Sunday, 12 October 2014

Between 1996 and 2000 The Last Belle production was housed in a studio at the delightfully named Wardrobe Place.

It's an utterly secluded little courtyard, and despite being within a two minute walk of St Paul's Cathedral, it's unknown to most Londoners, hidden away as it is behind an dull little tunnel. Inside house number 2 (which came complete with a standard London ghost - never seen by me but spotted occasionally by others) we drew, painted and shot quite a fair chunk of The Last Belle.

It was a fantastic place to come to work every morning. From my top floor room I could stretch my eyes over the rooftops opposite to the dome of St Paul's Cathedral; working late into the night I would be kept company by the chiming bells echoing around the moonlit courtyard walls. It was a pretty Dickensian existence, only with electricity, running hot water, and a 35mm rostrum camera in the basement.

Layout maestro Roy Naisbitt, producer Rebecca Neville and director Neil Boyle on the front steps of the studio. 

Sticking to my rule that every location in The Last Belle must be based on a real place (for new readers to this blog there's more on locations Here and Also Here), I snuck our studio building into the film, whizzing past in the background during a fast camera pan:

I was adamant the right-hand basement windows must be lit up for this night-time shot. The reason? Because it was behind these windows that our rostrum camera was tucked away. As a tip-of-the-hat to our brilliant cameraman John Leatherbarrow I made sure the camera room windows were blazing away in honour of the many late nights he put in painstakingly photographing our artwork one frame at a time.

Each time this shot flies by it reminds me what an amazing job John did - indeed, what an amazing job the whole crew did. We had absolutely no money to play with, but even if I'd been given a million pounds I couldn't have gathered a more talented bunch of artists.

Thank you all! And please switch off the lights when you leave.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

A Moment In Time - Part 3

A long silence from me...

...but finally the holiday season is passing, the Christmas commercial pitches are rolling in, and I'm back at the keyboard of this blog.

Today's offering is a little addendum to my recent posts on the legendarily unfinished movie 'The Thief and the Cobbler'. During my recent surge of studio spring cleaning I came across this little curio, which was made back in 1982:

I believe it was made as part of the drive to raise financing for the film, and was modelled on the famous toy puzzle where you have to navigate ball bearings, in their correct order, into hole-shaped slots. The ball bearings in this version are a golden colour, to echo the 'Three Golden Balls of Fate' atop a palace minaret, part of the storyline from the movie.

I have no idea how many of these were made - I would assume hundreds. Does anyone else out there have one tucked away at the back of their pencil drawer, like me?

And finally, here's a vintage Behind-The-Scenes-On-The-Thief picture taken by Simon Maddocks, the great photo-chronicler of so much British animation history (for which, thanks).

I had no idea this photo even existed until very recently. It shows a frighteningly young me sitting with assistant animator Tanya Fenton at one of the production parties (Summer? Christmas?) in 1991. It's very strange - in a 'Back to the Future' kind of way - to stumble suddenly across an unknown image from your life nearly a quarter of a century before...

All I can do now is marvel at the fact that in those days, sitting cross-legged on the floor all evening was a comfortable proposition...

Monday, 30 June 2014

If Desks Could Tell Stories...

After weeks of 'spring cleaning' my studio space is finally clear...

Entirely barren in fact, apart from a few kilos of dust. I am moving out of this work space and on to pastures new. But the drawing desk is coming with me. This is the desk (same desk - different studio space) where I first sat down in October 1996 to produce the first of 35,000 drawings for The Last Belle. This is the desk at which 95% of my work on The Last Belle was laid out, drawn, redrawn, erased, thrown in the bin and rescued from the bin. I've sat at this desk squinting at drawings, yelling in frustration at drawings and laughing at drawings (is it slightly embarrassing to admit to laughing at your own drawings now and again?) This desk has seen me sit at it all day and sometimes all night, both clean cut and unshaven, both elated and despairing, and on one occasion almost entirely naked (long story).

In short, we've been through a lot together.

