Friday, December 28, 2007

Glittery things

There were a lot of things in the production of this movie that were responsible for it's rich tapestry of looks, but it is all too easy to forget that no post production took place.
While Roger Rabbit had the optical printer, the Thief came straight out of the camera, the way it was shot.
Also in the city, there lived a thief who shall be nameless...
Also in the city, there was some birefringence, which shall be called the Sellotape trick.
I am talking here about, what in computer terms is called, colour cycling.
The effect of coloured patterns cycling through all the hues in relation to each other is probably best known from the swirling background in the "Return of the Pink Panther" titles, but I think I am correct in assuming it is also responsible for the water effect in the fountainand most definitely the treatment of all the "gem effects" throughout the film.

Here's how it works:
The cameraman shoots the whole scene, camera-moves and all, but with the water area of the fountain painted black.
Film is rewound and the same move is shot again on the same piece of film, this time with a matte (black card or painted cel), the shape of the water surface, on the camera light box.
Behind the matte is a polaroid screen, (polarizing filter) that covers the matted area.
On top of this screen is a cel with the shapes of ripples stuck on from various layers of clear sticky tape (Sellotape in the UK).
Some 5 or 6 layers of tape have to be applied to get nice strong colours, so the whole shebang can become quite thick, which doesn't matter as it is all backlit and shadows are not an issue.
To the naked eye, this is still totally devoid of colours, but when seen through a second polaroid screen, turns into a veritable aurora borealis.
The second screen can either be a motorized filter that rotates on the camera or a second screen, applied to the top of the matte, the only important thing being that the cel with the tape is between the filters.
Polarizers restrict the light that falls through them to wave action in one direction only, that means, if you put a horizontal polarizer on top of a vertical one, virtually no light penetrates, rotate the top screen to horizontal and the screens become clear, the principle behind the display on your pocket calculator.
Stretched polythene, such as cling film (Ceranowrap) and sticky tape, has the weird property of twisting light that falls through them, but, and here is the trick, not all colours by the same amount.
So if for example enough layers are applied to twist red through 90 degrees more than green, than, with the filters above and below at right angles, no green penetrates, but red goes through unhindered.
If the top filter is allowed to rotate, the generated colours cycle through their respective hues.
A colour filter would be added to tint the whole effect. Blue, in this case.
The process is called birefringence, but we never called it that of course.
If any Rostrum camera person out there knows what they called it, please enlighten us.
There are added back lit water effects on top of these two exposures and there would probably have been some top lit effects as well but I'm sure we will come to some of those techniques later when we arrive at (what Dick called) the Star wars scene.
If you have children and come back from the Imax 3-D one day, with your pocket full of cheap cardboard 3-D glasses, get the Sellotape out and have some fun...
Your kids'll love it...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

the name of the rose

This is the story of a scene that may have puzzled quite a few people watching the movie-
two rotating roses on a palace background, a few feet long and seemingly without any context or purpose.
Planned as the first glimpse of the Princess, or rather, her hands, this is a POV shot and would have had added animation of her hands holding the stalks, then cut to Yum Yum arranging the roses in a vase.
The roses were animated by Margaret Grieve, our resident plant animator.I think it is fair to say that Dick indulged in a bit of type casting. Margaret is an avid gardener and, as the name might suggest, female and therefore deemed to be good at things like flowers and all things pretty. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of casting, i.e. Dietmar, a tall, big German became the expert on War machine contraptions and soldiers..Michael, another fellow German with a very analytical mind, an amazing ability to solve technical problems ( and none to explain it without giving you the history of the Guttenberg press and how to assemble same out of matchboxes) , was tasked with animating complicated helicopter shots of rushing landscape.
How I ended up with the ultra camp courtiers is anyone’s guess..
But I digress, back to the roses. So Margaret animated the roses, keeping track of every individual petal, and having in-betweened quite a few, that wasn’t an easy task. That took a few weeks. Then the scene went to render artist extra –ordinaire Dee Morgan, who painstakingly hand rendered each frame onto frosted cels. She the Render- Man!
After a few months of combined effort, the scene was ready for Dick to add Yum Yum’s hands… or so we thought.
At that time, renowned playwright John Patrick Shanley came aboard to write a new version of the script. And, if I recall correctly, that included lyrics for a song yet to be composed.( I somehow seem to recall that Mo was involved in these lyrics too) .
And these lyrics spoke of two roses, one like the sun, and one like a star- filled night. Geeky as I am, I hand-copied the lyrics for future reference.

