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Historicist: The Animated Life of George Dunning

From the National Film Board to the Yellow Submarine.

Flat metal shapes, painted in bright colours and fastened together, dancing along frame by frame to a 1792 French folk song. Not the most typical career-launching film, but a significant one: Toronto-born animator George Dunning’s Cadet Rousselle (1947). Pushing the boundaries of conventional animation techniques, with it Dunning announced himself as an important new talent, among the first generation at the National Film Board that established Canada’s reputation as a venue for acclaimed animation work. By career’s end, he’d produced Yellow Submarine and was regarded, in the words of one observer, as “the undisputed father of British commercial animation.”

Born in Toronto on November 17, 1920, Dunning studied at the Ontario College of Art. After a period as a freelance illustrator, he joined the National Film Board in 1943, only the second artist Norman McLaren had recruited to the animation department. From the minimalist line drawings of his first film, Grim Pastures (1944), Dunning strove to pursue an individual path as an artist.

“From his very first film he showed a ready and natural bent for animation, and, what was even more important, he had the ability to make the sensitive and mystic marriage between his talents as a graphic artist and as an animator,” McLaren recalled of Dunning in an interview with Animafilm (January 1980). “His peculiarly personal vision and whimsy soon shone out in such early films as Cadet Rousselle [1947] and Upright and Wrong [1947]. I found George a graceful, articulate and gentle person: a philosopher much given to strangely fanciful invention and drollery, and all in great taste.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the NFB’s animation department was an incubator of artistic experimentation, attracting gifted animators from around the world who tired of working in the commercial sphere and sought an outlet for more personal creativity. Dunning’s output was prodigious. In addition to wartime propaganda films, he created Three Blind Mice (1945), several entries in the Chants Populaires series of adaptations of French folk songs, sponsored public service announcements, and the award-winning Family Tree (1950).

Experimenting with styles and techniques during his time at the NFB, Dunning shifted between traditional animation, paper and metal cutouts, and painting directly onto glass. “He was a true poet,” said McLaren.

Dunning and his colleague Colin Low took a three-month leave of absence from the NFB in 1949, Karen Mazurkewich writes in Cartoon Capers: The Adventures of Canadian Animators (McArthur & Company, 1999), to work on an adaptation of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But the production, utilizing metal cutouts and imaginative imagery, proved too ambitious and the film had to be abandoned.

Dunning left the NFB for good later that year. He joined Jim McKay, a Beaverton-born artist who’d graduated from printing signs and gag cartoons to being groomed to succeed McLaren at the NFB, to form Graphic Associates, Toronto’s first private animation studio.

Graphic Associates produced commercials—including the first colour commercial produced in Canada, which aired on a Buffalo TV station in 1950—as well as educational film-strips, graphic design work, storyboards, and the like. Expanding the company, Dunning and McKay hired budding artists Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland, and a teenager aspiring to a career in animation, Richard Williams, to their first jobs in the industry.

Graphic Associates, Ron Csillag writes in an obituary of McKay for the Globe and Mail (November 16, 2002), “became a drop-in centre and learning-ground-cum-shrine for every young animator in the area.” But the commercial firm proved not to be a profitable venture for Dunning and McKay. When the former left Toronto in the mid-1950s, the latter remained behind, remaking the firm into Film Design Ltd. to produce a variety of children-focused work for Sesame Street and TVO over the ensuing decades.

Dunning relocated to New York City in 1955, recruited by Stephen Bosustow, a fellow Canadian and president of United Productions of America (UPA), to work on the Gerald McBoing-Boing Show.

The next year, Dunning was asked to relocate to London, England, to oversee the opening of a UPA satellite office. Seven months later, the office was closed and the parent company was on the verge of collapse.

As Mazurkewich tells it, Dunning invited some industry contacts, John Coates and Richard Williams among them, to a Mayfair pub and pitched them his idea to open an independent production company.

