Sunday, 6 November 2011

Roy Naisbitt - part 1

To tie in with the release of the book 'Setting the Scene' and its forthcoming promotion at the Bradford Film Festival (see previous post) I thought it would be a good time to discuss the work of layout legend Roy Naisbitt. (For anyone not familiar with traditional animation terminology, the layout artist creates the 'view' that the camera is seeing, including the scenery behind and around the characters.)

Roy Naisbitt

When I began working on The Last Belle I wanted to create a sequence in which our drunk character, Wally, trips up at the top of some stairs leading to a London Underground train station and tumbles down them, past the ticket office, down the escalators, smashing through a NO ENTRY sign into a disused tunnel, out again, and finally down to platform level where he splats into a column. I wanted to achieve this in one take - no cuts - but I didn't want to use computer graphics and I didn't want to hand animate the architecture changing perspective either. To complement the character's drunken state I wanted to use very distorted perspectives hand drawn onto great lengths of paper and photographed frame by frame by a camera zooming in, out and rotating along the length of it; a kind of two-and-a-half dimensional effect. In other words a perfect job for the master of unusual perspective and camera moves - Roy Naisbitt.

The Underground Tunnel sequence

But before getting down to the nitty-gritty of this sequence, and of Roy's working methods, bear with me on a little personal history: how I was lucky enough to meet up with, and finally work with, Roy himself.

When I was a 14 year old schoolkid - back sometime in the early 1980s - I was very hungry to learn about animation, so I wrote to the many animation studios in London asking for advice on how to become a professional animator. Some studios ignored my requests and others replied with a few dribbles of help, but what amazed me was that the Richard Williams Animation studio - one of the busiest, the most award laden, and in many ways the most out of reach to a teenage schoolkid - was in fact the studio that offered me the greatest encouragement. Over the next couple of years the studio staff endured my naive scribbles and amateur animation tests until finally, one summer holiday, they offered me the chance to come in for a couple of weeks as a relief runner so I could see how the place operated. One of my first errands was to be asked by a bloke called Roy Naisbitt if I could run out and buy him some wood glue. I figured Roy must be some kind of maintenance guy at the studio - only later did I discover that Roy was not only Dick Williams' right hand man, but also an amazing artist, and the guy who would build shelves and fix stuff up at the studio. When my two weeks of work was up Roy very kindly gave me some old bits of animation paper to do some tests with and some words of encouragement, and off I went.

Moving on a few years, I had enrolled in what turned out to be a disastrous college course in animation. On my first day, and within a few minutes of arriving, I found a kindred spirit - another aspiring character animator called James Baxter. With no prospect of there being any teaching of how to actually animate on this so-called 'animation course' we set each other tests, shot them in the evenings and on weekends using the downtime on college equipment, and then tried to critique each other's work in an attempt to self-teach. We'd got about one minute's worth of animation together when we heard a rumour about a new film called 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' which was still recruiting artists. We ran - literally - to the studio base in London's Camden Town district, handed in our unfinished videotape of animation, and were hired the next week as inbetweeners. By a sheer twist of fate both Richard Williams and Disney animator Andreas Deja were looking for new animation assistants at the same time we arrived on the scene. Andreas took on James, and I started with Dick.

By working with a Master of the craft like Dick I was privileged to begin getting the most amazing education in animation anyone could wish for - and I finally got to work with Roy on a professional level too, as we were all working on the opening 'Maroon Cartoon' sequence which had many examples of Roy's crazy perspectives.

Roy and Steven Spielberg on 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit', in 1987

But by the time I got to work on these shots Roy had already prepared the layouts and the animating backgrounds, and I couldn't figure out how he'd worked some of the stuff out. I'd ask him, "How'd you come up with that way of achieving this effect?" and Roy would shrug and say, "I dunno, I just did something..." I couldn't figure out if Roy was genuinely doing everything instinctively, or if he was just very, very modest and didn't like talking about it too much, but I became determined to figure out Roy's work method.

After Roger Rabbit finished Dick invited me to work on his (then unfinanced) feature 'The Thief and the Cobbler', promising me there was enough cash to keep me employed for a couple of months. In the end I stayed on the film for 4 years - an amazing period of time during which Dick really pushed the few skills I already had, and patiently taught me many, many more. And all the time I was still trying to figure out what it was that made Roy's layout work so unique...

Roy preparing a 'Thief and the Cobbler' background in 1990

Once again, by the time one of Roy's layouts reached my lightbox his creative work had been done - and I was none the wiser as to how he'd arrived at his decisions. I began to figure, the only way I'm going to participate in the birth of one of these layout sequences is to direct my own film and get Roy involved from day one..!

And so that's what I did. (To be continued...)


  1. That's a page out of Richard's playbook, hire a master and have him teach you on the clock. Looking forward to more of the story.

  2. As Dick always used to say, "When you work with a master of the craft you learn almost by osmosis." I couldn't agree more - you just have to be lucky enough to find the Master and then relentlessly hassle them until they take you on..!