Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My memory tricked me...

...when I wrote the Jan. 3 post!
These 2 scenes where not animated by Dick.

They were animated by Neil Boyle (over Ken's original). It was the first big close up of the Thief Neil had ever been assigned to work on 'solo', having previously done mid-shots. Dick wanted to take what Ken had done in his first draft of the scene and get Neil to change some timings and add some secondary actions, but also add some new bits of performance that he'd come up with since. When Neil finished his rough animation and shot a line test he called Dick over to have a look. Dick watched it and immediately fell about laughing hysterically, saying, "You've animated yourself! He's looking around the room the same way you do! Ha ha ha ha ha!" Dick then grabbed Roy Naisbitt, who was passing by, and said, "Look at this! Watch the eyes!" And then they both fell about laughing and called over Raymond Guillaumet, followed by any other passing people, until there was a small crowd watching, pointing and laughing loudly.
The scene was approved though, without any changes, but it did go to prove that whoever picked up one of the Thief's scenes would slightly inject their own personality into it, even if they were working over a rough that Ken had originally set down.
The other great thing about the 'Thief and the boots' scene was that every element was hand matted so that the amazing John Leatherbarrow could darken the Thief animation to suit the gloom of the shop interior, and brighten up the background painting of the exterior so that it's bathed in morning sunlight. Subtle and beautiful!

Many apologies for my bad memory in regards to these 2 beautiful scenes. The upside is that I always hope that people will let us know if we get things wrong, as happened in this case.
Nothing is written in stone. So I'm actually excited that the blog format allows for this to happen. It's not just a medium that informs the reader but also a research tool for us who write the posts - and it creates accountability as anybody can challenge what we discuss in the comments and create something that has multiple points of view.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Guest blogger Brian Riley:

This just came in from cameraman Brian Riley. I thought I'll post it right away as it responds to Michael's post. I hope Don Hertzfeld will come across this blog one day as he is one of the few animators I know of who still use real film.
Now, Brian Riley:

“Bumped into Paul Dilworth (literally) on the football pitch last week and he told me to check out your 'Thief Blog'. Nice job. As you know I spent 2 years in the camera room and it was an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world, bizarre as it was at times.

I don't know what prompted the explanation of the 'bipac' (I'd have spelled it 'bi-pack', but to be honest I've no idea what is the accepted spelling) but I can confirm that that was pretty much the process used on many shots, the memory of which I've suppressed to save myself the pain of re-living the endless re-shoots that some of these scenes necessarily required, rarely for operator errors it has to be said in the camera room's defense - more often for some perceived artistic imperfection. Normally I had no problem doing re-shoots on the Thief - it was completely Dick's film and in my eyes he had an absolute right to have it exactly how he wanted it and I always saw it as a bit of privilege to work on it anyway. However the bi-pack scenes were such buggers to get right from a technical standpoint it was a little frustrating at times to have to re-do them. From what I can remember, we cheated the process slightly by not running the high contrast negative through in a bi-pack when we shot the animation top lit on colour stock, possibly for reasons of time and convenience - remember we only had 2 cameras and we were often running them 24 hours a day in 3 x 8 hour shifts.

After we shot the high contrast footage, we off-loaded it and sent it off for processing then we loaded up colour stock and simply put the animation on a top-lit (pristine) black bg on the table. Arguably it would've been better to use the neg in a bi-pack but I don't think we did. Not using the neg meant we could get on and immediately shoot the colour animation and once that was done the camera would be freed up - it was obviously crucial that the camera and table etc was in exactly the same position for shooting the matte and colour versions of the animation. Although in theory with a computer controlling all the axes we could precisely duplicate positions, in practice the physical nature of the mechanics, cog wheels, worm drives, shafts, bearings etc meant there was always an infinitesimal amount of slack that could mean the difference between getting it right and seeing a matte line. So we always shot the colour character run immediately after shooting the mattes. Once we'd made the high contrast matte and got it back from labs, we used the positive (printed on neg perf stock) in the bi-pack with the raw colour stock with the character exposed on it, while we did the camera movement on the bg, exactly as described in the blog. Also vital was that the processed matte stock and the raw colour stock were synchronised for every run - we shot a cross at the start of the matte run and then had a set number of frames of clearance, slate etc we would run before shooting frame number 1 of the animation. The raw colour stock would be physically marked in the gate (usually with a good old indelible Sharpie) at the exact point when the film was down on the registration pins and the shutter would be open. These marks would be carefully aligned every time we ran the matte and colour stock together in the bi-pack.

