Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dying Messenger, Part 1

All the Dying Messenger scenes were animated by turkish animator Tash aka Tahsin Özgür. Put together back to back they work like a little short film. I love the irony and black humor. Tash's animation stands out as some of the best work on the film. Very solid and convincing.
When I talk to other animators about the Thief, something that a lot of people remember is the first scene of the Dying Messenger climbing onto the horse. All images shown in this post are from this scene. Tash confirmed that this was the first scene he animated when he started working for Dick Williams in 1990. I'm very happy that Tash took the time to answer some questions via email about his work on the film.

I remember you half-jokingly saying that this scene would be your only contribution to the film. It's one of the longest scenes in the film, almost one minute long. This is very unusual for a hand drawn film. I think it's pure gold. The beginning was edited out after Dick lost the film to make room for whatever... it makes no sense to me. Fortunately you were able to do more scenes, all the Dying Messenger scenes if I remember correctly?

Yes, but he (Williams) wasn't happy with my interpretation of the Sultan, so in the scenes where they appear together, I animated only the Messenger. And the horse, of course. I also passed on one dying warrior in the first long scene to my assistant, Sharon, who did a fine job of it (bottom left of screen). I also had an inbetweener, Mark, and I seem to remember he did a dying figure somewhere too.

I was impressed when you showed your first pass for this scene. You animated the horse with much more drama, more active - I think it even went up on it's 2 rear legs? Could you tell me a bit about how you worked with Dick to get from that initial approach to the final more contained animation style?

Mr. Williams did not want a cartoon approach. Maybe Roger Rabbit had turned him off completely, who knows? But the pacing of his commercials have also been different from the usual "cartoony" approach. Whatever I did he would want me to reduce, pull back, slow down. The horse was supposed to be shell-shocked, that was his brief to me, but I wasn't allowed to express that with any kind of broad movement. So I had to keep the animation contained, and somehow be expressive at the same time.Holger:
Dick sometimes felt frustrated when he realized that often he could not use Art's work to the same extend as Ken's work. Did Art animate an initial version for this scene? Were you able to use his work in any way or did you pretty much redo the scene?

The scene had already been animated before by Art Babbitt but Mr. Williams was unhappy about it. I didn't get to see Art Babbitt's original version straight away, I had gone someway into the scene before I could and mine bears no resemblance to it. But I could see why Dick was unhappy with it. He wanted a long, drawn out, slow scene and Art gave it to him; the result was frightfully boring. I tried to make it interesting by filling it with small incidents and movements. The Messenger climbs over things, pushes aside a sword, then a leg, the horse reacts to him trying to get on, he in turn is affected by the movement of the horse. The long, slow scene became a string of tiny events that keeps it from getting dull.

Did Dick give you layout drawings? Where they on-model? Or was it up to you to come up with the drawings for what he wanted happening in the scene?

What I got was things that looked like blown up storyboard sketches- and I use the word "sketch" intentionally. They were very rough and gave a rudimentary idea of what the scenes would look like. I drew a Messenger that looks somewhat like the figure on the sketches, and for the details of the action I came up with things as I went along. Every time my Messenger came close to approaching his target, Mr. Williams wanted him to struggle more and spend more time. So I backtracked a lot to make him do whatever he was to do with more difficulty.

The Messenger and the horse feel more 3-dimensional and solid than some of the other characters in the film. Did Dick design it that way or was it more the way you ended up drawing them that contributed to that?

It is pretty much my approach to drawing that gave that look. There was no model for the horse, Mr. Williams just showed me some prints of Middle Eastern miniatures for reference.

Did you work pose-to-pose, straight-ahead or both?

Both, intermixing, and eventually having all drawings drawn rough and tested before passing it on to the assistants who clean it up. This is still my method.Holger:
Didn't Dick advise you to look at Kurosawa's Ran? How did that influence your work on this scene?

Yes, he gave me the cassette to watch. I was to try and lend the atmosphere of carnage and devastation that we see in the aftermath of the battle in that film. I was also meant to make the flags flutter in the Kurosawa way, and making a mad wind like that meant animating the horse's mane, tail, stirrups and a tassle in the same way.

For most scenes in the film Dick liked to do some final clean drawings. Did he do that for your scenes?

No. They went straight to my assistants.

Dick often expected his animators do do their own cleanups. Your method was different. You had your little team, Sharon Smith and Mark Williams. Could you tell me a bit about your method and how you used their help?

Generally I do all the rough animation, inbetweens included, before passing it on to assistants. I test it, correct and fine-tune it and then re-number and re-chart in its definitive form, try to create charts for parts that were done straight-ahead, indicate secondary action, overlapping action, and anything else that does not follow the chart. Then I pass it on to the assistants. That is how I worked with Sharon and Mark then. Sharon would clean up the keys and breakdowns, correcting forms and volumes, and Mark would do the clean inbetweens, referring to the roughs of course. Whether I ever asked them to fill in drawings that I did not already draw and test myself, I don't remember right now, but the proximity of their desks would have made that also practicable if at any time I found it necessary.

I think you did some of the best work on the film and your approach is more than validated by the final result, but I'm curious about how you convinced Dick to let you work this way. How did you accomplish that? Was that discussed when you were hired or did you work that out while you animated your first scene?

I don't really know how others worked, Mr. Williams and Ms. Sutton demanded a lot of overtime- 56 hours a week (that was a request given in writing, later increased) which is the equivalent of seven days a week. I opted to work away the hours during the week and save my weekends. I was just married then and that marriage would not have lasted long if I was gone seven days a week. The result was that I chained myself to my desk and did not socialize, working with full concentration the 11 plus hours (not including lunch) daily in order to be able to spend the weekends with my wife.
So I never really knew how the others worked or whether my system was any different. Sorry, I did know how Sahin worked - I knew him from before, and we are friends as well as compatriots so we saw each other outside work as well. He had a small group from Bulgaria assisting him for a while. I don't remember having to persuade Mr. Williams about anything. I believe that was the set-up I walked into. My only condition was that I be allowed to bottom-peg and he, the convinced top-pegger, didn't mind.I just adjusted this post as Tash just sent in lots more about his other scenes. I'm looking forward to "Part 2"!


Dietmar said...

"....he instantly drops dead after fulfilling his purpose. Funny stuff."

Haha :) Nice conclusion. Maybe Andreas knows who did the crowd - he would be my first suspect.

Holger and Tash, many, many thanks for this blog. I have watched and admired Tash's work always on the film and finally your views and memories on it gets published.

Nils Poulsen said...

Thank you so much. I can't wait for Part 2.
I love the work Tash did on this film.

Anonymous said...


Rafi animates said...

I can't wait for part 2 either!!

Erdal said...

A scene like this is like a piece of good music. It gets better on repeat viewings.

David Nethery said...

I was hoping there would be something posted about this sequence . I agree it is outstanding animation in a film filled with outstanding animation.

*Tash - if you read this could you email me ? I'm trying to put together an email/website/blog listing of Sheridan College Intl. Summer School of Animation alumni .

Contact info. on my web site:

David Nethery - Inkling Studios

Anonymous said...

This is one of those scenes that sets this film apart from other animations, that touches greatness in a way I have never seen anywhere else.

Wayne Taylor said...

I appreciate the approach of this blog to point out the work that was done under Williams. Thanks! It's too bad that it's impossible to watch this scene properly. Even in the Recobbled Cut only the last part is in DVD quality. I hope one day the Williams footage will see some kind of official DVD release.

animaenagerie said...

Any pencil tests of this sequence that could be posted?

Anonymous said...

It's beautiful animation, and it really stands out in the film, but from a directorial standpoint, it goes on far too long. THIEF is an animation exercise, not a film; it's more concerned with motion than with storytelling.

Holger said...

Hello Anonymous!
My feelings for the film are full of contradictions at times. If somebody calls it a butchered masterpiece for example, I'm immediately thinking of a bunch of reasons why I don't agree with that opinion. On the other hand sometimes criticism of the film makes me want to defend it.
This Messenger scene for example I like in it's full length. I think it works to set things up in this long drawn out way and then end his story abruptly when he drops dead after delivering his message.
By the way if you would like to post with your name next time there is a way to do that even if you don't have a google account. On the top right of the blog is a link to a post that includes a tip on how to do this. It's called Tips for new readers.