Often, parents of sick children will write asking for a special letter of good cheer; while other writers merely want Rolfs autograph.
Many letters touch the team’s hearts such as this one from the mother of a handicapped child:
“I’d like to say how much Sarah likes your cartoon programme. She is profoundly deaf but she gets a great deal of enjoyment from watching the cartoons…. her speech will never be as good as yours or mine but she really tries to communicate with everyone. Cartoons are a time to relax and forget she is different.”
Among the others: one from an autistic boy; a little girl with a curved spine; and a Downs Syndrome sufferer. Rolfs Cartoon Club is much more than an entertainment – it is a therapy with a strong element of involvement and commitment. It is certainly not a programme to be treated lightly.
Before Series Two began it was decided HTV West would entertain successive groups of twenty-four children, eighteen of whom would come from areas other than Bristol. They are housed for the week in a hotel with a teacher, parent or guardian. The twenty-four are divided into four groups, spending two days in the workshop and being involved in one of the recording sessions.
Suzi Lewis-Rained researches for the programme alongside Martin Lamb. Handicapped children were noticeable by their absence from the first series and this was cited as a criticism of the programme. For the second series Suzi visited their special schools and tried to find children who might benefit from appearing on the show. She wasn’t looking for brilliance, enthusiasm was all important, as long as they could draw a decent stick figure or make a plasticine animal and provided they really wanted to do it, then they stood an equal chance of being chosen.
We receive many letters from children who would like to do something in animation when they leave school at sixteen,” she sighed, “it is very difficult to find a reassuring answer to those with artistic rather than academic prowess. For the latter there are always degree courses, but workshops are few and far between for the average child, Edinburgh Animation Workshop is the exception rather than the rule. For those without ‘0’ and ‘A’ levels there is very little on offer. Perhaps this is one activity the Arts Council should be supporting. The basic problem is and always has been proper funding. Until now, schools have never taught film animation as part of the art curriculum; although possibly as a result of the rise and development of computer graphics a few enlightened teachers are beginning to take an interest, and have written to Rolfs Cartoon Club for further information.
“The tide is turning, but it still has a long way to go if we are to satisfy the newly awakened interests of the nation’s children.
At present it seems to rely on a teacher having an interest; without that interest there can be no progress and no stimulus.
“We have found that any child can do it. They take to animation with as much alacrity and understanding as they do to the classroom computer. Catch them young and the degree of professionalism is enhanced.”
The latest series has broken new ground by going-out to the professional studios and by inviting top animators into the television studio to take an active part in the venture. Their presence has been fascinating and illuminating to the team responsible for the show, as well as a process of learning, too.
No one who attends the workshop sessions is encouraged to copy, instead the atmosphere is charged with imaginative ideas, the one sparking off another.
On the set can be seen the Amiga 2000 setups; while the model animators use professional video cameras on tripods. The children spend two days in the workshop and two days in the studio and are quickly discouraged when their artwork fails to live up to their expectations.
It is very difficult to get them to appreciate that one second of screen time requires twenty-five separate movements. Indeed they do not fully understand until they witness their drawings, flip-book, cut-¬out figures or plasticine characters perform on-screen. Of course, they cannot hope to learn a great deal in just four days. The intention is to introduce them to the subject and hopefully generate a little interest. In fact, it goes beyond simple awareness, it excites and stimulates. At the end of the day tiny children who seem to be asleep on their feet insist on carrying on until they have finished. Those involved in the creation of a sequence become totally absorbed in what they are doing and show little enthusiasm in talking to adults unless it be to ask a technical question.
Series Two consisted of twenty-two episodes. Series Three, due to start in September will feature more work done on the Amiga, at present it is only used as a line tester, and this is due to the lack of experience of the adult presenters. In the breaks between sessions they are familiarising themselves with the many and varied possibilities in readiness for Series Three, which is to be extended to twenty-four episodes.
Producer/director Doug Wilcox is very pleased with the popularity of the show, “It is not a ‘How To Do It’ series, we have deliberately avoided a teaching course approach such as the one the BBC presented some years ago. We try to spice our programmes with a few facts and little illustrative teaching bits, in no particular order, snippets inspired by the cartoons in the episode. It may be a little bit of information about the next film or historical details concerning a popular character or it might be a technical point about how the build up of cels contribute to a special effect, perhaps one coming up in the next cartoon. I find when we do that, the children take a far greater interest in the film when it is shown. We are trying to add a new dimension in order to enhance the entertainment value.
“Martin Lamb always chooses the ‘better’ shorts, those with the best stories and best directors from the pool of material we have available, not just Disney and Warner classics but extracts from pop videos, commercials, etc – that much constitutes our starting point. Mind you, Rolf is very entertaining in his own right. He is a joy to put on the screen.
“Making it a Club serves another purpose, associated in the way children watch cartoons on television, which tends to be an increasingly passive role. We all know how children love to draw and paint, it begins in nursery school as an introduction to the learning process. Rolf says he tries to bolster artistic confidence in the children before it is stifled by ‘the system’ in later life. I believe that early musical interest and ability is stifled similarly.
“The existence of the Club has acted as a focal point, somewhere for them to send their drawings and models, and I believe that seeing children working in the studio environment encourages those viewing to have a go.
“We lean very heavily on simple cut-out animation, also the famous Rolfs Rollers which any child or adult can make in a few seconds. I shall never forget what happened when we first introduced the ‘roller’ in Series One. Rolf demonstrated that fascinating principle of animation where two extremes of a movement can be seen to move, by rolling the top picture round a pencil and then rolling it backwards and forward across the lower picture. I went down to the studio at the end of the day and found the floor littered with Rolfs Rollers made by the crew and I realized the appeal is not limited to children.
“Rolf also animates pictures with paper slides, cardboard cut-outs, that kind of thing, so that an enterprising child can do a great deal at home inspired by the programme, even without access to a camera or computer.
“I sketch out the format of each episode, usually while Rolf is in Australia where he spends three or four months each year, so much of our planning is. done by fax. We commence recording on his return. All the graphics in the show are Roll’s work, except for the opening and closing titles which have been generated by HTV’s Graphics department. He never uses auto-cue and it is only ever rehearsed to the extent the shots will work. As a result his performance on screen comes across as genuinely spontaneous.