The spectacular animated world of U.S. filmmaker Don Bluth is the focus of Episode 82, with Chris and Alex journeying to the Great Valley for this discussion of The Land Before Time (Don Bluth, 1988). Joining them is Dr Mark Witton, vertebrate palaeontologist and palaeoartist (based at the University of Portsmouth), who is best known for his scientific research and illustrations around the habits and behaviors of pterosaurs, as well as his consultancy work with museums and on the BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and Planet Dinosaur (2011). Listen as they discuss the importance of Bluth to the landscape of 1980s animation, including his work as a stylistic and ideological forbearer to the Disney Renaissance; The Land Before Time as a collision between mid-/late-twentieth century dinosaur science; the long history of ‘marketing’ dinosaurs that first began in the 1850s within a number of cultural institution and museum exhibits (especially in London and, later, across the U.S.); the storytelling structures and segmentation of the film’s framing journey narrative; Bluth’s tone and characterisation of the dinosaurs that falls back on the physicality and physiology of modern dinosaur images, including discourses of ‘monsterisation’ that have marked several media depictions; the problems of animating science and the artists’ creative latitude in constructing dinosaur performances; and why so many filmmakers across animation history have been continually drawn to the figure of the dinosaur as a creature of fascination.
Episode 81 of the podcast provides an introductory survey of Sub-Saharan African animation, as Chris and Alex plot a pathway through a cross-section of animated fantasies covering a multitude of forms, styles and modes from a number of African countries and territories. Joining them is Dr Paula Callus, Associate Professor in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University and an expert in Sub-Saharan African animation, who has also worked as a consultant and educator on the UNESCO Africa Animated projects in Kenya and South Africa, and who has been involved in projects looking at marginalization and the use of digital technologies (with a focus upon Arts, Activism and Marginalization in Nairobi). Listen as they discuss Moustapha Alassane’s Bon Voyage Sim (1966), the earliest short animation from West Africa with a highly political (and amphibious) comic narrative; the quasi-animated documentary Ng’endo Mukii’s Yellow Fever (2013) that interrogates the implications of skin and race via the theme of hair braiding; Iwa (2009) from Nigerian filmmaker, illustrator and art director Kenneth (Shofela) Coker based on West African ‘tree of life’ myths; the colourful British/Kenyan animated television series Tinga Tinga Tales (2010-2012) based on African folktales and featuring both English and Swahili languages; and the science-fiction allegory Pumzi (2009) from writer and director Wanuri Kahiu. Topics include the cultural and historical specificity of fantasy storytelling and the mapping and remapping of folklore across national borders; animation as itself a medium wrought with competing ‘contexts’ shaping modes of production and reception; core/periphery models of understanding global animation practices and their diversity of visual cultures and heritages; post-colonial legacies and how questions of pastness guide how African animation has been culturally and critically understood; Afrofuturism, Afropessimism and animation’s aesthetics of despair; and how fantasy and animation are systematic tools for the subjective on account of their shared ‘immateriality’.
Chris and Alex return once more to the pioneering work of stop-motion animator and effects artist Ray Harryhausen, this time looking at his 1973 fantasy film collaboration with director Gordon Hessler, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. For Episode 80, the focus is on the quasi-parasitic relationship between live-action and animation filmmaking, and the spectatorial fantasy engendered and invited by each form of moving image technology. Topics include psychoanalytic film theory and the ‘internal object’; the ontological integration of Harryhausen’s ‘Dynarama’ effects with the fantasy of location shooting; animation discourse and the problem of essentialist understandings of medium specificity; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’s orientalist imaginary and problematic constructions of race; the materiality of stop-motion, and the ‘weighty’ qualities to the film’s army of mythical homunculi; and the big-screen trend of casting ‘animators’ as villains in their control and manipulation of suddenly sentient fictional worlds.
