The Grasshopper Group – part 1

The Grasshopper Animators

KEN CLARK WAS A FOUNDER MEMBER OF THE WELL KNOWN AMATEUR ANIMATOR’S GROUP THE GRASSHOPPER GROUP. HE WAS A KEY ANIMATOR ON THEIR AWARD WINNING FILM ‘THE BATTLE OF WANGAPORE’. THE GROUP WAS WOUND UP EARLY THIS YEAR. KEN TELLS US OF IT’S BEGINNINGS IN THE 1950’S.

The Grasshopper Logo.

You may wonder why I have chosen to recall the halcyon days I spent with the Grasshopper Group. What possible interest can there be in reliving the past? The answer is one I discovered after devoting fourteen years to researching the history of British animation. All of our pioneers began as lone workers, or with the help of a cameraman. They all began on hand-built rostrums as crude and as Heath Robinson as anything made by amateurs today. When I tell you that professional 35mm cinema cartoons were made on a platton which panned left and right rolling on two broom handles, you will begin to understand what I mean.

Walt Disney began in a garage in 1922, Ken Hardy of Stewart-Hardy Cartoon Films in Borehamwood began in a garage in the early 1970’s. Our pioneers scratched a living in garrets and cellars. Many of the little companies producing our popular TV series do the same. The modern TV techniques are the same short-cut animation methods originally devised in the early silent film days. Quickie methods which were cast aside and despised when Disney’ SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS showed what full animation was capable of achieving; and FANTASIA demonstrated the possibilities beyond the limitations of children’s books.

The experiences of my early Grasshopper days are as true and relevant as the experiences of amateur animators in the 1980’s. There is very little that is new under the sun, just new twists on old ideas. And since so many good ideas are lost in the passage of time it does no harm to remind ourselves of some of them.

In my youth I had owned a succession of 35mm and 9.5mm projectors and became aware of the possibilities of film animation through analyzing frame-by-frame early black and white cartoons. Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Betty Boop and Felix shorts were studied under a magnifying glass every bit as intently as a stamp collector would examine a rare Mauritius. Without realizing they were British in origin I hired BONGO THE PUP and STEVE THE HORSE cartoons from a local 9.5mm library. But in all my years I had never heard of a man named Anson Dyer.

Then, early in the last war, I came across some old 1936 issues of ‘The Artist’ containing a series of articles describing and illustrating in fascinating detail – cartoon production at the Anson Dyer Studios. I was seized with the desire to make a cartoon film. Perhaps it was the war, my youthfulness or the fact I was not ready for it that delayed my resolve; whatever the reason it was not until 1951 that I drew my first animation.

In response to an advertisement in the ‘Amateur Cine World’ I wrote to John Daborn offering my assistance on a film he was making entitled ‘The History of Walton’ (Walton-on-Thames). My painstakingly animated scenes were cut from the finished film when John decided they were out-of-keeping with the rest of the production which had very little animation and maximum camera movement. John was a new recruit at the G.B. Animation Studios in Cookham and his film was based in style on Henry Stringer’s excellent ‘stills’ travelogues called ‘Musical Paintbox’ cartoons. I learned that it is not only actors who lose their best scones on the cutting room floor.

However, John conceived the idea of forming a unit devoted to the production of cartoon and experimental films. Furthermore, it was to be a postal unit. We would work as a team but many of us were destined never to meet. We called ourselves ‘The Grass­hopper Group’.

A committee was formed which included Derek Hill (then a professional film critic), Dick Horn, Stuart Wynn Jones, Jim Nicolson, John Kirby and others I cannot re member. John Daborn was elected Chairman and I became Group Secretary. An announcement was made in the A.C.W. magazine appealing for the support of lone workers keen on animation, and before long letters of application began to drop through my letter box.

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