So Dick decided that the scene would go back to Dee , so she could re- render the blue rose and add stars. Which took another few weeks, by which time , Shanley had left the picture and so did the song.
If anyone has any questions about why this movie remained unfinished , this story may give you a clue.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays everybody. We will be back in the new year

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


In the mid sixties Dick apparently got interested in the teachings of Sufiism, a middle eastern philosophy from the middle ages, and around 1966, he collaborated with Idries Shah on a series of books. Shah had written "The Sufis", the seminal work on Sufiism and was now collecting the Folk tales about the famous Mulla Nasrudin.
Nasrudin, who is known throughout the middle east and Russia, combines the figures of Teacher and fool, sometimes based on the idea, that, if you make a preposterous statement to your pupil, the pupil, by contradicting you, will have to reason his own way to the truth.
I am pretty convinced that Dick illustrated 2 books for Shah,
The exploits of the incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
of which I have a copy, and
The pleasantries of the incredible Mulla Nasrudin
which I once had a snoop through at Dick Purdums house.
The stories are mostly philosophical jokes and some of them resemble parabels that I remember being told in my childhood, so the basic concept seems to be a universal one. They're great fun and the illustrations are a perfect match for the strange tales.
The interesting thing is how many elements in the illustrations are predecessors of what would ultimately become the "Thief style".
Middle eastern illustrations, the influence for the backgrounds in the movie, rely heavily on the use of perfect geometrical patterns, that have an almost mathematical quality to them.
I remember, working up patterns for the crane across the golden city up to the minaret and being amazed by their logic.
Patterns that looked like a collection of star shapes would turn out to be nothing else but lines that turned left and right alternatively, but would weave over and under the lines they met in perfect regularity.
This created quite remarkably complex patterns.
Just look at the scene where Zig Zag contemplates men being "fools who walk in dreams" in his study.
The window in the background consists of ten pronged stars, surrounded by ten diamonds, interspersed with ten pentagons and ten pentagrams, before repeating again, yet, it's just bars going: turn right, over, under, turn left, over, under and so on.
Quite apart from the use of arabic patterns, the illustrations also featured many characters that resemble those in the film.
There is a Proto-thief, a Proto princess and many references to the Escher style optical jiggery pokery that later made up King Nod's palace.
Being a great fan of mathematical games and conundrums, I'm sure I will come back to these patterns later, especially when it comes to the work of Roy Naisbitt, the single most important influence in my life, as far as what "really melts my butter" is concerned, when it comes to graphic translations of reality into screen imagery.
I include some images from the book, published by Jonathan Cape.
There must, at some time, have been the plan to turn Nasrudin into a series of animated films because piles of boxes labelled with that name were populating the shelves at the forum, and many a rough animation on the theme seems to have been canibalized to populate the scenes of the final movie.
Incidentally Dick fell out with Shah after illustrating the book and there are rumours that Zig Zag is based on the character of the great Sufi master.
After what I heard Dick say about his film-villain, I would be very interested to meet Shah, with his 12 fingers, extra digits, two elbows on each arm and two arses...

I wonder...

Anyway, here's a Nasrudin Story:
In a dream Nasrudin saw himself being given money.
When there were nine silver pieces in his hand, the invisible donor stopped giving them.
Nasrudin shouted: "I must have ten" so loudly that he woke himself up.
Finding that all the money had gone, he closed his eyes again and murmured:
All right then, I'll take the nine...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Route Sheet Meeting

Dick Williams' approach to directing and managing was quite unique. He didn't really have a production team as we know it from other feature film studios. His wife Mo was co-producing with him and she had one assistant. Both of them had minimal interaction with the crew and were mostly taking care of the business side of things. Then we had 2 accountants for pay roll.
Dick managed the different departments himself with only one production coordinator, Ian Cook. There were people in supervising roles in camera, ink&paint and checking, but they were all also doing their share of the hands-on work in their departments.

