A Brief Outline of Animation in the UK



"Animation", of course, means “being imbued with life”. As such, it is a reminder that the art of animation lies in creating more than just movement.

However, for the purposes of this website I am using the media-specific definition of animation as “a series of artificially created images which when shown in rapid succession give the illusion of movement”. These images can be drawn, created from three-dimensional objects or computer-generated – the criterion is that they are individually created rather than sequentially captured.


Animation before Cinema

If animation is the effect perceived when a series of images are viewed, it follows that it cannot exist without a mechanism to achieve this. The simplest technology is probably the flick-book, but the first devices to be commercially successful were the “scientific” stroboscopic Victorian optical toys. The first of these, the phenakistoscope, was created in 1832 by Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau. Plateau himself, in collaboration with artist J.B. Madou, designed several discs, and after these were published other illustrators tried their hand.

The illustrators who designed these discs were the first to address the business of animation – the consideration of timing and the flow of motion. Although only involving a dozen or so positions, the animation was made more open to critical scrutiny by its cyclic nature – it would be viewed repeating for long periods.

The popularity of the phenakistoscope led to improvements. The drum-shaped zoetrope could be viewed by several people at the same time; the flick-book allowed a finite sequence rather than a short cycle; the praxinoscope used mirrors instead of slots, and its inventor French slide-painter Charles-Émile Reynaud elaborated it into his Théâtre Optique (Paris 1892), where long sequences of animated paintings on celluloid were projected onto a screen, along with a static background, to create shows lasting over half an hour.

Improvements in photographic sensitivity enabled Eadweard Muybridge to capture a sequence of sharp images of a trotting horse, using multiple cameras (1878). The novelty of moving drawings was now replaced by the greater attraction of moving photographs, leading via the Mutoscope to the invention of Cinema.

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Animation in the Cinema

It is impossible to be definitive about early movie history, because the majority of early films are lost to us. Many films are known only from their listings in distributors' catalogues, some may have vanished without even this record. An element of confusion in the identification of animated films is added by the fact that the term 'animated' was used in the early years to describe motion pictures generally. Pathé's newsreels, for example, were called the Pathé Animated Gazette until around 1916.

The invention of the motion picture camera created a new medium, but at first people were unsure how to exploit it. The inventor of the first British movie camera, American-born Birt Acres, considered it a scientific device, to be used for recording serious scenes and events, but his assistant Arthur Melbourne-Cooper saw the entertainment value, and was soon experimenting with trick shots and story films.

Film prints were sold to the owners of movie projectors, some of whom would show them at travelling fairs. Advertisers were quick to take up the opportunity of films promoting their products. They did not initially finance the production of films, but would pay a filmmaker £1 for every print sold.

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Stop-and-Start Films

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper shot some of the earliest advertising films, often using trick effects, and in 1899 he made three films for Bryant and May featuring figures formed from matches. These are the earliest known examples of stop-motion animation, and Cooper seems to have been the first to modify a movie camera to take single frames. (By 1903 cameras were being manufactured with a single-frame option, giving an idea of how popular such trick work had become.) A prolific live-action film-maker, Cooper continued to find time to pursue his fascination with what he termed 'stop-and-start films', animating toys in elaborate spectacles like A Dream of Toyland (1907) and Road Hogs in Toyland (1911).

NB: Albert E Smith, founder with J Stuart Blackton of the American Vitagraph Company, claimed to have made the stop-frame animated film Humpty Dumpty Circus in 1897, but Charles Solomon (in Enchanted Drawings 1994) and Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mul (in "They Thought it was a Marvel" 2009) consider this unlikely, believing this film to have been made in late 1904. As no print of this film is known to exist, it is not possible to evaluate.

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Silhouette Animation

In Kew, the leafy suburb south-west of London, Charles Armstrong created the first animated silhouette films, the earliest known being The Sporting Mice in 1909.

