As academics we find it easy to converse about the complete, those films that have made their way onto the screen and given audiences pleasure and academics room for discourse and assessment. The ‘completed’ animation finds itself venerated the world over and as a medium, or art form, it appears capable of fitting almost any brief, defying the shackles of live-action and capable of producing, from a visual point at least, works of both realism and fantasy that are only limited by the imagination and skills of the creator. The creator is at the focal point of any completed work, but through the exhibition of a completed animated film, the process that a creator utilised and the labour of production is conventionally missing or occluded. This is because animation is a material-heavy process, using paper, pixels, puppets or other means to create the illusion of movement. Within the confines of the screen, these industrial or behind-the-scenes processes are limited in their presentation or to put it another way, the sketches, storyboards, scripts, puppets, save files, correspondence and everything else that goes into the making of an animated film are not on display or made readily available.
Why are these objects important? Firstly, they demonstrate the creative journey that a project undergoes from its conception, those skills that are only partially evident in the completed work as the evolution of the idea and the crucial decisions made in the production of an animated film (Fig. 1). Animation has no clear definition, with the academic community arguing the minutia of the form. Given the multiplicity of methods that animation incorporates, there does not look to be a concise understanding (see Wells 2011). However, the essence of animation is contained within its production methods, and so these items hold revelatory information within them that has enormous value for those wishing to view the medium for inspirational, educational or aspirational means.
Given the importance of animation production materials, we must seriously question how we treasure our films and the materials that constitute them. Though archives that collect animation production material do exist in various conditions throughout the world, there is no unified forum, resource or methodology for the safeguarding of animation materials as a whole (Fig. 2). This is usually due to the method by which the work was produced, as the end goal was the film or television programme and so potentially the method of making is not relevant to the finished product. Only in hindsight and with the value of retrospect do such materials become interesting from an academic perspective. The necessity of collecting such material is also something that is subject to financial decisions – why spend a sizable proportion of your studio’s budget on storing work that no longer has any use?
Studios such as Walt Disney store an enormous collection of their materials in the Walt Disney Animation Research Library (ARL), which has proven to be a good investment as the long running studio has the option to return to original materials whenever it wishes (Fig. 3). It can also profit from the exhibition or publication of the material in theme parks, stores and as bonus features on home media for example (as the symbolic image of the “Disney vault” used by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment makes clear). However, the image of the ARL promotes an example which is unique and not commonplace. The idea of a state-of-the-art archive is a rare example, and certainly not typical of the conditions in which animation collections are commonly found. The ARL operates as more of an in-house resource than an archive, though its practices should be viewed as a fantastic example of how to treat animation production materials. The definition an archive is a publicly accessible repository, and the Walt Disney Archive is only accessible to those working at Disney or by special consent.
The popularity of a company’s output does not guarantee safeguarding. Oscar-winning Aardman Animation’s lost a huge collection to a warehouse fire, destroying many irreplaceable screen used items and production material. Having an archive fall victim to unfortunate circumstances is bad, but material is never guaranteed a home in an archive in the first place. Cosgrove Hall created work such as Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, The Wind in the Willows and The BFG, and for a time was the UK’s largest animation studio handling brands that were recognisable the world over. When the studio closed in 2009 materials found their way into the ITV offices where they lay gathering dust. When ITV employee Westley Wood found the collection, it was earmarked to be thrown away but Wood secured space for it off site, and became the custodian of the collection.
A few years ago when the new home of the collection was put under threat, I connected Wood with Richard Evans at Waterside Arts in Sale, Greater Manchester and a bid was written which eventually found a permanent home for the collection at Waterside. Were it not for the efforts of Wood, the Cosgrove Hall collection would have disappeared (Fig. 4). The collection is in need of urgent restorative attention but is now safely housed and has regular exhibitions. The Cosgrove Hall Films Archive (as it now stands) is an example of good fortune and the right people coming together. Unfortunately, large collections that stand as testament to our national and international animation heritage are constantly under threat of being consigned to a skip.
The precarious scenarios that animation collections find themselves in needs urgent address. There currently exists no official body or network that sets standards or offers advice to collections large or small. However, next week on November 1st-2nd at the Waterside Arts there will be a meeting to discuss this issue. The need for an International Council on Animation Collections is at the top of the agenda. As animation changes through the advancements of technology, or the improvements of technique, we are reminded that our artform is a fluid and exciting one that needs to be cherished as the unique and savoured practice that it is. Archives are the “Worlds Cultural Memory” (Edmondson 2004). If we are to let our animation collections and archives disappear the process of animation and our heritage is in danger of becoming a forgotten thing.
Materials in Motion: A Future for the Past, Preserving our Animation Heritage takes place next Friday 1st-Saturday 2nd November at Waterside Arts (£35 a ticket, but £20 when entering the promo code CITanimates, which includes entry to the “Meet the puppet masters” event). Visit the website for full details, while more information about “Meet the puppet masters” can be found here.
Wells, Brian. “Frame of reference : toward a definition of animation.” Animation Practice, Process & Production 1, no. 1 (2011), 11–32.
Edmondson, Ray. “Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles.” Ethics (April 2004), available at: https://www.fiafnet.org/images/tinyUpload/E-Resources/Official-Documents/Philosophy-of-Audiovisual-Archiving_UNESCO.pdf.
Dr Steve Henderson is an animation academic who has taught at various institutions throughout the years. He is co founder, director and CEO of Manchester Animation Festival, the largest animation festival in the UK. He is also Editor and co-owner of Skwigly, an online animation magazine where he co-hosts the Skwigly Animation Podcast.