Once a week (and later as we grew up to around 30 animators twice a week) we would gather for a route sheet meeting. Route sheets looked like this:Dick used them to keep track of the scenes from rough animation through final film. In the meeting he would work his way along the walls that the route sheets were hanging on (actually just the back of animation desks and shelves). Often he would be on his knees since they went right to the ground. As he was progressing through the scenes you knew when it would be your turn. He would ask you to estimate how much of the work you had accomplished. If you said 20% he would shade in 20% of the appropriate box with a blue color erase pencil (green meant it was done, shot on film and final). After a few weeks he had often shaded in more than was justified and he would ask: almost done? You had given your best, put in long hours, but still you're just half way through your shot. You tell him and now he starts erasing the box with the back of his color erase pencil, making some concerned noises. That was one of his ways of applying pressure.
He went through the same process in this same meeting with all departments. The next shot might be already in trace&paint and now it would be their turn to haggle over the percentage.
This would move along fairly swiftly and offered all sorts of opportunities to coordinate the needs of the different departments. Trace& paint, checking, camera would all know when each scene was about to come their way.

He had no scheduled review times. Most of the time he would be sitting at his desk in the middle of the big animation room and animate his scenes. Anybody who needed his feedback, animators, BG artists, T&P, checking would approach him carefully. He usually was very approachable and enthusiastic. If you were showing a linetest he would walk with you to the video linetester. He might ask “Is it good?”, which is a difficult thing to answer, but he was expressing confidence in you at that point. He wanted it to be good. Initially he would respond to the things he liked, before talking about things that he wanted you to change or improve. If he liked he would sometimes say so very loud and ask everybody around to come and check it out.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Work hard and party hard...

Here we see Roy Naisbitt in the Forum in front of his work area. On the right and left you see 2 of the route sheets. More about them in my next post...

I feel that most animation artists will be aware of Dick's achievements and a lot about him has been put into print already. Roy's contributions to the studio's work are also fascinating and inspiring. When I saw Dick and Roy working together I felt they were co-creators. Most of the non-character work in the film has been designed by him: The Golden City (you might remember the wall sized drawing in the Thames documentary that starts with the camera craning into Dick's office in the old Soho studio), most of the BG layouts and camera mechanics.
Sometimes he created intricate card board setups for the BG elements with mechanics similar to a jumping jack. In CG there is a way to link movements of different elements (in Maya you can use set driven keys). It's similar to that. The idea is that you have one control that moves a whole bunch of elements, sometimes at different speeds. He has also animated amazing technical F/X, turning things so convincingly as if done by a computer. There are some scenes that use the strobing effect of a pan to cause BG elements to animate. We'll discuss all that when we get to these scenes.

There is also all the work he contributed to the commercials, The Christmas Carol, the Pink Panther titles and Roger Rabbit, in particular the Maroon Cartoon at the beginning.

He is a passionate swimmer and he made a strong attempt to cross the English channel just a few years ago.
He kept his work life and personal life in balance. Work hard and party hard, that's his motto. A great man.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The animator's animator

Observer magazine, July 1,1990

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Roy Naisbitt, John Leatherbarrow and Paul Dilworth (new update from Paul)

(I could use some help here. I had hoped that when clicking on the image it would show up really big in the browser, so that you can scroll through it. If anybody knows what I'm doing wrong please let me know. Maybe it's just too long, for now I'll post front and end of the pan as a workaround)Here I did a little Hans Bacher style stitching job (what happened to your blogs Hans?) on this pan scene that precedes the first scene with the Thief.

This was the first scene of the Thief I saw on film. I had seen bits and pieces in several documentaries on VHS before. The day Dietmar and I were hired Dick gave us the tour of his little studio in Camden. It was a few months before he rented additional space in the Forum, where they had worked on Roger Rabbit. On the ground floor was the camera room and he asked John Leatherbarrow to show us what he had on the moviola. I was very impressed. The scene seemed to be glowing, especially the water fountain.