Episode 79 marks a special edition of the podcast, recorded back in February 2021 as part of the virtual Fantasy/Animation @ Canterbury Anifest event where Chris and Alex curated a series of podcasts, themed blog posts, a roundtable on the topic of diversity and inclusion (returning to the Anti-Racist Syllabus) and a live Q&A, as well as premiering a brand new Fantasy/Animation podcast episode released exclusively for festival attendees. This Anifest special tackles Bagpuss (1974) the 13-episode stop-motion television series from the celebrated Kent-based Smallfilms studio. Joining Chris and Alex to talk through his ongoing research into both Smallfilms and its founders Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate is Festival Director of the Canterbury Anifest Dr. Chris Pallant, who is also a Reader in Film Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University and President of the Society for Animation Studies. Chris has published widely across film and media studies, including his monograph Demystifying Disney: A History of Disney Feature Animation (Bloomsbury, 2011), and collections Storyboarding: A Critical History (Palgrave, 2015), Animated Landscapes: History, Form and Function (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: New Perspectives on Production, Reception, Legacy (2021). In this episode, Chris gives us a rundown of his favourite Top 5 Bagpuss episodes, with other topics including the modular structure of the series and its bricolage of storytelling and comic effects; the pleasures of ‘objectness’ vs. anthropomorphic representation; Bagpuss’ particular kind of character expressivity, pose and movement; fantasy rhetoric and the image of the ‘storyteller’; the vocal performances (and musical designs) of folk singing duo Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner; the seduction of the animation archive and locating lost production materials; how to tell animation history, and what gets include/omitted from industrial narratives; and the status of Bagpuss as a signature Smallfilms property, including the role of a saggy old cloth cat in shaping histories of this small but influential animation studio.
The 2002 Disney science-fiction epic Treasure Planet (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2002) is the focus of Episode 78 of the podcast, which looks at the melding together of the Disney formula with space fantasy in this swashbuckling adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure novel Treasure Island. Joining Chris and Alex for this bumper episode are two very special guests: Ron Clements and John Musker, who aside from writing and directorial duties on Treasure Planet are known as a filmmaking duo absolutely central to the renaissance of Disney animation in the 1980s and 1990s. They are the writers and directors of a number of Disney feature films, including The Great Mouse Detective (1986), The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016), as well as Treasure Planet, the Mouse House’s 43rd animated feature film and one of the studio’s rare turns to the codes and conventions of science-fiction storytelling. Listen as they trace the industrial origins of Treasure Planet and the film’s initial pitching' to Disney chairman and chief executive Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Thomas Schumacher; the evolution of the story from Ron and John’s early treatment to the first draft of the script; the nature of adaptation and the creative affordances of an animated re-telling; the ‘cyborgian’ identity of Treasure Planet in its combination of traditional technique and digital processing (including its use of the digital painting tool Deep Canvas), and where the film’s ethos of ’something old, something new’ sits in relation to the landscape of Hollywood animation of the 1990s; the creative contributions of animator Glen Keane to the development of John Silver; and remembering the ‘tough period’ for Disney Feature Animation that surrounded Treasure Planet’s 2002 release and subsequent lukewarm critical reception.
The first instalment of The Hunger Games (2012) franchise, directed by Gary Ross, provides the focus of Episode 77 of the podcast, which looks at the film’s connections to ethics, rationality and affect, and what structures our emotional engagement with its narrative of totalitarian systems and panoptic visions. Joining Chris and Alex to examine the immersive world of Panem is Dr. Tarja Laine, Assistant Professor in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of the new monograph Emotional Ethics of The Hunger Games (2021), as well as the books Bodies in Pain: Emotion and the Cinema of Darren Aronofsky (2015), Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies (2011) and Shame and Desire: Emotion, Intersubjectivity, Cinema (2007). Listen as they discuss the politics of spectacle, and what it means for Young Adult Fiction to ‘do’ philosophical and ethical enquiry; narrative focalisation and the difference between subjectivity (style), allegiance (narrative) and alignment (ethics); how The Hunger Games invites an ethical engagement through fear, shame and hope; the economy of worldbuilding, structures of myth and how this relates to the fluctuations of character knowledge; how notions of ‘looking’ ultimately prevent access into interiority; and what the mediatised nature of The Hunger Games has to say the contemporary era of social media, where individuals must forge their being and identity in a world in which they are constantly seen and scrutinised.
