The creator of The Snowman is happy with a sequel - but only because it’s hand-drawn. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad on animation’s past and future.
Scene: The Mos Eisley Cantina. Luke Skywalker enters with C3PO. We already know, thanks to Obi Wan-Kenobi, that the spaceport is a “hive of scum and villainy” and when Luke enters we see the villainous scum are rendered in latex, foam and rubber – they are there, perhaps not exactly in the flesh, but in physical form in George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars.
Fast forward 22 years and George Lucas breaks the hearts of millions of men, whose state of arrested development began when they first saw his epochal movie, with a character called Jar Jar Binks.
The last of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983 – when the only effective way of creating alien characters on screen was to use the puppet-making techniques perfected by the likes of Jim Henson.
When the Star Wars franchise was re-booted with The Phantom Menace in 1999, film-making techniques had advanced massively. The movie industry was just a decade away from Avatar and George Lucas had vast technological resources at his disposal.
Despite a wait of more than a decade and a half for a new movie, Star Wars fans were apoplectic at the character of Jar Jar Binks, introduced in The Phantom Menace.
There were lots of reasons they found to detest poor Jar Jar, but one particular accusation levelled at creator Lucas was that the character was rendered in CGI. Not, like the other-worldly characters in the original movie, in physical form, but made by a computer.
Seeing something computer-generated on the screen, in the Star Wars universe, just didn’t feel right. The reaction against the introduction of a computer created character is something Raymond Briggs clearly understands. The creator of The Snowman is dismissive of the techniques used to create old Jar Jar and thousands of other CGI characters, saying the problem with how they are rendered on screen lacks imperfection.
“I’ve never touched a computer, or anything like that. CGI makes everything too perfect,” says the illustrator.
The TV version of Briggs’s The Snowman has been screened at Christmas time on Channel 4 every year since 1982 and a £2m, 24-minute sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, is being broadcast this Christmas. Briggs has endorsed the sequel, to be screened on Christmas Eve, he said, partly because it is hand-drawn.
The 78-year-old illustrator is unequivocal as to why he’s waited this long: “It would have been cashing in to do it before. Now it won’t do any harm, and it’s not vulgar and American. They’re sticking to the old ways. I’m a notorious grumbler, but I found nothing to grumble about.”
Thirty years since The Snowman, will its sequel enthrall the many generations it’s progenitor has entertained over the years?
Since the original Briggs Christmas classic was released, the world of animated film-making has undergone not so much a revolution as an entire overhaul.
In 1999 an animation studio called Pixar released its first movie and changed the game for good, forever.
A group of men, now considered among the smartest working in film at the time, had been working for several years at Pixar, thanks to investment from Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Their aim was to make the first entirely digitally made movie. On its release Toy Story became a major success, both financially and critically and, once Pixar had shown it was possible, many others followed in the digital path, making movies with computers. Is there still room for those who think like Briggs?
Tom Vincent is film programme manager at the National Media Museum in Bradford, which is screening the original The Snowman on December 23, for the third year running.
“I think people like imperfection in art, they respond to it,” he says. “A bit like when you see a Ray Harryhausen film with hand-made special effects and you can see the monster jerking slightly it reminds your brain that someone has made this and they actually exist in the real, physical world.
“It’s a reminder that the technology is relatively limited and that the artist is working within the limitations that exist – and that’s more exciting for the viewer.”
Like a record as opposed to a song on an MP3 or a 16mm film as opposed to one digitally rendered. Vincent, like Briggs, still thinks the old ways can be the best.