The Grasshopper Animators – part 2

The Grasshopper Animators

Part 2

KEN CLARK CONTINUES THE STORY OF THE WELL KNOWN AMATEUR ANIMATOR’S GROUP THE GRASSHOPPER GROUP. IN THE LAST ISSUE WE LEARNED HOW BOB GODFREY FEATURED IN SOME LIVE ACTION PIXILATION FILMS. NOW WE HEAR ABOUT HIS CARTOON FILMS.

When Bob Godfrey joined us early in the Grasshopper Group’s existence, he was clutching a battered box containing a crazy cartoon on 9.5mm titled THE HOT EIGHT, made in 1953. It represented his first attempt at animating to music and was synchronised with a Louis Armstrong record. Bob had originated the art work, while Keith Learner shot the film inside a wardrobe using a single photoflood. THE HOT EIGHT, THE BIG PARADE and WATCH THE BIRDIE were all made using cut-out jointed cardboard figures, Bob explained:

“There is nothing new in this technique, Lotte Reiniger had been using it for years in her silhouette films. It involved moving the cutout figures frame-by-frame instead of having them painted on hundreds of cels on registration pegs.

“It is rather like ultra-slow-motion puppet animation. The method has many advantages. It is much quicker and cheaper, and gives you a chance to ad-lib under the camera. The main disadvantage is that the resulting movement is unnatural, so one has to use unnatural subjects and characters. Naturalistic characters moved in this way produced what we at ‘Bio’ (Biographic Films) called ‘King Kong’ animation.”

WATCH THE BIRDIE was filmed using an obsolete 16mm Kodak A cine camera, on a rostrum consisting of two tables placed one on top of the other. The camera lens poked through a hole drilled in the top table. Four 100W household lamps were reflected onto the platen by four adapted National Dried Milk tins. Track in’s and out’s were impossible, but mixes were made with the aid of a dimmer. Pans were painted on stiff card, calibrated, and pulled through four drawing pins. Vera Linnicar joined the team and they made BIRDIE in – “a crumbly old cellar in Tufnell Park, underneath my crumbly old house,” said Bob. “We called ourselves Biographic because much of our equipment dated back to Friese Green, and beyond.”

Watch the Birdie

Biographic became a limited company and the rest is cinematic history. Later on, Bob parted amicably from his partners Keith Learner and Nancy Hanna to set up his own studio Bob Godfrey Films Ltd. Both studios have continually earned enthusiastic recognition.

After working on BIRDIE, Vera Linnicar became director of animation in an advertising agency.

In the Amateur Cine World, April 1958, Bob observed:
“…it seems to us that both pro and amateur are in a rut. The lead could come from the amateur, but what does he do? He apes the pro’s. We get the Norman McLaren lovers, the Disney die-hards, the U.P.A. specialists. But the amateur has one great advantage over the pro.: he works for the love of it. The pro would much rather be digging the garden in his spare time.”

Rather prophetically, as it transpired, our program notes dated 17th March 1956 referring to a new film THE CAPTURE, stated:
“The Grasshopper Group believe that this 9,5mm film is a unique example of the inexhaustible potentialities of the silent screen. Above all, it introduces a young talent of extraordinary power and exceptional force, Kevin Brownlow.”

The film had bean made when Kevin was 14 years of age.

The promise shown in that production was fulfilled when Kevin’s amateur film IT HAPPENED HERE became so ambitious that it was taken over as a professional production and given a 35mm release in commercial cinemas. The film gives a graphic account of what might have followed if Hitler had successfully invaded the British Isles during the last war. It was a live action film. His book on the history of the cinema THE PARADE’S GONE BY is a personal tour-de-force.

Kevin’s work in the field of experimental live-action film was quite outstanding, but he was not an animator, only a clever cartoonist whose spidery sketches enlivened the pages of the Grasshopper Newsletter.

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