Off the top of my head one scene that we did this with was 'The Balls Have Gone!' shot when the old king peers out through the window and then goes running about in a panic, while we pull back from his open mouth all the way to a 'God's Eye View' of the city using multiple takeovers on both animation and bg - another whole kettle of fish in itself, matching the speed and movement and so on.
(This scene was called Mouth to Mountain, see post from Jan.16)

I read a couple of the December 2007 bits. Thanks for the name check by the way. You were right to quote John's reminder to you regarding the tightrope we walked every day in the camera room. In those pre-digital, pre-render preview days it was in the nature of the cameraman's job that you had to be right every frame; one slip-up, one lapse of concentration, could often result in having to go right back to the beginning and mean hours or even days of lost work.

Sometimes shooting on 35mm, which is relatively easy to cut, you could put in a few blank cut-out frames, whiting out the error, then pick up where you left off. On the Thief though there was no such luxury or leeway, with virtually every scene having multiple exposures, so that characters, props, bg's etc could all be isolated and lit separately (much as they would on a live action set) it was impossible to do any sort of a cut back, except on the very first exposure and then you wouldn't do it, because you would have to remember that cut-back for every subsequent exposure and adjust your frame count accordingly, thus creating one more parameter to concentrate on.

On bi-pack scenes of course it was simply impossible to repair an error. One camera mistake was one too many and that was that - everything was in the bin, matte roll included. It all had to be done again. And Dick being a chap that was not particularly forgiving as to human frailty when it manifested itself in cock-ups on his film, meant that we were daily under as great a pressure as I've experienced on any film anywhere. But I think I can speak for all us when I say that it was still an exciting and inspiring situation to be in.

You were also right to underline the ground-breaking work John did in and under the camera and that us camera guys carried out under his supervision, we also contributed a bit of our own inspiraton here and there - but 99% of it was down to John interpreting Dick and Roy's artistic vision and putting it onto the screen using any number of innovative techniques as well as few 'old school' dodges that John had learned over the years.
All the above is dragged up out of my scarred and fading memory. I do get the odd message from Johnny Leathertrousers and I generally see him for a pint every time I'm in London so I'll send out the carrier pigeon and see if I can make contact - he obviously would be the man to speak to confirm my recollection. Though he's even more senile than me so don't bank on it!”

Friday, January 25, 2008


The word Camera bipac has been used several times in previous posts, and I'm not quite sure if the technique used in these cases was actually a bipac.
No way of telling now, without talking to Mr. Leatherbarrow, but a nice opportunity to explain the system to you who are probably all used to the limitless possibility of digital compositing.
The problem with double exposures in a rostrum camera is, that for every run of animation, you need a run of mattes to cut a piece of the background out, that you want to expose the animation into.
As the mattes are produced from the same artwork as the cels, it is impossible to perform any zoom into or out of the background without also performing that zoom on the character and it's mattes.
Let's say you want the camera to travel backwards with the character, walking towards camera and the Background receding, you would have to animate the character getting bigger throughout the scene.
On slow moves, xeroxing the artwork up incrementally ultimately stumbles across the problem that photocopiers can go no less than 1% at a time, too coarse for subtle size increases.
So some clever person invented the bipac.
And here is how it works:

The cels, back painted for opacity, are shot on a light box at the same size, that the animation is supposed to appear in the shot.
The film stock used is high contrast black and white stock, so that when the stuff comes back from the lab, we have a black on white animation positive and a white on black animation negative.

