After 40 years in the animation business Arthur Humberstone is still going strong. He was involved with the feature films Animal Farm, The Yellow Submarine, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. David Jefferson went along to Arthur’s home studio to find out more about his approach to animation.
I first met Arthur Humberstone in 1977 when he was judging an inter-club animation competition organized by Bourne End Cine Club and I had the good fortune to enter the winning film. Arthur has had a long association with the amateur cine movement going back to the thirties when he made live action dramas with the Derby Cine Club. Arthur recalls that they had jolly good fun, with all the ingenuity of the prop maker’s art being called into play to construct items such as cardboard breast plates for the soldiers in Robin Hood. Recently he has taken on the job of boosting the membership at Bourne End Cine Club and organizing the programme. One thing he is keen to do is get an animation section going.
Last June I went along to Arthur’s home studio in the village of Cookham Dean in the Thames valley. As I pulled into the sweeping drive that lead to his attractive house, set in rolling lawns and facing open countryside, a large dog bounded out, barking loudly. With some trepidation I stepped out of the car but all was well and the dog gave my hand a friendly lick in greeting. Arthur met me at the door and showed me into the sitting room. Displayed around the room were some beautiful pen and ink drawings of rabbits, foxes and ponies which were done by Arthur.
I wanted to take a photograph of Arthur before the midsummer evening light faded so we went up to his animation workroom. On his light table and stacked in neat piles on every surface were animation drawings from Happily Ever After which he was working on for the Malendez studio. The film is intended to give children an insight into divorce. The characters look something like children’s drawings although they are better than that. Arthur maintains that although the drawings look simple they are more difficult to work with than some conventional cartoon characters.
‘Where as traditional cartoon characters are often based on a shape within a shape, these are not’, says Arthur. ‘When you have a shape, which could be a ball, pear shape, construction lines such as a “V” for the shoulders it helps with such things as turns. When a character squashes the volume must stay the same, the shape within a shape helps you judge this.’
Arthur’s earliest attempts at animation were as a boy of 15 when he drew a dog running, directly onto a strip of clear film. This was joined into a loop for projection and although the drawings looked crude because of the large magnification they were good enough to impress his parents. His career in professional animation almost ended as soon as it began. In 1946 he left his job with a typewriter firm in Derby to take up a position as a trainee animator at the, then new, GB. Animation Studio, at Moor Hall in Cookham. A large bunch of trainees started together including many ex-service people. Arthur’s room mate was the comedian Bob Monkhouse who was just out of the Royal Air Force. Arthur recalls that at G.B. Animation they were paid £4.10 a week plus board and lodgings which Went up to £10 by the fourth year as a trainee.
Arthur was given an animation exercise of a sack of fertilizer marching over to a flower. The sack had arms and the corners of the bag made the feet. The sack put its hand into a pocket that appeared in its side and pulled out some fertilizer which was applied to the plant, this grew strong and tall in response. Each Thursday the animators would gather at the, so called, sweat box session to view the line tests of each others work and receive critical comments. David Hand (ex-director of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) was in sole charge at G.B.A. and attended most of the sweat-box sessions. When he saw Arthur’s work he declared that this was not animation. Arthur was so put out by this that he telephoned his old firm in Derby and asked for his job back. They were very understanding and agreed to take him back. In the meantime Arthur had another go at animating the sack of fertilizer. This time he made the movements bold. When the arm went into the pocket to get fertilizer, it went right down in an exaggerated manner. The sack marched with a swagger, influenced to some extent by Arthur’s feeling that he had nothing to lose as he was going back to his old job. The next Thursday sweat box session came round and the line test was projected. David Hand declared that that was what he called animation. Arthur was so chuffed that he wrote to his old firm cancelling the job.
Not that everything went smoothly from then on. Arthur was working in the clean-up department and one of the cartoon characters was a bear. The animator had roughly indicated the hairs on the bear’s furry coat and it was Arthur’s job to transform these into neat points that could be traced and painted. When the line test was projected the hairs appeared to be running up and down the bear’s back. This was accompanied by the rebuff, ‘Tell him how to inbetween!’ What Arthur had not realised was that he should have studied the positions of the hairs on the key drawings and carefully followed these through on the inbetweens rather than just taking the animator’s sketches as gospel.