Monday, 6 September 2010

Interview with Sheila Graber

For four decades Sheila Graber has been making animation, and has shown great enthusiasm for new developments and opportunities to teach future generations of animators; in this interview she sheds light on each of these aspects of her career. Most of her work is available on her YouTube channel, and so I'll be linking to her films where appropriate.

LC: When did you first start animating?

SG: In 1970 at the age of 30 I bought a Super 8 movie camera from Dixons to film my Summer Holiday; animation was not even in my mind. After all, at that time it was thought that the only people who could animate were big studios with loads of resources and heaps of people drawing, tracing, painting etc. I was a full time art teacher in a comprehensive school and played about with the camera in my spare time -I was newly divorced so I did have extra spare time. I discovered from the instruction booklet that you could "bump on your titles" by fixing the camera to a tripod and clicking a single frame release whilst shooting plastic letters.

So I bought a tripod and SFR but not letters - I used buttons instead. Move, click, move, click, and so on... The film came back 3 weeks later, the buttons were all out of focus but they MOVED of their own accord. Magic... I've been hooked ever since.

At that time I did a lot of oil paintings, so I stuck the camera on a tripod in front of an empty canvas, screwed in the single frame release, made a brush stroke, click etc. Three weeks later when it came back the paint reflected and it was still a bit out of focus but once again to see strokes paint themselves was magic. I then went on to experiment with anything I could lay my hands on, from cut-outs and pastel to plasticine.

Puff the Magic Dragon.

LC: What were the earliest animated shorts you made?

SG: An example of a complete film is Puff the Magic Dragon, shot in1972. Loved the tune and the story - so inspired by this I set out to make a movie linked to the soundtrack. In those days before computers or video the only way of tightly timing a sound track frame by frame was by a mechanical gadget called a "Pic Sync" which literally synced up each sprocketed frame of film to every sprocket on magnetic tape. However, I could not afford this until much later, but I could afford a stop watch - so I used that and home made bar sheets to time the track. The images do fit to the words - which is more than be said for the horizon line fitting to the sky!

I met the author of Puff the Magic Dragon years later whilst running some animation workshops in Tunisia. When asked could I buy the copyright (in order to make a proper broadcast quality version) he said, sorry, he needed the money so had sold it to the highest bidder: Disney. Ten years later I tried this plasticine mixed-media approach again (and the same home built set - with better join) to shoot a film based on Dance Macabre.

This was not only screened in over 25 countries but has also proved to be by far the most popular movie I have up there on YouTube. So I guess this proves that you should not be put off by naivety of your first movies - just keep going and who knows what will develop.

The Lady of Shalott.

LC: Early in your career you made a large number of films in a small space of time. What's the story here?

SG: From 1974 to 1979 I was teaching full time, so had an income and made films for fun at night and weekends. Bit like Tony Hancock in The Rebel. During the day, a normal job; at night, an artist doing whatever I felt like in my head and putting it into movies. I had time, enough money to live on and freedom - the ideal combination to create.

I was able to follow my own "body clock" and that's why the animations just poured out.

The Boy and The Cat - a vehicle to explore cels and character movement. The Twelve Days of Christmas - I had always drawn crazy Xmas decorations for the school hall; just put these in a movie. Michelangelo - I taught the history of art; this was my first go at making a film that would be fun to watch and hopefully get kids interested in art. I had no interest at this time in using this for broadcast so used any music I liked, no thought of copyright clearance. I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General - cut-out experiment in lip sync with lyrics that are just crazy and great... it goes on, just following what I was interested in and exploring what felt to be the next logical step; e.g. I wanted a slow moving piece in which I could experiment with pastel and multi-plane shot so chose The Lady of Shalott, which I heard uttered by Dr Finlay to a dying patient in Dr Finlay's Casebook. After completion I wanted to try something much faster so chose a bit of Mozart which suggested trains and cars... Moving On - the history of transport.