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Drawn Animation

Drawn animation is perhaps the purest form of animation, as when each frame is a fresh drawing the animator has a total freedom. However, while the idea of moving inanimate objects frame by frame is a natural extension of trick cinematography, drawing each frame and then filming the drawings seems to have been not just a step too far for most early filmmakers but almost the antithesis of cinematography. The great majority of early films are lost, but from the fragments that exist it would seem that, despite the example of the earlier Victorian toys, drawn animation was slow to emerge.

The first appearance of drawings seem to have been in 'Lightning Artist' films. The 'Lightning Artist' was a popular variety turn, with the performer creating a picture with a few deft lines. (A later refinement of the act was to appear to create one image, then deftly convert the picture to be something else entirely.)

Judging by an existing fragment of one of a series of such films from 1895, made by Birt Acres and featuring caricaturist Tom Merry, these merely reproduced the artist's stage act, with no attempt at camera trickery other than possibly speeding up the action. The 'Lightning Artist' drew in black (ink or charcoal) on sheets of white paper: a similar act, 'Chalk Talk', consisted of a story or lecture given by the artist who illustrates it by the continuous erasure and amendment to a chalk drawing on a blackboard.

The first step towards animated drawings appears to have been made by James Stuart Blackton, who was born in Sheffield in 1875 but emigrated to the US with his mother when he was 11. Featured in an Edison film in 1896 when he was a reporter and illustrator for the New York paper Evening World, Blackton became a filmmaker, co-founding the Vitagraph company. In 1900 he made The Enchanted Drawing in which a comic face he has drawn changes expression as he removes other drawn items from the paper. This is achieved by cutting the film at the point of substitution rather than actual stop-frame animation, but it does show a drawing responding to events.

Back in the UK, Walter R Booth, an artist and amateur magician, started making trick films for Birt Acre's former business partner Robert Paul in 1899. His films, influenced by the French filmmaker Georges Méliès, were primarily trick effects films, often using double exposures. In 1901, perhaps influenced by Blackton, he made a series of films featuring an artist's drawing coming to life. The trick here, however, was not animation but multiple exposure of live-action - the drawing becoming a real person.

In 1906 Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, a 'Chalk Talk'-style film. used some stop-frame animation, but was still more about camera tricks. The second half of the film, featuring the drawing of a clown, is real animation, but not using separate drawings - the clown is an articulated cut-out figure moved progressively.

The first known film of stop-frame animated drawings to show a continuous sequence of events is the 1908 Fantasmagorie made in France by the caricaturist, cartoonist and writer Emile Cohl. Cohl is seen drawing a simple 'chalk' figure and the film cuts to the animation of this character through a series of humerous situations linked by the metamorphosis of various elements to create a "stream-of-consciousness" continuity. (Cohl had been part of a surreal/absurdist art movement known as the Incoherents, and Fantasmagorie is in this style.)

But it was the American newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay who demonstrated what animated drawings were capable of, inadvertently sparking the American cartoon industry.

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The American Cartoon Film

Besides drawing his comic strips Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland, as well as various editorial cartoons, Winsor McCay also performed a 'Lightning Artist' stage act. Around the end of 1910 he formed the idea of animating his Little Nemo characters for his stage act, an idea inspired by the flip books brought home by his son, and probably by the films of Emile Cohl.

It would seem that the plan was for him to appear to draw characters on the poster-sized projection screen and they would then come to life. There is little plot, but the strength of McCay's draughtsmanship meant that the characters not only move realistically, but also rotate and move forward and backwards in space - devices that he often used in his strips but which became all the more impressive in movement.

He arranged with Blackton for the drawings to be filmed at the Vitagraph studios, and Blackton suggested they should film a surrounding live-action story (where McCay bets his fellow cartoonists that he can make all the required drawings within a month) and release the film publicly.

Little Nemo (1911) demonstrated both the potential of animation and the work required to achieve it; McCay's second film, How a Mosquito Operates (1912), was a prototype for the American cartoon film. Elaborated from one of McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend strips (the continuous dialogue of the strip is ditched in favour of pantomime storytelling) it was presented as part of McCay's vaudeville act, and later released by Carl Laemmle through Universal.