Coates quit his television industry job to become Dunning’s business partner in June 1957, forming TV Cartoons (later known better as TVC London), one of many small animation studios that sprouted in London’s Soho district during the 1950s seeking to profit off the increasing demands of the advertising industry. Dunning hired many of his former UPA staff.

His partnership with Coates proved to be long and prosperous. But, in an interview with Animafilm published in January 1980, Dunning also credited Williams as being vital to TVC’s foundation. By then an established and in-demand animator producing commercials and his own Little Island (1958) project, Williams agreed to work with them until the venture company got off the ground.

“I remember Dick came to me exactly a year later,” Dunning recalled, “and he said, ‘The year is up.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, the year is up?’ He said, ‘I said I’ll help you, and give you a push. Now I really want to do stuff through my own company’s name and things like that.’ We went on collaborating on some things but he was much more active with the Richard Williams Studio and developed it and so on. I have always had the greatest respect for all his abilities.”

TVC produced commercials and public health and safety films for the National Coal Board, Ford Motors, Mother’s Pride Bread, and Mentholatum Deep-Heat Rub. By the 1960s, with Dunning’s oversight, the successful firm was also responsible for several cartoon series for television including The Beatles (1965–1967), Cool McCool (1966–1969), the “Digger” segments for Vision On, as well as the opening credits sequence for the Pink Panther film A Shot In The Dark (1964). Dunning produced the three-screen animation for Expo ’67 entitled Canada Is My Piano.

“Like all animation studios,” Coates recalled in another issue of Animafilm, “we had many ups-and-downs, during which time our partnership thrived. A large part of this was due to George’s steadfastness. He had an amazing way of keeping his cool under all circumstances, whether he was forcing through his creative ideas or arguing with the ‘money-men.’”

Even at the height of TVC’s success with advertisers, producing 100 commercials per year during the 1960s, Dunning found personal expression in his spare time by experimenting with techniques and creating his own shorts. The Wardrobe (1958), The Apple (1962), and The Flying Man (1962) were “atmospheric [and] Kafkaesque,” in the words of the Liz Czach in the Canadian Film Encyclopedia. His business partner Coates asserted that Dunning was regarded by his contemporaries in the animation industry as a “quiet innovator of marvellous new techniques and experiences.”

Asked by an interviewer whether his success at TVC had helped him remain an independent artist, Dunning replied: “I would guess that is the answer, yes. One has to live. I had a long stint at the [National] Film Board. I learned a lot and enjoyed that kind of existence—government backing, budgets for films and all kinds of special facilities that you could get that way, that you don’t get out in the cold world of commerce.”

A man’s ever-escalating efforts to reach an apple in a tree are recounted in The Apple, a humorous short that won a BAFTA award in 1963. Collaborating with Williams, Dunning drew the characters in plain outline against a sparse background—like a newspaper strip—with the only object in colour being the apple itself.

In the Flying Man, Dunning returned to painting directly onto glass, a method he’d learned during a stint in Paris in the 1940s working with Berthold Bartosch under the auspices of UNESCO. This surrealistic film, in which a man composed of pastel brush strokes takes to the air, won the grand prize at the International Animation Film Festival in Annecy, France.

Dunning’s experimentation culminated in his role as producer and director of the colourful, popular, and highly influential Yellow Submarine (1968), which harnessed a wide assortment of different animation styles and techniques to bring the Beatles’ music to the big screen.

When Al Brodax of King Features in New York hatched the idea of a feature-length animated film, John, Paul, George, and Ringo refused anything but token involvement. They despised TVC’s production of The Beatles television series—which Dunning oversaw on behalf of King Features. But the band was contractually obligated to provide a fourth feature the Fab Four didn’t have the energy to fulfill, so they finally agreed to Yellow Submarine. For good measure, manager Brian Epstein took $200,000 off the film’s miniscule $1 million budget for the band.

