Sunday, November 19, 2006

Servant Of Two Masters

Or When Relatives Are Useful

Back in the 1990s, a job came in that required 2D cut-out animation. It wasn’t the kind of thing the studio I was at usually did.

The guy brought in to do the work, whose reel had helped win the job, had assisted Gilliam with his Monty Python animations. Grey ponytail, dressed it battered leathers from riding a throaty old motorbike in to work, the mothership was obviously long overdue in coming back to collect him.

If Withnail and I had ever required an Additional Arsehole, he would have been a lock. The producer, bless her, tagged me to assist him and keep an eye out. I introduced myself and he emptied his airbrush out in my coffee mug. Yeah, this was going to work.

The three commercials were for an American bank. The idea boiled down to street scenes with buildings growing, and pretty soon it became evident that we didn’t have enough source material to make it happen. Mr 2D came in with photographs of Dutch houses and suggested we use those. New Amsterdam, not Amsterdam dammit! One day during pre-production my lips turned white.

During a meeting I mentioned my cousin in New York. For the price of a meal out as a sweetener I’d have somewhere to crash while I took the requisite shots. It was a casual remark. An hour later the producer swung by my desk and told me the flight was booked for the next morning.

I called my cousin to get the okay. The weather was clear skies and sun, come on over he said. What I didn’t ask was, what’s the forecast? Which was a mistake. I stepped out of the arrivals hall, carry-on in hand, and looked up at a mid-afternoon sky heavy with swollen, bruised clouds. Coming out of a bar later that night I watched the first snowflakes fall.

The first full day I woke to blizzard conditions, which wasn’t good. Wearing a borrowed sweater and overcoat, I swung by the studio’s US agent to call the producer to tell her the news. She didn’t sound very happy. Then I tramped the streets, checking out suitable locations to come back to.

Overnight the skies cleared. The second morning I started taking photos, stopping regularly for coffee when I started to get camera shake, shaking from the cold. Once the light failed I scouted more locations then stopped at a diner to grab a bite with the storyboards spread out around me. The excitement had pretty much worn off an hour into the flight over with the realisation that if I didn’t get what we needed the project was screwed and I was fucked.

I’d managed to put the flight back to make up for time lost. We needed street props, like call boxes and stop signs, as well as ground floor facades without people in the way. My last day, a Sunday, I was up early to get those required shots and whatever else I thought we needed.

The snow returned on the ride out to JFK. On the plane, a couple of minutes before our scheduled departure, they closed the airport. We got the meal and the movie still sitting at the gate. The last hour of our four-hour wait, a ground crew clambered about the wings, de-icing the plane. Even after the all clear, the take off was like a rollercoaster ride, rising and falling as the plane clawed its way into the air.

Back at Heathrow, I grabbed a cab and raced back to the studio. The place deserted. Everyone had gone to lunch. So I sat with the film canisters lined up on the producer’s desk and waited.

What I didn’t know was that an hour after we finally got airborne, a plane tried taking off from La Guardia and tipped into the lake. All they knew was I hadn’t arrived on schedule and a plane had gone down in New York. The studio director was pleased to see me. He was afraid they’d have to take all the photographs again.

The job got done and the clients were happy with the results. Some time later the studio producer called me up to say that one of the spots had even won a Clio.

It was the last job I ever did for the studio. The Head of Department who had initially hired me was pissed that I had been bumped up to be Mr 2D’s assistant. Directly liaising with the agency team on the producer’s behest and getting the trip to New York hadn’t helped either. She found me work on a useless Gerry Anderson project that went in the crapper before ever seeing the light of day.

Serving two masters, the lesson I should have learnt was, pleasing the right people is sometimes more important than getting the job done. Because, a decade on, the same kind of situation would take an even bigger wet bite out of me.


At 10:07 pm, Blogger wcdixon said...

"...pleasing the right people is sometimes more important than getting the job done."

A tough nut to swallow sometimes, but more true than not.


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