Len Lye's Rainbow Dance Len Lye's Rainbow Dance

Len Lye’s Post Office Films

Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance

Ok, so imagine you’re the post office and you need to make three animated shorts to illustrate the following concepts: new parcel rates, post office savings accounts,and the value of posting your letters early. Sounds like a barren creative landscape. However, when given the opportunity, a talented commercial artist can take even the driest subject matter and interpret it in innovative and imaginative ways. Take a gander at these three shorts from the 1930s—A Colour Box, Rainbow Dance, and Trade Tattoo— directed by Len Lye, which illustrate the themes mentioned above. These films shatter every preconception about what an informational piece of commerical animation should look like while succeeding brilliantly in getting their points across.They were created for the UK’s state-sponsored GPO Film Unit, which was headed by the visionary filmmaker/producer John Grierson, who later was instrumental in establishing the National Film Board of Canada.

It boggles the mind that anything like this could have ever been made, though that probably says more about the sorry state of contemporary creativity than anything else. Why must visual experimentation in commercial animation today be the exception and not the norm? I’m not suggesting that every commercial has to be an avant-garde trip like Lye’s, but it also need not be the aesthetically lethargic and redundant fare that one sees over and over nowadays. If there’s a lesson to learn from Lye’s inspiring treatment of such mundane material, perhaps it’s that there’s no such thing as weak material, only weak interpretation of material.

A Colour Box (1935)

Rainbow Dance (1936)

Trade Tattoo (1937)

  • I’m not really sure how the first film conveys anything but abstract colors and shapes until about 2 minutes later, which is far too long to have you sitting there trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be, other than an arty film. These are great little films for sure, one of a kind, but the commercial aspect seems to have been thrown in afterwards, right at the end just so his gets his money. If commercials like this were aired today, they simply wouldn’t do well at all, sadly; most people would just walk away from this before it gets to the point.

    Also, it’s not that bad today, seesh. Animation in commercials is far more creative than the animation in TV series’ or feature films. Mind you, after vising America and seeing what you guys put up with on TV, I can’t blame you for complaining. Our commercials in the UK are better…just.

  • Graham Ross

    Man. It’s hard to believe those were made in the thirties. They’re pretty impressive.

  • quite amazing to see those animated piece of art from 1937!

    specially the tattoo dance… so fresh, so contemporary, like watching Pop Art ages before the Factory doodles.

  • See? This is what happens to your brain when you attempt to animate scary monkeys singing about peanuts.

  • LNG

    You can bet Len Lye never had to answer to a cadre of creative executives with zero understanding of art.

  • Joe

    I haven’t seen these since my college days, when they really astonished me with their vibrancy and modern feel. Its been a long time since college, but I seem to recall hearing that some of the effects for Colour Box were achieved by Lye painting directly onto the film. Oddly enough I was thinking of Colour Box just last night when an ad came on TV with aniamted, flowing lines dancing to music in an abstract pattern before finally at the end settling down into outlines of an Audi – the minute I was it I knew this modern animator was tipping his hat to old Len.

    I think you are partially right about some modern animated adverts, but there are some gems which sneak through now and again even today. The series from Lloyds TSB bank “for the journey” is one of my favourites right now, especially the first one in the series which looks as if it is strongly influenced by Belleville Rendezvous:
    Doesn’t make me want to use that bank, but lovely animation.

  • Roger Horrocks

    Len Lye kept on making experimental films all his life, till he died in 1980 (at the age of 78). His later work deserves to be much better known. Incidentally, there’s an interesting website about him at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand (Lye was a New Zealander and his collection of kinetic sculpture, paintings and other work is stored there today): http://www.govettbrewster.com/LenLye/
    Also, back in 2001 I wrote a biography of Lye. Working as his assistant (in the last year of his life) helped me to realise what an extraordinary creative force Len was, as a film-maker, kinetic sculptor, and thinker.

  • The advanced effects, visual motifs and music that Lye used on his short film can be seen as a precursor to today’s music videos and as the first experiment towards a new kind of cinematic reality.

  • Rose Astbury

    I would love to know who the animator is for the Lloyds TSB advert?