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Eric Ernest Porter (1911–1983)

by Ray Edmondson

This article was published:

Eric Ernest Porter (1911-1983), film and television producer and director and animation pioneer, was born on 8 February 1911 at Camperdown, Sydney, youngest of four surviving children of New South Wales-born parents Frederick Ernest Porter, packer, and his wife Adelaide Victoria, née Plumb. Eric trained in commercial art at East Sydney Technical College. Inspired by the early silent films of Walt Disney and his contemporaries, at the age of 17 he worked with James ‘Jim’ Bancks on a silent eight-minute cartoon film, featuring Bancks’s popular comic-strip character, Ginger Meggs, which was financed by (Sir) Frank Packer.

Porter gravitated to the newly established Cinesound Productions Ltd. The producer-director Ken G. Hall turned the young animator’s energies on to advertising films, his first being for an Adelaide butcher. In 1934 Porter contributed a short animated sequence to Hall’s feature film Strike Me Lucky, which starred the comedian ‘Mo’ (Roy Rene). Porter joined Australian Animated Cartoons Ltd as a ‘consulting artist’ in 1936, making sixty-second cinema advertisements for well-known companies like Harry Peck & Co. (Aust.) Pty Ltd and Nestle & Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co. (Australasia) Ltd.

He set up his own company, Eric Porter Studios, which made a ten-minute colour animated film for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1939; Waste Not, Want Not starred Willie the Wombat, who encouraged children to begin the habit of saving. Using clay-modelled backgrounds to provide depth, fourteen artists took seven months to make the film. It was a popular success, leading to a colouring book and sheet music of the theme song, I’m Willie the Wombat. In a then black-and-white industry, an Australian-made colour film was a rarity. On 28 March 1942 at St Paul’s Church of England, Burwood, Porter married Laura Joyce McNeice, a bookkeeping machinist.

Advertising films and, later, sponsored documentaries were the mainstay of Porter’s studio, though in 1945 he ventured into live-action feature production. A Son is Born, released in 1946, starred Ron Randell, Muriel Steinbeck, Peter Finch and John McCallum. Although it was reportedly a commercial success, Porter abandoned plans for a second feature, Storm Hill. In the 1950s he made two short theatrical cartoons for Columbia Pictures Corporation, reviving Willie the Wombat, now re-christened Bimbo, to star in Rabbit Stew (1952) and Bimbo’s Auto (1954). Production on the third entry, Bimbo’s Clock, was halted when hopes for a continuing Columbia series faded.

The introduction of television in 1956 opened new horizons for advertising commercials, and the Porter studio created some memorable characters: Friar Tuck for McWilliam’s Wines Ltd, Mr Sheen for an aerosol furniture polish and Louie the Fly for Mortein fly spray. Louie and his signature jingle (‘I’m Louie the Fly, straight from rubbish tip to you’) was promoting the same product fifty years later. With the advent of colour in 1975, Porter produced the children’s television series ‘The Yellow House’.

Porter’s magnum opus was surely Marco Polo Junior versus the Red Dragon (1972), Australia’s first feature-length animated cartoon. Under his supervision seventy artists worked for two years to achieve a lavish result. Although the film won two major prizes at the 1973 Australian Film Awards, its distribution in Australia and overseas was fragmentary. Its commercial failure ultimately caused the closure of Porter’s animation studio in 1975, although he continued to produce live-action television commercials and a telemovie, Polly Me Love (1976).

A talented and adaptable artist, director and producer, Porter was the first to prove that film animation on a continuing basis was possible in Australia. At one time, with a workforce of nearly 300, his production company was the largest in the country. His achievements were recognised when he was presented with the Australian Film Institute’s Raymond Longford award in 1982. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 21 December 1983 at St Leonards, Sydney, and was cremated. He was appointed AM posthumously in 1984.

While his major films survived, much of Porter’s advertising work was lost. After his death his colleague Cam Ford found several of his advertising shorts from the 1940s on a rubbish dump and donated them to the National Film and Sound Archive. They included the cartoon Bertie the Aeroplane that promoted Aeroplane jelly. This discovery spawned a new advertising campaign restoring Bertie to public view. For a man who was once called Australia’s Walt Disney, it was an appropriate way of leaving his mark on the nation’s psyche.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film, 1900-1977 (1980)
  • G. Caban, A Fine Line (1983)
  • I. Bertrand (ed), Cinema in Australia (1989)
  • B. McFarlane et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Film (1999)
  • B. Molloy, interview with E. Porter (typesript, no date, NFSA)
  • E. Porter scrapbook (NFSA).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ray Edmondson, 'Porter, Eric Ernest (1911–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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