One or two small commissions like Inside Look North and Larn Yersel Geordie crept in. The last film I made just for myself was Evolution; I then became "professional", and when you make a living at animation you have no time or energy to do your own work... well, some, like Alison de Vere, managed it, but I could not.

I finally managed it in Lifeline, in 2004 - a gap of 25 years. I think you can see why I'm now living in Ireland surrounded by trees and cows and am finally managing to make my own stuff again... full circle... I hope!

The Elephant's Child, an episode of Just So Stories.

LC: How did you come to form a partnership with Jen Miller?

SG: My interest in animation grew hugely on two linked paths. One was using it as a tool to get the children I taught interest in learning. I started a cine club after school and was amazed at the interest this generated amongst students who normally wanted to get away from school as quickly as possible. We finally managed to introduce animation as a full CSE subject at National Level. The second was exploring my own ideas through animation. After 10 years I had produced over 30 short films, the later ones in broadcast quality 16mm film. An agent from France, Nicole Jouve, saw my work on Clapperboard, a now defunct TV program that showed amateur award-winning shorts. She enabled these shorts, ranging from The Boy and the Cat to Mondarian, to be screened on world TV. In 1980, thanks to her backing, I produced a complete TV series of 10X10 min programmes based on Kipling's Just So Stories. Thus discovering that you don't need huge studios to produce work - you can go it alone.

So in 1980 I gave up my day job of teaching (though I still do many animation workshops) and became a full-time professional animator.

It is often the case that if you are efficient at art/animation you are not efficient at managing the business side of your production. It is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, job to sell yourself. I was not very good at it, and although I was producing work by the mile I was running at a loss. Luckily an artist friend who was part of the quite large workforce that I employed introduced me to Jen Miller.

Jen, initially, did some catering for a range of in-house training days that we ran. She was just so efficient that the corporate clients involved were much more impressed with the style and range of their lunch from her than their training from me. (Could have been the champagne on ice that swung it!) It seemed to me that anyone who could manage catering with such efficiency (her budget had only been £50 for the lot) could manage an animation company- and she did! As fellow directors we formed "Sheila Graber Animation Limited" in 1996, which went from strength to strength under her down-to-earth, wise management.

I guess we, in a tiny way, were a bit like Disney - Walt being arty with head in the clouds and his brother Roy providing the sensible feet on the ground side. Both sides are needed to make a successful animation company.

In 2004 Jen asked if I'd ever give up doing jobs for everyone else and concentrate on my own work. I reckoned I never would get the chance if I stayed in the UK as there was a constant stream of jobs. So we closed the company (whilst we were winning!) and moved to Ireland. Here I've been able to produce my book Animation: A Handy Guide, with the backing of the University of Sunderland .

I also run a number of workshops with Jen for adults with learning difficulties - which was an aim of mine from 1970 when I first saw how the practice of animation could be used to break through barriers in teaching.

The influence of Fantasia is evident in Danse Macabre.

LC: Is there any animation that has influenced your work?

SG: Yes - Walt Disney's Fantasia. It was created in 1940 when I was.. I must have first seen it when I was about 7 and just loved the way images moved to the music. Really fell for the devil coming out the mountain- Bill Tytla is my all time fave animator. The way I much prefer to animate is to start with a sound track and create images to it.

In my book Animation: A Handy Guide I explain and show many of the influences of Fantasia upon my work as an animator. Fantasia used to be released along with all his classics about once every 6/7 years - and wherever it was available I tried to see it. Today it's easy to see anything instantly - however maybe there is a sort of magic in the fact you can't see something unless you really put yourself out to find it!

Excerpt from Animation is Fun. See this post for more.

LC: How did you come to write Animation is Fun?

