Friday, October 30, 2009

3B Animation

Of all the bookshops on Charing Cross Road the one I’m least likely to frequent is Foyles. It may be seen as an institution, and has managed to stand its ground while other stores have come and gone, but that whole rigmarole of purchasing anything there, which entailed receiving an invoice then being sent off to pay for it before coming back to collect the book, seriously put me off. Even though, since the death of Christina Foyle, everything has been modernized and simplified, I’m still liable to stick to the competition across the road.

Last night I pitched up at Foyles because their penultimate event of the month featured Richard Williams promoting the updated, expanded version of his book The Animator’s Survival Kit, which should be essential reading for anyone who has even an inkling that they want to be an animator. Canadian born, after winning a BAFTA for his animated short The Little Island, Williams eventually set up shop in London and went on to animate countless award–winning commercials as well as title sequences for the likes of What’s New Pussycat? and titles and animated sequences for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Little Brigade.

After all that success, one day he decided he was a fraud who didn’t know anything about animation. In the following years he brought over animation veterans Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick and Milt Kahl, tapping into their many years of accumulated experience and “drinking their blood,” to retrain himself as well as provide schooling for the younger animators working at his studio. All that wealth of knowledge has been distilled into the book and a 16-DVD box set using material from the animation masterclasses he has given around the globe.

In Foyles’ third floor Gallery, he talked about his background and years in the business, showed clips from the DVDs to demonstrate various animation techniques, and answered questions with typical candour. Having gotten out of the game years ago and since then not been too complimentary about some of the folk I worked with, it might seem strange to have found me there. Obviously I wasn’t after a signed copy of the book. Back in the day, once I was let loose from The Esteemed School of Art, Dick Williams was the first animation director I worked for, initially by default when I signed up to work for The Mouse, and then at his own studio in the months leading up the finance coming through for The Thief and the Cobbler.

The work was exacting but it was a fun time to be there. With only just over a dozen folk working at the studio I’d usually end up having lunch up the road at the local sandwich bar with Dick and the animators, trying not to choke on my food as I listened to him tell tales out of school. His irreverent sense of humour appealed to me and we got on well together. He made it clear to the studio producer that even if they didn’t get the money he wanted me to stay on, which was nice. When a budget was finally approved, just before Christmas, I had a long think about it and decided to move on.

It might have been a big mistake, but from my experience during the last months on The Rabbit it was quite apparent that the moneymen were simply after profit while Dick was more interested in perfection. I figured it was one train wreck that I didn’t want to watch. Going back a year later to fill in for someone on holiday there was a big difference now that the once free–range studio had turned into a battery farm. With all the pressure he was under at that point Dick certainly hadn’t looking his best, which was why it was so gratifying last night to see him look fitter, more energized, and back to his old self.

Asked about the secret to animation his response was simply that it’s a lot of very hard work. As with everything there are various shortcuts, but when you look at the end result they show, so the only things that should stop you from doing your best are, as always, time and money. When it came to his thoughts on CGI he made the telling point that 3D animation was more about puppetry and manipulating a marionette. While some 3D animators he knows are talented artists, others had never drawn a thing in their lives but had the talent to bring out the performance inside the computer.

That said, one problem facing any CG animators who haven’t had any real schooling in the tradition art of animation is they don’t know how to properly define a character’s centre of gravity or get their weight distribution quite right. Other directors, most notably Ted Rockley at Klactoveesedstene, had commented about this failure in the past. Anyone who watched the computer–generated Captain Scarlet series some years ago will have seen various characters and even objects that had no weight to them. It didn’t mean that they floated but there was little or no emphasis of any shift in mass when they were in motion.

Amongst the many clips shown last night, one included a brief snippet on Dick’s guide to animating a horse walking. Apparently, because of the joints in the legs, animating a horse is “an absolute swine”, which probably accounts for how so many restaurants have been getting away with it all these years. The short sequence was cut in with a human walk cycle that, when it came to a foot moving forward with each step, showed the initial contact point with the heel touching the ground, immediately followed by the weight as the sole of the foot flattens and the body shifts downwards.

Although it doesn’t specifically highlight each specific weight point – which comes directly after contact – this is a fascinating clip to explain the process, and should serve as a taster for what both the book and the DVD set will teach you.

To advertise the book, and to use as the opening titles for the DVD set, Dick took the dozen characters that appeared on the cover and animated them each making an entrance and then continuing on a walk cycle. Employing thousands of drawings, many of which are reproduced in the book, when he was touring the West Coast to promote the new addition, animators at a 3D house asked him what piece of kit he used to come up with the individual images. “3B!” he said, which threw them a bit, wondering what this new system they hadn’t heard of was. Finally he had to explain it consisted of a 3B pencil and paper.

Some of the animators that used to be on staff were in attendance yesterday evening, most of which I hadn’t seen for the best part of two decades. Afterwards we took a few minutes to catch up. They were getting together for a drink once the signing session was over but I figured it was best to just have that brief moment in their company and go. Instead I had a chat with Dick’s wife, who I’d last seen at an event at the Cafe Royal sometime around the turn of the century, told her how pleased I was to see him back on form and looking so well, and then I headed off home. When you’re remembering the good times, sometimes it’s best not to push it.


At 5:51 am, Blogger potdoll said...

brilliant stuff!

At 6:58 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I’m glad you like it. I’ve been going back and looking at it again and again.

One of the chief things Dick said that he learnt from those animation legends, and in particular the great Milt Kahl, was to know where the weight of the character is in each drawing, and knowing where it has come from and where it is going.

He said it was a great day when Ken Harris looked at his drawings and stated that the work was getting better and he could be an animator. By then he had been in the business for about fifteen years or more and had already been showered with awards.

(If you don’t recognise the names, Ken Harris had worked in Warner’s Termite Terrace as the lead animator of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner; Art Babbitt worked as an animator and director for Disney where he created and animated Goofy, and animated the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and the mushrooms dancing to The Nutcracker Suite in Fantasia; Grim Natwick designed and animated Betty Boop for Fleisher and was the lead animator of Snow White at Disney; meanwhile Milt Kahl, who was considered by many to be the best of the best, animated The Prince and the scene with the dwarfs dancing with Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Thumper, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Peter Pan, both Lady and Tramp, Roger and Anita in One Hundred and One Dalmatians and O’Malley the Alley Cat. Probably the first work of his I ever saw was Shere Khan, Kaa and the great King Louie in The Jungle Book).

Around the time I was working for Dick he was voted “The Animator’s Animator” and I can remember him working on the key poses with a black fibretip pen rather than a pencil. And they were just spot on. As groundbreaking as The Rabbit was, the one drawback was that suddenly animation had to have all these effects runs to give the 2D a 3D look. All the damn shadows and tone and rims and highlights really destroyed the beautiful simplicity of a lot of the work. Of course in other respects it could help improve really duff work.

After that sidetrack and going back to giving the characters the proper weight, when he was giving masterclasses on the West Coast, sometime in the mid-1990s, just after Toy Story had come out, a whole bunch of animators from Pixar turned up. Dick couldn’t figure out what they would get out of it, but they said nearly all of what he taught was very useful to helping them animate their characters. Because again, it’s not simply about making something move, it’s about bringing it to life. (And the 3D animators foxed by the “3B” certainly weren’t from Emeryville).

At 10:26 pm, Blogger Colin Lorimer said...

Great post GD.

Love the "3B" quote.


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