A Cyberpunk Hiatus…

This promised “Part 2” has been a long time in coming and my only excuse has been Coronavirus lockdown and other things, so here it is.

I’m going to jump forward a few months from when I started working at Shootsey Studios to a brief hiatus when the studio was quiet and between jobs. Len Lewis was quite free and easy about allowing freelancers to find other work, and in fact encouraged it and it made no sense to keep me there since I wasn’t on a payroll.

Prior to forming the studio he had worked as a director at Grand Slamm Animation – a company fronted by the animation director Geoff Dunbar and it was at Grand Slamm that he had met and worked with Annabel Jankel, who later went on to form a partnership with Rocky Morton as Cucumber Studios.

This network of contacts combined with the way in which animators networked in the pre-internet era – basically certain Soho watering holes – meant that Len was able to point rooky freelancers to particular studios for work in those early frequent lean periods.

Cucumber had gained a reputation quite rapidly for being a young, happening, studio that was not afraid to embrace new technologies and approaches to creating animation that succeeded in looking fresh, innovative and very different from anything being done in London at the time, and I had been following their work since leaving college.

I was interested in the possibilities of computer graphics as far back as the late 60’s, primarily after discovering a bound collection of exhibits at an early overview of computer graphics research at the ICA called “Cybernetic Serendipity” but at the time access to the actual hardware was limited to universities that possessed expensive mainframe computers.

However, my first assignment with Cucumber was to take some photographic reference frames – a sequence of a man tied to a steel pole that rotated through 360 degrees – and render them in pencil with a very clean, almost mechanical line and then artwork the drawings to match style reference that (I think) Jankel had created – there was to be no allusion to computer graphics, it was just a funky graphic style.

I was given the reference, a stack of animation paper in a large cardboard envelope and a bag of black and coloured markers of 2 different thicknesses – as a side-note, I left the studio, (then situated in Swallow St, off Regent St and home of “Veeraswamy’s” restaurant) to work at home, on the way rendezvousing with an animator called Erica Russell in Oxford St, where I was given the bag of markers, since Erica – who later won an Oscar for one of her films – was working at Cucumber as an art-director.

Erica, an attractive blonde wearing an 80’s jump suit, turning and disappearing into the crowds of shoppers on Oxford St is a particularly vivid memory for some reason, probably because she seemed to epitomise the studio ethos of trusting people to get on with the job without too much interference, which was quite refreshing when compared to Shootsey, where Len was always particular about checking all the work to bring it line with his personal style and vision, something that was common in many director-run studios at the time.

Back at home in the tiny upstairs box-room that now housed a home-made rostrum camera cum lightbox, I animated the frames required for the sequence – in many ways the drawing style required was very close to my own and since the assignment was a sort of test – I was impressed by Morton and Jankels’ trust in my abilities for someone with very little experience of working in a commercial animation studio – I can remember really sweating over it.

It wasn’t the sort of animation that started with loose blue pencil that would later be cleaned up with a tight pencil line, it had a technical feel to it and at the time I was frequently using ellipse and curve guides to provide a clean technical line to drawings, something that was counter-intuitive to fluid hand-drawn character animation, certainly at the time.

Like so many of the jobs I worked on then, it was lost to time, added to which studios were often very reluctant to allow freelancers to have a copy of their work in what was, and still is, a very competitive environment.

Until that is, today, when I found the very piece of work on Annabel Jankels’ YouTube channel – it was for “Friday Night Videos” in the U.S, a prototype MTV show, and suggests how Cucumber had quickly positioned itself as the go-to studio for young, pop-y and radical animation that was the definition of Cyberpunk, in the brief period before MTV landed to dominate the TV landscape with the same visual aesthetic.

The final title sequence involved a lot of analogue post-work in the form of a sheet of reeded glass that emulated TV raster or low-resolution 8 Bit computer graphics – this was manipulated frame by frame under the rostrum camera by the ever-inventive genius, Peter Tupy, who contributed so many technical innovations to Cucumbers’ output.

17 / 07 / 20

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