Whatever happened to Signal Film Unit?

Shooting a Jenson & Nicholson (India) advert Tata OiIfor Hamam Soap. 1949. Click pic for larger version.

Ken Clark has been finding out about a puppet animation unit that followed in the footsteps of George Pal.

When Britain went to war in 1939, Gerard Holdsworth had already joined the cloak-and-dagger brigade. His wartime exploits included the organisation of the Helston Flotilla and the Norwegian Resistance; groups operating from South Africa; finally the Italian Resistance, and much more between. He came back to civilian life having earned the rank of Commander and been rewarded with a D.S.O. and O.B.E.

During his stay in the service, he became a close friend of the Honour-able A.G. Samuels. Now the two men had to consider their future. J. Arthur Rank had elected to establish a strong contingent of future film animation personnel at G.B. Animation. Gerard’s former association with George Pal convinced him of the practicability of forming a unit devoted to the production of animated puppet films. With enthusiastic support and financial backing from the Hon. Samuels, they formed Signal Films.

Because of their proven pre-war expertise, Gerard looked for key personnel in Holland. He quickly discovered several of Pal’s former technicians working at Joop Geesink’s Dollywood, where they were completing a puppet version of The Three Musketeers. Jan Coolen, Frank Hendrix, and J. Schadee accepted the British invitation, and brought their families with them to London.

Essential English technicians were recruited locally and in January 1947, experimental work began in rooms over the Guardship public house situated in a side street at the top end of Chiswick, alongside the river Thames. When it proved impossible to do accurate work here due to shaky floors, they bought Little St. Annes in Egham, a beautiful old house once owned by the King’s physician, Sir Bruce Porter.

Coolen was the technical wizard; Schadee designed the figures, while pattern-maker Bill Jarrett expertly turned and shaped them on a lathe; Frank Hendrix, with the assistance of Vic Hodgekiss, attended to the camerawork and lighting. They had an old Bell & Howell camera, revered for its ability to take stop-motion opticals simply and accurately due to the fine pin-register system. Ex-cabinet maker R. Croombs built the tiny sets with keen attention to detail. Their wooden ‘stars’ were dressed in costumes designed and made, not by a woman but by a man, Peter Walker.

Frank quickly solved the problem of the unit’s inability to purchase a Technicolor camera by designing a special revolving front for the B & H, making it possible to shoot three consecutive frames using a different filter for each exposure. The three individual frames were afterwards overlapped on the master print for full colour reproduction.

The nine-inch high puppets took ten days each to make and clothe, at a cost of between fifty and one hundred pounds apiece. The original wooden figures were soon replaced by models made from a plastic used during the war to make artificial limbs. Bill Jarrett made the moulds and strong pliable skeleton shapes consisting of three strands of aluminium wire tightly bound with a surround of fine wire. Embedded in the plastic, this form of construction ensured skeletal rigidity and flexibility. Facial expressions were changed using a series of plug-in face masks, principal characters often requiring as many as eight in a single film.
To prove their ability to potential sponsors they made a short road-safety film entitled Mary Had a Little Lamb (1947), – later sold to the Petroleum Film Bureau. It had sufficient merit to prompt ABC Cinemas to entrust them with the making of a special Christmas trailer.
Renewing his contacts with J. Walter Thompson’s advertising agency, in 1948 Holdsworth contracted to make five soft-sell commercials for Horlicks. One titled: Top of the Morning worried American movie moguls at first – a new film starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald had been released at the same time with the same title – but when told the Signal Films production was ‘only’ a puppet short, they quickly lost interest.

Commercials for Persil washing powder, National Savings, and Tuborg Lager (Denmark) followed. Then, in 1949, Gerry Holdsworth sold the Rolex Watch Company of Switzerland a brilliant idea entitled The Story of Time. It was subsequently scripted by Michael Stainer-Hutchings in a ten-minute succession of scenes depicting the evolution of time measurement. This film excelled all previous efforts. Twenty people laboured for six months at a total cost of £16,000, proving beyond all doubt that the art of model film-making had been raised to a new level of creative perfection. The film was chosen for showing at the 1950 Venice Film Festival, and nominated for a Hollywood award.

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