Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Animators: Persistence of Vision

My transcript of the third and final episode of The Animators, a 1989 BBC documentary about West Country animators (go here for the first episode, and here for the second).

Of the three, this episode covers the largest number of animators. Its first subject is Arril Johnson, then providing segments for the BBC, today a lecturer at UWE. Next is Ian Whitlock, at the time the only animation student at Bristol's Speedwall Comprehensive School; he now works at Aardman.

After him comes Tony James, an amateur animator who had recently won an award; at around the same time he was featured in Animator magazine and mentioned that he was working on a second film, but I am unaware of any further work from him. Finally, the documentary showcases the Bolexbrothers - Dave Borthwick (who sadly passed away recently), Dave Ridett, Peter Brandt and Nick Upton.

I considered trimming parts of this documentary that did not translate well to text - namely the long demonstration of the stop motion technique - but decided against it. For better or worse, this is a complete transcript.

Footage from one of Arril Johnson's shorts, possibly made for Vision On.

Narrator: Arril Johnson is a Canadian who has lived in the West Country for more than twenty years, providing BBC Bristol-based programmes with his own characteristic bits of fantasy. Arril is a master of classic animation: simple, two-dimensional, no more than taking a line for a walk - like Gertie, the dinosaur.

Footage from another of Johnson's works. This is obviously not Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, but a character named in homage.

Arril Johnson: Well the thing about children's animation, about the Vision On programme - as it was originally, it became Take Hart, and Hart Beat eventually - the thing about that programme, the thing about the format with Tony's artwork and children's contributions, and we contributed by putting our animation in it - is freedom. A tremendous amount of freedom, in fact, more freedom than in any other kind of animation that I have experienced. So it's tempting, financial considerations aside, you want to do that sort of thing because it allows you to express yourself and to experiment, take chances. What they do is they send you - as a contributor, as an animator - a list of themes, there may simply be one word that's applicable to any given programme, it may be circles, it may be bouncing, in one instance I'm thinking of, the theme was "on the floor".

Footage from a short where a banana peel crawls out of a bin and causes a man (Arril Johnson in pixilation) to slip up.

Narrator: Perfectionism is something which seems to afflict all animators, and Arril Johnson pushes it to the limit. He does everything himself. He's artist, author, actor, photographer, modelmaker. Given half a chance, he'd probably be the banana.

Arril Johnson: What we're doing at this point is the banana has seen his destiny, he's seen what it's all about, the foot is coming, and he's frightened. So we're going to move this thing back, starting to move the base of the arm, and because that's moving faster, because it's initiating the action, it's leaving us behind a little bit, take a couple of frames of that, we're going to swing it in a little bit and bend that back a tiny bit more, another couple of frames and so on.

Arril Johnson working on the piece.

Arril Johnson: Now the thing is going to sweep around the head so now it's the other part that's moving, wrapping itself, I'm going to try to not move that back so much, so hopefully you're concentrating on the main action, and it wraps around almost like a whiplash and that's taken it about as far as it's going to go. What is going to happen now is I'm going to get on top of this table and probably kill myself.

Arril Johnson: Now, this is going to be difficult because I need to do three things simultaneously. First of all this nylon wire, this thread, has got to go round the banana so that the banana can actually levitate, can be thrown out of the picture, and at the same time I have to bring my foot into the shot and also take pictures. And what I'm going to do is move the foot slightly during the frame. Now, if it moves during the exposure that means it's blurred it just looks better, looks more real.

Arril Johnson: So I've taken that, that foot's moved out that much, I'm going to move in a bit more and move back and forth while I take the pictures. I'm going to start to crush that banana very slightly - and this is a horrible thing to do to something that's taken so long to make! I'm going to put this down, get off this stool and shift, and I have to do this, the feet can actually get up out of the picture and fall back in flat. Now, this is where I use the fish line on the banana, I'll pick that up, it's a very violent action so the registration only needs to be approximate. But I'm going to put my foot there where it is, and the banana - because it's moving - will be blurred anyway.

Arril Johnson: I'm going to lift my foot up slightly and move that, during the exposure move the banana along in a slight arc, lift the foot higher and so forth and move everything during the exposure, higher yet, banana's further along, and I feel like a complete fool, some more pictures. Now the foot should be out of frame but I'll take an extra few frames jut to be sure. We don't need the banana any more because that has gone out of shot entirely and what I can now do is get into a very comfortable position and put my feet up like so and being them in much the same way. They've got to come down a bit, down a bit, down a bit...

Narrator: Arril Johnson's passion for prehistoric animals can be seen not only in his children's drawings, but in modelmaking for several distinguished natural history programmes. Although recreating the movements of long extinct animals does have its problems.

Footage from Arril Johnson's animation for documentaries about prehistoric life, including the Dimorphodon.

