On UK art schools and animated documentaries

I recently conducted a study of short UK-produced animated documentaries programmed in film festivals between 2015 and 2020.  Of 146 films, almost a third were student productions. In many cases these films emerged from art universities, and they were often directed, researched, produced, designed, and animated by a single filmmaker. It got me thinking about animated documentary, and creativity, and art school. Animated documentary production involves so many skills – animation, design, storytelling, research, legals, ethics, communication… what kind of a degree programme can best support a student to make these kinds of films?

My own creative practice is, in large part, a product of my undergraduate education at Sheffield Hallam University, a former polytechnic that proudly counted Nick Park among its alumni. In the art campus, then situated away from the main university and blessed with a sense of being entirely forgotten by the outside world, I tinkered with 16mm film cameras, Steenbeck edit machines and rostrum film cameras, nestled amongst modern digital equipment. My attempts at animation and filmmaking owed much to the work shown to us our irrepressibly enthusiastic tutor Paul Haywood: Jan Švankmajer, Stan Brakhage, Len Lye, Carolee Schneemann, Kenneth Anger, Andrew Kötting, Sadie Benning, George Kuchar, and more. These were the films that sparked my imagination and wove themselves into my own creative DNA.

I graduated in 2004, and even then the campus and course felt like outliers, soon to be swept up in a tidal wave of digitisation and change. The website The Lost Continent includes an article about the impact that art school education had on the British independent animation scene of the 80s and 90s. Referencing Andrew Darley, it links this both to the political context of the time and to the cultural history and theory prevalent in the curriculum. Darley’s commentary, written in 1997, goes on to criticise a growing focus in art school animation education on conformity and commerciality, at the expense of experimentation and critical enquiry. 

In the UK, a conflict between priorities of technical training and those of creative experimentation in art education existed long before the 1990s. Lisa Tickner’s book Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution (2008) presents a detailed account of the Hornsey College of Art’s 1968 occupation by students, in a protest over funds that escalated into a broader protest about art education. In the Epigraph, a student letter is presented which calls for ‘a curriculum in which individual needs are no longer subordinated a predetermined system of training requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the students’ artistic and intellectual capacities’.

Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution

Animated documentary is a practice that bridges multiple industries and multiple communities. Through the fuzziness of its genre associations and its complex relationship with representation, it carries enormous scope for creative innovation. Over the course of my PhD research I’ve interviewed and read accounts from many influential animated documentary makers who talk about their art school education in terms of the creative mindset it left them with, above the technical skills it taught.

Among the animators whose work was emerging in the 80s and 90s, Liverpool College of Art is an establishment that comes up frequently. Animation was taught as an option on a wider graphics course and the college’s alumni include a number of filmmakers who went on to make boundary pushing work that used animation to depict reality. Sarah Cox, Stuart Hilton, Susan Young, Bunny Schendler, and Jonathan Hodgson all passed through the institution, as well as Chris Shepherd, who studied Foundation there before continuing his education at Farnham UCA, another institution which has been highly influential in the development of British animated documentary. When I interviewed Shepherd in 2019, he partially credited his art school education with the attitude that allowed him to create innovative work that combined dark social realism with technically experimental animation. comparing this with his experience of the 21st century feature film industry, he observes that in the film industry, gatekeepers ‘want [the work] to be like everything else. But I went to art college, and I was always told to do something that’s different’. 

Brexicuted, 2018, dir. Chris Shepherd

Bunny Schendler’s introduction to animation practice came as a result of working in proximity to animators while studying sculpture at Liverpool College of Art. When I interviewed her in 2019 she remembered seeing the work of students that had come before her, including Sarah Cox and Stuart Hilton. Schendler reflects that these films had an impact on her, as ‘unlike most highly finished commercial cartoons, it was unpolished, you could see that it was moving drawings which allowed me to connect my own practice-experience of drawing with what I was seeing.’ Schendler went on to teach herself how to make her own drawings move, initially bringing situations from her own lived experience to life, and leading to a successful career in commercial animation as well as directing observational, fiction and documentary animated shorts.  

Men Talk About Mother, 2016, dir. Bunny Schendler

Susan Young had also studied at the college, graduating ahead of Schendler. Speaking at the 2019 Deptford Animadoc event, Young remembers drawing inspiration from their lecturer Ray Fields, who ‘encouraged us to do non-narrative documentary, so to go out and observe things in the street or equally observe your own internal state or your internal response to something that was happening, and everything was equally valid so we would create these kind of observational documentary films that gave equal weight to what we were observing objectively but also what we were thinking subjectively’. Jonathan Hodgson also acknowledges the impact of Fields’ teaching on his practice. Speaking BFI Southbank as part of Edge of Frame weekend 2018, Hodgson remembers that sketchbook keeping was the cornerstone of the teaching, and students ‘were taught to draw very minimally […] finding a shorthand to create images quickly. But then it had to be meaningful, it had to be about something we observed.’ Echoes of Fields’ approach can be seen in much of the prominent British animated documentary and observational films of the 80s and 90s, and in subsequent work that has been influenced by these films.

Feeling My Way, 1997, dir. Jonathan Hodgson

Fields’ teaching style can be glimpsed through the documentation of his 1988 Stuttgart Animation Festival workshop which is accessible online through the Animator Mag archive. In this workshop, he contrasts the method of storyboarding in film development with the method of keeping notebooks, using these as symbols for broader approaches of ‘collective communication’ versus ‘self-communication’. Fields proposes that ‘the production of commercial work can be an incomplete experience. There is always a need to extend oneself through experiment’. However he also notes that ‘It is difficult to make the bridge between sketchbook, self actualisation, and what other people require for profit.’

The push and pull of different priorities in art education, and specifically animation education in art university environments, remains a source of concern for students and educators. The responsibility to produce employable entry-level practitioners can sometimes be seen as a trade-off against the responsibility to nurture a critical and experimental practice, or to cultivate an environment that embraces political dissent and creative resistance. In our current education environments, these debates are scaffolded by complex and changing financial and structural systems in higher education, political pressures, and shifting landscapes in the creative industries. 

These considerations play on my mind as an educator in art school environments. For me, one the most exciting parts of my job is seeing students develop their own unique creative practices and languages. For many, these will stay with them throughout their lives, as they continue to learn and develop. Even for those who do not choose creative careers, the ability to process and communicate experience through creativity will be a place to which they can return whenever they wish. Learning to read can take you to new disciplines, new ideas, new perspectives, new approaches. Learning to think creatively and to make creatively has similar lifelong benefits in both personal and professional spheres. 

I don’t think there is any single right answer to the question of how to weigh a course in terms of creative and critical experimentation versus the development of technical skill and standardised professional process. Perhaps each institution needs to think carefully about where they sit on this spectrum, and students entering art education should take responsibility for selecting a course that meets their needs and expectations. But maybe this attitude is too binary, excluding career-focused students from the benefits of the more experimental approach while limiting the commercial studio employability of students who want to explore artistically. The ideal may be a more holistic approach, in which students can fulsomely access both paths of learning over the course of their university education.

Is this possible without compromise? Are there institutions that are doing this particularly well, in the UK or elsewhere?  I would love to hear thoughts from educators, students, employers and audiences on these questions.