Now comes the clever bit.
Let's say we want the character to remain at a constant size in the shot, while the background recedes into the distance.

A fresh piece of film is put into the camera, with the previously filmed animation negative sandwiched below it, cutting out part of the light that comes through the lens.
The cels are now placed onto a coloured card that resembles the characters outline colour and synched up with the sandwiched film inside the camera.
The animation is shot frame by frame.

The result is exposed animation on film, surrounded by unexposed film emulsion.
The animation negative is now removed from the camera and replaced by the previously shot animation positive.
That positive now covers neatly the previously shot character cel animation, but leaves exposed the previously unexposed surrounding area.
As all the matting takes place inside the camera, we can now proceed to zoom into or out of the background at will, double exposing the receeding Background behind the static character.

This technique was used to double up the roller coaster move inside the war machine at a reduced size in the background while using the original run of the animation as it's own matte.

Clever hey?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The unfinished masterpiece?

I want to write a bit about what inspires me about the film but also about some illusions that I lost towards the end of working on it.
When I was a student our animation teacher Hans Bacher gave me VHS copies of 3 documentaries about Dick Williams and the Thief. I was very taken by the combination of stylized characters and full dazzeling animation. Dick is very good at selling himself on TV, contagious in his enthusiasm. When he talked about making the best animated film ever I believed every word, especially since he always backed it up with amazing clips from the film. I had never thought it possible that I might get a chance to work on it, but when Dietmar and I went job hunting in London, Oscar Grillo and Eric Goldberg both advised us that we should submit our reel at Dick's studio. They were just about to start hiring and Dick offered both of us a job as assistant animators. We soon became animators and worked on the film for more than 2 years, full of enthusiasm, lots of 70 hour weeks. When Dick gave us the job he showed us around and introduced us to Roy. Dick explained that their approach to making the Thief was a bit like amateur film making, like a student who might do everything , wearing many hats. He showed us a scene he was working on. He didn't have an assistant and pointed out that he was doing every drawing himself on ones. I'm pretty sure it was this one:

Roy later told me about times when Ken Harris was about to arrive for his seasonal stay in London and having been busy on commercials Dick sometimes had not prepared any work for him. In a hurry they would whip out BG and character layouts for the Thief character. Dick would just say "Let's make him climb up the mountain..." and that would keep Ken busy for a while. These sequences were intended as comic relief and not really the main part of the film. Dick considered the Thief animation Ken's best work and fell in love with these sequences. They are still what I like best about the film, but this approach of putting secondary parts of the film through animation before the main story was taken care off is also a bit like amateur film making. As an animation student you are sometimes so impatient to start animating that you might neglect to work out the overall story of your film properly.

Another problem with the Thief is that sometimes his scenes are more compelling to watch than the scenes for the main story. Andreas mentioned before that in 1990 John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter of Moonstruck was brought in by Jake Eberts to rewrite the script. He had to work around all the animation that had been finished already. Dick was not prepared to give up any of the animation jewels that Ken had given him over the years. A pretty thankless job. We all got to read the different script revisions. I didn't have any experience with reading scripts and wasn't too worried when I wasn't exactly blown away by what I read.

A further problem of the film at this stage might have been that in order to get the financing they had agreed to a budget that was basically too low. Dick probably spent too much time on some secondary shots before focusing on the important acting scenes and did his fair share of revisions. It's pretty common though on most feature films that a certain amount of work gets redone in order to get it right. I think for the small size of the crew the studio was pretty efficient and we cranked out an amazing amount of work.
As we keep on discussing scenes of the film you might be surprised at how many scenes were actually done in those final 2+ years. 25 years in the making can be a little misleading. However we didn't meet our footage quotas and deadlines and Warners forced Dick to fill in the gaps between the finished parts of the film with storyboards. There was a big screening at Piccadilly Circus and for the first time we saw the story in one piece. I was bitterly disappointed by the storytelling. I guess I was still expecting somehow that the whole film would live up to the promises made in sequences like the War Machine. Video copies of this version later circulated in the animation world as the "work print". The versions that were finally released were not improvements. In my opinion they made things far worse.