But for a short while - between moving from my old studio space to my most recent studio space - my beloved desk had to go into storage. For an agonising few months I had to go without the perfectly tilted drawing board, the ergonomically designed shelving, and the exquisitely placed shallow pencil drawers. Instead, for the duration, I had sit on a bench (far too low) at my girlfriend's kitchen table (far too high). My 'drawing board' was a jagged 'L' shaped offcut of perspex (far too thin, so it wobbled) propped up against two piles of magazines (far too unstable) with an anglepoise lamp (far too hot) shining up behind it. It was in this makeshift torture chamber I animated this scene:


And here's the funny thing: when The Last Belle was finally finished and cut together, this scene - born in complete agony and discomfort, and without the aid of my beloved drawing desk - leapt out as my absolute personal favourite.

There's probably some profound philosophical insight I should be able to gain from this... but I'm buggered if I can figure out what it is.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A Moment In Time - Part 2

A wonderful afternoon was spent last Sunday at the British Film Institute, watching the first ever UK screening of the assembly cut of 'The Thief and the Cobbler', digitally restored and archived by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The print is a copy of how the famously 'unfinished' film stood on a single day in May 1992, when production was shut down by Warner Bros and the Completion Bond Company: a mixture of finished full colour footage, line tests, storyboards, 'missing scene' captions, final music, temp music, and the original character voices. It's an insight into what the final film might have been, but also an insight into how an animated film is constructed, the very workings of its birth.

It is 22 years since I saw any of that footage up on the big screen, and it brought back a flood of memories. Despite the struggle I remember going through on some of those shots, it all sailed past effortlessly on the screen - which hopefully means we got it right!

Considering the sad fate that befell the film, the event was an actually a very happy and uplifting day. As Richard Williams pointed out after the screening, the legendary animation artists who worked over so many years on this film - many of them now long dead - would have loved the audience reaction to their work, the laughter, the engagement with this intricate hand-crafted world shining up on the screen. Thanks to this preservation print, The Thief and the Cobbler is now no longer simply a film, or even an unfinished film, but a unique preservation of a craft, and its craftspeople, captured in time.

Here are some pictures from the post-screening reception, all taken by 'Thief' FX animator Simon Maddocks (with thanks):

Neil Boyle, Rebecca Neville, Richard Williams and Imogen Sutton

Layout and design maestro, Roy Naisbitt

Richard Williams, Heidi and Brian Stevens, 'Thief' DoP John Leatherbarrow

The party continues late into the evening... John Leatherbarrow and
'Thief' FX animator Mark Naisbitt

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Moment In Time

Calling all UK animators: on June 1st there will be a SCREENING of 'The Thief and the Cobbler - A Moment In Time', where Richard Williams' workprint of his unfinished feature (now digitally restored) will be shown, followed by an interview with the man himself.

I spent four years working on this film - a mere drop in the ocean compared to the decades that artists like Roy Naisbitt, Errol Le Cain and Ken Harris put in - but I did manage to rack up just over 1000 feet (about 11 minutes) of animation in those years, working with my two superb assistants Bella Bremner and Tanya Fenton. I can't wait to see everyone's work up on the big screen again - it feels like a lifetime ago...

In keeping with the Richard Williams theme, my ongoing Studio Spring Clean has unearthed a copy of The Association of Illustrators Newsletter, dated July/August 1976. I was still in short trousers, doodling in the corner of my junior school textbooks, when this interview with Dick was written. But it very much sums up his continuing approach to the craft of animation. Here are a few extracts (the author/interviewer is uncredited):

Richard Williams: "(At age 21) I couldn't stand Disney's work... and I managed to make an award winning 30 minute cinemascope film (The Little Island) which owed nothing to him. Over the next 10 years I made several non-Disney films but was gradually becoming frustrated at my lack of knowledge... of technique. So instead of fighting it, and saying 'I don't want to be like my daddy' I decided to find out all about Disney's technique. Now his story-telling I've never liked, but what did fascinate me was how he got so good so fast.