Dunning was skeptical anyone would want to pay to see a simple screen adaptation of the TV show. Like the band, Dunning was no fan of the Saturday cartoon which he characterized as “a very poor kind of design” and a “very ordinary, very cheap cut-rate kind of thing.” Peter Sander, a young cartoonist who worked on both the TV series and the film, speculated in the Toronto Star (November 13, 1987) that Dunning only took on the project because “it was the closest thing to the Baron Munchausen tall tales…which he’d always wanted to do and had never been able to finance.”

Seeking to create something more sophisticated and significant, Dunning recruited Czech-German illustrator and designer Heinz Edelmann to act as art director and to design the film’s iconic characters. After Edelmann had disappeared for two weeks, Dunning recalled: “I remember this brown envelope arrived with four drawings in it, one of each Beatle. It was really marvellous cause it had that solved, attended-to quality. You could see it wasn’t Mickey Mouse, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t that—it was just there! The film is very much a phenomenon.”

London’s Dog and Duck Pub became an unofficial office for the crew working on Yellow Submarine as they worked through countless drafts of the script and animation concepts. Although the finished film seemed the quintessential document of the psychadelic era, Sander noted, the film’s creation was more fuelled by booze than drugs. Dunning supervised more than 200 artists, including many local art students, in order to meet the impossible 11-month deadline.

The Beatles liked Dunning’s work, in particular the art-school-trained Lennon, who appreciated the efforts of Dunning, 20 years his senior, to interpret their songs for the screen. Sander concurred. “What Dunning did was give the music a visual vocabulary,” Sander reminisced. “An artist’s creativity is more important than his personality and Dunning complemented that feeling in visual terms perfectly. I mean that sincerely. He caught that.”

Dunning feuded with Brodax, however. When the film was more than half finished, Brodax realized that Dunning and his artists were charting their own independent path with the material—and running over budget—rather than concentrating on commercial appeal. The New York businessman sent a cease and desist order, Michael Posner wrote in the Globe and Mail (March 6, 2003), and boarded a plane. The artists, realizing that they might lose the results of their efforts, snuck into the studio and absconded their completed work.

King Features stopped payments to TVC, which now stood near the brink of bankruptcy, until Dunning threatened to liquidate his company. King Features relented, and TVC retained creative control and the film was finished. Yellow Submarine was a massive success with the public and critics alike, but Dunning—who suffered ill-health as a result of the episode—never actually made any money on the production.

Nor did Dunning think Yellow Submarine was the apex of his career.
“Its fluorescent, bold designs were the antithesis of Dunning’s personal style,” Mazurkewich wrote, suggesting that pared-down, simple charm of The Apple and Flying Man “more closely reflect his own taste.”

Still from George Dunning's unfinished animation The Tempest; (1979) from {a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:George_Dunning,_The_Tempest,_1979_%28unfinished%29_%283648660053%29.jpg"}WikiMedia Commons{/a}.

Dunning’s later years were dedicated to an animated adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which envisioned Caliban as a tree-like creature. “People ask me why do it in animation,” he noted in an interview. “It’s all very well with the fantasy side of it, that seems appropriate. But beyond that, it’s something that I think should be demonstrated. And that’s what I’m doing, and then that helps open a technical line on it as well so that others can carry on.”

“I can not think of a more unlikely subject for animation than that,” animator Bob Godfrey recalled in an interview, “but that, of course, was why George was making it.”

Dunning’s pet project was never completed, remaining an assortment of test animation sequences, pencilled sketches, and character and landscape studies. He died of a heart attack at the age of 57 on February 15, 1979.

Other sources consulted: The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4 (Gale, 2000); Valliere T. Richard, Norman McLaren, Manipulator of Movement: The National Film Board Years, 1947-1967 (Associated University Presses, 1982); and articles from Billboard (April 20, 2002); the Globe and Mail (January 29, 2001); the National Post (August 21, 2009); Take 1 (Summer 1999 and Spring 2000); The Report Magazine (December 16, 2002); and the Toronto Star (March 5, 1994).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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