Animator Brian Borthwick is a rare combination of talents hiding behind a warm retiring personality, writes Ken Clark.
After more than forty years in the business Brian Borthwick is an accomplished master of his craft. His modesty and dedication has endeared him to the profession at large but no more so than to his associates The Animation People in Kean Street, London.
Born in Tooting Bec, S.W. London, he attended the Camberwell School of Art from the age of twelve, specialising in commercial art and winning his chance to join Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films though the good offices of his tutor Mr. A.E. Halliwell. Because of his friendship with John Halas, Halliwell was permitted to take parties of art students on studio visits. Brian told me:
“That is when I first ‘caught the bug’. Seven of us joined the studio in 1946 when I was 16 years of age. I began on backgrounds and diagrammatic work. My first film was called Valley of Steel and I worked under the guidance of Bob Privett.”
Brian also worked on the Charley series (1946/7); First Line of Defence, Submarine Control, Coastal Navigation, the 60-minute training series Water for Fire Fighting for the Home Office and the newly formed National Fire Service working with Alan Crick and Bob Privett.
Called up for National Service in 1948 he served in the R.A.F., as a modelmaker, constructing plaster topographical maps using aerial photographs taken on survey sorties and used for tank training; and making aircraft identification models.
“I missed the Festival of Britain in 1951,” Brian said regretfully, “I was off for a year with T.B.” In the early fifties he worked on the first British stereoscopic entertainment cartoon The Owl and the Pussycat. “I was concerned with the direction in as much as I was in charge of layouts and general planning. It was multi-plane rather than a true stereoscopic picture. We were dealing with separate planes. By that I mean it was not solid in its representation, we simply offset certain cel levels of animation in order to achieve a feeling of depth. We had to shoot the whole film twice, from the viewpoint of the left and the right eyes. It was very experimental and while it was economical in terms of drawing and cel work, it was a waste of the technique and it limited our anñnation since we had to consider both depth and parallex. To my way of thinking stereoscopic films are only really successful when they fully utilise depth in the round as Norman McLaren did in Around is Around and with his oscillograph produced images.
“I find this whole subject of stereoscopy fascinating. I am sorry it keeps dying the death but the viewing conditions are its limiting factor. People do not want to wear glasses to appreciate the effect, even though polaroid viewing is a great step forward from the early anaglyphs which lacked full colour.
“Raymond Spottiswoode was a pioneer of stereo work in this country, working with his assistant Charles Smith. Some of the work taken on the Thames and shown at the Festival of Britain exhibition, in particular shots taken with twin cameras skimming across the surface of the water, these were quite astounding. Raymond gave us valuable assistance on our film.”
Brian’s remarks were not intended to denigrate The Owl and the Pussycat, on the contrary he acknowledged its successful premiere, but time has allowed him a more objective view and the perfectionist in him the opportunity of witnessing the wonders of holography. The initial success of the picture did not spread to the provinces because mono prints went out on distribution and the stereo version shown only in selected locations.
A series of soft-sell films for British Petroleum followed, and Brian recalled he enjoyed working on them, particularly The Power to Fly for which he designed and made all the model aircraft that appeared in the film. Reg Lodge was quick to point out that the animation style adopted for these films pre-dated and anticipated the more widely acclaimed work of the United Productions of America – U.P.A. for short.
During the mid-SO’s, in addition to his diagram work Brian assisted on the first television commercials remembering them to be quite prolific with as many as 20-30 different commercials going though the studio at any one time.
Then came the 16 inns To your Health, directed by Philip Stapp, a film about alcoholism for the World Health Organisation. According to John Halas this film is still in distribution in 26 different languages. He continued:
“At the beginning of the ‘60’s we managed to interest major publishers such as Longmans and Macmillan in applying the animated medium in classrooms, teaching subjects which animation could convey better than text. This period lasted from 1961-69 and no less than 200 of what we called ‘concept’ films were produced during that time.”
Brian’s interest in biology, mathematics and physics stood him in good stead when called upon to be principle artist, animator and technician, with the able assistance of Vic Bevis and a small group. Between them they completed the educational loops for the Nuffield Foundation which are still being used by schools.
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