The Cobbler in this scene had been painted before the model was updated, apparently it didn't bother Dick in this case. At the end of the scene the camera zooms closer to the wall behind which the Thief will appear in the following shot. All we see are the flies that always follow him everywhere, because he has never had a bath and smells bad.

I think this BG is by Paul Dilworth. I always liked his stuff, very close to Errol's style.
Dick told us the story how he hired Paul. Apparently Paul was walking door to door in Dick's neighborhood offering to make paintings of people's homes. When Dick saw his work he asked him if he would like to paint BGs on his film. I think he liked discovering talent that way.

Here is a story by Michael Sporn about how Dick discovered voice actor Paul Matthews, while working on Raggedy Ann and Andy: (By the way there are some similarities between Andy's design and the Cobbler. I kind of remember somebody pointing out before that the Cobbler was conceived during that period.)

“Dick was in and out often recording and editing the voice track. A lot of time was spent in the rehearsal studios in the Broadway/theatrical of town. (That was about three blocks away from the studio.) In an elevator ride up to the rehearsal space, Dick overheard a large black man in the elevator. I believe he was a delivery guy, maybe a messenger. Dick popped up in a flash. He immediately asked the guy if he had ever done any acting. No? Well, Dick hired him on the spot to be the voice of the leader of the One Eyes. His voice was incredibly deep and dark. Within the week, Dick had rerecorded the lines. (Another actor had done him in England, and Dick was looking for something better.)”

I also like the story about how Dick convinced a bunch of Irish guys to record for the Brigands sequence. He invited them to the studio, made sure they had plenty to drink and had them read the script. He kept the tape rolling as they got more and more drunk. Eventually they started fighting, he got it all on tape and used it in the film.

Returning to the pan scene... you can't see it here but there are 3 levels of BG art moving at different speeds to create a multiplane effect. The room with the cobbler, the walls of the courtyard and the fountain at the end. The levels were actually right on top of each other, just seperated by speed, not like the Disney multiplane camera, but very effective.

There was no layout department, or rather the layout department was a one man operation: Roy Naisbitt. In other studios you also had a scene planning department which worked out camera moves. On the Thief that was all Roy for the most part. Sometimes the animators could do their own layout, zoom and pan under Roy's and Dick's supervision. Here I think Roy did the layout drawing and Paul the watercolor work. Roy told me one of his secrets when designing pan moves. Make sure that the speed is never even. At the bottom of the artwork he would have pencil calibration marks. This is when the BG has bottom pegs and the animation top pegs. Dick loves top pegs. So Roy would spread out the pan layout on his long layout desk and block out the pan maybe on 8s or 16s, very lightly, constantly erasing, changing the spacing. Only when he was happy with that would he draw in the inbetween marks. For the multiplane effect you would only need to xerox these calibration marks up or down.

I remember Roy telling me about how fascinated he was by what he was sometimes observing through the window while driving on the underground train. Shapes zipping by would move up and down, weaving in a s-curvy way. He decided to use that when designing pan backgrounds.
In this BG you can see how he avoids parallel horizontal lines. That makes this very fast pan work really nicely even though there is no motion blur painted in, as it was in Disney movies. Everything is always in focus in this film, just watch the War Machine sequence, no depth of field either.
Roy gave each scene it's unique layout. He really nailed the 2 dimensional, persian look. Floors in perfect downview and parralel perspective, beautiful shapes.

When I grabbed the frames for this I made sure to have a bit of overlap where I wanted to stitch the images. In these areas I noticed differences in exposure, in brightness. That reminded me of the camera tricks that John Leatherbarrow brought to the table. After gaining a lot of experience with mattes on Roger Rabbit. Dick and John decided to use mattes on the Thief in a way that went far beyond the usual F/X like fire and lightning. Making use of John's computerized motion control camera they used mattes on BG elements to expose parts of the BGs differently. They would do multiple camera runs just for that. I think they even used colored lights in the different runs, changing the appearance of the BG sometimes dramatically. That way they could make you forget that you're actually looking at a piece of artwork. It just becomes a world. This effect shows up the most on film projected on a big screen. On a TV even a DVD doesn't show it. On the big screen some of the stuff was just incredibly beautiful.
In this scene I'm pretty sure that John changed exposure as the pan moves from the shadow into the bright sunlight and again towards the end of the pan and at the beginning he might have used blue light on the outside wall and normal light for the inside room with the cobbler.

