Terry Wragg is one of the founders of Leeds Animation Workshop, an independent studio that has been making educational animated films since the seventies; in 2013, it celebrated its 35th anniversary. I discovered their work at the London Feminist Film Festival, where I had the chance to see their animated shorts “Give us a Smile” and “Through the Glass Ceiling”. After I contacted them with an interview request and Terry replied to my message, we had a chat about the history of the Workshop, its work and the issues facing independent animators.
35 years, 40 films
Leeds Animation Workshop was started by a group of women who were activists in the women’s liberation movement; some of them had a bit of experience with trying their hand at animation. Terry remembers: “I had just given up my job in an office, and I sat next to someone I knew on the bus next day. I asked her where she was going, and she said: I’m going to make a cartoon film! I said I wanted to do that too, so she told me to come along.” Although animation was and still is an expensive art form, it was much cheaper at the time compared to live-action filming: “ As a woman, especially if you weren’t very well-off, you didn’t have access to film equipment, but you did have access to paint and paper”. It was a cost-effective way of making films, and also very efficient at getting a message across.
When the group began its work, it was called the Nursery Film Group, as its aim was to make a film about the need for nursery education – one of the demands of the women’s liberation movement. After it became Leeds Animation Workshop, it started tackling other social issues as well. Since its beginnings in the seventies, the Workshop has produced around 40 films on various topics: environmental issues, bullying in schools, bereavement, family relationships, child protection, health and safety at work, racism, imperialism, and, of course, feminist issues such as equal opportunities and harassment. „We didn’t do anything that we didn’t believe in, or that was just an information film, but we obviously made films with a message”.
Some of their films, such as “Give us a smile”, which deals with violence against women, as well as their work on domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children, have been extensively used in police training, women’s refuges and schools. Their productions on bereavement are recommended by leading charities working with bereaved people. The impact of such films is, of course, difficult to quantify. You can’t turn the positive impact of an educational film into cold numbers. But whenever the filmmakers received a call acknowledging one of their films as useful, or requesting another copy, they knew they were on the right track.
“A Venn diagram of one”
How did the world of British animation receive a group of women filmmakers with a socially progressive message? “We didn’t have much contact with the animation world for a long time. We were in Leeds, hundreds of miles from the nearest animator”. Women working in animation were very rare at the time and so were studios working collectively, or animators working on social issues; in Terry’s words, they were “a Venn diagram of one”. Terry recalls attending the London Film Festival when the Workshop’s anti-nuclear film “Pretend you’ll survive” was being screened as part of the “Best of British Animation” programme, and the Leeds Animation Workshop filmmakers were the only women directors present. In addition, their protagonist was also the only woman character in that programme, or the “Best of World Animation” programme which followed, who had clothes on and/or was not depicted doing housework. “Some were in bikinis, others were using a vacuum cleaner- one was actually in a bikini while using a vacuum cleaner”. While the landscape has improved since the early days of the Leeds Animation Workshop, women are still a small minority amongst animators.
During the 80’s, Terry and her colleagues often objected to racism and sexism in animated works and engaged in debates with other animators, for example through the union journal; debates were happening within the Workshop as well. “At one point, some of the men who worked in the film developing laboratory refused for a while to develop one of our films because they thought it was sexist against men!”
The art and craft of animation
“Everyone told me not to study art at college, because it would be difficult to make a living, and yet that’s how I earned my living for most of my life”, Terry says. She had no filmmaking experience to begin with, and no formal art training after the age of 16 (although she later returned to study for a Fine Art degree). “Just like any other art form, you can learn animation by doing it. You can get better at it, but you never finish learning it. Most of the classic animators taught themselves because there weren’t any animation schools in their time, they all learned by themselves.” All of the films made by the Workshop were traditionally animated, shot initially on film, and in later years with a digital camera, but always with physical objects, cels, or paint and paper.
The Workshop has also organised educational sessions, teaching others to make basic animation . „It’s lovely to teach animation to people who haven’t done it before. When they see things moving that haven’t moved before, they are just so delighted!” I asked Terry if her or her colleagues ever considered doing animation on commercial projects. „No, the process of animating is quite boring! if you’re not interested in making a film about that particular subject, why would you put yourself through it? Why would you paint a thousand pairs of trousers, for instance, if it was just to make a beans adverts? I mean, I know some people enjoy it. But the animation workshop films took a lot of labour and resources to make, and we wouldn’t want to spend those resources on something that, for us, wasn’t worth making”.
Independent filmmaking, post-recession
Terry is the only one still with Leeds Animation Workshop out of its original members; others took their separate ways after the omnipresent cuts in funding that followed the recession in Britain affected the organisation quite severely. Nowadays, the kind of productions that the studio was known for are suspended, although there is hope that they may resume at some point in the future when fortune turns. The Workshop is currently a place where volunteers, artists and students work on independent, small-scale films, and where animators can come for support in developing their projects.
Before the economic crisis, the Workshop’s productions were funded through grants from various government bodies or charitable trusts that supported the message of their films. In the 80’s, the Workshop also benefited from a funding scheme that supported film co-ops as long as they could show that they were engaged in different strands of film activity: „It was great because it wasn’t tied to a particular production, you had the opportunity to explore things a bit. Something like that is what artists need, and society needs artists, we need to have painters and filmmakers for the health of society, and society has to pay to keep them alive, not just to commission them to do a job and then let them starve until the next job. When you think about it, it’s not just artists, society needs its people, it should be looking after all its people.”
I attempted to play devil’s advocate: why should the state support artists for doing something they enjoy, but without any direct practical benefit to others? Why should artists even be paid? „Football players are paid, and they seem to enjoy it, why not artists?” Terry replies. One thing is for sure: independent filmmakers will need to find new ways to support themselves, perhaps through the Internet, the same way musicians are selling mp3s online nowadays. (Kickstarter? Vimeo on Demand?) In the meantime, The Leeds Animation Workshop is being kept alive by Terry Wragg and not throwing in the towel just yet- it’s been here for more than 35 years and who knows what new eras of independent filmmaking it may still see.