The politics and proxies of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar provide the focus for Chris and Alex in Episode 76, as they plug into Pandora to make sense of the relationships between the film’s ecological sensibilities and its technological prowess. Joining them is Rupert Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia who specialises in everything from the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein to the contemporary climate crisis. Rupert was also a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion (authoring the 2020 book Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside), and was a Green Party councillor from 2004-2011 (having stood for both national parliamentary and European elections). Topics for this episode include Avatar’s anti-imperialist message and discourses of the post-racial in Obama’s America; racial passing, the politics of motion-capture and what Cameron’s reflexive puppet show says about the ‘state of the art’; fantasies of control, surrogacy, perception and the trust we place in (digital) bodies; blurred formal and stylistic distinctions between live-action/humanity and CG/Na’vi; the act of ‘reverse anthropology’ and Avatar’s claims for the power of ancient wisdoms; the awe of 3D technologies, the meaning of spectacle and links to ritualistic communal viewing experiences; digital farms, new media culture and human/machine connectivity; the material, mineral dimension of our own media consumption and creation, and the carbon footprint of digital backlots; and how in asking what we as spectators are going to do to ‘wake up’, Avatar invites us into a very real politics of ecology and activism.
For Episode 75, Chris and Alex revisit the work of Aardman Animations, taking a look at their debut feature film Chicken Run (Peter Lord & Nick Park, 2000) whose narrative of meat pies and morality remains underwritten by the Bristol-based studio's signature stop-motion style and very British sense of anarchy. Joining them for this discussion of the art of poultry-in-motion is Chicken Run’s very own Mac, the loveable Scottish genius engineer chicken voiced by writer, actress, and story coach and consultant Lynn Ferguson. Listen as the discussion turns to the Aardman community and how it functions within both industrial and narrative contexts; Chicken Run’s tempering of the epic, and the spectacle of table-top production; vocal performance (in both animated features and video games), and the need to give audio ‘angles’ to the animator; notions of Scottishness, discourses of nationality and fantasy storytelling; the power of ‘revolting’ animation and collectivities of rebellion and resistance; and pop singer Chesney Hawkes.
In this latest episode, Chris and Alex sit down with the Disney+ series WandaVision (Jac Schaeffer, 2021), a spectacular fantasy of U.S. television history that continues the citational practices and narrative complexities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet does so by working through the industrial, cultural and stylistic lexicon of the sitcom. Topics for discussion in this episode include the reflexive gestures made by WandaVision to canonical American television, from mid-century staples I Love Lucy (Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz, 1951-1957), Bewitched (Sol Saks, 1964-1972) and I Dream of Jeannie (Sidney Sheldon, 1965-1970) to contemporary hits like Malcolm in the Middle (Linwood Boomer, 2000-2006) and Modern Family (Christopher Lloyd & Steven Levitan, 2009-2020); how the animated title sequences (that recall graphic traditions of the Hanna Barbera studio) fit in with the series’ rhetoric of self-consciousness; distinctions between the ‘complex’ and the ‘complicated’ when it comes to serial narrative engagement; emotional catharsis and Wanda’s ontology as a television ‘showrunner’, including her reconstruction of identity when trapped in a small-screen format of her own making; questions of nostalgia and audience appeal; and what WandaVision as an audiovisual product says about Marvel’s own potential future in relation to television programming.
Episode 73 reaches deep into the science, spaces and squids of Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), the recent science-fiction feature starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life.” Joining Chris and Alex to discuss this atmospheric subversion of the sci-fi genre is Dr William Brown, Independent Scholar and Honorary Fellow at the University of Roehampton whose research expertise focuses on contemporary digital and new media, posthumanism, critical race theory, and film-philosophy. William is the author of numerous monographs, book chapters and articles related to popular cinema, media convergence and digital filmmaking - from eye tracking technologies to motion capture - and his latest collection is The Squid Cinema From Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (co-authored with David H. Fleming) (2020). Listen as they chat about the earthly (squids, octopi, cuttlefish) and extraterrestrial cephalopods that have populated the history of cinema; the cephalopodan qualities of the digital and the tentacular reach of the virtual camera; the gaseous, cloudy spectacle of chromophoric display as it manifests throughout Arrival’s army of Heptapods; discourses of racial otherness and the gendering of so-called ‘squid cinema’; narrative, linearity, duration and the film’s fantastical relationship with/to time; Felix the Cat, ‘soft beings’ and the animator’s desire for control of the animated ink; how Villeneuve evokes the Rorschach stain through Arrival’s chaos of plasma, and how this feeds into the cultural and political plasticity of black bodies; and why, in the end, it all comes back to tentacles.