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ABOVE: Richard Condie, The Apprentice, National Film Board animated short (10 min), animation cel, 1981. Collection of Archives & Special Collections, University of Manitoba Libraries, Winnipeg.
Richard Condie by Shelley Sweeney
Born in Vancouver in 1942, Richard Condie moved to Winnipeg with his family at a young age. He attended Kelvin high school before studying general sciences at the University of Manitoba. Midway through his university degree he switched to sociology and finished with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 1967. Upon completing his degree Condie moved to Vancouver where he worked as a sociologist for a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia. He returned to Winnipeg to work for the government but after a run in with some dogs during a visit to a woman in the Interlake, Condie decided to get out of social work. With the encouragement of artists Frank Mikuska and Bruce Head who were both working as graphic designers at the CBC at the time, Condie applied for a grant from the Canada Council in 1971. He was successful and used the funds plus another grant from the Council to produce his first animated short film Oh Sure in 1977. This film was later purchased by the National Film Board, which had opened its Prairie office in Winnipeg in 1974. Oh Sure's success affirmed Condie's shift to a career in the arts. The film already shows his strong and flowing lines and captures the promise of future films.
Condie's next film, John Law and the Mississippi Bubble in 1978 was Condie's breakthrough and solidified the National Film Board's interest in him. It was his third short film, Getting Started, however, that achieved a sort of cult status and rocketed Condie into international fame. The film can be considered at least on the surface as an exploration of procrastination. Pig Bird (1981) was a film produced for Customs Canada warning of the dangers of importing the wrong stuff. In 1985, Condie worked on what some consider his greatest masterpiece, The Big Snit. In this film, a couple squabbles over Scrabble while a nuclear war breaks out. For Heartland, a commission to celebrate the opening of the IMAX theater in Winnipeg in 1987, Condie joined a number of other Manitoba directors to contribute a piece that would describe the province. Unlike his fellow directors, however, Condie was not content to simply laud his adopted homeland, but drew attention to the mighty mosquitoe, for example.
Over his career, Condie has worked as animator, director, producer, voice actor, writer, composer and sound effects editor. Although he is most famous for his films, he gained invaluable experience as a a director and writer for the children's television show Sesame Street; from 1974 to 1975, and more recently wrote a pilot and series called the Ark for Nelvana. He also wrote music for eight different films and TV shows and sang in Cordell Barker's The Cat Came Back (1988) for which he was also the producer, the voice of the main character and a strong influence. Condie's last project was to create a Flash animation for the Web for the National Film Board, called Etudes and Impromptus. Today, Condie continues to experiment with music, digital photography and computer paint programs.
The contents of Condie's films vary greatly, but usually can be read at a number of different levels. They employ the simple experiences of daily life as vehicles to deliver a deeper meaning with a leavening of absurdist humor. In Getting Started, the film explores attention, using procrastination as the vehicle. Who has not experienced how one's mind can jump around from one thought to another and who has not experienced the many ways one can find to postpone doing something that (reluctantly) needs to be done? Piano players in particular identify with this film. The Big Snit revolves around squabbling over a game of Scrabble, but the film is all about the dynamics between men and women in a relationship. And yet at the very basic level, no one can have played Scrabble without experiencing a tile rack filled with vowels from time to time! All of these everyday experiences are balanced by a more serious consideration. Condie has said that he could not make these films if they did not have something more beyond humour. He has stated: if I didn't think [The Big Snit] was so important I wouldn't have been able to spend so much time on it. Interestingly, Condie has said that after the premiere a lot of people he knew told him that they thought The Big Snit was based on them, which speaks to the universality of the experiences in the film.
In The Apprentice/L'Apprenti (1991), for example, an apprentice ignores the lessons of a wiser Master but is saved from certain death by a tree which he constantly bangs into. The story can be interpreted to be a gentle lesson in the wisdom of learning from others. At one point in the film, however, a wandering knight runs across a contented dragon snoozing in a cave. The ground around the cave is littered with screaming heads, in particular one with a princess's tiara! One's expectation gets turned on its literal head. It is the contrast between what one expects to see based on common knowledge of fair maidens and dragon-killing knights and what one realizes after a few seconds that provides the humor.
Slapstick plays a strong role in Condie's films as well. The character in Getting Started lies under the piano bench, imitates Bogart after he has screwed a soda can on his nose, chucks an apple into the air repeatedly to try and get it into his mouth. The Snit male saws the table while his wife shakes her eyes and vacuums the bathtub. The Apprentice repeatedly runs smack into a tree and falls flat on his back.
Richard Condie has always strived to stretch himself in his work. In Heartland (1987), Condie introduced the split screen, where multiple action takes place side-by-side. He employed a 3-D animation program to produce La Salla (1996), a film that manages to be both comic and sinister at the same time. Etudes and Impromptus features a choose-your-own-sound accompaniment.