I think Neil animated the water and flies. All this probably in late 1989, since I saw it in January 1990.


during the 90-92 period there were 2 other camera men on John's team, Allen Duck and Brian Riley. I wouldn't really know who would have done the actual camera work on any scene, but John was overseeing everything. They worked in shifts by the way to be able to deal with the growing footage that came their way.

One time I had worked out a fairly complicated camera by-pack for a scene I had animated on, something I couldn't do on the video line tester. I asked John if I could check if it worked before it would be shown in front of everybody in rushes. He told me there was no time and that he didn't have much sympathy for animators always wanting to make sure that things worked. He said it in a much nicer way since he is a friendly guy, but he pointed out that the camera team was in that scary spot every morning. They worked all day and night and would not know if they made a shooting mistake or chose the wrong exposure or whatever until rushes were shown.

new update from Paul Dilworth:
I didn't do the long panning bg. It was an Errol le Cain bg. I did some close ups of it I think.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

No clean-up department?

Dick liked to clean up at least a few key poses for every shot in the film himself. As an animator your goal was to get your poses as close as possible to the way he would draw, so he wouldn't have to change too much. If you were confident you could go and get your model check drawings early. After a while I started to do it more often that way, because it was faster. He did not like to look at pose tests, though. To get your animation approved you had to have the stuff pretty much rough inbetweened on twos. If he didn't like your animation you would have to address the notes and ask him again at some point to go over your revised drawings. It felt safer to get your scene roughed out on twos and once it was approved let him do a few key clean ups and then adjust the inbetweens. You were responsible for the shot until it went through trace&paint, everything on ones. You had assistants to help you with inbetweens, but there was no clean-up department.

I forgot to mention that clean-up on the Thief meant clean-up ready for trace&paint. Previously the craft of tracing animation drawings onto cel had not been practiced much since Disney introduced the xeroxing process on One Hundred and One Dalmatians .
All the drawings had to have a very clear pencil line, but you could have color roughs under the drawings. Another thing that contributed to the quality was that we worked with enormous scope field sized paper, keeping line thickness and wobble really low.

Cobbler and Errol

This is the first Cobbler scene, second scene in the movie, right after the opening. This first image is from Art Babbitt's original linetest.
It was re-animated, probably by Alex Williams, who did a lot of the Cobbler scenes. Jerry Verschoor was Alex's assistant for most of the film, so I would guess that he worked on this as well. This new version I have only seen as a linetest, so I assume it might not have gotten into trace and paint.
Lacking a color image I'm showing this one, which is from a same-as scene a little later in the film:
The proportions are much different, very short torso and long legs and a lot of detail shapes have been changed. The animation style is different, too.
The original animation is very posey, everything moves and stops at the same time. The final animation has overlap build in, hiding the keys, things stop at different times. The design is more sophisticated, using asymmetry for more interesting shapes. The spacing would also have been adjusted for the use of ones, rather than just putting inbetweens between every 2nd Drawing of animation that has been done on Twos.
This is to avoid the spacing becoming too even and floaty.

If I remember correctly the watercolor BG for this scene is by Errol Le Cain. That was always something special, an original Errol. He played a huge role in creating the look of the film. Early on he did a lot of inspirational illustrations to establish the style, inspired by Persian miniature art. He also provided final background paintings for the film. He died in 1989. I don't know when he stopped working on the Thief. While we worked on the film, a huge number of new BGs were created by other artists and they all had to match his style.

