Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Interview with Ian Sachs

Another interview, and this time it's been my pleasure to speak to Ian Sachs, who has worked at such varied institutions as Halas & Batchelor, Bill Melendez's studio and FilmFair.

LC: How did you get into the animation industry?

IS: It was never my ambition to work in animation. I played football and wanted to play professionally; I was good and, I believe, would have made it at some level had I not been injured aged 18. I wouldn't have been a top star or anything like that but I was considered about third best in my position for my age so had experience with the England Youth team set-up but never got capped.

I had just left school, had my place at college (foundation art) lined up but my mum got tired of me lazying around the house during the summer holidays… after only two weeks! My dad [Peter Sachs], you obviously know about, but my mother also worked in animation and she was the head of the trace and paint department at Halas & Batchelor on the Jackson Five TV series. They needed a runner and she volunteered me.

I hated it.

All I did was punch paper and cel (registration holes for traditional animation in the paper and cels that matched the rostrum camera registration pegs, and carry boxes to and from the camera department.

About two weeks into the job my mother got flu and was off work for a week, she didn't have an assistant and because it was my mum I thought I'd help and stand in for her. No one asked me to and weirdly no one questioned it either and it all ran really well. So about week 6 just as I was preparing to leave to go to college the producer, Maurice Pooley, paid the studio a visit (we were an annexed studio from the main building) and I walked into my Mum's room as he was there talking to her, he asked how was I doing and I mumbled something like "OK, thanks". He then asked me who had taken over running the P&T department while my mum was ill and I said I had and he laughed and left.

I thought no more about it until I got summoned to the main building and offered a job beyond the series to be trained as a junior producer. it meant NOT going to college and as I didn't really want to be an artist and was just killing time, I chose money over college and stayed. I stayed there for about four years going from runner to junior producer on a thirty-minute film and worked on The Jackson Five, The Osmonds, The Addams Family, Butterfly Ball, some commercials and at the same time being assigned to different departments. That way I had a hands-on experience of most of the traditional animation departments. Later I was in the fortunate position of being the director of animation at FilmFair and was able to complete my education by sending myself to operate a rostrum camera and spent a lot of time in the edit suite and, much to the annoyance of the editor, continued my hands on approach to learn how to edit (still film in those days).

So I ended up being pretty much self-taught simply by being thrown into different departments.

LC: What was your next step?

IS: During those first few years at Halas and Batchelor I met Elphin Lloyd-Jones (if you have ever seen the Halas and Batchelor book Timing for Animation you will have seen a board for Noah and the ark - that was Elphin's work) Elphin decided to mentor me (I don't know why) and taught me about timing and a lot about directing. Later on he formed his own company from his home and Lynne my wife and I did a lot of paint and trace for him and when he decided to open a studio in London he took me with him. He ended up in partnership with John H Mills and running the company Telemagination. Elphin was a huge influence on me, but I stayed in animation for ten years simply because I needed to earn a living and I didn't know what else I wanted to do. I had been injured and couldn't pursue my dream job - footballer - so ten years went by as I worked for all the major London studios of the 1970s. I was mainly freelancing as a painter/tracer/checker or co-ordinator, more often than not I worked as a team with my wife, I'd trace and she'd paint.

At the end of my time with Halas and Batchelor I got a job at the Bill Melendez studios. He worked for Disney - an animator on the original Fantasia (I think he worked on the Beethoven part - Bacchus, he was quite vocal on the merits of animating half-naked nymphs with a drunken letch - said they thought it was cute at the time but looking back...!) - but if you know anything about Disney history you will know that the animators went on strike at one point. It was resolved so a production could be finished but after the strike the atmosphere at Disney changed Walt distrusted the animators and felt betrayed by them. A section of animators grew to hate the studio, the atmosphere and the style of work. These animators decided to leave Disney and together they formed UPA. Bill was one of those animators. Although he told me he also worked at Warner Bros - we were chatting socially so I can't be sure of the exact order or his exaggeration - he was a huge character, lovely, lovely man and loved telling stories, they might have gotten wilder and bigger in time, I don't know.

I don't know why he decided to form his own company, I think it was to do a Peanuts movie or TV series; my only knowledge about Melendez was from the man himself and it was often over a drink or just a mug of tea in the studio. he was one of the greats and a great man too.

