Behind the British animation renaissance

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson reports on Animate Projects and Anim18's nationwide celebration of British animation

05 November 2018 14:48

How much can you say about Britain in just a minute or two of animation? That was the challenge set to a group of filmmakers this summer. The brief was to express something that goes unsaid about living in this country, especially in these challenging times, in just a few seconds. Animate Projects partnered with Anim18, a nationwide celebration of British animation, to commission the six micro-films, called ‘Untold Tales’, which attempt to get under the skin of everyday life in the UK.  The resulting films, all less than two minutes long, are about to emerge online. They will be screened in selected cinemas, but Instagram and Vimeo are their natural home too – you can take a whistle stop tour through the hopes and concerns of modern Britain mid-scroll.

The chosen filmmakers represent some of the most exciting talent in British animation at the moment, several of whom have BAFTAs on their shelves: Jessica Ashman, Leo Crane, Ian Gouldstone, Anushka Kishani Naanayakkara, Osbert Parker and Laurie Hill, and Kate Sullivan. British animation is having a healthy moment, with lots of homegrown talent working on acclaimed feature-length projects that expand our expectations for the form. British animators have been involved in projects ranging from Wes Anderson’s stop-motion caper Isle of Dogs (2018) and Bristol-based Aardman’s Early Man (Nick Park, 2018), to more experimental work such as the luscious Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, 2017), painted and animated in oils. Anim18 has spent the year celebrating the best of it, including scratch’n’sniff screenings of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005), and singalong revivals of The Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968). Each filmmaker on the ‘Untold Tales’ project has chosen a distinct story, and a distinctive style of animation, packing in an impressive amount of storytelling into clips ranging from 37 seconds to just under two minutes.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a few of these films explore the idea of home. Especially intriguing, and brilliantly colourful is Ian Gouldstone’s computer-generated ‘algorithmic film’ 144 Units, inspired by his neighbours in the tower block where he lives, and their day-to-day activities. The idea of all of this life going on in blind proximity is evoked by strong geometric shapes bouncing and tumbling in box frames. It’s far too lively to become hypnotic – but it is an aptly engrossing puzzle, a hi-tech take on curtain-twitching. Leo Crane’s haunting The Foundling is a much more wistful piece, expressing the alienation felt by a foster child – a hostile landscape in which music offers a precious chance of escape.

Sir John Lubbock and His Pet Wasp

On the surface, Osbert Parker and Laurie Hill’s Sir John Lubbock and the Wasp is a classic tale of English eccentricity, a stop-motion rendition of a 19th-century aristocrat’s bizarre choice of pet. It’s a very funny film, based on a true story and intricately created from Victorian texts and etchings, which show the tame wasp drinking tea from a china cup and saucer, and settling down to sleep on the pillow between Lubbock and his wife. There’s more to this story than vintage jollity, however. Lubbock found his wasp in the Pyrenées and transported it back to London. There he trained the wasp to eat off his hand and subjected it to some sinister scientific experiments, including getting it drunk to observe its tipsy behaviour.

‘We found it to be a very kind of British story,’ Parker says. ‘This sense of colonialism or bringing people from one country to another. And then saying: “This is the way we do it here. This is what we do. We eat with a knife and a fork. We drink our tea like this in china cups.” We just took that to an exaggerated level.’

Although Parker and Hill have embellished the reality (for one thing, at the end of the film, the wasp is returned to its nest), there’s a ring of truth to it, especially in the way it explores the mixed welcome we often give immigrants to this country. ‘When people do come to England, we say: “This is what we do and we want you to learn our culture.” And there sometimes isn’t an appreciation of other cultures which we can learn from.’

It’s the only film here about a famous name. Most of these micro-movies explore less well-celebrated aspects of British life. For example, Anushka Kishani Naanayakkara’s A Place to Think offers a glimpse of the restorative peace offered at the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hemel Hempstead. Although brief, the film is almost as soothing as the contemplative place it describes: a diamond-shaped frame filled with colours and a soft voice expanding on our need to reflect. Kate Sullivan’s The Stereoscopic Society is a tribute to the club of the same name, which meets once a month in Euston. It charmingly evokes the joy of a shared passion, and the disarming power of geek pride, as well as Britons’ enduring passion for hobbies.

Leo Crane’s The Foundling

Some community gatherings are rarer. One of the most exciting films in the bunch, and the first to be released, is Hold Tight, Jessica Ashman’s head-rush paean to the joys of carnival. A woman makes up her face, combs her hair and wraps a scarf painted with the Jamaican flag tight around her neck before heading out to dance, while pulsing music and bursts of colour energise the mix of pencil drawing and monochrome photography in this provocative, exuberant short. Ashman used interviews with her carnival-going friends as the backbone of the piece, and their voices are captured in the film as well as inspiring its technique. ‘Everyone would always talk about how overwhelming, in a positive way, carnival is. The sensory overload you have of those days,’ says Ashman. ‘So I was trying to get that across in the film a little bit, with this use of mixed media and texture. Because it’s a minute as well, it’s nice, it’s like ‘stick in everything that you can!’

For Ashman and her friends, Notting Hill Carnival and Hackney Carnival offer a fleeting connection to their West Indian families, who feel more distant the rest of the year. ‘People of all different heritages and generations go to carnival, but for me it was about how specifically second, third and even fourth generation people have a loss of contact with our sense of identity and home,’ says Ashman. ‘Carnival’s such a massive event, and for a lot of people, I realized, it’s a connection to your heritage, which feels sort of unashamed in a way. It feels like everyone’s accepted and it doesn’t matter how disconnected you are.’

In a simple minute, Ashman’s film expresses something that is not just about having a good time, but is also both poignant and political. ‘Im the UK, you can feel as you aren’t sort of listened to, or accepted, and carnival feels like a time when you are, within your own terms.’

The Untold Tales films will be released individually throughout November on Instagram and VimeoThey are being shown together as a single-screen, looping programme at QUAD, Derby, until 3 January 2019. They will also be screened at London Animation Club tonight, 6 November.