Anson Dyer: Britain’s forgotten animation pioneer
This is a guest post for Silent London by Robyn Ludwig.
The animators whose films will be showcased at the British Animation Film Festival this Sunday owe a debt to Anson Dyer – though many may not even know it. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernest John Anson Dyer (1876-1962), a masterful animator and pioneering director in the silent-era years of the British animation industry. Much less is known about Dyer and his early films, than of his peers in America and continental Europe. Yet film historian Geoff Brown notes: “For all the current lack of critical attention, Anson Dyer was a major figure in British animation for over 30 years, from the first world war to the aftermath of the second … [He] was promoted for a time as Britain’s equivalent of Walt Disney, with a prolific and popular output of children’s cartoons” (Brown, BFI Screenonline). Donald Crafton, in Before Mickey: The Animated Film (1898 – 1928), credits Dyer as helping British animators come “closer than anyone else in Europe to establishing a significant cartoon industry” (Crafton 252).
Dyer began his animation career in 1915, at the late age of 39, having spent 20 years as an ecclesiastical artist designing stained-glass church windows on commission. Yet most of his earliest films were secular in theme: propagandistic political satires in the “topical sketcher” tradition. When he joined Kine Komedy Kartoons in 1919, however, he began directing children’s material, including the Phillips Philm Phables series (also known as the Uncle Remus series). Later that same year, Dyer signed with Hepworth Picture Plays in Walton-on-Thames, and during this prolific period, he produced a number of Shakespearean parodies, and the family-friendly Kiddie-Graphs fairy tale series, including The Three Little Pigs (1922) and Little Red Riding Hood (1922).
Admittedly, the situation was dire for European animators such as Dyer during these wartime and interwar years. The short animated film was less common in Europe, only infrequently shown before a feature film, as in the US. With limited screen time available, UK and European animators struggled to compete with American imports for the attention of distributors and audiences. This disparity had its roots in the first world war, as European production of animated shorts slowed and then stopped altogether. Local exhibitors turned to American cartoons to fill the gap, further fuelled by a misguided belief that audiences preferred these foreign animated films to home-grown ones.
After the war, the European industry continued its decline, with many animators, including Dyer, finding themselves “without a market, facing stiff competition” from overseas (Crafton 218). This decline was, undoubtedly, exacerbated by the reluctance of animators in Europe to adopt new animation technologies. The use of transparent cels, for example, remained an uncommon practice until the sound era. Even though celluloid was readily available, découpage and three-dimensional puppets remained the standard. Donald Crafton suggests, “Postwar material shortages only partly explain the situation… Alternative methods were employed as much out of choice as out of necessity” (Crafton 255).
Certainly Dyer eschewed innovative, experimental practices in favour of more established traditions and techniques. Whereas Disney’s silent cartoons employed ink-on-cel animation, Dyer revisited ink-on-paper cut-out animation. Both Kiddie-Graphs films, for instance, use this découpage technique, described by Dyer as figures of “cardboard or thin paper… with the separate limbs, eyes and so on jointed at the back by paper fasteners which were invisible from the front… and a series of frames exposed showing the puppet in various stages of movement” (255-256). His technique’s limitations are readily appreciable: characters move parallel to the picture plane, often only in profile, and with only one character or object moving at a time, while others remain artificially static.
Still, in spite of this limited animation style and a hostile economic climate, Anson Dyer’s filmic output flourished during the silent era, with the production of dozens of cartoon shorts and advertisements, and, arguably, Britain’s first feature-length animated film, The Story of the Flag (1927). Undeservedly though, his early work still remains critically neglected and largely forgotten today.
Brown, Geoff. Dyer, Anson (1876-1962). BFI Screenonline.
Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. London: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Robyn Ludwig holds a Master of Film and Literature from the University of York, U.K., and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her current research interest is animation from the silent film era. In addition, she has been an administrator in the charitable arts and culture sector for the past ten years, a fundraising consultant for film festivals, and a television critic for the Vancouver Observer.