Developing Animation 2
The Nature of Industry and Its Relationship to Training
Charles Solomon and Ron Stark in "The Complete Kodak Animation Book" talk of animation as being a relatively new medium in Australia and that the oldest studio was established in 1958. The historical section on Australia ranks in the book immediately before another brief section on the Third World animation.
Ralph Stephenson in his book "The Animated Film" is able to say only very little on the historical consequence of Australian animation. Bruno Edera also finds similar problems in his research.
Historically, Australia was in fact not far behind the rest of the world when it came to experimenting with and applying the then new motion picture film medium to pragmatic purposes. The first live action feature film in the world may have been made in Australia. "Soldiers of the Cross" was produced by the Salvation Army around the time of the first World War, and the first notable animation in Australia was created in the year 1912 by newspaper cartoonist Harry Julius.
Len Lye, a New Zealander, was introduced to the art of animation in Australia in 1921 before moving on to Great Britain and subsequently influencing many other animators, most notably Norman McLaren.
With Australia's early flirting with the art of animation being, chronologically at least, in tune with the rest of the world, why is it then that Australia's present international profile seems to be lacking in awareness?
Certainly, Australians have had their successes with animated films both in popularity and critically at the box office and international festivals. But where is Australia's master animator? Where is the body of work that undoubtedly stamps it in international terms as culturally significant in being Australian?
Bruce Petty may come close. He won an Oscar for his film "Leisure" in 1977, a few years after making an impact at the Zagreb Film Festival with "Australian History." His satirical wit and loose expressive drawing produce engaging animated films. But he now concentrates his effort on cartooning and illustration for publication.
Dennis Tupicoff won acclaim with "Dance of Death," also at Zagreb, in 1984, picking up the Special Jury prize. Yoram Gross's feature "Dot and the Kangaroo" won the first prize at the Teheran Children's film festival in 1977 and has gone on to sell many films for children internationally.
Alex Stitt has carved out an international niche with exemplary design work. He has been most influential in Australia in animated commercial production and screen graphics.
Despite these and talented others who have been very skilful in their endeavours, and the fact that animation has been carried on in Australia since 1912, that consistency in creative, highly unique, and culturally significant work is sadly lacking. To the point that Australia's animation, in the past at least, barely rates a serious mention in the history books. Allow me to now give you a brief history of Australian animation.
After Harry Julius' early animated topical "Cartoons of the Moment" comments on newsreels of the day, two or three small studios saw Australia into the 1930's It was indicative of the trends in the future that most of the animation to the 1940's was for commercials, titles, and newsreel comment. Some short animations that brought to life very parochial cartoon comic strip characters were finally popular. These were produced in the late 30's by Eric Porter Studios which remained Australia's premier animation studio until the 1960's.
I would like to make a point here on the film industry as a whole in Australia. Supporting a viable film industry in a nation of five million people and over such a large area as Australia was never going to be easy. The Hollywood film machine was able to market its films to Australian distributors very effectively. It was ( and still is) cheaper to buy in overseas films than to support a native film industry. And Australian producers on the other hand were virtually shut out of the large American market. For this reason locally-made short films were made with low budgets and had limited marketing potential.
The lack of popular success was also determined by the fact that "the films were just not very good," as admitted by Eric Porter some time later.
The Porter studios, based in Sydney and mainly a two person operation, were kept busy through the war years by making propaganda films, Eric Porter, an important pioneer in Australia and honoured for it in 1983, was heavily influenced by Walt Disney's technique and dreamed of producing films in Australia for an international audience.
In the late 1950's things changed rapidly.
Television was introduced to Australia in 1956 and the Porter studio had to expand quickly to cope with the new demand for animated commercials. The studio's staff numbered 150, producing series programmes for American screens including Superman, Abbott and Costello, and Charlie Chan.
The studio produced Australia's first feature film "Marco Polo and the Red Dragon" in 1971. It was favourably reviewed but suffered from lack of publicity. This seems to be a common flaw with many of Australia's films at the time - barely adequate production budgets and negligible marketing budgets.
Also in Sydney, other studios had been set up:- API, Air Programs International by Wal Hucker and his wife Wendy; Artransa; Rowl Greenhalgh; Fanfare Productions; and others. In this climate again locally produced series work was attempted many times but failed. The market in Australia was not big enough. Unless overseas sales were guaranteed, the series work became financially impracticable.
