Canterbury Anifest is now firmly established as the leading animation festival in the South East, attracting guest speakers from famous studios like Pixar, DreamWorks, Aardman and the Ray Harryhausen Foundation. Originally run by Canterbury City Council, it is now curated by a team of academics from Christ Church. Its current Festival Director is Dr Chris Pallant, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media, Art and Design. He talks to Inspire about what motivated his passion for animation, his research, Canterbury’s rich tradition in the field and the success of Anifest.
In the Mouse’s shadow
Chris completed his undergraduate degree, Master’s and PhD at Bangor University. The subject of his doctorate was Disney’s animation. As he recalls: "My research focused on the technology and aesthetics rather than the ‘princess’ narrative, which is really well established in Disney studies. It was all based on primary research and that got me interested, academically, in animation.
"My PhD on Disney has provided a blueprint for the methodology I’ve used throughout my career..."
"My PhD on Disney has provided a blueprint for the methodology I’ve used throughout my career, so while I’ve been quite happy to step away from Disney, after three years of living in the Mouse’s shadow, and explore pastures new, the framework I adopted in which I looked at the aesthetics of the film and the technology, and examined the institutional structures, has provided a really good grounding. Then the job at Christ Church came up and I was really lucky to get it."
Chris is about to embark on a major new research project focused on a local animation studio, Smallfilms, which has one of the most famous back catalogues in the history of UK animation.
"Smallfilms is a terrific studio just outside the city grounds, which has a fantastic tradition of British animation. You talk about any of their shows – Clangers, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine – and they are a huge part of British cultural identity, heritage and nostalgia. They are also right on our doorstep. The work of Smallfilms has also managed to attract new generations of viewers – Clangers has recently had a huge reboot, and my 18-month-old now absolutely adores it."
Smallfilms was founded by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate in the late 1950s, and their acclaimed programmes were produced until the 1980s. Chris explains that his research project is "really going to be the definitive history, bringing together oral history, such as interviews with Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate’s son, Dan Postgate, and also examining the archive that they’ve kept. In addition, I will be looking at the press coverage, digging a little deeper to try and understand what it is about the Smallfilms’ world that’s captured the nation’s imagination so powerfully. There isn’t a book that does that".
"Smallfilms is a terrific studio just outside the city grounds, which has a fantastic tradition of British animation. You talk about any of their shows – Clangers, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine – and they are a huge part of British cultural identity, heritage and nostalgia."
It is testament to the quality and importance of the research project that Chris has secured a Leverhulme Trust grant worth £118,155 to fund the work, as well as a PhD studentship. This means that the outputs will include a monograph and a PhD thesis. Chris is hopeful that the project will help to create more international recognition of the innovative work that Smallfilms has produced as well as explaining its profile in British cultural history: "While the work of Smallfilms is very well known in the UK, it’s completely off the radar internationally. There have been some really good-quality, comprehensive histories of animation written in the last few years, but they don’t mention Smallfilms at all. This project could provide the platform to broaden the understanding of the studio. The story of Smallfilms needs to be known more widely as it not only forms an important part of animation history but of British culture too."
Alongside his academic work, Chris is Festival Director of Canterbury Anifest and takes great pride in the development of this award-winning animation event. This year marks its tenth anniversary and is the second festival since the School of Media, Art and Design took over the curation and running of Anifest. The festival is a community event that invites people of all ages to come and experience the magic of animation at workshops, masterclasses, talks and films. Anifest also caters for specialists and those in the industry, featuring national and international awards, and guest speakers from some of the biggest names in animation.
"Anifest is a community event that invites people of all ages to come and experience the magic of animation at workshops, masterclasses, talks and films."
Chris explains his vision for the festival: "For the last few years, it’s been under our steam and we’ve tried to return it to a more mainstream festival with a stronger flavour of American animation because the public can’t get access to that. If you are living in Canterbury or the Kent and Medway region, you can watch these films on the cinema screen but you are not necessarily going to bump into the people who made them. That’s what’s been at the back of my mind when organising the festival – to invite a few people over from North America, where there is this huge tradition of mainstream animation production, and bring a new audience to them."
Anifest also provides opportunities for students from a range of degree programmes: "We’ve had some really good student volunteers from the Film, Radio and Television Studies degree and the Digital Media degree. Within those degrees, we offer a number of different modules in animation, either 2D or 3D computer animation as well as stop motion model-based animation. We have many students who are really keen about animation and are willing to jump through many hoops to be able to help out at the festival. And they work hard. Rather than sitting around in the talks, they are actively staffing the front desk, navigating people around and so on.
"One of the things we are working towards at the moment is a brand new degree course in Animation Production, which will be launched in September 2018, and will be situated partly in the new Arts Building. One attractive idea is to move Anifest in the calendar so that the event can be built into part of the degree structure. Students can then become more deeply invested in the festival, helping with the running of it, assisting with the speakers and managing their journey through it. Hopefully, we’ll also see more students’ films make it into the award categories. By making Anifest a loud and visible part of the new Animation Production course, we’re hoping to receive really good throughput of student films going into the competition as well."
"In terms of the employability agenda, Anifest is an open goal opportunity."
The festival can also boost students’ employability by giving them valuable hands-on experience and the confidence that comes from successfully organising events and presenting in public contexts, as Chris explains: "In terms of the employability agenda, Anifest is an open goal opportunity. In the second and third year of the degree, we will be encouraging students to seek work-based opportunities, such as work placements in industry and, with Anifest on the doorstep, it’s something they can easily tap into with the security of staff assistance. It feels like another valuable work-based learning opportunity for them to experience."
So which animated films have sparked the imagination of this animation expert over the years? "My favourite Disney film is The Emperor’s New Groove, which is one of the more recent films, released in 2000," says Chris. "I really like it because Disney are channelling the anarchic Warner Brothers chaos factor and it departs from some of the more predictable Disney tropes you often see. It still has some of the same production values, so visually you still recognise it as a Disney film. But in terms of the humour, there’s a lot more latitude and it explores some darker ground. It’s a firm favourite.
"My favourite Disney film is The Emperor’s New Groove... I really like it because Disney are channelling the anarchic Warner Brothers chaos factor and it departs from some of the more predictable Disney tropes you often see."
"Of the classic Disney movies, I think I’d have to pick Fantasia – a classic from 1940. With the US on the verge of entering into the Second World War, Disney had the bravery, the chutzpah, to produce something like Fantasia, which had great boldness of vision and technical and creative mastery.
"My favourite short film is One Froggy Evening, which is an amazing film from 1955. It captures the sense of opportunism that we all seek in our day-to-day lives. We’re always looking for that golden opportunity, but the way it collapses around the unlucky man is just poetic and beautiful."
Find out more about the new Animation Production degree course at Christ Church.
For further information on Canterbury Anifest, visit the festival's website.
Clangers, Bagpuss and Co Exhibition, organised by the V&A Museum of Childhood, will be at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbook, from Saturday 11 November 2017 until Sunday 4 February 2018. For more details, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden
Images: Stills from The Alan Dimension (directed by Jac Clinch), winner of the Best Student Film Award and the Audience Choice Award at Canterbury Anifest 2017