Today is Australia Day. For those of you who don’t live in Australia, that’s the day where Australian citizens get in more drunken fights than on any other day of the year.
I’ve never considered myself particularly patriotic, but Australia is responsible for some good things, like Vegemite, boomerangs and WiFi. We’ve also made some pretty important contributions to the arts, including animation.
What does that have to do with Japanese anime, you ask? Probably more than one would think. Animation is international, but most anime fans have a myopic interest in Japanese animation. This myopia is perhaps one of the main reasons why anime still struggles to gain recognition among animation scholars. If, as Tamerlane argued, even the most knowledgeable anime fans are ignorant about world animation, why should we expect animation fans outside our insular bubble to care about anime?
I can’t claim to know much about world animation myself (yet), but I would like to showcase some of Australia’s most memorable works of animation in this post. Of course, I can only scratch the surface here, because there’s over 100 years of history to get through. However, I’ve included some handy links at the end of this post for those of you who want to do your own research.
Australia’s First Animator
Australian animation has its roots in the silent era of the 1910s and 20s. In those days, animation was produced using stop-motion and cutout techniques. Basically, the animator would draw the characters on paper or some other flat material and then cut them out and move them around like puppets against a screen. Each frame is photographed one at a time, which creates the illusion of movement when put together. You can see this technique employed by Harry Julius, who is generally acknowledged as Australia’s first animator:
The above clip comes from Cartoons of the Moment (1915). As you can see, the early use for animation was for political commentary. In order to keep up with the daily news cycle, the animation made use of shortcuts like cutout animation and filming the artist as he drew.
Harry Julius was a well-known cartoonist and satiricist at the time, and his animations quickly became popular around the country. Unfortunately, only a handful of his cartoons have survived over the years. And even though we credit Julius as the first Australian animator, a smattering of animated advertisements predate his work. Unfortunately, those ads have not survived.
Australian Animation Sells Itself… And Other Products
When we think of animation, we tend to think of television shows and movies, but actually the primary function of animation in Australia, especially in the early days of the medium, was for advertisements. This was especially the case during the 1940s and 1950s, when animation production was dominated by American studios.
As it turns out, advertisements actually encouraged artists to flex their creative muscles. This period of Australian animation is defined by its experimentation. For example, the renowned surrealist artist Dusan Marek ran an animation studio that churned out a bunch of ads.
However, the most significant animator during this period was undoubtedly Eric Porter, who founded Australia’s first professional animation production company. Porter created Australia’s first feature length animated film, Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon (1972), an entirely hand-drawn production that took 21 months and over 70 animators to complete. But for everyone who grew up in the 40s and 50s, Porter’s most iconic work is undoubtedly the Aeroplane Jelly ad.
A year before Porter died, he was presented with the AFI Raymond Longford Life Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to the Australian film and television industry. You can listen to a recording of an interview with him here. (At 23:00, he mentions the state of the Japanese animation industry in the 70s. You may find this short segment interesting.)
Freddo the Frog: Australia’s First Television Cartoon
From their experience in advertising, Australian animators quickly worked out that animated mascots helped make products sell. So it should come as no surprise that even Australia’s first television cartoon was essentially a glorified advertisement.
The character of Freddo the Frog was created in 1930 by a MacRobertson Chocolates employee. Since then, Freddo has constantly evolved. Even during the production of the TV series, his appearance underwent change. For the first four episodes, he was drawn with teeth, until it was pointed out that frogs don’t have teeth, at which point they were removed.
While the Freddo TV series is a little-known work these days (I can’t even find clips of it online), more than 50 five-minute episodes were made. The production was gruelling work. Cameraman Victor Anastasi describes the process as follows:
You’d start with a storyboard and a script, which was recorded, then transferred from quarter-inch to 17.5mm magnetic tape. You’d have to run it forwards very slowly so you could transcribe words down the side of the exposure sheet with a chinagraph pencil.
I’d shoot the pencil drawings on paper on an illuminated desk, then it would go to clean-up, then it would be retraced by pencil at the ink and paint department. They’d draw the outline with a very thin brush, then that sheet would go to the painters who would paint on the reverse side. Then it would come to me as a cameraman and I’d shoot it and hold my breath at the same time – it just wasn’t easy. That would be shot on 35mm then reduced to 16mm, and then it would be ready to be shown.
