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. 


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Bits, Bobs, Odds and Sods

I'm having a massive spring clean in my studio, and all sorts of... stuff... is appearing from the bottom of dusty boxes. Or more likely, emerging from the pile of crap crammed down the back of my drawing board. Out of sight, out of mind...

Now here's an object you don't see much of any more:

It's a colour swatch for animation cel paint, and it's almost totally extinct. Back in the day these things cost an absolute fortune to buy because the printing of the colours on the swatch had to reflect the exact hue you were going to get in the pot of paint, with complete accuracy.

I also made up a few do-it-yourself marker-pen swatches using Pantone pens:

I used these to help select the colours for my animatic drawings:

From this we could find the equivalent colour in the cel paint range. The particularly nasty shade of orange on his Bermuda Shirt was shade 046 - just bright enough to induce migraine-blindness having painted a few hundred cels...

I can't remember how many bottles of 046 we got through, but the inch of paint you see here at the bottom is all we had left before finishing the 'shirt sequences'. The shade of yellow/orange we used for Rosie's hair ran out on the final cel. And the photocopy machine exploded and died after the last cel went through. It was all very symbolic.

Here's a final cel (from about 10:48 in the YouTube video )  which took a bunch of different colours to paint, each colour being applied to the whole sequence of cels in a run, before waiting for them to dry and applying the next colour. I'm reminded looking at this cel that I decided to save a bit of time by colouring the dark underside of his shoes, the bucket handles, and the shadow side of the brush with grey marker pens (top-cel'ing, as they used to call this, where the usual paint colour was applied to the back of the cel, and an additional 'fx' layer of pen, paint, or pencil rendering was added to the front of the cel). In this sequence the movement is so fast your eye can't detect the slightly scribbly pen texture of these areas. At least, I hope you can't...

So farewell to the Cel Paint Swatch - once outrageously expensive, now a defunct museum piece...

...although I can't quite bring myself to throw it away.

Might I need it again?

Never say never...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Thank You, Everyone!

What an amazing two weeks this has been for The Last Belle! Since arriving on YouTube we have had over 25,000 views, more than 800 'Likes', and a huge number of amazingly supportive comments posted underneath. Lovely stuff written by the followers of Cartoon Brew too, and a quick search of the internet (embarrassed to admit it, but we all do it don't we..?) has turned up more happy sentiments in English, French, Russian and a host of languages - for which I am eternally grateful to Google Translate.

So, to all of you out there, from me - and all of us at Last Belle HQ - Thank You for taking the time to support the film and to leave your thoughts. It is truly one of the happiest responses I have had to anything I have helped create.

Thanks too to the many lengthier private emails people have taken the time to write - I hope I have managed to respond to you all. There are questions still to be answered: will the film be released onto DVD? Will the soundtrack be released? Will original cels become available? I hope the answer to all these will eventually be 'Yes', but stay tuned to this blog for more details as they develop...

But the thing I have felt happiest about these past two weeks is not so much to do with The Last Belle itself, but the number of people who have written saying that watching our film has helped inspire them to start their own short film, or has reinspired them to finish off a project that has stalled. Some of you will have read an earlier blog entry I made encouraging people to dive in at the deep end and get going with a short film project; it is a process that is exciting, terrifying, educational, frustrating, satisfying, often tedious, sometimes exhilarating, and for which - regardless of how large or small your vision - you will never have enough money to 'do it properly'. In other words, filmmaking is as capricious as Life itself. And every once in a while it can have a happy ending too, as these past two weeks have demonstrated to me.

Thank you all again for your support, and if you can stand it please continue Posting, Facebooking, Tweeting and Linking so we can get the film out there to as many people as possible. In the meantime I will continue to burble away on this blog, with more behind-the-scenes stuff, bits of artwork found stuck behind a drawer, and the occasional good-natured rant.

See you back here...