Meanwhile 600 kilometres to the south, in Melbourne, John Wilson, an Englishman, persuaded a local television station to set up an animated commercial production studio in 1958. He gathered together talented illustrators, designers, and cartoonists and imported several Americans to provide the expertise in studio processes. Alex Stitt was a young designer in the fold. He had taught himself some animation techniques at home and was greatly influenced by the American UPA Studio's work. Alex Stitt would go on to perhaps be the major influence in Australian animated commercial production.
Throughout the sixties, API became the major animation studio in Australia producing series work for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and American networks. In 1962 episodes of "Challenge of Flight" and "Challenge of the Sea" were sold to Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Britain, The Middle East, and Italy. The studio's most successful series and somewhat of a cornerstone was "King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table" - syndicated in the U.S. by Twentieth Century Fox and sold to 14 countries. The series was directed by Zoran Janjic who had arrived in Australia in 1960 after working in animation at the Zagreb studios.
The strong ties to the American producers continued over the next few years with series work for the children's toy manufacturer General Mills, realising what was to become known as the "Family Classics" such as "Treasure Island," "The Legends of Robin Hood," "Tales of Washington Irving," "Robinson Crusoe," "Ivanhoe," and "Journey to the Centre of the Earth."
Hanna Barbera also tested the water in Australia by having API produce seventeen half-hour episodes of "Funky Phantom."
Zoran Janjic, along with most of the key staff form API, was lured away to set up a new studio in Sydney for Hanna Barbera in 1972 - a coup from which API was never really able to recover. The manner in which the studio divided has remained a contentious issue to today for those concerned at the time. The arrival of Hanna Barbera had been the biggest single development in the Australian animation industry.
The advent of the new studio was also met with mixed feelings by the existing animation studios. To this time the quality of the Australian studio animation was reviewed as fairly "mechanical," although these experienced animators were arguably Australia's best - they were still only a handful in number. Studios had been nurturing new up-coming artists and were learning skills quickly. The continuity of staff in these studios had now been threatened as the animator took advantage of the higher waged offered at Hanna Barbera's studio and the perception of security in consistent work, although it was seasonal and dependent on negotiated contract with American television networks.
Hanna Barbera brought with it not only volume of work but lesser standards in the "limited animation" format for Saturday morning Television. One could be forgiven for thinking that quantity was more important than quality.
On the positive side, the Hanna Barbera studio was good for the industry in that it was now easier for young hopefuls to gain access to the industry. It also provided work for the struggling freelancers. I always found it amusing that geographically the studio resembled a mothership around which spawned in North Sydney several commercial studios not unlike the attendant protectors. Still the commercial studios that were struggling for improvement in quality and creative advancement lamented the arrival of the new studio. I quote David Deneen, owner of Film Graphics, one of Australia's finest animated commercial studios, writing in "A Fine Line: A history of Australian Commercial Art" :
"Before their arrival the Australian studios had been trying to maintain a quality in their work - the emphasis was probably more on quality than on creative ideas. But suddenly the local animators had to produce a great volume of work at a fantastic rate. And a lot of animators were really learning on the job - they didn't know how to animate because there was no one there to teach them, or nobody had the time to teach them because animators were paid by the foot, by the amount of the footage they could produce each week.
They were earning huge salaries, but in order to churn out that amount of work they had to do a lost of stilted, limited animation. And this tended to create a new style in the industry."
Regardless, Hanna Barbera provided continuously seasonal work, producing series and television special for American networks - which were subsequently sold back to the Australian networks. The studio survived the mild effects of an actors' strike in the U.S. and also flirted with the idea of producing a feature film around a famous Australian children's story. It did not eventuate - apparently the author's family did not approve of what Hanna Barbera were about to do with the original character's design!
Hanna Barbera continued with series production , and in a relatively minor way with commercial production, until 1989 when Walt Disney Television Australia Limited virtually took over the studio. At present Hanna Barbera is still active in Australia in a small way using freelance artists to layout and provide the key animation for series animation production.
For those struggling to enter the industry Hanna Barbera's studio was a Godsend. In the 1970's the studio would virtually take people off the street and throw them into in-between; if they didn't make the required quota within around five weeks, they would be asked to leave. Training was very limited. Instruction that did occur was very mechanical with little theoretical input. Progression to animator was also by the sink-or-swim method; if quota was not met within certain period, the "trainee" was asked to return to in-between. The delineation between animators and in-between was quite strong. Although the need for an attachment system, i.e. where each animation had one or two assistants, was recognised, it broke down due to the disparity in work rates.
Back to 1968, now where Yoram Gross and his wife formed an Animation studio in Sydney. Gross was born in Poland in 1926 before migrating to Israel in 1950. Much of Gross's early work was based on documentary and educational films.
