge) to packed houses. Channel 4 was a big sponsor and a major presence at the festival, and it was there that Paul Madden's successor, Clare Kitson, introduced herself to the animation community in her new capacity. She had been appointed to a new full-time post for animation, which Paul Madden and others had lobbied for to consolidate the Channel's animation strands by combining commissioning, acquisitions and programming.
In her presentation at Bristol, Clare said -- with some prescience as it turned out -- that one of the major problems as she saw it was finding a place for animation -- typically one-off short films of all sorts of lengths and subject matter -- in the schedules.
Programming had been what she did in her previous job at the National Film Theatre in London. Before that she had spent a couple of years from 1970 to '71 programming animation for the Los Angeles County Museum. Clare's shows at the NFT offered the chance -- all too rare outside of festivals -- to see a range of world animation on a big screen, and were often informal get-togethers for the animation business. She also sometimes offered free tickets to students -- always a good way to become popular.
Clare's strategy for programming at Channel 4 was to introduce a kind of umbrella packaging that she called Fourmations. It was a flexible way of showcasing commissioned and bought-in shorts, and sometimes even documentaries about animation, in packages which fit the programme schedules, usually half-hours. They were programmed thematically, and they included tributes to international animation artists like Yuri Norstein and Norman McLaren, as well as to British animation.
Gradually Clare also moved toward asking film-makers to make new films to lengths which conformed to the schedules, typically eleven minutes. She also introduced two schemes to encourage new talent and experimentation, both essentially low-budget. Both were conceived as collaborations with outside organisations and both, in fact, were the idea of the Arts Council of England's David Curtis, who proposed them to Clare when she arrived at Channel 4.
One is a co-production scheme with the Arts Council itself, to encourage experimentation, and is called Animate!. David Curtis, who has remained involved, has long been a champion of avant-garde and experimental film (on which he is a considerable authority and author of a book, Experimental Cinema). The annual budget for Animate! allows for between four and six films to be commissioned from entries selected by a panel of artists and producers which changes each year. The parameters are open as to running time, subject and technique, so long as the films are experimental, and the scheme attracts directors from all sectors, so far including at least one non-British. It has been spectacularly successful, having produced a wide range of award-winning films including Phil Mulloy's Cowboys, Tim Webb's 15th February and Karen Kelly's Stressed.
The other scheme, which creates a link between the many talented graduates of animation courses and the world of professional film-making, is a collaboration with the BFI's Museum of the Moving Image. MOMI was opened in 1988, and David Curtis was an adviser for the animation as well as avant-garde sections of the museum. A little glass-fronted booth containing a video rostrum camera and other production equipment is part of the animation exhibit, with the idea that selected young animators could work there as part of the show. The scheme, which also attracts help in kind from animation professionals, funds four animation graduates a year to spend three months each in the booth, developing a proposal for a film with the help of professional advisors. If Clare likes the proposal (which she usually does) she commissions the finished film.
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