Len Lye (1933)

Experimental animation.

Despite the interest generated by his first film, Tusalava (1929), the early 1930s were a difficult time for artist and animator Len Lye. A series of projects were abandoned through lack of funding, and he supported himself by designing book jackets. By 1934 he was doing relatively menial work in the Wembley studios of Associated Sound Film Industries, while trying to convince investors to back his latest project with his long-time friend and collaborator, Jack Ellitt, provisionally titled Quicksilver. Lye had already produced dozens of set and costume designs for this ambitious science-fiction musical comedy but, although an American producer eventually expressed interest, the film that emerged bore little relation to the original concept, and neither Lye nor Ellitt benefited financially.

In the meantime,¬†Lye¬†turned his attention to puppet animation. He scraped together enough funding and borrowed equipment to produce a three-minute short featuring his self-made monkey, singing and dancing to ‘Peanut Vendor’, a 1931 jazz hit for¬†Red Nichols. The two foot high monkey had bolted, moveable joints and some 50 interchangeable mouths to convey the singing. To get the movements right,¬†Lye¬†filmed his new wife, Jane, a prize-winning rumba dancer.¬†Ellitt¬†assisted in synchronizing the animation with the music.

Lye hoped to use the film to interest advertisers, but again had no success. However, on the strength of the film the head of the newly established Shell Film Unit, Jack Beddington, was later persuaded by Lye’s friend Humphrey Jennings to commission Lye to make a short animated advertising film, The Birth of the Robot (1935).

Jim Henson (1961)

Drums West is a cut-paper animated film produced by¬†Jim Henson. The film was created in Henson’s home studio in Bethesda,¬†MD¬†around 1961. It is one of several¬†experimental shorts¬†inspired by the music of jazz musician¬†Chico Hamilton.

The film was recently rediscovered by the¬†Henson Archives¬†and released in¬†2013¬†on the¬†Henson Company’s¬†YouTube¬†channel. At the end, in footage probably shot by¬†Jerry Juhl, Henson demonstrates his working method.

Judging by behind-the-scenes footage of a beardless¬†Jim Henson¬†animating “Drums West,‚ÄĚ a 1961 homage to jazz drummer¬†Chico Hamilton, one good sneeze and the party would‚Äôve been over.

Animation is always a painstaking proposition, but the hundreds of tiny paper scraps Henson was contending with in an extremely cramped working space seem downright oppressive compared to the expansive visuals to which they gave rise.

Ralph Bakshi (1989)

THIS Ain’t BeBop¬†is Ralph Bakshi’s¬†first live-action short,¬†starring Harvey Keitel and featuring Ron Thompson (Tony & Pete of American Pop) as the beatnik poet and Rick Singer (Benny of American Pop) as Jackson Pollock.

Mark Bakshi produced the film; his first professional collaboration with his father. Ralph Bakshi wrote a poem influenced by Jack Kerouac, jazz, the Beat Generation and Brooklyn that served as the narration, which was spoken by Harvey Keitel.

After a car crash, Bakshi completed the post-production in stitches and casts. Bakshi said of the work, “It’s the most proud I’ve been of a picture since Coonskin¬†‚ÄĒ the last real thing I did with total integrity.”