SG: In 1973 I started experimenting with plastic cels and created a little film about a boy falling down a microscope and meeting all sorts of crazy little characters down there. I think the best thing at the start is to build upon things you like and know. I had studied Science in my earlier days and was always fascinated by the new worlds visible via microscopes and telescopes. My little nephew aged 7 was jumping about the place so I used him as a model. At our local newsagent I came across a magazine called Movie Maker in which there were many very useful articles for beginners like myself. There was also an annual competition called the 'Ten Best" in which anyone could enter any sort of film. What was great about this mag was that its editor Tony Rose and team offered invaluable feedback on all entrants. So I entered the microscope movie and it gained 4 stars (one of the lowest grades) but the feedback said - "there is a glimmer of life here - keep going."

So I did - and made The Boy and the Cat - same boy, with my own cat Whitey - and entered it in 1974. It won a "10 Best Trophy" meaning it was one of the ten best entrants in the country. The extra bonus here was that all ten winners were screened at the National Film Theatre in London and you got to be in the audience. They always had a star to present the trophies in this case it was Jimmy Stewart. I always remember his great speech before hand where he said he'd been paid all his life just to be himself! I also remember how soft his handshake was - I guess I expected a big tough grip - but he was just himself, gentle and genuine.

Encouraged by the positive feedback I went on to make more movies and gained 5 more "Ten Best" trophies until I went professional in 1980. During these years Movie Maker asked me to write a monthly series of A4 double page spread articles on animation. I created them in strongly graphic form and simply based the subject matter on my own methods and progress and those of the students I had taught at school. I held the master drawings and copyright of these articles. In 1982 the Tyneside Cinema - an arts cinema linked to the NFT - backed me to publish them in a book. This book I entitled Animation is Fun to hopefully attract beginners into this lively art and find out for themselves how effective their own work could be!

Movie Maker is now sadly, like Tony Rose, no more - however it helped me and many more film makers bridge the gap between Amateur and Professional. Today animation can be created easily on computers, video, Nintendo DS, but most young people watch and interact with animation made by others.


LC: When did you begin working with computer animation?

SG: I first saw BBC computers in schools when I was Media Adviser for South Tyneside LEA in 1985. However, they were so DOS-based that they were of no interest to me as an animator, though I did manage to grab in a gym shoe and tweak the image about a bit - and actually print it out- a great achievement in those days. I bought an Amstrad in 1988 because with extra software you could actually draw with a mouse.

However, it was the Apple Mac in 1991 that really got me interested using a program called Macromedia Director and a Wacom tablet I was actually able to draw frame by frame animation... my interest and available software/hardware grew until finally I stopped using 16mm film in 1994/5 and have used computers ever since.

A good example of an animated movie made completely on Mac computer/Wacom tablet and Painter is "Lifeline."

Hans Christian Andersen for the Youth of Today.

LC: Can you tell us more about your move to series work, and your pilot films that weren't picked up?

SG: A French agent, Nicole Jouve of Interama (who was also agent for The Magic Roundabout) saw some of my short movies thanks to them being screened on TV after winning some "Ten Best" amateur awards. She asked to distribute; I finally agreed. After 3/4 years she got me the world TV commission to animate the 1981 10X10 min Just So Stories. All this is more clearly explained in a short video on YouTube. She later commissioned the 10X5 minute Best Friends series, and later on in 1985 12X5 min La Famille Fenouillard.

In 1990 The Dumpies came from quite a different route. John Patience is an excellent illustrator of Children's Books; one series of books he wrote and illustrated himself was based on characters called the Dumpies. He saw some of my stuff on TV and contacted me regarding possibility of making a TV pilot from his work. I agreed as I liked his books - they are really genuine - as was he; in fact, when I first saw his tall figure as he ambled up the path, I thought "He's a Dumpy!". True self expression. We were all happy with the pilot but the BBC said "we have enough science fiction at the moment, thanks". So we still wait for someone to take it up!