Arril Johnson: All you can really do is observe animals that are similar, and when you're looking at an animal - reptile, bird whatever - in that way they sort of... [mimics head movements] you know, that kind of thing, and you might build that in, you know, or they might get some slow movements because it's a heavy animal , but you'd get that sort of thing. And with DD [Dimorphodon] flying we linked it in roughly with a bat.

Shots of Arril Johnson's studio, showing his work. Presumably some of it relates to Ice Dragon.

Arril Johnson: Everybody has a pet project. At the moment, mine is Ice Dragon. I mean, I've probably got others creeping up, it's one of those things, but it's a half hour TV special. I wrote thee story in 1984; it's an allegory - it's about man's relationship (or humanity's relationship) to nature, and our fear of it, our love of it, our need for it, all of this. It doesn't have a happy ending but I think it could teach, and I'm sure it could be beautiful, in fact I don't want to do it unless it is. I've invented some new techniques to make the thing more plausible, and I'm trying to find ways of making quality animation less expensive.

Another of Johnson's prehistoric animals.

Narrator: Very few places actually teach animation; Speedwall Comprehensive School in Bristol is an honourable exception, one of only two West Country schools which offer facilities. Ian Whitlock is the art department's first and only animation pupil. He's been encouraged by three former Speedwell pupils who left school before this facility was available but who are now the highly successful firm CMBT, makers of the Trap Door series. Ian himself had left school for a job at a department store before deciding to go back and develop his artistic skills.

Ian Whitlock: When I first said, "oh, I want to do animation" they couldn't understand why I wanted to do it, 'cause it's a frame by frame process and that. But I thought... it's not actually that that interested me it was, I thought, well, you make all the sets and make all the characters and to me it was like a string of effects and a way of putting them together. Because that was half the joy of it, was working out ways to hold things up when you use them.

Footage from Ian Whitlock's student film, the name of which is not given, including a Trap Door reference.

Ian Whitlock: And on this one I thought, what I'd do I'll concentrate and make a good set, and if I use a character like a wizard and magic you can more or less put in anything, so I was more or less concentrating on the animation this time and try and get that as good as I could. It's basically about a wizard who comes down one morning into his cellar to put his television on, and as he turns it on it blows up so he thinks, "right, I'll use my magic on it." So he starts using his magic and things start going haywire, and the TV doesn't seem to be getting mended, and then eventually it does go back to the TV and he switches on through it and finds nothing he wants anyway, so he goes off in a bit of a huff!

Narrator: The sting in Ian's own story is that he's not only Speedwell's first graduate animator, he'll be the last. Despite all the outside help, and although this is a very cheap form of animation, it's still deemed too expensive for the school to sustain. Animation, it seems, is not part of the core curriculum.

Footage from the 1988 Showreel awards ceremony.

Narrator: The Showreel awards are a shop window for aspiring filmmakers. Ian's work has been judged good enough to make the final shortlist, a very impressive public debut. But he and his teacher Brian Evans will have to wait a little longer for his first award: the applause, this time, is for Anthony James. A lifelong Disney fan, he's still very much an animator, but a man for whom the term "persistence of vision" might have been invented.

Footage from Tony James' short Goblin.

Tony James: When I was on a holiday in New York there were a crowd of people outside of a bookshop so I went in to investigate what was going on, and there were actually two of Disney's original animators there doing a book-signing: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of Disney's Nine Old Men. And I was telling them about my ideas for a film, and he said "don't think about it, go for it, you'll regret it all your life if you don't."

Narrator: He did go for it, and has no regrets. Although making this film took every spare moment for four years.

Tony James: I think the story's probably the most important thing for me, whenever I go to the cinema I really want to be entertained, I don't want to be lectured at and given any messages to go home with. I want to be transported, probably to somewhere magical, another world, and this is what animation, of course, does. Because with animation you can be anywhere you want, the characters can do anything they want to, you're not restricted to anything at all. Everything is possible with animation.

Tony James: As a child my parents used to take me, of course, to see all the Disney feature films. And I was a Saturday morning addict too, so I saw plenty of cartoons and short films. And I also noticed there was something special about the Disney films, and of course at that age I didn't know what it was - I couldn't put my finger on it - but somehow their films seemed more alive: the characters were real to me, and the situations they got in - no matter how fantastical they were - they seemed really possible somehow.

Tony James: Took me years to work out what it was. It wasn't magic actually at all, it was craft. the Disney people put a lot of money into it and put a lot of time and effort into it and they found that secret, that illusion of life, that brought something to their films that other films didn't have. And I found from the books that I later purchased that this could be learned, it wasn't some divine spark that rested on people's shoulders, everybody could do it given the time and the patience. And let's face it: if you're an amateur, time and patience is what you've got in plenty.

Tony James at work.

Tony James: There's about four thousand drawings. 'Course, this is the really monotonous part of the job - it's not as creative as drawing and painting or storytelling, but there is still quite a lot you can do at this stage. I mean, if you've got it all down on paper and were sticking rigidly to a script then it really would be boring, but doing it the way I do it I can actually decide that a shot should perhaps last a bit longer, that a hold that would probably take a few more frames, something that perhaps you couldn't see when you were planning the film out to start with. But it's just that it's a mechanical thing, this is what I don't like about it.