It was after seeing one of McCay's films that the French-Canadian cartoonist Raoul Barré, then living in New York, decided to try his hand at animated films. He went to the Edison Studios with his proposal, where he was assigned young filmmaker Bill Nolan as producer. The pair of them experimented with drawn animation and produced a series of advertising films. In 1913 Barré started his own studio, hiring young cartoonists to produce the animated equivalent to newspaper comic strips, using a two-hole office punch for registration and the slash-and-tear technique to allow more than one layer of animation paper to be used under the camera.

The same year John Randolph Bray, again a comic-strip artist, set up a studio to produce a series of cartoons for Pathé, on the strength of his successful film The Artist’s Dream (also known as The Dachshund and the Sausage). He too had been inspired by McCay, and he too filled his studio with newspaper cartoonists. More businesslike than Barré, Bray immediately set about patenting the working methods he developed with his partner Earl Hurd. Initially working on tracing paper to allow easy registration to a line across the top, he had the line and all static elements printed on multiple sheets to which the moving elements could be added. He soon replaced the printing method by tracing the static elements on a celluloid sheet, thereby patenting a process that would become key to the animation industry.

Thus the popularity of the US newspaper comic strip led directly to both the invention and the success of the American animated cartoon.

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So back to Animation in Britain

While drawn animation blossomed in the US, the UK was slow to follow. In 1910 Arthur Melbourne-Cooper had also been inspired to produce a drawn animation film, but not being an artist himself he needed to hire one. Neither of the artists he approached were prepared to turn out the required number of drawings for the modest sum Cooper was offering.

Pathé started a series of Pathé Cartoons in November 1913, with cartoonist Max J Martin sketching topical cartoons. The series ran for 37 episodes, ending in August 1914. Denis Gifford cites this as Britain's first animated series, but while it is possible that some elements of stop-frame animation may have been used during this time these were primarily just a revival of the 'Lightning Artist' film.

The arrival of the US cartoons in the UK did prompt a few artists to try their hand - F Gandolphi,, for example, animated a series of Kine Kartoons for Barker using jointed cutout figures moved progressively under the camera, rather than the more laborious preparation of sequential drawings. But this was 1914, and Britain was preparing for War with Germany.

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Animation fights the Kaiser (1914-1918)

As Europe plunged into war filmmakers turned to providing popular propaganda. As Clyde Jeavons comments in his book A Pictorial History of the War Film (1974):

Curiously, the war had a direct bearing on the development of the animated cartoon in Britain … they quickly became numerous and popular, if always limited in technique. They were almost exclusively concerned with the war, and were for a time virtually the only acceptable outlet for making fun of the war, which they did in the form of an endless stream of rudimentary topical lampoons ridiculing the enemy.

That is regarding films: in the print media while cartoons in the press tended towards dramatic vilification of 'the Hun', comics and comic postcards ridiculed the enemy for laughs. Cartoon films soon found that a comic approach was easier to achieve and more popular with audiences.

Harry Furniss, illustrator, writer and former Punch cartoonist, who at the age of 60 had started his own film company after a year writing and acting in short films for Edison in the UK, responded to Britain's entry into the War with a 'Lightning Artist' film, Peace and War Pencillings (August 1914). It contained no animation, merely the progressive evolution by the artist of an image of John Bull peacefully reading a newspaper into one of Britain at war with the Kaiser, but it established the format that others would follow.

Bamforth & Co, the Yorkshire slide and postcard manufacturer which had recently recommenced film production, quickly put their cartoonist Douglas Tempest in front of the camera for a series of 'Lightning Artist' films starting with War Cartoons Drawn by Mr. D. Tempest (August 1914). Again, no animation was involved.

It is not clear if illustrator Sidney Aldridge attempted any animation in his War Cartoons (September 1914) for Warner's Features (the London branch of the US distributor), but his second film, War Skits made for New Agency Film Company, is described in a review as "an unusually clever series of humorous trick drawings".