In 1991 the Great British Pioneers series grew from Tyne Tees TV asking me to make short inserts for their new TV series Power House exploring inventions. Excellent scripts were written - alas can't remember the writer's name - and with the help of free access to TTTV library footage I was able to play and get paid for it! This was the first time I'd used a Mac Computer and Macromedia Director Software (instead of 16mm film) for broadcast work. I was just pleased it all worked and could actually be screened.

Hans Christian Andersen for the Youth of Today... By 1996 I was running Sheila Graber Animation ltd. employing two full time and many part-time staff. I also feel I was really getting into computer animation - particulary rotoscoping. High Level Recording Studios and Dodgy Clutch Theatre company were invaluable in helping this pilot happen. H.C. Andersen's stories are quite deep and often dark - not always Danny Kay 's interpretation. I felt there was so much good stuff in them that if they were animated in a lively way the material would appeal to the "Youth of Today". Using everyone's talents I really feel we produced a pilot that would have led to a dynamic and relevant set of stories for today's youth... maybe the youth of tomorrow?

LC: How did you come to write your second book, Animation: A Handy Guide?

SG: I was invited by the University of Sunderland to be their "reader" - which means you get a chance to do research as well as teach part time. One of the staff, Shirley Wheeler, suggested I write a book about animation. I had been considering this for years - ever since Animation is Fun - so I leapt at the chance. I began the first draft in 2000. It was only when I moved to Ireland in 2004 that I had the time and space to create the book. I wanted to create something that would really help animation students get a grasp of history, methods, and creativity.

Watching animation students doing research I noticed they rarely went to books; instead it was straight to the internet. So I thought I'd make a book that covered 20 key items in the history of animation, with loads of pictures and with a matching DVD that linked all key items to the internet and showed my own and student animation footage wherever needed.

Within the DVD are printable pages from Animation is Fun updated to take in digital cameras and computers. Those that have seen it find it easy to use and useful. Not enough colleges or unis know it's out there - I hope readers of your blog might check it out!

LC: Is there any animation you've been enjoying lately?

SG: I like all the blockbusters from Shrek to Toy Story; however, my real interest is in individuals using animation to explore their own world in their own way. So now I mainly enjoy animations by students round the world, thanks to YouTube - it's great to see original ideas and methods being used to express personal feelings.

I'll just use two as examples:
I presently teach at the University of Sunderland now and then I see a lot of their work; one I really like is The Highwayman, set to the famous poem by Alfred Noyes. Alas, due to copyright on this poem, the student had to re-cut it to music to show on YouTube. I saw it with the original voiced soundtrack - it was extremely moving. You can hear Noyes voicing his own poem here.

In quite a different style is a short crazy animation on evolution. I like it because it's original. simple and tells it's story well. One of Disney's key phrases to his team was "Keep It Simple" - so true.

I have always enjoyed any images (animated or otherwise) well edited to a sound track - e.g. the real two talking cats are great, and the re-dubbed sound track is terrific - highly animated!

In July this year I shot and edited a short movie about swallows nesting in our decking - this gave me as much enjoyment as actually animating the images (and it's a lot quicker!) and hopefully as much fun to watch.

I have only recently discovered the wonders of Russian animation including Yuri Norstein andbAlexander Petrov. Their style is much deeper and stronger than our "western" approach - well worth a look!

I'm currently working on "Quizi-Cat's Quest", a large multi-media project (book/DVD/animation/web site) to help children learn about the world and be creative at the same time, that will hopefully get every child in the country (and maybe the world) animated at school/home and use animation as a way into learning and having fun whilst they do it... watch this space!

1 comment:

  1. Sheila's work, and working ethics, have been a great inspiration to me throughout my life. She ranks amongst my favourite animators to date, and has always proven to be very encouraging towards new animators such as myself.

    When it comes to great teachers, Sheila is definitely an invaluable source of knowledge and enthusiasm.

    Thank you always for your kind words Sheila! <3

    Kam (animator of "The Highwayman [2007]")