Sound in Condie's Films
Richard Condie has had a dual career in sound. He wrote and performed music for everything from Sesame Street to Man Alive on TV, using a variety of instruments. He performed with three other artists the memorable signature tune for the animated short The Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker and was the voice of the main character in that film. Music plays a central theme in La Salla, or The Room. Fashioned after an opera (Condie has admitted to liking only La Boheme and Tosca), the action is accompanied by operatic singing and language in grammatical Italian with subtitles in English.
Beyond music, language plays a very important role in Condie's films. It is his memorable use of language that accounts in part for the enthusiasm his fans show for his work. Such lines as stop sawing the table! and you're always shaking your eyes - shaking them here and shaking them there grab the audience's attention in The Big Snit for example. In La Salla, the film referred to by art critic Robert Enright as Condie's opera bovina, the character sings Moments ago, I had everything. Now there is a cow in my nose. Who could forget a line like that? Condie sends up all opera with lines such as I love to push my fish, and soar with infinite joy, as he launches his windup plane. The NFB web site Etudes and Impromptus features From the Grave, which sports headstones with such sayings as You Did So and Back Soon. A couple bickers. The woman leaves, goes to hell and the gravestone says she met the devil and they did fall in love and she was born again as a politician. The voices were provided by the program that came with Condie's Apple Computer, giving a deliciously weird effect to the words.
Oftentimes, characters do not actually speak in words but convey their emotions through garbled noises, something that Richard Condie is very fond of. The Apprentice/L'Apprenti relies mainly on this communication tool. Etudes, however, takes Condie's fascination with sound to its greatest heights with the split screen piece: In the Same House. For this piece you can watch the action accompanied by different sounds created by composer Patrick Godfrey and Condie himself. A la Maniere de Godfrey provides a haunting musical backdrop reminiscent of Erik Satie. Condie has confirmed that he asked for something in this vein. Sonata for Hounds provides an accompaniment of barking dogs. There are 56 variations in all that one can choose from.
Noises also provide inanimate characters with personality. The mouse in Getting Started, the cat with the strangely human voice in The Big Snit and the flowers laughing with a slightly hysterical tone in The Apprentice/L'Apprenti all enrich the films.
Sounds in the background are often used to establish mood and setting. Getting Started depends heavily on sounds, as there is almost no dialogue; The Apprentice/L'Apprenti also employs sound heavily. In The Big Snit, one hears in the beginning of the film the gentle bark of a dog and the calming noises of a Sunday afternoon in the suburbs. Contrast this with the noises heard coming through the living room window of the Snit family after nuclear war has begun. The juxtaposition of the two makes the impact of what's going on so much greater. Condie has admitted to taking his quest for authentic sounds to great heights. Accompanied by a sound technician with a mike, Condie sawed the back of a couch in the NFB common room in Winnipeg so that he could record the noise of a saw going through both cloth and wood, so critical for his saw-wielding character in The Big Snit.
There are certain images which tend to arise in Richard Condie's work. His characters sport prominent teeth and their noses seem to be a focal point. A picture on the wall in La Salla features the prominent teeth of the Snit character. Couples, bickering or otherwise, also are a theme, and people in Condie's films tend to scream with great frequency. Birds taking off into the sky are popular and were in fact picked up by Cordell Barker for his animated short The Cat Came Back. Severed heads show up in The Apprentice/L'Apprenti and Etudes and Impromptus. Bugs, which sometimes get eaten and sometimes eat other things, are not uncommon. The cuckoo clock shows up in Getting Started, Pig Bird, and La Salla. The game of Tic-Tac-Toe appears in both The Apprentice/L'Apprenti and La Salla.
Several authors have pointed out that the fool is often featured in Condie's films. The fool of course is the perfect tool to show life's absurdities. Historically, the fool or jester provided entertainment but also told the truth or generalizations about human conduct or experience through allegory. The use of symbols is particularly apparent in Condie's last film La Salla. All of this is to say that Richard Condie has favourite images that he tends to employ in his work. They give his work a signature that makes it recognizable and strangely familiar.
Richard Condie won 6 international awards for Getting Started in 1979. The film scooped awards at Zagreb, Tampere (Finland), Krakow, and took a "Bijou" at the Canadian Short Film and Television Awards. Pig Bird, released in1981also won five international awards, receiving recognition at Zagreb for best educational film. The Big Snit is number 25 in a list of the top 50 animations of all time, as well as being both a Genie and an Oscar nominee. It won 16 prizes in total including: The International Film Critics' Prize at the 15th Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Hiroshima prize, Japan 1985, Best short Film Award at the Montreal World Film Festival, A Silver Plaque at the 21st Chicago International Film Festival and the Best Animation Film at the XVI Tampere International Short Film Festival. Following the huge success of The Big Snit, Condie released The Apprentice/L'Apprenti in 1991. The film won awards in Chicago in 1992 and Winnipeg in 1993. La Salla, Condie's last animation, won awards in Vancouver (1996) and Winnipeg (1996). It also garnered an Oscar nomination as well as seven other nominations. In total, Condie has been nominated for or won over 40 international and Canadian awards for his films.
