What makes British animation British?

I am looking forward to seeing how this new slate of films continues this legacy, as well wondering what they tell us about Britain today.

13 February 2018
By Jez Stewart
Jez is Animation Curator at the BFI National Archive.

Explore the BFI’s Animated Britain collection on BFI Player (BFI National Archive).

In 2018 the BFI is offering a look back through eleven decades of history since the first documented uses of stop-motion animation in the UK. And now, in partnership with BBC Four, we are funding up to 12 new animated shorts to look forwards to a new generation of emerging talent. But putting aside some basic geography, can we identify any defining characteristics of animation produced in Britain?

Since the 1920s, animators in Britain have struggled to compete with the output of American studios. So the films that have been made have often been a little… well, different. Take the biggest animated feature films produced in the last half of the 20th Century, featuring a roll call of totalitarian pigs (Animal Farm, 1954), psychedelic popstars (Yellow Submarine, 1968), garrotted rabbits (Watership Down, 1978), and pensioners in a nuclear winter (When the Wind Blows, 1986). See what I mean?

With limited theatrical support, the financial backbone of the industry has long been the less fashionable fields of filmmaking - advertising, corporate and public communications and pre-school television. Not that this has been obstacle to creativity or personal expression. The most famous example might be Len Lye’s A Colour Box from 1935 which is simultaneously a defining work of avant-garde cinema, a pioneering example of direct animation and an advert for cheaper parcel postage.

A key trait of British animation has been a strong founding in graphic arts. This is connected to the prevalence of commercial work, but there are other roots. Cartoon propagandists of the First World War produced a series titled John Bull’s Animated Sketchbook and particularly since the 1980s, a looser, observational, documentary style of drawing has led to almost literal animated sketchbooks.

At the same time, humble means have led to a flourishing of more artisanal methods such as cut-out animation, stop-motion puppetry and claymation. Humour, story and character have often had to compensate for limited visual resources, but led to some distinctly British successes. Peter Lord and David Sproxton turned a set of kitchen scales, a lump of plasticine and a 16mm camera into the world renowned Aardman studio.

Such privations have helped to shape an art and an industry in which persistence, personality and playfulness are amply rewarded. Experiment, resourcefulness and innovation have been its lifeblood.

I am looking forward to seeing how this new slate of films continues this legacy, and wondering what they will tell us about Britain today. Through its own curious alchemy, animation can bring our very wildest imaginings to life, and yet it is also a powerful tool for exploring our everyday reality. It is often at its best when - sometimes unknowingly – it treads these two seemingly divergent paths at the same time.

Find out more about BBC Four and BFI NETWORK's short film grants.