Friday, January 23, 2009

The Dark Years

I missed this when it came on here in Canada (the History Channel I think?), but was very interested in seeing it at the time. Here's how it's described on the NFB site: A look at the impact of the Great Depression years on Canada and its people. What started with an economic crash in 1929 would end only with the guns of World War II. Of the many stories and legacies of the Great Depression, perhaps its greatest is that it created a modern Canada: more questioning of the power of government, inclined toward social policies like welfare and health care, and prepared to play a role in international affairs and economies.
I came across a listing for it from a network in Australia, they had a little more to say: Canadian history has the reputation of being bloodless and consequently uneventful, especially in comparison to the often violent and dramatic events that have shaped other countries. Yet this three-part animated series presents a lively and visually sumptuous look at Canada during the Great Depression, proving Canada’s history to be anything but tepid. From record breaking cross-Atlantic flights, and the birth of the world- famous Dionne quintuplets, to the slow march to war, The Dark Years uses original animation, archival footage and eye-witness accounts to bring to life colourful stories from the 1930s.
The whole series was produced using stock footage and animation, which sounds really interesting, and there are some good names on the production credits, Including Chuck Gammage Studios, so I was hopeful.
Here's the clip: The Dark Years.
There's more over here: Dark Years clips
The second link also has all kinds of other info, including links to an interview with the animation director, John Halfpenny.
Now, to be fair, I judged this pretty harshly based on the forst clip. It's a good story to tell, it sounds well written, and I think that's Maury Chaykin narrating. But the animation left me really cold. The illustrative style just doesn't work in flash. In fact, I was going to just say outright that it looks terrible.
The second clip, featuring Hitler in Mickey Mouse pants, is far more entertaining. Still though, this would have looked a whole lot better done traditionally. The arguments are always going to be there, budgetary largely, but once again, here's a potentially great project that just comes up short on the execution.
But maybe the technology isn't the culprit? Ive seen some very good traditional animation done in Flash. Is this just a question of poor animation? Poor animation done in Flash that just as easily could have been poor animation done traditionally? I can't say. Lord knows we had a lot of terrible animation before Flash, so why should things be any different now?
Animation aside, this still looks like something I would watch, and the animation isn't all terrible, but unfortunately, the parts that are bad, are just that: terrible.


Tiny Orchestra said...

Hi Michael,

I need to stand up here for the animators. We were all faced with daunting budget and time constraints, but the animators probably had the toughest road.

Since the animation needed to be done for roughly half of what a typical overseas production would command, the idea of traditional animation was impossible from the beginning.

From my perspective, I'm sure that time for a more sophisticated picture edit and a few more reshoots would have gone a long way to make this production shine.

I, too, regret the missed opportunity. Unfortunately, that is the business we are in right now.

John Halfpenny

michael valiquette said...

Hey John,
Thanks for chiming in. I'm very familiar with the realities of the industry, the sad realities. I'm glad you've spoken up though. I'm certain that this was the best work that could be produced given the circumstances. Usually, those circumstances are predominantly budget and schedule. Occassionally it is a dearth of qualified talent. Chuck Gammage is an excellent shop and produces quality animation, so I suppose it should be safe to say that the former is likely the case here. This is a cool project, and like I said, what I've seen of it held my interest. The promotional still that the site provided (the crowd scene) is a graphically well composed, but it's still a bad drawing. Obviously there was artistry at work here, but the finished product, while entertaining, is like you pointed out, a missed opportunity. I'm deeply sympathetic. It's so frustrating to have talent at your disposal, to be working on a cool concept, and to be cut off at the knees by factors beyond your control. Too common a story.

Mike Geiger said...

ya, i gonna have to mention that john did an awesome job at giving this a unique feel.

if you watch the documentary in its entirety, i think you will quickly realize that it all works really well.

the drawing and animation style are indeed different, which i think can lead people to claim "wrong" off the top, but if watched in context, it gives it all a distinct feeling that melds really well together with the extraordinary story.

i feel like this has got inaccurately caught in the "different is wrong because its different" category.

just my opinion.

mike geiger

Tammy said...

It was refreshing and brave to see this style of design used in the Dark Years' animation. There seems to be too much "safe" animation on TV. Sure, with more time and money it could have been more polished, but it's tough to get decent budgets in Canada, even with the tax credit incentives available. That said, I don't feel this series was a missed opportunity. I think people acknowledged the unique style — after all, John won the award for Best Television Animation for Adults at OIAF.

Tiny Orchestra said...

Hi Tammy and Mike. Thanks for the kind words.

Lisa said...

Hi Michael,

I'm one of the animators fortunate enough to have worked on this project and although I can understand how commercially you felt that it was unsuccessful, I'm really surprised at the lack of appreciation you have for the fact that John and Chuck were trying to create something unique and artistic.

John gave us a huge amount of freedom to animate our scenes our own way, which explains why the animation styles varied from sequence to sequence. We were made to feel valued as individual artists, a rare circumstance in this industry.

I grew as an artist a tremendous amount during that production. Every animation artist should be so lucky to have a project like The Dark Years under their belts.
Sorry you didn't enjoy the finished product.

Lisa Whittick


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