Dick approached each scene as a piece of art and some sequences like the War Machine indeed seem to be part of a masterpiece. I do consider Dick a genius for many reasons but I don't think the film as a whole would have been a masterpiece or even commercially successful if it had been finished the way Dick had boarded it out. Dick had promised to deliver a blockbuster. In retrospect it's easy to conclude that we would have gotten a better film if it had been finished Dick's way, but at the time Warners would not have been content with an eccentric film that appealed only to a small audience.

If you have seen Garrett's Recobbled Cut and compare it with the released versions you'll see the difference. Keep in mind that Garrett in order to make it more watchable to a general audience used some footage that was not animated under Dick's direction. While based on Dick's boards these scenes were done on smaller fields and the animators were paid by the foot, much different conditions. There has been a screening of this fan edit here in San Francisco and quite a few people have told me how much they liked it.

After many years my disappointments with the film have mellowed out and I have a rather nostalgic view on it now and appreciate the good parts on their own. I hope my ramblings make some sense and will now keep on celebrating the good parts of the Thief in future posts. I'm also curious about your opinions.

Friday, January 18, 2008


We have the 3rd installment coming up of what David B.B. has written for the blog so far. These images are not exactly the ones that he's talking about. I just picked them to show the evolution of the witch design. One of my favorite characters, cut out of the film in the form it was released as far as I remember. Dick designed her as a caricature of Grim Natwick. If anybody knows what Grim contributed to the film, please let us know. The witch scene in the basket featured in the documentary that David mentions was originally animated by Eric Goldberg.
Here are some poses out of a section of 400 drawings of this scene that ended up on the cutting room floor while the film was still under Dick's direction:

I didn't quite have such a deep experience with this bit of the documentary as David describes below, but I've watched it many many times as a student. Dick is standing with Vince looking at the pencil test monitor and for lack of audio is doing the audio himself in perfect sync and imitating the witch's voice: "Mystic fuse, show me show me the way...". Captivating. Dick is a pop star.