This is Errol in an old documentary from the 60's about Dick's studio:Here are 2 of his inspirational illustrations:

link to some of his other work.
(use also the next page button)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ken Harris and Art Babbitt

When we joined the studio in 1990 the Thief had been in production in some form for 25 years. The studio had made a lot of money on commercials, which Dick had invested into the feature.
Whenever possible he had his artists working on the Thief in between and sometimes even during commercial assignments. He had worked out a deal with Ken Harris to bring him out of retirement. For several years Ken, who lived in the US, spent 6 months every year working at Dick's studio in London. (This started when Chuck Jones produced the Christmas Carol and brought Ken on to animate at Dick's studio in 1971 or 72.) Ken contributed lots and lots of animation on the Thief character. Since his Warner days he had a personal goal of animating 30 feet every week. Another major animator on the film was Art Babbitt, who animated scenes with King Nod, the Cobbler, the Dying Messenger and Zigzag. Initially Dick had put some of the work through the system. He would clean up the drawings, add overlap etc. It then went through trace and paint and camera. Over the years the designs evolved however, and in order to keep the models consistent Dick found himself redoing scenes that were done in final color already. To avoid this Richard Purdum, one of the directors working at the studio in the 70's, suggested to keep the animation in the line test stage and save it to be reworked later. After Roger Rabbit Dick finally was able to find outside funding to start working on the film full time with a bigger crew. Ken had died in 1982, while Art was still alive, but already in ill health (He died in 1992). Art had also given a lot of lectures at Dick's studio and Dick based a lot of his own Master Class and his book The Animator's Survival Kit on Art's teachings. By 1990 Dick had already finished a lot of scenes with the Thief and had nothing but praise for Ken's animation. He now started to delegate a lot of this work to Neil Boyle and later also to Alan Simpson and myself. I think the Thief was Dick's favorite character, but he also wanted to establish the design and animation style for some of the other characters: The Cobbler, King Nod, Zigzag and Yumyum. He did this by animating the first scenes himself and then picked some of his animation poses to create model sheets.
Sometimes when working over Art's animation he could be heard voicing his frustration out loud. In retrospect, while giving Art a lot of credit for his earlier work and especially appreciating him as a teacher, he realized that Art's work on the Thief had it's problems (one has to consider that Art had been in his seventies) and that he needed to rework it much more than Ken's and often even completely redo scenes. He told us that he also regretted giving in to Art requesting model changes to characters that he had been assigned to animate. He had been Art's employer and director but also his student and at the time, out of respect, had not allowed himself to be critical of his mentor.
To balance things out you might want to look at this:

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

I remember working on a couple of scenes introducing the Nanny to the film early on, one of my first assignments. After inbetweening a short while for Neil Boyle, who managed to train us very quickly in developing a sharp eye for a good in-between and keeping volumes consistent, I was assigned to assist Alyson Hamilton, who was charged with animating the Nanny dragging a bunch of bananas, then, in real Warner Bros style beating up the Thief before returning to her task humming a merry little melody-
a tune that kept being hummed constantly in our house in Kentish Town.
While Alyson tried out a multitude of ways to give the Nanny her shaky walk , I was charged with inbetweening the bunch of bananas. Having learned all about inbetweening ( I thought ) ,I was quite convinced that the keys weren’t properly charted and totally inbeweened the stagger out of the animation. And I am not kidding when I say that it took ages to finish one single in-between of that multitude of bananas. And this being a Dick Williams film, of course they were charted on ones. Well, it taught me an important lesson never to change an animator’s keys or to at least inquire what his or her intention might be. I humbly re-inbetweened the lot…many times..many,many times.
Dick wasn’t quite happy with the stagger for a while and so for several weeks I seem to have only drawn bananas. I vaguely recall also inbetweening the Nanny, but the banana incident certainly overshadows all that. I think I can speak for all of us Germans in stating that we got a thorough training and understanding of inbetweening and volume control in our first assignments on the movie. As far as I can recall, the long shots were Ken Harris’ original animation and were not altered.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Continuity or not...

We're currently debating if we will discuss the scenes of the film in continuity.
I feel it's a good way to start, but maybe it will be more interesting to loosen it up pretty soon and start talking about scenes regardless of where they fit in. This would also make it easier for us when we take turns posting.