John Halas talks about an exciting new series of programmes which form a world-wide survey of animation. Interview by David Jefferson.
The idea for an animation show reel of the world-wide industry was first put forward at a board meeting of ASIFA about ten years ago. It was an enormous task for anyone to undertake but they managed to persuade John Halas to have a go. The project took shape under his guiding hand and now the results are ready to be seen; a thirteen part series covering the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia, Britain, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy, France and Poland plus computer animation from many nations.
Eight years were spent amassing information and ideas for the project, and then, two years ago, Halas began in earnest to film interviews with animators and put the mountain of material into a logical order. There were times when it seemed as if the job would never be finished. “I attacked the problem by approaching the nations one-by-one because the copyright aspect of it was more than enormous,” says Halas. “Some nations were quite willing to assist, others were not. The negotiations for the material were very complex and tiresome.”
At the time of this interview with Halas he was waiting for one final piece of material to come from France. “The missing piece is from the Gaumont animation studio in Paris. They are just completing a feature film Asterix in Britain, it is an invasion of Britain by Caesar and the Normans, and I thought it a very appropriate piece of film to end the French episode on. Not only because it concerns Britain but also because the Gaumont studio was founded eighty years ago and that is where Emile Cohl, the father of animation, worked.”
Halas is no stranger to Asterix because his company, Halas & Batchelor, worked on two of the films in their Idefix period, about ten years ago. The Idefix studio no longer exists and Gaumont have taken over the property created by Goscinny the writer and Uderzo the designer. They teamed up thirty five years ago to produce the Asterix comic strip and it grew and grew. To date they have sold over 35,000,000 copies of their books which are distributed all over the world. Goscinny is no longer alive but Uderzo is very much so. Gaumont picked
up the rights to the title and have produced two films. The first they released two years ago and it proved very successful, internationally.
The Asterix segment is just a small part of the Masters of Animation series which contains more than 120 different excerpts and about thirty filmed interviews with individual animators.
Rather fittingly, the first programme in the series covers the country which gave birth to the most famous animator of them all, Walt Disney.
However, Disney is but one part of the USA segment, his pioneering being represented by Steamboat’ Willie. Other animators include John Hubley; Faith Hubley; Barrie Nelson who is not so well known, “a wonderful animation director working in the West Coast of America”; Bob Blechman; Will Vinton who specialises in clay animation; Leo Salkin who developed Mr Magoo, “he looks very much like Mr Magoo himself’; and this section ends with Joanna Priestley, who is a young animator, twenty three years old. “I thought it would be interesting to show the future generation of American animators.”
There are filmed interviews with Chuck Jones; Barrie Nelson; Sam Weiss; Bill Littlejohn, who worked in so many of the Hubley films; and Leo Salkin, “whose wit is out of this world. He did a television special called The 2000 Year Old Man based on a series of recordings by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.”
Canada has made such a big contribution to the art of animation that it warrants two programmes. The first covers the work of Norman McLaren, Caroline Leaf, Eugene Fedorenco, Derek Lamb, Zlatko Grgic, Don Arioli, Co Hodeman, Geoffrey Hale and Ishu Patel. “The aim of each programme is to emphasise what is best in each nation,” says Halas. “Take for instance the National Film Board of Canada. The diversity of style, the degree of visual invention and the exploration of the medium, especially in the case of Norman McLaren is unique and makes it one of the most exciting nations.”
Programme three of the series shows the work produced by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and independent Canadian animators. It includes the work of Frederic Back, who won an Oscar with his Crac and two other CBC animators; Graeme Ross and Andre Theroux. Among the independents are Gerry Potterton; Mike Mills; Marve Newland, who made Anijam; Ellen Besen and Al Sens.
Then Halas points to the emphasis on visual poetry in much of the Japanese work, the surrealism, and the Japanese who make a point of penetrating the subconscious, which he calls ‘mind games.’ I asked Halas why Japan is now the world’s largest producer of animated films. “Two reasons, cheap labour is one. The Japanese are first class organizers and the woman population of Japan love repetition, so the leading Japanese organizations send out a motor bus with animated drawings for the Japanese families to trace and paint. The Japanese women love to do this work, they enjoy themselves and the producer gets it cheaply. They made a huge industry of this with about 20,000 women engaged in the pursuit. The second reason is the very large market in Japan. They like animation and use animation and they can make money in the home market from television, and extra money from exporting. That is in the past, however, because Korea, Taiwan and Formosa have caught up with them and they can produce tracing and painting for even less than the Japanese. But it is a booming industry there. That is the reason, as in other industries, electronics and cars, they do so well.”
The USSR is a very neglected country when it comes to animation, according to Halas, and yet their work can be brilliant. He has chosen for the theme ‘use of folk tales’ and ‘local atmosphere’. The work presented ranges from the pioneers such as Ivanov-Vano to present day animators like Yuri Norstein who is well known internationally for his brilliant Tale of Tales. “He is a wonderful man to know personally,” says Halas. “The films work on several levels. This programme will enable the public to see such films as they produce in Russia.
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