David Byers-Brown, Part 3

In 13 Soho Square, 1984, the traces of the Thief were everywhere. Filmed segments resided in cans in a fire proof safe in the basement. There were small rooms filled with drawn scenes wrapped in clear plastic like corpses in an anatomy room which needed clean up or more work and which dated back fourteen years. At the top of the tall narrow building worked Roy Naisbitt in an attic room with many plan chests full of enormous and complex layout drawings for the project. Out side on a landing, a paint and trace girl showed me alterations in the design of the witch character which had taken place over the years, each one requiring totally new clean up on countless scenes. There was an otherworldly sensation of timelessness. A few years before, a Saudi prince had expressed interest in backing the film and an enormous effort had been put into preparing a product sample, but he had passed on it and the project was once again in limbo.
But the studio was churning over regular work on commercials and Dick was employing a team of animators, assistants, paint and trace and camera people to do them. Something around thirty staff at that point. Very few of these animators made it to the Thief full production, most falling out with Dick just before or during the production of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" two years later. One ended up declaring that Williams was the devil incarnate.
I discovered that the original idea for a feature had been Idres Shah's. Ex-wife Margaret, told me: " Shah said, "Come on Dick, let's make some money." They had collaborated on an acclaimed short called the Dermis probe in 1965.The feature was born somewhere around 1970, and the story was very originally about Nasruddin, who was sent to his death by evil courtiers, as an ambassador to another state with a message that he was to be executed on delivery. Nasruddin survives and triumphs in the wise/idiotic way of the Good Soldier Schwiek. The designs were originally to be like the Nasruddin books Dick illustrated. Dick had apparently been very interested in Sufism and Shah in the sixties, and Shah's brother, Omar Ali Shah , was the first business manager that the Richard Williams Studio had in its twenty year lease on Soho Square. "He was a crook!" Declared Dick in the pub after a life drawing class. "he stole from me!" He meant Omar but included Idres in his condemnation. "Shah wasn't even a good Muslim-he drank!" The falling out had taken place somewhere, I would guess, after Dick's half hour animated television special of the Christmas Carol, in the early seventies. Omar was a production consultant on this and it featured work by old Hollywood animators like Ken Harris and Chuck Jones. There was already some animation from the Nasruddin project-I found a scene of a pack of wolves by Ken Harris in a box in the morgue Dick kept at a removal company in Battersea. I was sent there to drop things up and pick things up in my runner capacity. There I also found a picture of Idres Shah at one of Dick's weddings in the late sixties. Also some books by Shah with friendly dedications hand written to Dick. They must have been very close at some point, but Dick was quite bitter about him and often said that the character of Zig Zag was directly based on Idres.
Dick had fallen out with Shah, but he'd already gotten into this Islamic animated feature and couldn't let it go. The character of Nasruddin was either copyright to Shah or the stories were, so he needed a new plot and wrote one with then wife Margaret. It's a shame he lost Nasruddin, as he is a more intriguing character as a protagonist than any of the "sympathetic " ones in the final film. It is built into his personality that you cannot tell whether he is very smart or very stupid.
The idea that the film would get made, and the studio existed for this was very present in 1984. Scenes for the Thief would arrive by post from Arizona or New Mexico from an old animator called Emery Hawkins, get shot and be shown in morning rushes along with scenes from the latest Frosties commercial. I remember one that was wonderfully weird, of the witch in a cave with some characters who got dropped. It went on for ages, everything was moving and transmogrifying and gave you the sensation of seeing a scene from an alien planet. Hawkins was an inventive New York commercials animator at one time whom Dick respected. Later he said: " He was mad for years, totally senile, and I was still paying him to work for me! Totally gone and no-one told me!"

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Thanks for the recent generous comments. One guy even suggested that we should do a book about this stuff. The thing is that I don't believe you could do this as a book. For once this immediate feedback from readers wouldn't be there and most importantly the kind of collaborative writing that we've had so far wouldn't happen either. I find out new things in the posts of my friends all the time and find it very enjoyable and inspiring. I hope in the future more people will join in and talk about their experiences on the film.
I still have one more David B.B. post ready to go, I just need to get an image or two ready. I'll post it soon.

Here are two more Alex Williams scenes. I remember there was a problem in how to get the pattern onto the carpet. It would have been a nightmare to have to paint that on to a cel for every frame. Keep in mind that the 8 little men roll and unroll the 2 carpets continuously, to keep up with Zigzag. It was animator Steve Evangelatos who came up with a way to use the Bi-Pak method to solve the problem. Mattes had to be painted for every frame, but the carpet pattern was just one piece of artwork.

This was the first thing that Alex worked on when he joined the studio in 1990. As the center of this assignment Alex got to develop the Zigzag walk. The feet crisscross each other in an unusual zigzag pattern, his shoes roll out every time he puts his foot down. I hope you remember the animation and won't analyze it further here. If you know Dick's book or have been to one of his master classes you know that he likes to talk about how to create eccentric walks. This thinking started for him with the Babbitt classes. Art Babbitt was a pioneer of the eccentric walk, just think of what he gave us with Goofy in “Moving Day”

