Animaze animation festival features the man behind iconic Heavy Metal

Critics have described the five-decade career of Gerald Potterton — animator, director, producer, writer, illustrator and painter—as “colourful” and “eclectic.” While one word can’t capture the essence of his work, his irreverent, ironic sense of humour is ever present.

“You’ve got to laugh, the world is too serious,” he says.

Known for the sci-fi cult film Heavy Metal (1981) and Yellow Submarine (1968), Potterton could have fun even with films bearing dreary titles such as Fish Spoilage Control (1956). In this educational short, Potterton’s second produced at the National Film Board, invading battalions of little red demons demonstrate the dangers of mishandling fish — without putting anyone to sleep.

Now 84, working in Cowansville, Potterton recalled leaving his native England, where he had worked on Animal Farm (1954), the first animated feature made there. “We saw wonderful films like Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952) and The Romance of Transportation (1952), still as good as the day it was made, about travelling across Canada 100 years ago. It all seemed so fresh and clean. I’ve always had a thing about the environment, clean air, fossil fuels and all that stuff.”

Hired by the National Film Board in 1954, Potterton completed My Financial Career (1962), based on a text by Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, and Christmas Cracker (1963), both animated shorts earning him Academy Award nominations. The Selfish Giant (1971) produced through Potterton Productions was also nominated for an Oscar. His animated and live action films number over 40, including notable collaborations with Buster Keaton in Keaton’s 87th film The Railrodder (1965) and playwright Harold Pinter in Pinter’s People (1969).

Potterton admires Walt Disney’s Pinocchio as “one of the greatest animated films”. But he’s not a fan of full animation, because “half the time, it’s not very funny.” He aims to get to the point with the least amount of lines, to put a message across with humour. “It’s the difference between a Picasso sketch and John Constable landscape. It’s beautiful, but Picasso went to the essence and, in his simplicity, influenced all those who came after.”

Among Potterton’s current projects, one animated short has a very personal meaning for him. “Always in the wings” is High Flight, inspired by a 1941 poem of the same name written by 19-year old Royal Canadian Air Force pilot John Magee. The film pays homage to the idealistic young men who lost their lives during the pivotal Battle of Britain in WWll.

Gerald Potterton’s film Heavy Metal will be screened at Animaze, the Montreal International Animation Film Festival, April 16-19. The festival celebrates all forms of animation from stop-motion to computer-generated images.

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