by Jane Wright
Jane (Smethurst) Wright did traditional, hand drawn special effects back in the 1990's on features like Prince of Egypt and The Thief and the Cobbler. She wrote to FLIP with a story of obsolescence that any old school animator can relate to, and maybe get a chill from....
Last weekend I made my way to Leicester Square for the sole purpose of taking a photograph of London’s much-loved Charlie Chaplin statue. Not being a tourist I hadn’t been there for ages; even so, looking around I wondered if I’d entered a time warp and stumbled onto the set of It's a Wonderful Life and into Pottersville by mistake. I was dismayed at the soulless place I now found myself in. Worse still, Charlie had gone.
The following day I bumped into two local dog walkers returning from the funeral of one of their friends who had lived a little way up the street from me. His name was Tony Chaplin. I was stunned, as we usually are on hearing of the passing of someone we know, even more so because of the timing of my unsuccessful rendezvous with his namesake only the day before.
I hadn’t known Tony Chaplin well, but he’d always been friendly and neighborly, so I was also saddened to hear that he had wanted to die, on account of his illness. That evening I read at random an article about the last weeks of the late Ken Harris, master animator on The Thief and the Cobbler. It said many times he said that he “wished to live – just to see the impact of this picture on the public”. I sat and pondered these words.
Tony Chaplin's illness doesn’t need naming; it could just have easily been This or That which eventually claimed his life. What he really died of seemed to be more a loss of livelihood, of his craft being no longer valued. You see, Tony had once been a carpenter – apparently a very good one. Perhaps the influx of cheap imports, or an advance in technology, or a preference for plastic and chrome, or some other market force squeezed him out of business, but when his traditional skills became surplus to requirement he eventually put away his woodworking tools and became an odd job man, doing a bit of gardening here and there before his illness prevented even that.
I thought back to the only occasion I’d ever had to employ a carpenter, twenty years ago when I needed an animation desk for home use. Rather than buy one off-the-shelf from an art shop, I instead drew up a plan and employed a local carpenter who did an excellent job at a very good price. I only needed the one desk so this small job certainly didn’t make him wealthy, yet the care and attention with which he made my only piece of custom-made furniture made me feel he was a kindred spirit whose own art wasn’t a world apart from ours. He said he’d enjoyed the challenge, as he’d never seen an animation desk before.
Twenty years on I wonder if that carpenter is still in business today or if he, too, has put away his tools as so many traditionally skilled craftspeople have done in our vastly-superior, technologically-advanced world. “Pressure is always exerted downwards” someone recently bemoaned to me in resignation over the forces that appear to control our lives. I nodded in half agreement, looking out the window to see the havoc the wild flowers were slowly inflicting on a concrete garden as they forced tiny cracks in the paving.
As for the whereabouts of our Charlie Chaplin statue, perhaps he’d had enough of these Modern Times and upped and left of his own accord taking his plinth with him. After all, if toys and puppets come alive when humans aren’t around, surely the same laws apply to statues.
I don’t know if there’s a blog dedicated to the skills of self-employed carpenters, but there’s a rather nice one dedicated to the life and times of Charlie Chaplin, that his spirit may live on. And your lovely FLIP blog honours the artistry of the wonderful world of traditional animation, so I thought a mention of a carpenter named Tony Chaplin might find a place here. Perhaps he too once made an animation desk for a traditional 2d animation artist. Or maybe he even made a small, wooden puppet with a variable-sized nose.
Rest in peace, Tony.
- Poppy’s Mom
Read ore on public art controversy in FLIP post "Public Art - Who Needs it?"