...Knowledge doesn't corrupt, it only helps you. I may be arrogant as an artist, but I'm certainly not arrogant as a craftsman... We said: 'Let's get that knowledge before all his animator's die'.

The tricks we learned from these great men, and from studying prints of Disney's films in detail, we paractised on the commercials we were doing at the time.

I agree that you should have your own original approach, get away from talking bunny rabbits, and all the other cliches, but don't throw out all that technique." He gets up and walks across the room in a very wobbly manner, as though with some dreadful nervous disease. "If you want your character to walk like that, OK. You're avant-garde." He walks back, firmly planting his feet on the floor. "It's actually harder to do it (this) way - to give your characters weight. If you know all the tricks... you don't have to sweat blood getting it right. That way you can get more life into what you're doing.

Anyone who ignores Disney is stupid, or else scared that he'll lose his own identity. My guys don't lose theirs; each one directs his own commercial, but if he wants it, there's a load of experience behind him he can call on.

The only advice I can give students who want to come into this business is to draw things in movement. Forget cartoons. It would be a lot easier for us if there were more draughtsmen and fewer cartoonists around. Anyone who can really draw gets a place here. If you're a student, don't skirt round old traditions. Go through them, and when you come out the other side, you've got to be better. Don't burn the library. Otherwise you're like the carpenter who looks at a beautifully made old table and decides to make his own out of orange crates. Very exciting, but liable to fall to pieces."

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A Visit From Mr Naisbitt

More trawling through the Last Belle archive has turned up some old pics of a visit to my ex-studio space from Mr Roy Naisbitt, circa 1998.

Roy Naisbitt laying out one of his huge backgrounds for the
Underground tunnel sequence in The Last Belle.
 I've detailed on this blog before (Part One HERE and Part Two HERE ) the process by which we designed this sequence. But it was always an exciting day when Roy would arrive in the studio with a new section of artwork completed, ready for me to add the character animation.

The problem was, our studio wasn't quite big enough to lay this monster out... we had to snake our way through various offices, and walk the length of the building to get a feel for how the artwork was flowing.

Neil Boyle and Roy Naisbitt discuss how the
action will play out. Tracer/colour modellist
Samantha Spacey can be seen half a mile off,
at the other end of the layout... 

The arrival of one of Roy's completed backgrounds always brought the studio to a standstill, as people wandered up and down along the length of it, heads swivelling, hypnotised. And, as you would with the launch of a new ship, there was usually a bit of a celebratory drink to follow.

The day after, sitting in the peace and quiet of my office, I'd take the first section of the background, stick it on my drawing board, and stare... How on earth was I going to move my character believably through this labyrinthine perspective..?

The answer - as always - was:  go make a coffee. Have another think. Make another coffee. And when you can't put it off any longer, reach for a blank sheet of paper, reach for a nice soft pencil, and just start drawing.

It was so much fun.

(The final sequence can be seen at 10:02 here. )

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Matt Groening

By strange coincidence my studio Spring Clean has just unearthed this old snapshot from 2008...

Matt Groening, Neil Boyle, Sophie and Pieter Van Houte, and Richard Williams.
... at the same time that production company Th1ng releases their 'official making-of' (WATCH HERE.) our Sylvain Chomet-themed Simpsons couch gag. There's also an article to accompany the video in The Beak Street Bugle.

The dinner took place at Le Petit Zinc restaurant in Annecy, France. Matt Groening was at the film festival promoting 'The Simpsons Movie' and Richard Williams was publicising 'The Animator's Survival Kit - Animated' (which is what I was working on at the time), and we all decided to get together for a slap-up meal. We had a great evening as a variety of anecdotes flew across the table. Despite Matt being beseiged by throngs of autograph hunters wherever he went - in the restaurant, on the walk back to his hotel, on the way to the toilet - he was endlessly gracious to his fans. A real gentleman, and a true artist in his philosophy of life. I really enjoyed his company.

On this evening I couldn't have guessed in a million years I would get the chance to make my own very small contribution to his legendary Simpsons show... Life is full of surprises. And some are as happy as this.