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ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.6 - SEPTEMBER 1999

The History of Channel 4 and The Future of British Animation
(continued from page 4)

Lofty Goals vs. Hard Reality
Clare says one of her main intentions during her time at Channel 4 has been to preserve auteur films, the kind that are expensive, one-off, short, and hard to fund elsewhere. These films, commissioned direct by Clare, have budgets which are generally higher than on the Animate! and MOMI schemes, and she has maintained a hands-off policy toward their production because of the personal nature of the projects. They are the films Channel 4 is perhaps best known for on the festival circuit, and British animators are much envied by their colleagues abroad, not only for the financing, but also for the access to TV.

These films, however successful at festivals, have been dogged by scheduling problems, and there is apparently quite a backlog still waiting to be screened. Given their relatively high budgets (they are cheaper than high-budget drama and comedy, but dearer than documentaries), and lack of a clear target audience, Clare has felt for some time their days were numbered, and it seems now she is right.

Clare has been trying to deal with scheduling problems for animation by commissioning fewer one-offs and more bulk, or films for specific places in the schedule. One such is known inside Channel 4 as 'The Slot' at 7:55 pm right after the main evening news, and is apparently hotly contested by commissioning editors eager to get their hands on it. Clare commissioned Barry Purves' Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation, The Very Models, as five three-minute episodes for this slot, unlike the form in which it appears at festivals as a continuous, incomprehensible fifteen minute piece.

Alison Snowden and David Fine's Bob and Margaret Courtesy of Comedy Central.

Clare has also commissioned several series of thirteen eleven-minute episodes from directors like Candy Guard (Pond Life), Sarah Ann Kennedy (Crapston Villas), and Alison Snowden and David Fine (Bob and Margaret). The series have tended to be spin-offs from short films they had already made presumably aiming for the best of both worlds. It hasn't quite worked out that way unfortunately, and both Bob and Margaret and Pond Life have been beset by scheduling problems evidently in search of the right audience. Clare also said she had great difficulty raising the large sums of money needed, and it took a long time. In the end Bob and Margaret has been dropped by the Channel, although it will continue on Comedy Central in the US where it has been popular. Crapston Villas on the other hand was considered a success in the Channel, having been aimed at the 'youth' audience Clare has been encouraged to court.

It may be that the concept of the auteur film, if it means films made by an artist/director mainly as a means of personal expression, is at odds with the current programming needs of television. Producer Dick Arnall pointed out that in earlier days there used to be a context in the schedules for short experimental films, with Alan Fountain's Eleventh Hour slot and the highly successful strand The Dazzling Image, which no longer exists.

It may also be time to reevaluate the concept of the auteur and all it implies. Originating in French film criticism of the late 1940s and '50s, it was a critique of French film-making at the time, which was considered too self-consciously arty, tasteful and non-cinematic, too much based on other forms like literature.

As John Caughie explains in Theories of Authorship (Routledge/BFI, 1981): "Art was simply a value term, and the theoretical terms which it begged went largely unanswered. Auteur criticism, on the other hand, proposed as artists...directors whose work, viewed over a number of films, displayed a consistency of underlying theme and style which was surprising in the industrial and commercial system in which they worked, and which therefore, it seemed, could be ascribed to the force of the director's personality and unique obsessions expressing themselves through film despite the constraints. In fact, the struggle between the desire for self-expression and the constraints of the industry could produce a tension in the films of the commercial cinema which was lacking...in the 'art' cinema, encouraging auteurist critics to valorize Hollywood cinema above all else."

In other words the way it is now commonly used is exactly the opposite of its original meaning, as a term of critical appreciation for directors working in an entertainment medium. By contrast, it is now used approvingly to describe just what it originally held in contempt.

One criticism which could be levelled at Channel 4 is that it has helped create an animation community almost exclusively of artist directors, often young and inexperienced, whose career expectations beyond the inevitably short-term patronage of the Channel are unrealistic.

Many animation college graduates think they will become directors and be able to pursue a career making their own films. There are also expectations the advertising industry will provide their bread and butter. It is, however, a demanding business and animation's fortunes within it fluctuate, as anyone who has made commercials knows. In many ways it feeds off the research and development which goes into personal films, and is far from being the benefactor of independent animation that it is sometimes portrayed as.

A Shift in Needs
A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian elaborated on the present situation. Now that the emphasis is shifting to larger-scale and longer-form production at Channel 4 and at the BBC, while Britain is knee-deep in directors, it is seriously lacking in quantity most other levels of skills needed in large-scale production, from storyboard artists to production managers. In British animation for the last thirty years small has been beautiful, with artist-led boutique companies doing intensive, original work on a small scale. There were exceptions, notably Cosgrove Hall in Manchester (where Barry Purves, Mario Cavalli and Paul Berry cut their teeth), which has long been a successful producer of high-quality children's series.

What has exacerbated the problem is that in the last decade there has been a major exodus of British animation skill to the USA. Not only are wages much better, but the opportunities to work on longer form and especially feature production are much greater, so many of the precise people the British industry now needs are gone. Aardman Animations, currently producing their first feature Chicken Run, have had to engage in training programmes for the extra skills they need, and have had to borrow talent including storyboard artists from their US backer, DreamWorks (some of whom turned out to be British).

One logical conclusion of all the build-up of talent and energy in British animation in the last twenty years is to move into longer-form and features. Short films are great for festivals, for personal satisfaction, as R and D, and for those who want to careers in the experimental sector. For all these reasons, it is important they be made. For many directors though, a move into longer forms would be the natural and desirable progression, as well as the only viable way to create a more secure economic base for the British industry. But the funding in Britain, as well as the volume of skilled workforce, is not really there.

The BBC's Colin Rose, who founded their animation unit in Bristol in 1990, is trying to address the problems. Amid shrinking budgets at the BBC, he has to find at least 75% of his funding elsewhere, often from other broadcasters like Arte and Canal Plus in France, and from publishing. BBC Worldwide is set up to distribute and exploit marketing potential. If necessary he will provide a BBC producer to assist and train small animation companies to handle large volume production. He considers what he is doing an intervention to encourage a more viable longer-form industry.

Rose also places great emphasis on scriptwriting, and considers the role of professional script editors an important part of his department. Asked whether the success of Channel 4's animation helped him make a case for setting up an animation unit at the BBC, Rose says not at all. While he personally admired what was going on at Channel 4, he had to use the more commercially-recognisable successes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the popularity of animated TV commercials in his arguments to the BBC bosses.

This stress on the entertainment value of what he does has led some to dismiss Colin Rose's approach as 'thinking all animation has to be funny.' While it is true he is currently looking for proposals to develop into animated sit-coms, he feels it is otherwise a gross simplification of his department's oeuvre -- although he also thinks that 'making people laugh isn't a crime.' His roster of productions does include many darker, more experimental films including Svankmajer's feature Faust, Dave Borthwick's hour-long Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, and more recently Paul Bush's The Albatross and Emma Calder's The Queen's Monastery. Some of his most successful productions, though, have been funny -- like Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave.

Like Channel 4 animation, Colin Rose is under imperatives to produce marketable series, but thinks this can be done retaining British quality and without trying to imitate the US. Currently in production is Mark Baker and Neville Astley's thirteen-part series The Big Knights, with a second series of Aardman Animations' Richard Goliszowski's Rex the Runt. Goliszowski is also currently making a half-hour Christmas special, Hooves of Fire, in collaboration with the charity Comic Relief. The BBC have set up their own studio in Bristol for this, something which has raised eyebrows as a potential return to broadcast in-house production. Rose counters this concern by insisting it is for this production only, to reduce overheads since it is a production for charity.


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