In 1976 Gross made the most popular of Australia's animated features -- "Dot and the Kangaroo," which won the first Television Children's Film Festival, and after screening at the 1977 Camera Film Festival, was sold to 16 countries. The big break happened when the film broke into the America market and subsequently generated the funding for several spin-offs.
What typified this film was the use of the aerial-image camera, using cel-animated characters over live backgrounds, which reflected the unique flavour of the Australian bush.
Gross's studio has relied mainly on employing freelance worker, enabling his studio in North Sydney to remain fairly modest in size, around 20 staff. The studio's latest film, "The Adventures of Blinky Bill", currently under release in Australia, again used a typically Australian character. This time Gross has come under criticism from the Screenwriters of Australia for the liberties he has taken with what is essentially an Australian children's storybook icon, i.e. he has made the character more "cute".
On the commercial scene, David Deneen's studio Film Graphic had been establishing a reputation for quality creative work since 1968. With a staff of about 30, the studio has produced international award winning commercials and has consistently led the industry in Australia. Deneen's approach to his work is one of continually trying for freshness and by keeping an eye on oversees trends and by continually changing his style. He attributes his influences to Walt Disney, UPA, Alex Stitt and Richard Williams. Apart from commercial work, Film Graphics also produced much of the visually creative production work on Bruce Petty's Oscar-winning short, "Leisure" in 1977.
Recently, the studio has involved itself more in live action shooting.
A typical commercial production budget today can be from US$1,200 - 2,200/sec. The top commercial animation studios in Australia today are Film Graphics, ZAP Productions - owned by Zoran Janjic, and Alex Stitts Studio. ZAP has in recent years concentrated on computer animation and motion control systems.
As mentioned earlier, Hanna Barbera's studio was virtually sold to Walt Disney TV, Australia in 1989. There was a realignment of staff and re-structuring of operations that reflect the thoroughness of Disney's approach to studio production. WDTV's operation makes an interesting insight into Australia's relationship with the Pacific region.
Disney Australia relies on the work emanating from the US east coast in script form. The Sydney studio carries out story boarding, layout, animation, (key-animation, clean-up, and in-betweening), and backgrounds. The subsequent processes involving xerox, paint, and camera is carried out in the Philippines, thousands of miles away in the northern hemisphere. From here final production is carried out back in the States, thereby completing the triangle.
In fact, this mode of operation had been begun by Hanna Barbera who, with Warner Brothers Animation, tentatively retain some minor production in Australia today. Scripts and soundtrack emanate from the U.S; story boarding and key animation from Sydney; in-betweening, trace-and-paint, and camera in the Philippines, or sometimes Taiwan; then back to the U.S. for editing and completion for T.V.
As you can see by now, Sydney has been the centre for commercial and series work for television. Melbourne on the other hand has had a quietly achieving role in modest but good quality animation work.
Alex Stitt, as earlier mentioned, began working in animation in the mid-fifties and has remained a small but significant role in the industry mainly with quality design work, feature films, titles and commercial production. With only a small studio and a small band of freelancers, Stitt has also produced two animated feature films. The first "GRENDEL, GRENDEL, GRENDEL" which was self-written and directed involves a medieval fantasy tale that is high in design and style and contains a lot of subtle verbal wit and visual humour.
His second animated feature, "ABRACADABRA" - also a fantasy tale, is a 3-D graphic film. Both films are visually stunning but have lacked the marketing budget to promote them properly. "Grendel, Grendel, Grendel" for instance, was released in Australia at an obscure theatre and removed after only one week. As far as I am aware no international release has been taken up for either film.
Today, there are a handful of animation studios in Melbourne working mainly on commercials involving interesting work in computer animation, classic techniques, and three-dimensional work. Only recently one studio won a top international award for an animated rice commercial.
Other states, including Queensland, have sustained only a very small number of one or two person studios in the last two decades. These studios have threatened to thrive but are sadly now feeling the effects of the recession. Today, there are around 20 animation studios both small and large in Australia.
Avant Garde and Experimental Animation have existed in Australia in spasmodic ways. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill have produced experimental work since the 1960's, influenced early by political dogma, and are now working overseas. In 1956 the first Sydney Film Festival featured Eastern European animation and Norman McLaren's work. This and the then proliferation of television most likely influenced the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op which was active in promoting what it termed "expanded cinema", or the "new cinema." These were mostly hand-made films, synthetic films influenced by Norman McLaren's work which had had a recent festival in Sydney. The move was against traditional, storyboard and narrative structures as evident in Disney films and TV serial to more conceptual structures of sound and image.