One approach Dick talked about was to create your contact positions for the walk, which could be fairly normal, but then you create a passing position as THE INTERESTING BREAKDOWN, where you pose your character in an unexpected way.
This is a useful trick to avoid Point A to Point B morphing results in your animation and can be used in all sorts of situations, not just walks. It might just be a subtle tilt on the breakdown to create a bit of overlap.
After we (Andreas, Dietmar, Holger and Michael) had been at the studio a few months Dick took us out to dinner at a Greek restaurant in Camden. He probably went there often, because the owner made a big fuss when we arrived. It was the first time that I drank real champagne. Among the things that Dick told us there was a story about an epiphany he once had that made him understand more about walks. It involved a guy he saw who was walking behind a wall so that he could just see his head. He instantly knew (or believed to know) that the guy was gay, just by observing that there was just very little up and down movement. He then shared a few theories about that...
but I'm getting sidetracked here. The reason I just remembered this dinner was that a few times he would jump up in the middle of the restaurant and demonstrate things he was talking about. One time he posed himself into a contact position, jump forward into the next contact position and then jump backward a bit to show us THE INTERESTING BREAKDOWN. Totally oblivious to people at other tables. On the way home I remember that he was walking behind me, imitating the way I walked to demonstrate to my friends this method of analysis.
The next day Barbara McCormack and John Leatherbarrow told us that the dinner had been a rare privilege. John also confided that Dick had predicted months ago that all four of us would be animating before long. Soon after we were promoted to animators.

UPDATE: crowd on Alex's Zigzag down-shot by Gary Dunn (Thanks Garrett!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Birds

One of the more vexing tasks I had for a while, was animating, and I say that in the loosest sense of the word, tiny birds traversing the arabian skies. This task was first the responsibility of Dave Cockburn and when he left the movie, it fell to me.
Dick always said that the blue sky was just paint on a background, but with birds flying around, they turned into the sky.
The birds were usually Swallow-like with a long forked tail. Dick didn't want them to flap their wings, but only glide across the skies. So I usually planned out several action paths and moved the birds along that path, more an exercise in spacing,sharpening pencils to within an inch of their lives and the patience of trappist monks.
I did this for several weeks and started to have trouble focusing and, after much hesitation, asked Dick for something else to work on, preferably something I could draw without the aid of an electronic microscope.To his credit, he complied, though for some time after,everytime he gave me an assignment, he asked: Is that big enough, can you see that? -and that was even for a full figure on 24 field... I rather took his gentle ribbing than spend my time on the movie tracing back miniature birds.
The only birds, apart from Phido, that I animated with flapping wings, were a flock of crows in the famous 'mouth to mountain'shot( see image). They were designed to cover the takeover from one background to the next. So I started animating the crows fairly big, then reduced them and the paths of action to fit the next BG and so on.My little contribution to an awesome shot, masterfully planned by Roy" patience of a saint" Naisbitt.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

David Byers-Brown, Part 2

Back in 1974, I was a big film buff and every year bought a British film industry almanac. Richard William's Nasruddin, or The Thief Who Never Gave Up (I don't remember which) was announced as coming out the next year at least two years running. I didn't like the drawings on the ads, but the idea of an Islamic minature design animated movie created a strange exotic yearning in me. It was something to do with illustrations based on minature designs for The Arabian Nights I had, that seemed to have a completely alternate way of seeing the world. My mother gave me a copy of a book by Idres Shah featuring tales about Nasruddin-,an Islamic folklore character, for Christmas around then. This was illustrated by Richard Williams in a funky outline style I thought looked low effort and didn't like, like a bad rip off of a cartoonist I admired called Arnold Roth. I thought the stories were lame and unfunny as well. In an unconnected way, I also subscribed to Sight and Sound-the magazine of the british film institute, and this had a perplexing article in the early seventies where Richard Williams talked about trying to save the expertise of these old Hollywood animators who's knowledge and skills was about to die out. There was a picture of some guy named Art Babbit who looked a right old unsympathetic bastard, whom Dick had got over to London. I didn't really understand it.
I forgot all about Richard Williams and animation by the age of 18 in 1978, but I became obsessed about the deeper reality of the world. By a route through reading in and around Jung, Castenada, Gurdieff and J.G.Bennet , I rediscovered an un-illustrated Idres Shah. Idres Shah was a Pakistani or Afghani -born British journalist who developed a huge line and much 1970's celebrity by writing on Sufism-the mystical tradition in Islam. His stories and writings aren't that good, but the collections of sayings and folktales from Sufic tradition he published blew me away. I must have read some of them every day for about 5 years, they struck me as so important. The stuff he presented seemed to represent the most accurate and sophisticated psychology I'd ever come across, which kept bring you back to believing that the claims of a deeper and higher level of being they contained must be true. At the back of my mind was the uninteresting memory that this was the writer who was associated with that Richard Williams animator guy and his non-appearing film.
In 1984, I wasn't aiming to get a job specifically at his studio, I was desperate to get a job at any animation studio- they were the only one that offered me a job. Uncannily, a few years before, there was a BBC documentary about Dick and his unfinished film which featured a scene where he was berating Vince Woodcock, then a young assistant, on his imperfect inbetweening of the witch's basket. Being by then quite mystically inclined (perhaps insane), I was very struck by a sensation of the dropping of distance between myself and the television screen as I watched this- I suddenly seemed to be in that far off room with them, in a very direct way unlike the suspension of disbelief that normally goes with TV watching. I could feel the chill from the thick brick walls of the London studio, and Dick's voice seemed to be next to my ear, although I was in Scotland. I momentarily was convinced that I would work there for him, was connected to him, that I already knew these people. But it quickly faded.