LC: How did you get on at the Melendez studio?

IS: We worked on the Fred Bassett pilot film whilst setting up a feature film, Dick Deadeye, which was not a success. During this first time at Melendez I was pretty unhappy, it was nothing to do with the studio, in fact Steve Melendez was fantastic to me, I should have been fired, I was horrible, but I can put it down to the realisation that my football career really was over and I had to go through a lot of changes in my mental objectives for life. Nothing got resolved but I left Melendez and went back to Halas and Batchelor where I was a checker, no responsibility just as a worker and grateful to Maurice Pooley for taking me back.It was perfect, for me at that time because for the first time since my 6 weeks as a runner, I wasn't the boss of my department just a worker. It suited me fine.

LC: When did you end up working as a freelance animator?

IS: H&B closed down after that (the American Network series dept) and that is when I really started freelancing. Straight from H&B series I went to Wyatt Cattaneo and worked on Tetley Tea Folk commercials, back to H&B for their commercials department, Richard Williams offered me a full time job that I turned down. I just worked for any company that needed me and in those days work was pretty much constant and I don't think I ever had to make a phone call looking work.

Eventually I went back to Bill Melendez to work on a TV feature film and a TV series. One of the directors on the feature film was Nick Spargo. About a year after the Melendez work finished for him (I stayed on to the the TV series) he got the BBC to finance his Willo the Wisp TV series and wanted me and my wife to be his trace and paint department. That year changed my life. It was the first time I had worked as a part of such a small team: he used eight people in total, including his secretary-cum-book keeper. He worked from his home and we'd do 5 minutes per 2 weeks. He wrote and directed the series and it was simply the best year of my animation life so far. From not knowing what I wanted to do Nick inspired me to knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted write and direct like Nick!

LC: What happened after you finished work on Willo the Wisp?

IS: At the end of Willo we have to jump back to Elphin. I was helping him set up his first London studio when Steve Melendez recommended me to FilmFair as a co-ordinator. I didn't want to go I wanted to help Elphin, but he convinced me to go and as I was costing him money I wondered if I was putting a financial strain on him so I agreed to go and be interviewed by Graham Clutterbuck, the Managing Director of FilmFair, London. I got the job and stayed at FilmFair for a little over eight years.

Graham died from cancer after about six years of being there and I genuinely think that if he hadn't died and FilmFair was still going I would have still been there. I quickly ended up writing and directing TV series for FilmFair - about 2 years after deciding that was what I wanted to do - and during that time HBO New York did a deal with us to produce a couple of Paddington Bear half-hour specials. I co-directed the first and contacted an award winning animator I had known from Wyatt Cattaneo to animate the cut-out characters, and she brought Sheila [Graber] along with her. It turned out that only Sheila stayed; I had 2-3 of my other regular animators work with me on it, but Sheila turned out to be an absolute star. She had problems getting into what I needed as it was an unusual job - 3D cut-outs - but ended up by animating huge amounts of it and we worked together on several other projects after that.

When I parted ways with FilmFair I worked with Michael Cole who had been the BBC producer on Willo the Wisp, and then worked at the Richard Williams studio on a feature film where I met a Bulgarian animator, Venelin Veltchev. That was about 20 years ago. This year Venelin asked me to join him on the biggest job I have ever been involved in, it's his job but I am doing a lot of management and client liaison.


  1. Great story - I've known you years Ian - and never knew about your early beginnings. Glad you went into animation and NOT football-Good Luck with current ventures - look forward to next installments!

  2. I don't know why he decided to form his own company, I think it was to do a Peanuts movie or TV series; my only knowledge about Melendez was from the man himself and it was often over a drink or just a mug of tea in the studio. he was one of the greats and a great man too.

    Although I'm bothering to answer this to no one at this point in time, Bill Melendez started his studio in the 60's after having worked for another one that mostly did commercial work out of LA called "Playhouse Pictures", where he animated the Peanuts first in a series of commercials and inserts for the Ford Falcon line of automobiles. Since he had familiarized himself with the characters and much of the series by then, it was probably apparent he had to run his own studio to produce those specials sooner or later (and creator Charles Schulz thought he was OK for it). I suppose setting up the UK studio had it's benefits at a time when subcontracting work for American projects was common.