Beautiful melancholy

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Laurence Alster discovers wistful masterworks in an introduction to animation

Into Animation. Videotape and CD-Rom. BFI Education. pound;49.99. Tel: 0870 241 3764. www.bfi.org.uk

So great is the success of cartoon series such as The Simpsons and films such as Chicken Run, Shrek and Finding Nemo, that it's easy to forget that animation can be used for far more serious purposes. Somewhat heavy-handedly, Into Animation seems designed to remind us of the fact.

Advertised as suitable for 11 to 18-year-olds, this video compilation and CD-Rom teaching guide aims to demonstrate the basics of animation through 11 short films, two film extracts, teachers' notes and photocopiable student worksheets.

It's a promising idea, given most students' enthusiasm for animation; a pity then, that the final product should be so disappointing. Chief among the reasons for this is the choice of films, each of which illustrates an animation technique such as rotoscoping. Some are, indeed, masterworks, especially John Halas and Joy Batchelor's The Axe and the Lamp, Norman McLaren's Neighbours and Michael Dudok de Wit's Father and Daughter.

Others, too, offer fine examples of specific skills, in particular the silhouette modelling of Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Chris Shepherd's cel work in The Broken Jaw. But with the dominant themes being loss, conflict and general angst, this is a bewilderingly downbeat collection. Other titles are equally melancholy; however beautifully crafted, Father and Daughter leaves one emotionally drained, while the title Death and the Mother tells its own story. Along with Abu Abraham's No Arks, the 3D model animation Lucky Dip looks most suited to younger students, but even these have sombre undertones. A cartoon such as Cordell Barker's The Cat Came Back is not only a fine example of entertainment, but one also of ingenious and amusing minimalism. Why wasn't it or at least one similar included?

With such gloom at the heart of the package, one has to look elsewhere for reasons to be positive. For example, there is an excellent exercise that shows the potential for an exciting and inventive narrative in the story of Humpty Dumpty, and there are good student notes and resource templates on the persistence of vision. Apart from some useful questions on the films themselves, teachers will also welcome the continued emphasis on the need for careful planning and preparation.

Even here, however, praise has to be qualified. Scattered throughout the text are errors that should not have escaped proofreading. Pixilated is twice spelt differently, as is phenakistoscope, while what should be "Dwarfs" is wrongly substituted in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Arguably worse are clangers such as "Gone is the old comfortable pub they once new". Others are too numerous to count or to reproduce here. Such shortcomings seriously compromise the value of the package. The introduction to Into Animation promises to "focus more on process than product"; here at least, more care given to the first would have improved the second.

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