Monday, January 14, 2008

We have my friend David Byers-Brown joining us. He did great work on the film, I grabbed a few examples that you can see above (We'll discuss these scenes more in depth later). We have been emailing behind the scenes for a while and he started to answer some of my questions about the early days which I will post over the next few days.
Here we go:

David Byers-Brown, Part 1

I started in animation as a runner for Richard Williams Studio in 13 Soho Square in 1984, I was 24 and a Batchelor of Fine Art from Oxford University. I could tell my peer group of fine art graduates thought I was insane to take such an ignominious position in a company that made television commercials. I felt that the skills of the fine artists I had met were very inferior to those I could see in commercial art, along the lines of what I thought it was about-ability to draw convincing figures from the imagination. I had tried illustrating for the BBC and other clients and was very frustrated that I could not do better drawings without reference. Illustration seemed dead for figurative skills as it had become so photo-mechanical. I wasn't good enough to be a commercial comic strip artist, so the only avenue I could see that would give me lots of practice and a group of people focused the same way towards imaginative figure drawing was drawn animation. I was a pretty good portrait artist, and somewhat like Dick, I had supported myself in Spain drawing portraits on the streets but my cartoon skills were negligible. It took me six months to get a job in a London animation studio, and I had given up when I finally got a response from the Williams Studio, offering me the runner's job for £70 a week.
I was aware of Richard Williams and the Thief from various directions. In 1974, when I was 14, a vulgarian Oscar winning animator called Bob Godfrey had a BBC series called "The Do-It Yourself Animation Show." Dick Williams was a guest on an episode. he brought and flipped a sequence of drawings of a brigand laughing from what was to become the Thief. Godfrey's work and taste were funny, vulgar and low effort. The British culture seems to in some way to mistrust highly developed artistic skills as warped and unnecessary and consequently has newspaper cartoonists who hone the lack of effort involved in their drawings-Bob fit right into this culture. He mostly showed crude drawing and minimal animation for examples, and made it clear that he felt that Dick was insane to work so hard at drawing and animation on air. The show was live, I think, videotape being prohibitively expensive back then, and at one point, Bob was blacking in the edges of the abortionate cut-outs he used for a popular but artistically challenged TV cartoon serial called "Rhubarb and Custard". He turned to Dick on the sofa: "Would you recommend blacking in the edges Dick?" Dick replied;"I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy." There was something uncanny about this comment, you couldn't quite believe he could have said it so directly.
I was overawed by the drawings Dick showed that episode. They showed volumetric fingers going over the brigand's face as he stifled a giggle. They were much better drawings than I could do, he was doing hundreds of them, and they really worked in motion. It set a high point in artistic skill that I never forgot and implied a hinterland of work on that sequence which didn't exist. In 1990, when I went to work on the Thief and the Cobbler, he pulled the rubber bands off a cardboard clad sheaf of drawings and there they were, the same drawings-all of the brigands that had ever existed up to that point, bar a few designs. It was like a magic trick-he'd probably worked up the drawings specifically to take to that show. The underlying animation was clearly copied off from a dupe of the wicked queen's henchmen in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Someone told me this, I checked and it's true.

