An Animated Confessional


OK, I have a confession to make – I never really “learned” animation.

By that I mean that I never went to a college that actually taught animation, because when I started my animation journey very few schools or colleges taught it as a subject in the U.K – in fact there was only one art and design college that had a recognized B.A in animation and I had been accepted at another well-known London art college after applying to join what I felt was the closest subject to animation, namely graphic design, unaware of the other colleges’ existence.

I distinctly recall the head of Graphic Design telling me after looking through my portfolio: “we don’t actually *teach* animation here but we do have a film unit that supports the graphic design course”, somewhat tetchily, which felt like a kind of fobbing off at the time, while leaving me with just enough hope of being accepted on the course.

My art foundation year had been another story – apart from being a huge relief from the previous 5 years or so of secondary education hell it opened up vistas of creative possibility, from print-making like lithography through to photography.

Being the only student on the course with a prior interest in film and animation, I was allowed access to an animation rostrum that was gathering dust in a room full of film equipment like camera dollys and lights, and the technician was Nick Procopides, who had previously served time working as a sound engineer on Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi TV puppet shows, and who was endlessly patient in helping me to thread the “pic-sync” to view my 16mm animation experiments.

We also benefitted from visits by an ex-student who worked in the animation industry as a background artist, though my overwhelming impression from him was that it was an impenetrable (for me) closed-shop, even if he could see that I had more than a passing interest in the subject.

No, by then my “school” had been the public library and the film magazines that catered to a growing amateur film-making community, many members of which managed to scale the heights of professional film-making via prizes won at film festivals organized to showcase amateur work.

I have to add to this the fact that a classmate at secondary school with whom I shared a nerdy interest in various sci-fi TV series and animation, had drawn my attention to an “Animation Kit” he’d seen advertised in one of the film magazines that we both pored over during Saturday mornings when he came to visit.

It seemed like the answer to all my questions rolled into one and after nagging my parents to near distraction for the pocket money to pay for it, I promptly ordered it.

What arrived was a very carefully thought-through box of items necessary to start producing animation of the drawn variety, albeit on a small scale, and seemed perfectly timed to capitalize on a growing interest in the subject that was in parallel fueled by TV programmes on the subject aimed mostly at younger viewers.

The box contained a thin manual covering the basics and a project to get you started, punched A4 paper AND animation cel, a box of 6 pots of different coloured “Pelikan Plaka” emulsion paint for use on the cels, a black wax “Chinagraph” pencil for transferring the animation drawings to cel and most importantly, a “Lightbox” made of thick cardboard that doubled up as a rostrum table that included a bulb and bulb-holder and a frosted perspex sheet that allowed the light from the bulb to illuminate the layers of animation paper from behind, which was cleverly packed flat in the box, and not forgetting the equally important “pegbar”, in this case 2 thick brass pins.

The impact of this kit on me can’t be underestimated, well, that’s how it seemed to me at the time, a kid from a West London suburb that felt as far as from the centre of the film industry as it was possible to get, and for that I will always be grateful to my friend although he was later quite peeved that I had actually followed up on his suggestion, especially once I had managed to acquire a 16mm camera to shoot my early animation experiments – although both my parents were quite skeptical of my interest in animation they both encouraged me, even if they often wondered how I could possibly make a decent living out it.

So by the time I had started the Graphic Design B.A my knowledge of animation was the result of being an autodidact and repeatedly borrowing the same handful of books on the subject in the local library and just trying.

A breakthrough of sorts came one morning before school, dressed in my school uniform and with the cardboard lightbox perched on my lap, the heat from the bulb roasting my kneecaps as I scribbled and flipped furiously a short “walk cycle” of a character from a favourite series of children’s books.

Before this “eureka” moment my attempts as drawn animation had been a case of over-reaching ambition but with this simple walking loop suddenly everything came together even before I needed the final proof resulting from shooting the individual drawings, processing the film and then projecting it.

Just flipping through the drawings was enough to reveal a character walking and springing to life in front of my eyes in our tiny front sitting room, and with it that adrenalin hit that meant that an unstoppable juggernaut had been set in motion.

In Indian culture there is the concept of a guru or teacher, to guide the student to take the correct path based on experience – in my case that was lacking and students of animation now have a huge advantage in terms of having access to people who can teach them the ropes, tips and tricks to become better animators in a way that was previously only possible through studio apprenticeship and being fortunate enough to be an assistant to a more experienced animator.

That said, a guru can’t teach you to be curious or to develop a personal style or voice, that has to come from within, so perhaps it’s a case of a happy medium of autodidacticism and learning the technicalities from a teacher.

Ravi Swami 2021