Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pencil Tester vs. Art

Tom Roth sent this in as a comment on the "More Art" post:

Sometime back around 1979 I bought a Lyon/Lamb videotape pencil tester. Although a couple of big studios had them at the time I was the first individual animator to get one, the prototype unit.
So I decided to pay a visit to Dick Williams, who I’d worked for on Raggedy Ann and Andy. He had just set up a studio on Hollywood Boulevard. Dick and Art Babbitt shared a room there. Dick was busy animating a commercial as Art worked on the Thief.
Enthusiastically, I told Dick about this wonderful new gadget I’d gotten that you could shoot a test and play it back immediatly. This was back when they had to send scenes out to a camera service, shoot it and then send it to the lab so they could see the dailies the next day.
Of course, Dick was intrigued but Art interjected that he didn’t think it was a good idea because it would “become a crutch”. They certainly didn’t have anything like that when he was at Disney so it couldn’t be of much value.
Dick’s respect for Art was such that Art’s word was law so that was that. They had a complex relationship. Even though Dick was Art’s boss he always deferred to Art’s opinion.
A few weeks later, Dick rang me offering a job, and, eager to escape from the Hanna/Barbera factory where I worked I gladly accepted.
It wasn’t long before Dick started ‘sneaking’ over to my house at night to shoot pencil tests on The Thief. Later, I moved the Lyon/Lamb unit into the studio So, I guess, in a sense Art was right about it becoming a crutch because everyone in the studio became immediately dependent on it, including Dick.
Art never used it until one day in about 1983 he came shuffling into my room saying “Say Tom, mind if I use your infernal machine?” This, to me, was a great personal triumph as I have always considered myself an advocate for new technology.
When I think back today about the technology we used then- before the digital revolution- it seems amazing that Dick accomplished what he did. The technology then was little different than it was 60 years earlier.
Back then, there was talk that someday computers would ‘take over’ animators jobs. Art hated the idea but said if they do, animators would have to operate the computers.
I think time has proven him right.


Holger said...

Thanks Tom!
Dick told us an abbreviated version of this story, just the crutch bit and that he, Dick disagreed with Art on the subject. He thought that the pencil tester made for better animators.
It's great to find out about this more in depth.

Will Finn said...

Eric Larson warned us about the same thing at Disney. It was indeed kind of a crutch, but some of us mortals actually need to test a scene to know if it works. I think in the end it sped up the learning curve a bit.

Bakshi guys say that films like WIZARDS and HEAVY TRAFFIC were done with no pencil testing at all: Ralph just flipped the scenes to test them. Whatever you may think of the movies, that seems incredibly bold by almost any standard.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

At SVA here in New York, we animation students are completely dependent on our Lunchbox pencil test units. I could understand if it seems to be a crutch, but for aspiring new animators like ourselves, it's a vital tool to learn how to animate. After shooting a test, we discover/analyze what we did wrong, learn a lesson & apply that to our next assignments.

We're grateful to our "infernal machines", but after a while it seems we do take them for granted.

Michael Sporn said...

Will, most of the NY studios went without ANY pencil tests. It was a great rarity if John Hubley had a pencil test done of any scene. The only one I can remember was the Art Babbitt scene of the mime from Everybody Rides The Carousel.

Perhaps this is why Tissa David was the first to get her own Lyon Lamb machine in NY - she did so much work for John and always looked to improve her animation.

Michael Sporn said...

I also just realized - I have all of Tissa's Lyon Lamb tapes for the pencil tests she did of the princesses for The Thief. Her machine stopped working, and I don't know where I'd find a reel-to-reel type machine. Does anyone know or have one to transfer these tapes?

David Nethery said...

It's odd now to think about Art Babbitt's antipathy towards the video pencil tester.

Other than the immediacy of being able to view the test without waiting several hours or overnight to get the processed film back from the lab, I can't really see how shooting a pencil test on film is much different than shooting on video tape ?

It seems a bit ironic because in the 1930's some people in the animation industry like Babbitt's former employer Paul Terry disdained the use of pencil tests when the Disney animators like Babbitt were leaping ahead of everyone else in the 30's partially because of new-fangled innovations like the pencil test .

In The Illusion of Life there is a passage quoting Bill Tytla on page 135 where Tytla says :

"My boss in New York never knew about a movieola -- he probably still doesn't . When he got a letter from one of the boys here telling about the tests -- roughs, semi-roughs, semi-clean ups, clean ups, and finals -- then the whole things is done over again, he wouldn't believe it . My boss thought it was funny as hell -- a bunch of fellows running around in hallways with pieces of black and white film in their hands looking for movieolas. He said: 'When I hire a man to animate, I want him to know how.' "

(the old boss Tytla is referring to is Paul Terry , who both Babbitt and Tytla had worked for in New York before coming out to work for Walt Disney. Of course , I suppose Terry's disdain for pencil tests was probably because of the extra expense involved , not because he cared whether it might be an artistic "crutch" for the animators. )

When I started at Sheridan College in 1982 we were still shooting our pencil tests on 16mm Bolex camera stands . The last year I was there was when they got their first video pencil test machine. There was only one at the time and it was always booked up , so most of the time I continued to shoot my stuff on the Bolex stands. I'm a camera nut anyway and I love the click and whirl and kerchunk sounds that film running through a movie camera makes . And I liked getting my film back from the lab and splicing it into a big loop , draped over my shoulders as I headed off to eagerly thread it up on one of the Steenbeck or a Movieola machines. Fun feeding it through the Movieola with that great whirring and clackity-clack sound ... fun except for the times the movieola would shred the sprocket holes or rip the film down the middle.

Dietmar said...

Oh yes, not so fond memories of shooting linetests in 1988 on the 16mm Nelson-Hordell (as close as I remember the brand name) and having to get a voucher for the lab from the university.

Eventually we just threw our rolls of film into the chemicals of the photography department and ran the negatives, because it was so much faster.

The U-matics on the Thief were already a luxury, with all their electronical problems and black frames, and the Amiga with Take 2 was just awesome when we started using it in 1992. (by that time I was back at university again)

So it is strange to see how somebody could actually be against quickly available line tests

Holger said...

No pencil tests - tests only on film - tests on video, the next step in progression, pencil tests on the computer were also frowned upon by some who grew up with video. One of the reasons for this was that some animators started to work out their timing at the computer, while with video you would at least try to work out your timing beforehand to save time consuming re-shoots.
I guess once one masters his craft without the future "crutch" one might start to consider the particular skill that the "crutch" eventually renders obsolete as a vital part of the craft. I think it's a mistake to then dismiss the work done with the help of the "crutch" as inferior.
Good animation is good animation.

Anonymous said...

I started animating in 1992, back when there were no framegrabbers, and I was shooting with a video camcorder. I had no idea there was such a thing as a pencil tester. I sure wish I had known back then, I wouldn't have stopped animating in 1996!