Bread and Butter Art – a history of animated commercials

The profits from animated commercials often support a studio while it works on other productions. Frank Baker looks at the history of the animated commercial.

As you sit watching television any night of the week, you will not fail to notice the number of animated commercials that try to sell you anything from motor insurance to underarm deodorant and it’s also likely that these commercials are repeated more often than their live action counterparts.

They were chosen to be made in animation form because of many reasons, one reason could be that they can stand more repeat showings, whatever the reason it is good news for the many animation studios, who through the continuing use of animation in the making of commercials, keep the money coming in that pays for the many personal projects that either the studio or independent animator wishes to make.

Commercials have always played a big part in animation, even Walt Disney and Max Fleischer had their share of working sponsors. Disney was employed by the Kansas City Film Ad. Company, who made one minute advertising films to appear in motion picture theatres, the animation was primitive, human and animal figures were cut out of paper and pinned to a sheet, the joints of the figures were moved and photographed creating the illusion of movement, Disney was curious to learn how things worked so he made friends with the cameraman, who showed the young cartoonist how the paper figures were animated.
Walt was dissatisfied with the material he was given to animate so he added his own sense of humour to an advert he made for a bank, in one he drew a locomotive chasing a cow, “You’ll never get anywhere until you get on the right savings track.”

Later when Walt Disney had his own company Laugh-a-Gram he hit hard times and had to lay off staff, but he had a bit of good luck when a local dentist paid a visit to the Laugh-a-gram office to enquire about a film to promote dental health, Walt discussed the film with the dentist and agreed on a fee of $500 to make “Tommy Tuckers Tooth” the unexpected revenue recharged Walt’s ambition.

At the Fleischer Studios they too had their share of making animated commercials, Max Fleischer first started as a commercial artist and there were none better or faster. When the American Telephone and Telegraph Company decided they needed a film on how the telephone system works, they called in the Fleischer studio, Dave Fleischer had one week to thoroughly familiarize himself with the rudiments of the entire telephone company to produce “That Little Big Fellow” in 1927. A.T. and T. were so pleased with the job they sent him a sincere letter of commendation on his work. “In My Merry Oldsmobile” 1932, a screen song by the Fieischer studio, was sponsored by the Oldsmobile Motor Company.

Throughout the years many other top animators have made advertising films. George Pal worked in England on a series for Philips Radios in the l930s using his new technique for animating puppets called Puppetoons, he also made a series for Horlicks one of them being “Pirates of the Sky”.

Norman McLaren was working for the G.P.O. film unit when he was loaned to the Film Centre, a London based documentary film group for which he directed “The Obedient Flame” a film about gas and its uses in the kitchen.
At the onset of war McLaren moved to New Y~’r!€, he spent most of his time painting and looking for employment, finally receiving a small commission to produce a 30 second holiday greeting film for N.B.C. McLaren finally landed a job in the animation department of Caravelle Films who specialized in industrial and advertising films, from an in-betweener, he worked his way up to scripting and directing a film on plastics, he was working on this project when in 1941 John Grierson asked him to join The National Film Board of Canada, while there he made “V for Victory”, “Five for Four”, “Hen Hop” and “Dollar Wise” all publicising war savings bonds.

Anson Dyer, the British Animator of six colour cartoons in the Sam Small series 1935, made “The King with the Terrible Hiccups” for Bush radio among many other commercials.
Halas and Batcheior started as a department of 3. Walter Thompson the advertising agency, they made “Train Trouble” for Kelloggs Cornflakes in 1940, “What’s Cooking” for Brooke Bond Tea, “Poily put the Kettle on” for Rinso washing powder. Three of their commercials appeared on the first night of 1.T.V. advertising Guiness, Brown and Poison Custard and Oxo, they also created the famous Murray Mint character, which included the guardsman late on parade because it was too good to hurry a Murray.

Bob Godfrey also had a first night commercial for Crompton Bulbs. In 1958 he went into live action for Courage Beer and played everything from a wicked villain to brave rescuer, Bob was also used as one of the subjects in full page colour Ads for Canada Dry ginger ale, best known of Bob’s work is the tongue-tied Esso Blue Paraffin salesman, directed by Nancy Hanna and Vera Linnecar.

Wyatt Cattaneo could be called the top producers of animated commercials having made some of the best with characters that stick in your mind along with the products they advertise, such as the Homepride Flour Graders, Tetley Tea Folk, Countrylife Buttermen, K.P. Crisp Monks and the Typhoo Gnu, the Strength of the Wyatt Cattaneo studio lies in their characterisation and split second timing, they have taken the discipline of the thirty second television commercial and made it an art form resulting in characters that have been absorbed into folklore.

Richard Williams is one of the top makers of animated commercials. He has been using the profits from them to make his long over due project “The Thief” in production now for over ten years. Williams states that less than half an hour’s animation has been completed. It is no wonder that this is so, as Williams does not cut corners in the production of the commercials he produces for his clients, each one is a mini master piece, using, as Williams says, all his bag of tricks. Anybody who has seen his work will know the tricks Williams can get up to, his style is written on every frame. Among the commercials he has produced are Tic-Tac mints, Midland (the listening bank), Cresta Bear, Its Frothy Man, Corona soft drinks (Fizzical). His first commercial “Guinness at the Albert Hall” was shown in 1962 and collected several awards and that is still the story today as the Richard Williams studio has won over 24 international awards in the making of TV commercials.

Printed in Animator Issue 13 (Summer 1985)