Clive Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear

Clive Smith's departure from Nelvana, the animation production giant that he was instrumental in founding 30 years ago, has hardly surprised his friends in the music, television and animation industries. Many voices echoed a comment succinctly delivered by actor Dave Thomas: 'If you'd told me five years ago that Clive had left the company, I wouldn't have been shocked.'

Clive Smith’s departure from Nelvana, the animation production giant that he was instrumental in founding 30 years ago, has hardly surprised his friends in the music, television and animation industries. Many voices echoed a comment succinctly delivered by actor Dave Thomas: ‘If you’d told me five years ago that Clive had left the company, I wouldn’t have been shocked.’

Most knew that the colorful British-born animator had become restless in Nelvana’s increasingly corporate world, particularly since the company became a publicly traded commodity in the mid-’90s. The takeover by Corus Entertainment of the animation studio last September clearly wrote the finis to one of Canadian media’s most successful working partnerships, that of Mr. Smith, Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert.

While Nelvana’s trademark bear is now bereft of its original animating spirit, Clive Smith has no intention of turning his back on the film scene. The blond-haired artist, still sporting his ’60s-style mutton-chop sideburns and amiable grin, has already started working on several projects. Though he’s contractually obligated not to compete with Nelvana for two years, Smith can work on adult-oriented, live-action films. Even animation is allowed, provided it isn’t set up for Care Bears, Rupert the Bear or Little Bear viewership.

On a recent visit to Smith’s eccentric home, which he shares with his life partner, the performance artist Melleny Melody and their son Zach, the director of Rock & Rule and Pippi Longstocking was remarkably sanguine about the sudden change in his life’s work. Sitting back in his living room, with its 40-foot vaulted ceiling, the sound of a tank harboring his pet oriental dog fish near by, Smith shyly confesses, ‘I’m so relieved that I almost feel guilty.’

One can see why. Smith has constructed an environment that Edward Gorey or Mervyn Peake would have been proud to live in. Perched at the peak of a hill, his home is remarkable on first glance due to the entrance that is topped by a tall roof in the shape of a wizard’s peaked hat. Climbing a narrow, twisted staircase worthy of Smith’s former colleague Tim Burton – the two set the style for Nelvana’s adaptation of Beetlejuice – there are rooms designed for the working and personal needs of a family of artists. Smith’s office is placed at the top, a crow’s nest where he can create the parodies and darker, more psychological projects that interest him now that he’s left Nelvana.

It’s quite a journey back from Smith’s magical present-day home to the tiny flat in North London where he spent his youth as the son of a milkman and a lottery-playing mother. Always imaginative, Smith’s life was transformed in his second year at the Ealing School of Art when a Bauhaus-influenced teacher, Roy Ascott, overturned the school’s teaching methods. ‘He brought us down to the basics,’ recalls Smith. ‘Roy told us to make a dot. Just a dot. So I made one, around three feet wide and 50 yards long, that I rolled down a school corridor.’

The stale air of conformity that blanketed Britain after the Second World War was swept aside by art school students and other rebels who played rock and roll music and took theatre and politics to the streets. Smith began to play piano with the precursors to the cabaret pop group the Bonzo Dog Band. His aesthetic was formed during this period.

Vaudeville and music hall performances, with their florid patriotism, maudlin sentiments and emotional vocal deliveries were lovingly parodied by his generation. Victorian garb and detailed pencil doodlings charmed people once again. Absurd, black comic situations became grist for the mill. Terry Gilliam’s approach to Monty Python’s animation captured the graphic look of a generation of young Brits who influenced the world through their insouciance and joyful acts of rebellion.

By the time Smith left for Toronto in 1967 to accept a job at Al Guest’s animation studio, his irreverent personality was established. Always ready to perform, he never held back from being silly, if the occasion warranted it. One can see that side of him in several early Nelvana shorts where he played Mr. Pencil, or even more ridiculously, Mr. Rubbish, a figure clothed in a green garbage bag and frogman’s flippers.

Yet his penchant for playing comic characters shouldn’t hide Smith’s very real contribution to the growth of animation in Canada. As the resident artist at Nelvana, he recruited and nurtured a host of young animators, mainly from Sheridan College in the mid-’70s. Among them were Chuck Gammage, Charles Bonifacio, Robin Budd and Frank Nissen, all of whom went on to careers as directors and animators for Disney and other companies.

Starting with The Cosmic Christmas in 1976 and continuing through the cult classic feature Rock & Rule (1983), Smith directed a series of innovative pieces that were a beacon of light during a dark period for commercial animation throughout the world. Even George Lucas employed Smith and his team, first for the animated sequences in a Star Wars Thanksgiving special and then for his Droids and Ewoks television series.

What Lucas and a growing number of broadcasters and viewers were responding to was a team of animation talent led by a very hard-working director. ‘We were working around the clock,’ recalls Smith. ‘There was no other life. It was totally satisfying.’

Nissen, his right-hand man in those days, remembers ‘the way we could spark each other and bounce ideas around. I’ve worked with a lot of people and I haven’t ever found anyone I enjoyed working with as much as Clive.’

Bonifacio, a key animator, adds that ‘the artistic atmosphere couldn’t have been created without his personality. Nelvana wasn’t corporate because of Clive.’

Smith’s other creative outlet, music, was being satisfied at the same time. ‘Not only was I working on the visual part of the films, as director I did what I thought I should do: everything. I was working on the voices, the music. I was supervising the casting sessions and doing the auditions, directing the voice sessions, choosing the musicians, saying which tracks I liked, supervising the cut and timing the print.’

During those heady days, Smith worked with such talents as Lou Reed, Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry and ex-Lovin’ Spoonful John Sebastian.

Musicians can present special challenges for filmmakers. Sebastian, for example, wanted to record with young performers instead of safe studio musicians. ‘Having Clive be a musician made all the difference,’ recalls Sebastian. ‘It gave him the courage to give me some leeway.’ Sebastian regards Smith as a friend, as does Peter Yarrow, of the acclaimed folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, who has been working with the animator on an adaptation of Puff the Magic Dragon in recent years.

That project is still unrealized. It may be that, in recent years, Smith’s artistic personality became less of a fit for a studio dedicated, understandably, to making profits. The commercial failure of Rock & Rule signaled the end of a creative phase at Nelvana. Though Smith soldiered on, working with Hirsh and Loubert as the company rebuilt itself into one of the finest purveyors of animated television series in the world, his time as the creative force in the company was over.

That appears to be the assessment of Hirsh, the only one of the original three to still be working at Nelvana. He recalls ‘the ’70s as being Clive’s decade’ and states that ‘while we miss Clive and his artistic vision, Nelvana is a dynamic, creative company with great depth of talent.’

Smith’s elfin spirit will now be infused in a greatly strengthened independent animation community. Perhaps Sheridan College teacher Ellen Besen puts it best: ‘Clive’s always been the cool older brother who could show you the ropes, open doors for you. As an independent filmmaker, I always thought that, in spite of where his career has taken him, in his heart, he has always felt like one of us.’