I didn’t belong to the animaton crew, I worked as a painter in the paint and trace department.
It was my first and only experience at working on an animated movie.
I became interested in the film, because my husband Dietmar was one of the animators. Lacking the talent to draw or animate, but fascinated by the look and story, I applied for Paint and Trace and got the chance to work on the Thief. Thanks a lot to Maggie Brown, the head of Paint and Trace - it was an experience I will never forget.
In 1990 it was impossible for me to imagine that 15 years later it would need only a couple of people and some computer to do – not only our work, but the work of the camera department, too. We were about 20 painters and up to 15 tracers - and I always thought, we needed more. But soon the space that we had rented for the Paint and Trace department was filled to the last place with people and free-lancing painters were employed, too.
The tracers worked with special tracer pens. They traced the pencil drawings, which came from the animaton department, with their pens and in different colours onto the cels. For this they needed a lot of skill. I wasn’t able to do that at all and so I had the biggest respect for our tracers. Some very complicated drawings took over an hour to trace.
Nearly every drawing was traced; only bits from the war machine were photocopied. The brigands were animated on frosted cels with special pens by the animators. These cels were called “frosted” because they looked like a window covered in ice. This enabled the animators to draw straight onto them and a special spray was used afterwards to make the cels transparent and then being painted on the backside as usual.
We painters worked with several different sized brushes, depending of the size of the area that needed painting. We used uncounted litres of paint not to forget the many white cotton gloves to prevent fingerprints on the cels. I still left a lot on them.
With cels the size of up to 60 x 30 cm, it felt like painting walls at times. And if there were special effects like lights in a scene, there had to be a black matte and a counter-matte for every single cel where an effect was to be created in the camera department.
Just to give an example, Zig Zag’s rings had already fifteen colours. Today that is just a mouseclick, back then, every single ring needed to be painstakingly painted with brushes. Here is also a colour model of “Your average crowd scene”
And of course these colours were not all readymade available, most of them had to be mixed, some had to be adjusted to compensate for cel level jumps under the camera. This effect can still be witnessed in old TV animations. When a character was on a held cel and just an arm moved, this arm would be on a cel above the held character. And if you didn’t adjust the colour for the arm on the level above, that colour would look different, because the cels are never truly transparent.
Some paints weren’t easy to handle, The colour of the Thief’s robe on the inside had to be stirred very carefully, otherwise it dried with spots and stains. If that happened, the paint would have to be scratched off again and re-applied. Obviously, today’s computers save a lot of time and hassle here.
Sometimes it wasn’t easy to stay inside the trace lines. For example, there was a scene were the Thief had spiraly vines around the body and then makes them into springs on his feet, which were incredibly fuzzy to paint. No “Animate at 300% and reduce in compositing”. This I would have loved to paint only with a few mouseclicks.
After the cels were traced and painted, they went to the checking department before they could go to camera. It was always a nightmare if a mistake was discovered on a cel. If somebody mixed up the two colours on the hem on kings garment for example, it meant that the paint had to be scraped away and the cel painted again. When you work from 8 in the morning to 10 in the evening, a lapse of concentration like this could happen easily.
Finally an example that was mentioned in an earlier blog, how the animators loved to add incredibly small details to their scenes. The "Stainless Steel Solingen" blades in the War Machine: