Tuesday, 29 November 2011


For anyone who hasn't visited our main web site you may have missed that The Last Belle teaser trailer is now up and running. You can visit it at You Tube.

And - briefly diverting off The Last Belle for a moment - I just noticed something else on You Tube... A few months back while I was wading through some complicated post-production, I was wondering why it was that nobody seemed to make those simple, but effective, looking TV ads any more - the ones that I gather used to be so popular in the 50's, 60's, 70's and early 80's, featuring a character just doing its stuff against a white screen, usually with no cuts; just straightforward character animation. It was a style that seemed to have more or less died out. And then a couple of days later I got a call from director Dan Greaves at Tandem Films asking if I'd like to animate exactly that: a new 20 second ad featuring a simple line character doing its stuff against a white screen. A wish come true! It was enormous fun to do, a real animator's holiday - you can watch it here.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Thanks to Sienna Guillory who tweeted The Last Belle website yesterday, live from the set of her latest movie 'Resident Evil: Retribution'.

Sienna Guillory, who performs the voice
of Rosie in The Last Belle.
I became aware of Sienna's work back in 2000 when she starred in the brilliant BBC adaptation of Kingsley Amis' 'Take A Girl Like You' (still inexplicably unavailable on DVD... come on, BBC). Since then I have watched her appear, chameleon-like, in an amazing variety of roles, starring in mega-budget action films, micro-budget short films, historical drama, futuristic drama, comedy, episodic television, theatre.... and now our animated cartoon. Or, as Sienna describes herself at the top of her tweets: "Sometime school teacher, assassin, elf warrior, stripper, zombie killer, robot... Full time mother of twins."

It's amazing how versatile modern actors have to be, navigating all the modern technology of a movie set, as well as green screen, virtual sets, invisible co-stars who won't be added until post-production, performance capture technology, and goodness knows what else. And in the case of voice recording for animation there's almost nothing to work with, except a small soundproof room, a microphone, and lots of imagination.

I don't think anyone realises just how hard it is to act under these circumstances until they try it themselves. Case in point: during the recordings for Last Belle I would occasionally step into the recording booth to feed ('off camera') lines for the actor to respond to. When our editor Ivan Naisbitt cut all the dialogue together he made an additional little treat for me: a whole tape where he cut out all the actor's proper lines and kept in just the stuff of me feeding lines 'off camera'. Now, I knew I'd never make it as an actor, but nothing could have prepared me for just how excruciating my 'performance' was! The whole editing department fell about laughing while I tried to hide in a corner. And from that moment to this I've been very happy to disguise myself behind pencil and paper characters and vent all my performing urges through them. Animation is a great way of showing off to an audience while actually hiding behind a drawing board in the attic. Suits me.

I lived with these character voices for several years (Aaaagh - the voices in my head! ) as we slowly pieced The Last Belle together frame by frame, and remained inspired by the performances throughout - thanks to Sienna, Amanda Donohoe and Colin McFarlane who are all (unlike me) wonderfully versatile actors.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Roy Naisbitt - part 2

Roy at work on a Last Belle background

In the late summer of 1996 I'd just finished jetting back and forth between London and Los Angeles for a year and a half, directing sequences on the Warner Bros. feature film Space Jam. We were all exhausted when that movie wrapped so I decided to take a break from commercial production for a while and concentrate on my own work ... and so The Last Belle was conceived. For The Last Belle I wanted to get Roy Naisbitt involved from day one so we could develop a sequence together; but when I say 'together' I really wanted to give Roy free reign to let his pencil run with an idea, unrestricted by commercial considerations or 'client's comments'. Pure, undiluted, Roy.

One of Roy's concept drawings for the Moron Mountain sequence in Space Jam.

I'd always loved the brief flashes of Roy's imagination in the Maroon Cartoon at the beginning of Roger Rabbit, and the travelling camera shots in Richard Williams' oscar winning version of A Christmas Carol and I began to wonder what would it be like if one of these crazy perspective shots lasted not just 4 or 5 seconds, but kept going on... and on... for more than a minute?

My brief to Roy for the Underground Tunnel Sequence in The Last Belle (outlined in part 1) was simple:
1) When our drunk character falls down the steps he should plummet like he's just stepped out of an aeroplane at 20,000 feet.
2) As soon as he's dropped we (the audience) should lose all sense of what is up and what is down.
3) He needs to splat into a column at the end, and,
4) The whole shot should last roughly one minute.
Other than these four points I wanted Roy to feel free to take the sequence in whichever direction he wanted.

Roy set to work immediately, but not - as I might have imagined - at the drawing board. To begin with he started doing research. Lots and lots of research. In fact an amazing amount of research. First he took a small camcorder down into some real Underground tunnels and staggered around with the camera as if he were drunk (doubtless to the amusement of passers-by). Then we reviewed the point-of-view footage, taking sections of it and speeding it up or slowing it down to see what it felt like. Then Roy took a stills camera and photographed a variety of different stations, each with a different style of architecture. And then he photographed every possible detail that might be of use: handrails, tiles, lights, mirrors, signs, rivets and textures. From this he made up a comprehensive scrapbook of images which we both pored over and discussed. He then took all these images, all these choices, put them to one side, and for the first time reached for a pencil.

This amount of research should not have been a surprise to me because anyone who has trained under Richard Williams will be familiar with it. Even on a very, very tight schedule I've known Dick to spend days collecting research before he goes anywhere near a pencil, and although in the meantime the producers and the clients might be going crazy with worry that nothing appears to be happening, and nothing appears to be getting done, Dick would always then sit down at the drawing board and - fully loaded with information - start drawing faster, and more decisively, than you can imagine. Just so with Roy.

One afternoon Roy and I met up and decided the time was right to get going on designing this shot. Here's what happened: once Roy had absorbed and put aside the reference he laid out a long roll of cheap lining paper across the floor of his studio and, using a soft piece of charcoal, began to score long arcing lines down the length of it.

"OK. Here are the stairs. They're gonna drop down probably something like this."  Swish!   Swish!  A six foot section of paper was filled in seconds with loose lines - no details, no steps indicated, just rhythmic swooshes.

"What do you think?" Roy asked me, and turned back to consider it himself. Then he added, "I think it needs to be longer."

So he tore out the last half of the drawing, discarded it, and re-attached the blank roll of paper to the start of the drawing again. Swish! Swish! Longer swooping lines. The sticking tape and the paper were covered in charcoal finger marks and there were footprints along the drawing where Roy was pacing the length of it, extending the lines, unrolling more of the blank paper. This was the closest thing to a sculptural process I'd ever seen while someone was drawing. It was physical and it was energetic.

Once Roy had got a good length of the drawing sketched out he began to pace along it, cupping his hands to approximate the area the camera would eventually see. He thought it looked pretty good and got me to pace the length of it too. A few horizontal lines were added in to loosely indicate steps, and an approximation of tiles on the wall. But still to an onlooker, outside of this process, there would be little sense of the actual environment Roy was drawing; at this stage the drawing was almost symbolic of the feeling of falling, but not of an actual, structural place.

Over the following weeks Roy sketched out tighter and tighter versions of this layout, starting in coloured pencil, then graphite and finally ink. We took each of these versions and shot them, however crudely, on a video linetester, panning and rotating them under the camera to find the right speed to move over them, and all the while I was imagining how the character was going to move through this space -an interesting animation challenge as I'd have to animate the character as if he were motivating the camera move, even though the camera move would have been finalised before I even began to start drawing the character. With each pass the structure became more and more solid and details began to emerge.

The inked version of a section of background.
The artwork for the first 12 seconds of the shot alone was 35 feet long.
The camera information, which shows the lens centre and field size for
every frame of the movement.

It finally dawned on me that one of the things that makes Roy's work so unique is that he works the opposite way to many other layout artists. Rather than starting with a basic structure, a basic perspective grid, and building details up over it, Roy starts with a feeling, develops it in a kinetic way, and only afterwards tries to shoehorn the laws of perspective to it. The end result is something that appears solid and logical (Roy originally trained as a carpenter, so he understands structure brilliantly), but which is actually built upon the foundations of a dream.

John Leatherbarrow and Roy discuss how to shoot the artwork. John would
often have to repeat the camera moves several times so that different lighting
effects could be built up onto the film negative. 

Roy, with typical modesty, just claims that his drawings come out so weird because he never had a formal art school training, and therefore doesn't know all the correct rules of perspective! Whatever the case, getting to work with a visionary artist is one of the biggest kicks a director can have, and certainly one of the privileges of the job. I finally got to help create one of Roy's pieces of art, and had the chance to animate across and through its unique perspectives. Thanks Roy.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Roy Naisbitt - intermission

Before getting onto part 2 of my post on Roy, a quick intermission about the Bradford Animation Festival from which I've just returned.

The National Media Museum, home of the Bradford Animation Festival.

We had a terrific two hour slot within the festival, framed around Fraser MacLean's new book 'Setting the Scene'. Fraser gave a passionate talk about the importance of the animation layout process, and it's history, before introducing Scott Caple onto the stage. Scott took us through a selection of his intricate layout and design drawings for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Incredibles, before I went up on stage with Roy to briefly talk through his layout work on The Last Belle. Then we rounded it all off with a screening of the film.

We had a fantastically enthusiastic audience, and many came up afterwards to chat, and ask questions of Scott and Roy, while Fraser signed copies of his book.  Thanks to everyone who came to talk with us, and to Deb Singleton and all her super-efficient festival staff. It's always energising to be surrounded by so many people who are passionate about the craft of animation, and of film in general.

Scott, Fraser and Roy
It was great too to see that the festival hosted a screening of the works of animation director Geoff Dunbar, and awarded him a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. I had the pleasure of working with Geoff a few years back on the animated short 'Tuesday', for which Geoff directed and Paul McCartney produced and scored. Geoff's a brilliantly talented guy, and he has the funniest stories I've ever heard about the London animation scene between the 1970s to the present day... many of which are unrepeatable. Top man.

Geoff Dunbar... homeward bound.

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...)