Learning the craft in Australia manifested itself in those early years by individual experimentation and analysing imported films. Learning this way continues well into the 1950's before any sizeable studio existed that could support any sort of training scheme. Most of today's older experienced animators in Australia learned their skills in this way.
In a survey of animation studios in 1985, the industry's attitude to training was very revealing. They were quite cynical towards the need for formal education or institutionalised training in animation.
Overwhelmingly, they saw the need for attachment of the trainee to a sponsoring animator as a traditional handing down of skills and knowledge. Formal education, they said, made graduates arrogant and did not prepare them adequately for the disciplined life in commercial or series studies.
Generally, they were also of the opinion that "art" film-making as taught by some institutions was a waste of time. This is indicative of the emphasis on traditional, classic animation in Australian industry.
Formal education in animation in Australia exists mainly at two institutions. The Queensland College of Art offers the only three-year study in Animation in Australia. Its focus, as already mentioned in the International Survey session, is on classic animation but with the flexibility to be more avant garde if the student wishes to pursue this avenue. Students come to us wanting to learn these skills because firstly, they cannot find studio attachments and want to learn how to complete a film in its entirety. Secondly, this seems to be a growing trend, students want to pursue careers in comic art and see animation as a related area in which to gain a second skill.
The other institution that offers a comprehensive study in animation is the Victorian College of the Arts, formerly Swinburne Institute of Technology. Swinburne's animation course has existed for nearly 30 years and has been quite successful in producing quality graduates of their one-year post graduate programme. Dennis Tupicoff who won an award at Zagreb in 1984, is one of its graduates and now runs the VCA animation programme.
Swinburne has a flexible programme too, catering mainly though, for art films and high-level computer animation studies. Most of Swinburne's graduates have remained in Melbourne where some have established successful animation studios, and some have remained in the experimental avant garde area.
I return to my introductory question, where is Australia situated today in its international status in animation? If Australia has not realised its full potential in producing a consistent industry of quality animation, then what has held it back ? I will try to establish some points.
Cultural acceptance as a serious art form. I feel that there is a struggle to gain popular acceptance or even awareness of animation as an art with integrity - not just children's entertainment. This may be changing due to the steady growth of cinemas specialising in non-commercial films and animation, and also the popularity of animated short on the alternative television channel (SBS).
Government funding for creative investigation in short films has been available since 1978. The funding body's purpose is to "provide grants for scriptwriting and filmmaking with the aim of encouraging new talent and developing creative ideas for the benefit of the film industry." This has provided the most significant boost in encouraging and fostering experimentation in short animation subjects.
From the formal educational aspect, present government funding for education in general is 4.7% of the gross national product. Having dropped from 5.6% in the last ten years it is one of the lowest of the economically sound countries in the world. Whilst other countries are boosting spending in this area - Australia is going the other way. Inflation in Australia is presently only 1% but high unemployment negates any economic advantage here.
The tyranny of Distance. A population of 17 million, one quarter of Italy's and one sixteenth of the USA is spread around a large country 20 times the size of Italy, and three quarters the size of the USA. This must affect the cultural cross-fertilisation and excitement that closer communities can share.
Lack of confidence in the local industry.
There are a few instances where work has been sent off-shore probably unnecessarily. The limitations of the industry can be gauged by the loss of the production for the recently released film "Ferngully: the Last Rainforest," to the USA in 1990. Bill Kroyer's product is a marvellous film, but a $20 million production budget was lost to the local industry because the talent and studio facilities were, arguably, not available. Most of Australia's most talented classical animators are under contract to Walt Disney TV, Australia.
On the other hand production costs and Australian wages were too high to contain the production of an animated TV series "The Dinky Di's" within our shores. The production of the series has gone to Pacific Rim Productions on mainland China.
So what can be done about this to improve the status of animation - locally and internationally? We could start by establishing initiative that may open the eyes of the public of all ages to bring a better understanding of the scope of the art form.
a) Animation as a form of study is virtually unknown in Australian High Schools. Promoting the study of animation here may increase the awareness of the seriousness of the art and would prepare better quality applicants for higher level animation courses.
b) Be more active in promoting the art of animation as a means of cultural expression e.g. aboriginal animation studies.
c) More effective distribution of festivals of animated film.
d) Improve the quality and exposure of student work - with more effective teaching programmes and curricula.
e) Become pro-active in gaining cultural exchanges between mother countries.
We at the Queensland College of Art wish to pursue further the study of animation in its broadest contexts and to promote international ties in teaching and cultural exchanges. The QCA is establishing a resource centre for animation studies and we welcome any input or suggestions. We are in the ASIFA list of schools.