We need to talk about Harold some more

Apologies for the long summer break1 Here is part 2 of my interview with Harold Whitaker. Make sure you have read part 1 first, otherwise we will jump right in.

Harold at Stratford AbbeyHarold (seated bottom left of frame) at Anson Dyer's studio - Dyer is the silver haired figure in the centre

Sorry, I interrupted you. Well maybe we could go back before you started in the animation industry...

That's going right back.

...what it something that you were particularly interested in, in terms of the cinema. Were you a big cinema goer?

Oh well yes, I used to go when I went to London, well really before that. When I went to London all the news theatres used to run these – at Easter and Christmas and so on – would run these Disney programmes with six Disney shows. Absolutely the hey-day, Clock Cleaners (1937), Pluto's Quin-Puplets (1937), The Band Concert (1935) and Hawaiian Holiday (1937) – these things were absolutely marvellous, I used to lap those up. I used to spend ages sitting – sixpence it was at the News Theatre near Leicester Square – and just sit the programme round and round in the evening, or whenever I had time.

And did you see much British animation?

Well I was always trying to wonder how they did it, you could never slow things down, the thing happened so quickly. And the first time we ever did that was at Stratford Abbey, they had a gadget which did single frames on a screen, it was a thing you could trace off live action.

Rotoscope?

Rotoscope that's right, so we got from the local cinema The Old Mill (1937) by Disney, it was one of these Silly Symphonies I think, and we ran that frame by frame. And that was really the first time I'd ever been able to study exactly what was happening, that was very interesting indeed. But I mean by that time we were already animating, but we were still doing it more or less blindly, you know? It's all very, there's no connections, I'm sorry its not very logical at all, things keep cropping up.

So you hadn't heard of Anson Dyer before?

Well yes, when I was at the studio before, when I went to London news theatres used to run Anson Dyer cartoons. Stanley Holloway, “Sam Sam, pick up thy musket...” and things. And I was very interested, but they were so crude, you know, I didn't think much of them, but I didn't ever think I’d end up working there. (Laughs) But they were the only things in this country, and it was surprising the gap; Snow White was 1938 and this was 1938.

Sam and his Musket Sam and His Musket (1935)

And when I actually got to Anson Dyer and saw their equipment... I mean the camera table was just a plank with no controls or anything. If you wanted to pan the background you drawing pinned it to a stick - a wooden stick that slid up and down - and you sort of banged it and did your pencil calibrations. And the cameraman just sort of... [mimes nudging with hand], you know. And you couldn't do vertical pans because there was a screw that went straight up to the camera. There was one handle that brought the camera up and down, it just came down on that spot, it couldn't come down on any particular space. Absolutely unbelievable, but you see they never... Anson Dyer never had any money to spend, everything was done on the shoestring. That's why Griff [Sid Griffiths], you see he worked with Pathé, and he starts on about 1925 he was making animated films. You know his work do you?

Yes - the troublesome tyke

That's him yes, Jerry the Troublesome Tyke, they discovered them all about 5 or 10 years ago in Wales, because he was of Welsh extraction, and the [...] Welsh Film Archive, they got on to me about five years ago. Who was this Griff, you know? So I sent them all the stuff I could find about Griff, whom I knew quite well. He was a genius in his way.

Did he teach you to animate? I mean who taught you to animate? You learnt on the job but who was teaching you?

Griff wasn't an animator, no, anything to do with technical problems or building cameras he was the tops... but he did it on a shoestring. I mean if he'd of had money behind him he could have gone somewhere, but he never did, he just had to do everything more or less on his own bat. You know he had all these ideas how to do things, but.... Anyway they sent me a whole load of those Jerry things on a DVD, which are of no int... I mean they'd bore you stiff because they're so crude. But when you think about what he was under...

When he first came, when I first went to Anson Dyer, Anson Dyer had this... I told you didn't I about this Cocktail cigarettes? They had one film... Both by Griff, one was Philips lamps, they were short commercials which they showed from time to time, cinema commercials they were, with Philips lamp bulbs lit in this blue sky, all sort of floating about beautifully in this misty blue sky. And Griff shot that because I remember him talking about it, and they shot it on a table top with the camera upside down, and they moved all these sorts of things round on the table top, and when you turned it the right way up it was... And the other one he did was Cocktail cigarettes with a puppet theatre and the curtain went up and all twenty cigarettes came out of the packet and lined up - digga, digga, digga digga - against a black background and they did acrobatic feats. And I mean that was the sort of thing he did, and I thought it was marvellous at the time, but that was all of his that we ever saw to begin with. Because he was working on these aircraft recognition things at that time as well, that's when I first met him when had a camera on a [gestures] doing a dive bomb thing, I don't know... But he was an interesting chap to talk to.

So when you started, were you assisting somebody else with animating? What sort of jobs were you doing when you started at Anson Dyer?

I was a background artist to start with, when I first went there the agent sent me. After I won the scholarship, I went to this agency and he got me various jobs. And I did a bit of animation while I was at Macclesfield, and I showed it to the agent and he showed it to Bill Larkins at J Walter Thompson, and his assistant was Alexander Mackendrick, who were making films with Anson Dyer for Rinso. So that's how it got onto them. So Anson Dyer looked at this bit of animation I’d done and he said come in, and I went and saw him. I said I wanted to be an animator, and he said no we don't want an animator we want a background artist. So I started doing backgrounds for a Rinso film.

So that's when I started and then I got six months postponement of call up because of the scholarship... otherwise I should have gone up in... I went up to the army in February so I would have gone six months earlier. So anyway I had these six months to hang about, and eventually Anson Dyer moved down to Stroud because they were getting bombed every night because it was the middle of the blitz. And the studio they were in had a glass roof and they were doing these aircraft recognition films, which was important work. So they moved out bodily sometime in the autumn of 1940 to Stroud... they found this girls' school.

So I started doing a bit of animation... I had about six weeks before they moved before I was called up. So during those six weeks I did some animation, which they were doing... gunnery training. An archer, sort of Robin Hood character, firing at some swans, and the thing was that if you fire straight at the swan by the time the arrow gets there, the swan's over here [gestures]. So you've got to fire so far ahead of them... so that's the sort of thing I was trying to do. The others couldn't do a decent human figure because they were used to all doing animated, exaggerated big heads, big arms... and I did a drawing of an archer in a naturalistic pose and they thought, oh that's good. So that's what I did, and I also did the flying swan after studying Muybridge for long periods with birds... I've still got Anson Dyer's copy of Muybridge; I think I knocked that off when I left.1

So you kind of, basically, taught yourself?

Well I suppose, yeah, I thought I knew much more than I did, but I’d seen so much animation in these short Disney things. I always thought I could do it, I must have been a bit of a pest I should think, but anyway I was having a lot of fun and then suddenly "Wham!!" [bangs hand for emphasis] I was in the army. And that was a dreadful day, I could just have died when that happened. Leaving it all behind, just when it was beginning to take off, you know, but still... it turned out all right at the finish. So nearly six years... February '41 I got called up, till Christmas 1946.

End of part two...

1. You know how it is: lazing on a tropical island as trained monkeys bring you perfectly mixed mojitos and pickled onion Monster Munch at the click of your fingers. My summer break with the kids off school was just so restful and quiet and peaceful, that I could barely stir myself from my relaxing reverie.
2. At this point Harold pointed up to these very books that he had kept all these years. I later found out that he had actually kept these first animation drawings that he talked about.

Jez

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