Tony James: 'Course I did have one terrible accident during the filming, and I was sat here with the record player playing and a glass of whiskey, and I was just swapping and changing and I was on a three-tiered multiplane sequence where each layer moved at a different speed and there was animation to be changed in the middle, the camera was coming down on its crane and the focus needed to be changed. And it was about 8 o'clock in the evening. And the next thing I knew it was about 11 o'clock in the evening and I'd fallen asleep, whiskey in hand, and I couldn't remember whether I'd pushed the button, and this would have caused a jump in the middle of this wonderful pan on three levels which would have looked absolutely horrendous, so I had to just take a chance and I did press the button again. Fortunately, when it came back everything was okay. But... don't drink whiskey when you're doing animation I think is the lesson to be learned here!

Tony James paints a cel in his studio.

Tony James: I find painting certainly the most relaxing part of the whole production. I can paint and trace which a lot of people find a chore, I find it takes my mind completely off any problems I've had in the daytime. It's not, of course, quite as creative as the drawing side: the drawing side demands concentration, you have to think each move through, the timing of it, the flow. 'Course, with Disney, it wasn't just a question of the moving bits they got right, but they also got the still bits - the holds... they weren't really holds, they were moving holds, a little bit of a dress would still move, a hat, a feather would blow in the wind, and even when the characters weren't moving you often got something in the background: the ripple of a brook, or a tree or a leaf falling, there was always something that breathed life into every picture. I think that Disney got it right, and I don't think that today's mass, Saturday market have got it right at all, there's no heart or soul in it at all, it's just churned out, nothing lives, nothing breathes in these pictures, just lots of drawings of people running on the spot with different backgrounds all the time, it wouldn't do for me.

Tony James: Winning the prize, of course, was very nice, and the money came in very handy. But I'm not tempted I don't think to make it a profession, I don't see myself working for someone else in the animation business: I'm far to bossy, for a start, I want to control everything. They're my characters, my backgrounds, it's my story, I don't want to have to work for four years or whatever with all that painstaking detail, all those hours poring over an animation board, and then at the end of it have someone take it away from me, I just couldn't stand that.

Narrator: The work of an anarchic collective called the Bolexbrothers explores much darker areas of the mind than Disney or Tony James. They're using pixilation: a technique which mixes puppets and live actors. The actors have to animate themselves in coordination with the puppets, which can mean holding poses for half an hour and more - a quite agonising process.

Footage from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb.

Narrator: Most animation is a process of letting the imagination run riot, then filming in a very ordered and disciplined way. The four people who make up the Bolexbrothers have a looser, more intuitive approach to their work.

Footage from a music video for Startled Insects.

Dave Ridett: You know if it's worked or not just because it's worked! You don't know why, and that's when you start discovering as well, particularly in the editing, you put one thing over another thing and think "God, that's good, isn't it?" you know, I didn't think of that in the first place, but in fact it's already there, and so putting a set and all the models together, or a particular movement, it might suddenly stop doing a movement and think well, what should we do now, or put in another object and that does something else, and you don't know why, there's no logical reason why it should sort of follow a different train of thought, but it makes sense.

Footage from Vikings Go Pumping, a music video for Loggerheads.

Dave Borthwick: It's keeping much more of a keen sensitivity to... if something does offer itself up it's usually being offered up for a very good reason and where it's being offered from is irrelevant, you know, if it works, use it.

Dave Borthwick: Where you've got a film form like animation which really does offer up a whole filmmaking vocabulary which, if you don't use in the right way and don't take advantage of it and try to make a story that you could make in live action just as well and probably a lot easier and it'd take a lot less time and money, then it's a rather pedestrian way to use animation really, I think you need to go for the things that it offers you, it's a sort of direct door into quite a surreal world and you don't have to be very contrived to make that surrealism come to life, and to make them really weird, you can do the impossible very very easily with it, so I think you have to let that somehow effect the nature of the narrative that you're working with.

Dave Ridett: The closest parallel I can think of is like - and it's quite an acceptable one - is that when a group of musicians get together you can jam, and you can keep changing key, you can, you know, start bending all the rules, and it usually... you know, it works really well. In film there's not a widespread use of that way of working, that you can actually have, like, a jam session where you can put different elements in there , find out which ones work and this, obviously it does work, there's plenty of scope for working that way.

Dave Borthwick: Trying to keep that fine line all the time, I think, where you... something feels right but it isn't explained away, it's a great saying that, a great phrase, you know, that once it is explained you just lob it away, it really ceases to have any potency anymore, and it's that thing that you try all the time to sort of kill it by understanding it.

More Startled Insects animation.

Narrator: The craft of animation has almost no limits: whatever the animation offers can be reproduced. Animation in Bristol has certainly come a long way since W.G. Horner invented his zoetrope 150 years ago.