Throughout his film career, Condie has worked with a very small number of individuals, including his sister, Sharon Condie, producers Michael Scott and Chet Yetman, musician Patrick Godfrey and singer Jay Brazeau, among others. As Sharon Condie herself has noted, a very small group created these films, films that would ordinarily have involved dozens of people. Interestingly, when it came time to produce the pilot for the television series Condie created entitled The Ark, the production company Nelvana farmed out the animation to Korea where many animators could work on the production.
1977 Oh Sure
1978 John Law and the Mississippi Bubble
1979 Getting Started
1985 The Big Snit
1987 Heartland (IMAX)
1991 The Apprentice/L'Apprenti
1996 La Salla
1974-1975 Sesame Street (director; writer; TV)
1978 A House on the Prairie (music)
1979 Day Dream (music)
1978 The Top Few Inches(music)
1980 Darts in the Dark: An Introduction to W.O. Mitchell (music)
1980 W.O. Mitchell: Novelist in Hiding (music)
1980 Henry Kelsey (music)
1982 Everyone's Business (music)
1988 Another Government Movie (director)
1988 The Cat Came Back (producer; sound)
1989 Ocean of Wisdom from CBC's Man Alive (music; TV)
1992 Another Government Movie (director)
2002 The Ark series (director; animator; TV)
2003-4 Etudes and Impromptus (animator)
Sharon Condie, the sister of Richard Condie, has played a significant role in Manitoba animation. Having studied Interior Design at the University of Manitoba, Sharon moved to Montreal where she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Concordia University in 1973 and has since obtained a degree in Women's Studies from the University of Winnipeg. Although Richard's first film Oh Sure had already caught the eye of the National Film Board, it was Sharon's script for John Law and the Mississippi Bubble that allowed Richard to make a breakthrough in his career. Her backgrounds for two of Richard's most popular films, Getting Started and The Big Snit, make a perfect complement to Richard's animation. In The Big Snit, Sharon has stated that she worked to make the background a third character, adding quirky details such as a giant tire in the kitchen, backwards heads in the family portraits on the walls of the home and saws sticking out of walls and furniture. Working together on these films, no doubt their relationship was a collaborative one and it would be difficult to isolate their effect and influence on each other. But one can appreciate the painterly quality of Sharon's style as well as the humor in her backgrounds.
Both Richard and Sharon Condie donated their work to the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections in 2005, with cels from The Big Snit subsequently purchased by the University of Manitoba Libraries for the Archives in 2006. Richard's two collections contain award notifications, film industry and newspaper reviews, exhibition programs, animation cels, backgrounds, layouts, and dope sheets, as well as scans of photographs, publication and periodical information pertaining to his career in animation. Sharon's collection contains experimental drawings and backgrounds for Getting Started and The Big Snit and film reels for Snit and John Law and the Mississippi Bubble. These collections are valuable for study of Richard's techniques and style, the processes Sharon used to create her backgrounds and the practice of animation of the 1970s to 1990s. All collections are available for public viewing and research use.
The Animation Process
In this exhibition we see part of the process of animation that was used to produce animated short films in the 1970s and 80s in particular. Without entering into the production side of animation, the animator would produce a storyboard, sketching out in a visual way the scenes that will appear in the film. This is when they can work out their ideas and get feedback if necessary from other collaborators and project sponsors. Then voice actors' dialogue and sound effects are recorded so that the animator can use the sounds as a guide. The process of working out the backgrounds for each of the scenes is conducted. One background can be used for many scenes depending on the action. Against these backgrounds animators will then use punched paper (white paper with two slotted and one round hole at the bottom) on an animation disk pegbar to keep the pages in place. Over a light table, the animator is able to draw consecutive images. Richard Condie has loaned his original table for this exhibit. Richard uses a technique often employed in Russian films called "bubbling." This is where the animator traces over these same object/figure with slightly different lines causing the image to have a shivery quality.
Once the backgrounds and drawings have been completed, the animator turns these over to inkers to hand ink the images on the back of clear acetate sheets known as cels. The animator also creates a colour field guide with instructions as to the colours to be used for each scene. In the examples we have in this exhibition note the names of some of the colours: "heaven flesh," and "old throats." Painters will use these notes to paint the backs of the cels (this helps eliminate brush-strokes). The finished cels are known as original production cels. Then the animator creates a "dope sheet." This long sheet of paper contains instructions for the cameraman. At the top of the page it will say the shot or scene number, it will describe what the characters are doing under the "action" column and for every frame it will state which background is to be used, which cels, and how long each shot should be held. Once the cels have been filmed, the dialogue and sound effects can be added. This is just a rough approximation of the many steps and activities employed to produce an animated film. It is a long laborious process, but it is often a labour of love.
Head, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections