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)