These days, Freddo the Frog is widely recognised and devoured by children everywhere, so the hard work of these animators evidently counted for something in the long run.
Other Notable TV Productions
The world of Australian animation quickly became known for its cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Australia formerly adopted multiculturalism as government policy in the 1970s, which likely had a strong influence on the art scene, animation included.
King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table was produced in the 1960s. The director, Zoran Janjic, immigrated to Australia from Croatia in 1960. The script was written by a team of comics, most notably the Australian playwright and writer Alex Buzo and Rod Hull, who went on to become a well-known British entertainer. The latter probably helped contribute to the “British” sort of sensibility of the humour.
The Adventures of Blinky Bill was produced in the 1990s. Yoram Gross, a Polish-born Jewish Australian, founded the studio which created Blinky Bill along with other other children’s films and television shows. When Australians think about Blinky Bill today, they usually think of Gross’s Blinky Bill rather than the original children’s book character created in the 1930s by Dorothy Wall. The TV series is also notable for containing an opening theme that is longer than an anime OP.
Receiving Recognition on the World Stage
Some Australian animated films have received awards and recognition on the international stage. Leisure (1976) was the first Australian animated film to receive an Oscar. It was produced using cartoons by the Australian newspaper cartoonist Bruce Petty, who also directed the film and created the storyboards.
Source: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
Another short film worthy of your time and attention is Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2010), based on the picture book by the same name. He was involved in the project as a director, writer, designer and artist, working with a small team of four other creators in a Melbourne-based studio. Although it was animated with CG technology, almost every frame was essentially hand-painted using non-digital materials: acrylic paint, pencil, oils and collage. The result is a film with a very unique sense of ambiance.
(Anyone who is interested in sequential art should also check out Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival, which nails how it feels to be a new immigrant in a foreign country. Tan has also mentioned that he drew inspiration from the sense of visual timing in manga.)
No article about Australian animation should go without mentioning Adam Elliot, one of the most innovative Australian animators working today. His two most well-known films, Harvie Krumpet (2003) and Mary and Max (2009), utilise stop-motion claymation. In order to capture the mundane yet wistful nature of his subjects, Elliot cleverly uses digital technology to replicate the look and feel of a very old-fashioned style of animation.
Some other noteworthy animated feature films include Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), Dot and the Kangaroo (1977), The Magic Pudding (2000), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), and, of course, the Academy Award-winning Happy Feet (2006).
I personally think that Happy Feet was pretty mediocre story-wise, but the animation really is something to behold, even if it does look a bit dated ten years on. The level of detail that went into the dancing scenes is impressive.
The studio used motion capture technology to record the movements of dancers and directly translated them into the movements of the animated penguins. It’s a lot of work because it requires setting up many cameras from different directions in order to capture information from a bunch of small reflectors attached to the moving object. It’s akin to rotoscoping (as in the infamous Aku no Hana) in the sense that it’s a technique used to blend live action film with animation, although motion capture relies on digital technology to work, whereas rotoscoping has been around for as long as animation itself.
In the case of Happy Feet, the technology they adopted was groundbreaking for its time. George Miller directed multiple performers while their penguin characters appeared on a computer screen in real time. The studio would later outdo itself in the sequel, but by that point, nobody gave a shit about Happy Feet anymore, because motion capture is the new normal.
Where to from here?
The rise of digital animation and easily accessible software such as Flash has brought about a new wave of home grown animation. You can see some really good indie works at Ozanimate, a website dedicated to showcasing Australian animation and providing support to those who work in the industry.
The popularity of animation these days has created more demand for local talent. As the animation industries have become ever more global and internationalised, it’s not uncommon for many Australian animators to work overseas, though.
For further reading, here is a more detailed overview of animation in Australia. See here for notes about the history and techniques of animation.
While this post was simply a brief overview of some of the more important titles in Australian animation history, I hope it manages to stimulate some interest in animation outside Japanese or American cartoons. I’m sure that the animation traditions in your own country include some interesting gems as well. In the meantime, Happy Australia Day!