United Kingdom / 1992
This week’s film is also in honour of the recent first Manchester Animation Festival, at which Barry Purves presented the prizes.
Former animator at Manchester’s Cosgrove Hall (on their classic version of Wind in the Willows), Purves produced Screenplay, a minor classic of stop frame animation in what appears to be an epic, obsessive labour of love (not uncommon in this list of great animation). Apparently it was (until the end) all done in one take, although punctuated by breaks for sleep and eating I would imagine, or Barry may not be still here to give out any prizes.
As well as his other award winning shorts, Purves has taught animation, made documentaries and written the books Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance (Focal Press, 2007) and Basics Animation: Stop Motion (AVA, 2010). He has held workshops about animation in many colleges worldwide as well as major studios such as DreamWorks, Pacific Data Images, Pixar and Laika.
Amongst Purves’ other acclaimed films was Next (1989), also made for Channel 4 and also on a theatrical theme, in which William Shakespeare auditions and pitches his plays to an unimpressed director. It was while visiting Japan with this film that Purves was able to experience traditional Japanese theatre.
In the style of a ‘Kabuki’ play this story of doomed love is told by a visible narrator, using sign language and voiceover (Michael Maloney). Behind him on a revolving stage other characters act out the fable, fading in and out of shadow on an elaborate oriental set that hides and reveals characters and scenarios, until it all reaches its genuinely shocking finale.
The beautifully poised animation is immaculately staged and the stylised special effects are achieved by unfolding fans and tapestries in a ‘real world’ theatrical style, as animated stage assistants manipulate the set as in a real theatre.
The story is a simple one told in a complex way, full of ambiguities that keep you guessing. Like the ingenious revolving stage within a revolving stage with screens of animated Japanese illustrations that slot in and out like an intricate Chinese puzzle, the story also contains many puzzle like elements. What enfolds is a tale of a daughter forbidden from being with her lover, a gardener, as her evil and greedy father wants to sell her hand in marriage for a rich dowry.
We see graphic scenarios on the rotating stages, of the lovers happy together and then people being put to death at her fathers bidding (staged as in a stylised theatre production with red ribbons of material unfolding out of wounds) but how many of these events represent the desires of the various characters and how many are ‘real’ events is sometimes unclear. The narrator also slips in and out of his identity, unmasking himself and joining the action in various roles. Shadowy black clad characters act as stage hands manipulating the environment as well as playing guards at the bidding of the father, at the start they even manipulate the other characters like puppets, ‘animating’ the action themselves, adding yet another layer of visible faux mechanics.
Like everything else, the animation is realistic but also stylised, like real stage actors putting on a mannered performance. These semi realistic figures move and adopt poses with the grace of dancers or mime artists, informed by Purves background as a stage actor and designer.
Eventually the lovers are betrayed by a spiteful old maid and the daughters sweetheart is captured by the father, in her desperation to save her lover she pushes her father into a sea of waving blue sheets over which they then sail away to an idyllic happy ending on a remote Japanese island.
Except it’s not a happy ending at all. Suddenly the narrator reveals his true identity and the play is replaced by a different, darker reality. The stage is gone, there are different shots and editing and the camera is now moving in a sinister, John Carpenter way so we know something bad is going to happen – and when it does the blood is no longer theatrical ribbons. We are now out of the play and in a film; a very horrible film that ends badly for all concerned. The fact that its stopped being a stylised play seems to make it all the more disturbing as this causes us to think of the terrifying events now unfolding as being somehow more ‘real’.
In a final sequence that once again breaks through walls of audience expectation, the film ends with a moment of light relief as the camera pulls back away from the ‘stage’ exposing the stage equipment and props and carries pulling out through the animators work desk revealing Purves’ hands, the ultimate manipulators in this kaleidoscope of manipulation, and a rich clutter of notes, references, articles, tea and biscuits.
All these layers of narrative and reality make the film rich material for articles like this to analyse and is recommended for any students seeking essay subject matter for endless word-count filling pontification where even Purves preferred type of biscuits could contain some hidden significance.
Like Purves’ other films, Screenplay won many prizes worldwide and it has achieved cult status amongst animators. Although a solo project born from one persons drive, the film was, like other films on this list, funded by the UK’s Channel4 in their heyday of investing in animation. Without that injection of investment and energy in the 1980s/90s, films like this wouldn’t exist and this list, the animation world and the UK animation industry in particular would all be poorer entities.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!