‘Heavy Metal’ Director Gerald Potterton Dies at Age 91

The National Flim Board of Canada (NFB) today shared the news that animator, director and producer Gerald Potterton died Tuesday evening (August 23) at the Brome-Missisquoi-Perkins Hospital in Cowansville, Quebec. The acclaimed filmmaker, who helped bring groundbreaking films like Heavy Metal and Yellow Submarine to screens, was 91 years old.

Born March 8, 1931 in London, England, Potterton studied at the Hammersmith Art School before emigrating to Canada as a young adult in 1954 to join the pioneering artists at NFB’s animation studio, spearheaded by Norman McLaren. Potterton created animation for others’ films through the ’50s before directing his own shorts, including the Stephen Leacock adaptation My Financial Career (1962) and Christmas Cracker (1963, co-directed with McLaren, Jeff Hale and Grant Munro), both nominated for Academy Awards.

My Financial Career

During this time, Potterton Gerald also made his mark in live-action comedy with The Ride (1963) and the multi-award-winning silent film throwback The Railrodder (1965), starring cinema icon Buster Keaton in one of his last film roles.

Potterton returned to England to work on the animated Beatles feature Yellow Submarine (1968, directed by George Dunning), followed by a collaboration with Harold Pinter on the innovative NBC TV special Pinter People, during which he began a lifelong friendship and collaboration with actor Donald Pleasence.

Yellow Submarine
Yellow Submarine

Back across the pond in Canada, he formed Potterton Productions, a prolific independent production house for film and TV projects — including his Oscar Wilde adaptation The Selfish Giant (1972), an animated short that netted him his third Oscar nomination. From 1970 to 1971, he served as vice president of ASIFA.

Potterton also directed the cult classic animated feature Heavy Metal (1981) for Columbia Pictures, supervising the work of more than 65 animators in Canada, England and the U.S. He also collaborated with the NFB again on his second Leacock adaptation, The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones (1983), and co-created the animated children’s series The Smoggies (1987–1990).

The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones
The Awful Fate of Melpomenus Jones

In later years, “the flying animator” took up painting and was known for his historically accurate aviation paintings and extraordinary skies. He remained active and prolific into the 21st century, continuing to develop film and TV projects as well as pursuing other artistic endeavours from his farm in Knowlton, Quebec.

In 2020, he wrote and illustrated a popular children’s book about Canadian inventor and entrepreneur Joseph-Armand Bombardier, L’homme des neiges, published by Éditions Québec Amérique.

Buster and Gerald
Buster Keaton and Gerald Potterton on the set of ‘The Railrodder’

A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Potterton was selected by the World Animation Celebration in 1998 as one of “Ten Men Who Have Rocked the Animation World.” There have been over a dozen retrospectives and lifetime honors for his work in the past few decades, including at the Ottawa Animation Film Festival (1994) and the Seattle Film Festival (1997), as well as in India (2000). He was honored with the Pulcinella Lifetime Achievement Award at Cartoons on the Bay 2008.

A documentary on Potterton directed by AniMaze Film Festival producer Laurie Gordon, The Flying Animator, launched a Kickstarter several years ago (last updated in November). You can see more of Potterton’s work with the NFB here.

The Selfish Giant
The Selfish Giant
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