The Flying Animator
in the Gazette written by Bill Brownstein.
The Flying Animator set to soar on screen
BILL BROWNSTEIN, MONTREAL GAZETTE
More from Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette
Published on: November 5, 2015 | Last Updated: November 5, 2015 2:59 PM EST
Director Laurie Gordon with animator Gerald Potterton: “From my first phone conversation with him,” she says, “he just made such an impression, talking more about his agricultural interests than animation.”
Director Laurie Gordon with animator Gerald Potterton: “From my first phone conversation with him,” she says, “he just made such an impression, talking more about his agricultural interests than animation.” DAVE SIDAWAY / MONTREAL GAZETTE
Some might assume that The Flying Animator derives its title from the animator’s work on such cult classics as Heavy Metal and Yellow Submarine and their obvious association with the drug culture of that era. Not exactly.
The “flying” is a reference to animator Gerald Potterton’s fascination with airplanes, from models to jumbo jets. Potterton is also in the midst of making the animated short High Flight, based on the poem of deceased Second World War pilot John Magee Jr. The kicker is that Potterton has a fear of flying.
Montreal filmmaker Laurie Gordon has begun production on this documentary, chronicling the life of the unassuming icon. She had considered The Man Who Drew Too Much as a title, but opted instead for The Flying Animator, as it also serves as a reference to Potterton’s incredible trajectory.
From working-class roots in south London, Potterton, now 84, crossed the pond to work with National Film Board of Canada animation pioneer Norman McLaren in the mid-1950s before setting out on his own path in the genre. In addition to an array of acclaimed shorts, Potterton directed Buster Keaton in his final silent short film, directed the cult classic Heavy Metal and did the animation for Yellow Submarine, the 1968 film inspired by the music of the Beatles.
The Railrodder by Gerald Potterton, National Film Board of Canada
His films have earned him two Oscar nominations. But what likely pleases Potterton even more is that South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker paid him the ultimate tribute by dedicating an entire episode to Heavy Metal.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Potterton remains low-key. To his neighbours in the Eastern Townships community of West Brome, he is known as a jovial garlic farmer and builder of model airplanes. Fact is, however, that Potterton is something akin to a Forrest Gump in the sense that he has been smack in the middle of many animation milestones in the last century.
Potterton was prodded by Gordon to give his blessing to the making of this doc.
Of course, Gordon has some history with visionary animators. She took up the cause of Ryan Larkin, the late/legendary NFB animator who had slid into homelessness and helped him complete his final film, Spare Change, an animated account of his life on the street. Gordon followed that by developing and producing Ryan’s Renaissance, a heart-wrenching yet upbeat documentary look at Larkin’s final years.
“It was while working on the Ryan Larkin documentary that I had been told he had worked on Heavy Metal — which may have been his last job in film. So that brought me to Gerald Potterton,” Gordon recalls.
“From my first phone conversation with him, he just made such an impression, talking more about his agricultural interests than animation. He was so charming and understated. I was also struck by his energy and his imagination. He talks in colours. I had never met him in the flesh, yet I was totally transported into his world.”
Gordon felt compelled to explore Potterton further. They became fast friends and he, in turn, let down his guard and consented to go along with the documentary.
“It’s strange because I have always sought to avoid the limelight and to escape by living outside big cities as I do now,” says Potterton, in town to touch base with Gordon. “And whenever I get into the city, I can’t wait to get out and hide back home in the country.”
It was while seeking a location for a military live-action film 40 years ago that he came upon a farm for rent in West Brome. He planned to transform it into a Belgian-styled rural home, circa 1940s. He had a script and his buddy, the late British actor Donald Pleasance, was set to play the lead. He was even able to procure a tank from the army.
“Then the money ran out for the film, and this real estate agent encouraged me to buy the farm, even though I was hardly in any position to do so. The price was ridiculously low — basically 218 acres for the price of a second-hand car.”
And so Gerald Potterton, garlic farmer, came into being. And his Luddite friends need no GPS tracking systems to find his homestead; a good nose will do.
Gerald Potterton was as surprised as his friends to find himself directing Ivan Reitman’s 1981 adult sci-fi fantasy Heavy Metal.
Gerald Potterton was as surprised as his friends to find himself directing Ivan Reitman’s 1981 adult sci-fi fantasy Heavy Metal. COLUMBIA PICTURES
Potterton is nothing if not genteel, and so his closest acquaintances were taken aback when he was engaged to direct Heavy Metal — which is no one’s notion of genteel.
“I had hardly heard of this project when I got the call from (producer) Ivan Reitman. I was fiddling around at the time (the late ’70s) — God knows what I was doing. Probably not much.
“Ivan told me he wanted to make this film, an adult sci-fi fantasy based on the magazine of the same name he was publishing. I just listened and Ivan then said: ‘Well, you don’t seem very interested.’ I was trying to be polite and said I liked the drawings in the magazine. So we met at the Ritz-Carlton bar and I went along. Then this excitement was generated everywhere — here, in Los Angeles, in London. And we were just swept away by it all.”
Heavy Metal went on to become not only a box office smash but was also deemed one of the great rock ‘n roll films of all time. Which is something of an irony for a man who definitely prefers the music of Mahler to Metallica.
“It’s funny, because I didn’t know heavy metal music from my ass to a hole in the ground,” Potterton cracks. “But the nice part was that I got to return to my roots in London in a studio loft with the famous American composer/conductor Elmer Bernstein and the entire 98-member Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who were doing the film’s soundscore.”
It was in the same part of London in a small theatre, decades earlier, when the young Potterton first caught a couple of NFB shorts. “I remember seeing these NFB films by Colin Low and Bob Verrall in the London fog and I remember saying to myself that Canada seemed so wonderful and that I wanted to work with those guys. And so I did.”
What he doesn’t mention is that two of his NFB shorts, Christmas Cracker and My Financial Career, received Oscar nominations, among other accolades.
“Really, I was just staggering along until I came to the NFB,” Potterton says. “Wolf Koenig, Norman McLaren, Bob Verrall, Colin Low — these were my mentors. I was really lucky to be working with them, because I didn’t know what I was doing half the time.”
Gordon is taken aback by those comments. She notes that Potterton forever seeks to downplay his accomplishments.
“His work has been seen by millions and has influenced so many of the household names working in animation today, yet he has almost no ego,” says Gordon, also the founder of last April’s inaugural edition of Le Miaff: Montreal International Animation Film Festival.
“I had no clue about all his past when I first met him and what I have since learned about his accomplishments comes mostly from my research and the praise of so many others. He’s so humble, but there is much to be learned from his life. Now I feel the need to let people into Gerry World.”