Lancelot Speed, an illustrator best known for fairy tales and historical romances, and, at the age of 54, 6 years younger than Furniss, certainly had action in mind when he made Bully Boy (October 1914) for Neptune Films. The film starts as a typical 'Lightning Artist' film but after the first three images have been drawn the artist's hand is no longer seen and the images take on a life of their own, ending with full cut-out animation as the British bulldog eats the German sausage. The film was well received and Speed went on to make seven more films for Neptune in the Bully Boy series, with an increasingly proficient use of cut-out animation.

Producer Henry Tress started the Tressograph Company in 1914, making short comedies and topicals, and produced a series of Tressograph Cartoons (Nov-Dec 1914), lightning sketches by Dudley Buxton, like Douglas Tempest a well-known comic postcard designer. It is unclear how much animation, if any, was included in these three films, but it is clear from subsequent events that Buxton was keen to follow in Speed's footsteps.

F Percy Smith, a natural history filmmaker who had also experimented with stop-frame animation, picked up on the popularity of the battle maps that appeared in newspapers and made a series of animated War Maps for Kineto. Presenting the movement of of troops on the battlefield with a clarity that newspapers could not achieve, these films proved extremely popular. Although the animation in these films was very basic, they established the sub-genre of diagram animation, which would become an important element in documentary filmmaking.

In late 1914 Gaumont hired G E Studdy, an artist whose full page cartoons appeared weekly in The Sketch, to produce a series of 'Lightning Artist' cartoons called Studdy’s War Studies. Three films were made from December 1914 to February 1915, each containing a handful of sketches. The series then continued, one sketch at a time, in the twice-weekly Gaumont Graphic newsreel. Initially these were just cartoons drawn in undercranked (speeded up) live-action, but animated elements were soon added, in particular a tiny cutout 'Artist' called 'IT' who draws the cartoons in stop-frame animation. However, overall Studdy did not seem particularly interested in developing animation to progress the narrative.

In 1915 Sidney Aldridge embarked on what was intended to be a series of animated cartoons featuring Woodbine Willie and Lightning Larry, characters reflecting the popularity of Weary Willie and Tired Tim from the comic Chips and similar comic pairings. Using cutout animation, the film sees the duo transport an English village by balloon - via the Kiel Canal where they drop bombs and manage to upset Admiral Jellicoe - to the 'Cannibal Islands'. Preceding the popular US animated series of Mutt and Jeff cartoons by a year, the film was not a success. Condemned by a reviewer as "marred by indifferent quality", there were no further episodes.

Producer J A Clozenberg was quick to hire Dudley Buxton at the end 1914 when Tressograph ceased production, forming the Cartoon Film Company, Britain's first company created solely for animated film production. Buxton embarked on a series entitled John Bull's Sketchbook (from April 1915). Each episode containd a handful of topical cartoon skits, with an increasing reliance on cutout animation for their effect. While most items were humorous, a few were serious depictions of events, such as The Sinking of the Lusitania from John Bull's Sketchbook No.4 (June 1915) where a depiction of the torpedoing of the liner is followed by a lightning sketch of German Admiral Tirpitz which is then converted to a 'skull-and-crossbones' pirate flag.

Neptune Films had encountered financial problems, and when Percy Nash, Speed's producer, left the company in August 1915 the Bully Boy series ended. Speed was hired by Barker Motion Pictures as Production Designer on Barker's 'epic' live-action film of Rider Haggard's She (released 29 Feb 1916). In 1917 he started his own animation studio, Speed Cartoons, to make films for Jury's Imperial Pictures for the rest of the War.

Anson Dyer had spent twenty years designing church windows for a stained glass company and raising a family. Unfit for active service, and armed with an interest in theatre and a facility for humorous illustration, he was now looking for other employment. According to Geoff Brown, Dyer hoped to work in motion pictures as an actor, but was too tall for regular ensemble screen composition. Instead he was hired to make a series of animated 'lightning artist' war sketches for the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company under the title Dicky Dee's Cartoons. He took to animation with an enthusiasm that would see him commited to cartoon production for the next forty years, and after making three Dicky Dee films he was invited to join Dudley Buxton on the John Bull's Sketchbook series. Although perhaps lacking Buxton's deftness and lightness of touch, Dyer contributed seven entertaining episodes, released alteratively with Buxton's throughout 1916.

The caricaturist and poster designer Alick P F Ritchie made a 'Lightning Artist' film for Favourite Films entitled A Pencil and Alick P F Ritchie. Despite a live-action opening where Ritchie chastises an imputent pencil keen to draw on the white pad, most of the sketches are done in chalk on a blackboard, creating a crisp clear image and allowing Ritchie to create a nice graphic effect by blocking in large areas of white. Some animated elements are included in the pay-offs to the skits, but although well designed and executed these tend to be simple effects (a wagging tail, moving bombs and bullets, splashes and explosions) rather than any real attempt to bring the pictures to life. In 1916 Ritchie followed up with two films in a series entitled Alick Ritchie's Frightful Sketches.

By the summer of 1916 it would seem that Buxton and Dyer were planning to leave the Cartoon Film Company, possibly because the company was experiencing financial difficulties. Producer Frank Zeitlin started Kine Komedy Kartoons, to employ them to continue making cartoons. While he waited for Buxton and Dyer to work out their contract, he hired cartoonist and portrait photographer Ernest H Mills to embark on a series of war cartoons under the title Britannia's Budget. Despite the studio's name, these were dramatic depictions of recent events and seem to have been sponsored and distributed by the Ministry of Information.

Buxton and Dyer joined Kine Komedy Kartoons at the start of 1917 and each produced an average of four films a year. Ernest H Mills was absent in 1918 and Victor Hicks was hired to help maintain output. Initially the films were distributed by the production company Broadwest, but soon Zeitlin was hawking the films around other distributors such as Jury and Walturdaw to get the best deals. This is indicative of the general situation in the UK film industry where, with production (both domestic and imported) now greater than demand, the exhibitors were able to pick and choose, forcing renters to keep their prices low.

There are other factors affecting production which may also account for the number of production companies that sprang up and then failed during this period. On discovering that Germany had a propaganda agency the UK government set up its own propaganda bureau, which may have actively encouraged the production of propaganda films. Enlistment meant a shortage of young men in both production and audience numbers. The introduction of an Entertainment Tax raised ticket prices and produced a short-term dip in cinema attendence. But, as will be seen, it was the power of the exhibitors that would be the prime influence shaping British animation production.

In 1917 magazine illustrator E P Kinsella formed a production company with producer Horace Morgan to make a series of Kincartoons for the War Aims Comittee, mostly promoting War Bonds. These are of particular interest because they adopted the US approach of unshaded line drawings, and employed a lot of drawn animation along with the use of cutouts.

And finally, in 1918 Leslie Dawson embarked on a series of cartoons under the banner The Adventures of Slim and Pim, featuring two characters described by Denis Gifford as "England's somewhat feeble answer to Mutt and Jeff", whose American cartoon shorts had become popular in Britain (although the original newspaper strip would not appear in UK papers until 1923). The Slim and Pim films were presumably cut-out animation, but it seems no prints exist.

The above is not intended to be a complete list of artists who made films during the First World War: Charles Armstrong made an animated silhouette film, Armstrong's Trick War Incidents; sports cartoonist Tom Webster made three animated films, two featuring Charlie Chaplin, but again these seem not to have survived; Louis Wain provided the artwork for two animated films in 1917; and other artists made 'Lightning Artist' films with no animated content. Moreover, advertisers, who had recognised the power of cinema from the earliest days, were keen to make use of animation. In 1914 Charles Urban's Kineto Ltd launched a spin-off company Kino-Ads Ltd to cater for this market. An entry in The Kinematograph Year Book for 1915 describes Kino Ads as consisting of "comics. cartoons and trick films."

By the end of the War 'Lightning Artist' propaganda films had evolved into animated comic narratives. The artists who had pioneered this developement were now keen to make animated shorts to compete with the American product.

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Peter Hale
Last updated 2018