The Laughing Brigand

I had planned this story for sometime down the road, but since it came up in David's post I want to post it now.
As David said this scene had been around for a long time. Dick had originally animated it for academy fielding (aspect ratio). He asked me to help him shoot a linetest of this scene. He was redrawing it and widening the shoulders for widescreen. As a student just a year or two before I had watched this Brigand scene as part of the Clapperboard documentary over and over. When I watched Sleeping Beauty around the same time I spotted the similarity. Dick had always been pretty open about using live action as inspiration for some of his animation. So I didn't think it was a big secret and casually mentioned "Hey, Dick the animation from this, you took from Sleeping Beauty, right?" His face dropped and he said "Dammit... Is it that obvious?" He decided to retime it in order to make it less obvious and I was thrilled that I got to do a few of the new inbetweens for this scene.

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.

The first day in the life of an assistant animator

Like Andreas mentioned in his earlier blog, I also remember how Dick claimed he tried to cast his animators in a way how their physique fits the appearance of the characters they get to animate. While I am 6 foot 3’’, I still have both eyes, 2 rows of even teeth and do not weight 25 stones. Somehow the words “One eyes”, “Beasts of war” and “Warmachine” must have been floating invisibly over my head, because that is where my destination at “The Thief and the Cobbler” lay.

So here I was - arrived from Germany and just settled in - on my first day on the film. Armed with my own (plastic) peg bar, pencil, eraser and pencil sharpener (the manual kind that school kids use) and sure that somebody would scream “Imposter” and I would be unmasked as the talentless and clueless n00b that I was. (Sorry for using this internet term, but it is very fitting here, as you shall soon read).

After meeting Dick Williams in person, my first encounter with a proper animator was being introduced to Brent Odell. Apart from being very talented and ever patient and friendly to me, I will always remember him fondly for teaching me the word “One eyed trouser snake”. You really only have mastered a language when you can do crosswords in that language or swear like a drunken sailor. I was never one for crosswords.

The first task was inbetweening tiny elephants that were hoisted upwards inside the warmachine. They were armoured, spiked, covered in rivets and they were many. They were also to be coloured in a shade closely to the background art while lightning flashed and rain poured. And of course they were to be animated on “ones”. In fact, so many scenes were animated on ones, that at one point the entire film was renamed as “Once” – A typo, we all were sure.
By the end of my first day, I proudly presented my first three drawings to Brent, only to find out that I had inbetweened on “halves”, 3 drawings where only one was needed.

Certainly this seemingly futile exercise helped me with the many scenes that followed.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Have no fear...

Read these images left to right, like a comic. These 3 scenes where done by Alex Williams, assisted by Jerry Vershoor. For the first scene (image 1) Ken Harris had animated a rough version of the Thief, a rough Cobbler had been done by Art Babbit. From what I remember Jerry got to do a bit more here then just inbetweens. I think he animated some secondary bits and also the butterfly.
The 2nd scene (images 2,3) was very long. Dean Roberts animated the left half of the onlooking crowd. Gary Dunn did the right half of the crowd. I think this might have been the only time that Andreas didn't animate the courtiers.
Alex had found a clever way of utilizing the xerox machine to work out the size increases in the characters as they walk towards camera. He even shot the taped down xeroxes to work out the timing.
Another thing I like about this shot is how Roy created dimension for the ground in this BG, without using perspective just by smaller spacing of the squares towards the back, right and left.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading Dick's Moods

One of Michael's posts reminded me of one of my favourite stories.Dick is legendary for his temper and outbursts and one would do well to learn to read his mood. My desk at the Forum was situated between Roy Naisbitt's at the window and Dick's in the middle of the large floor.This gave me an exceptional vantage point to observe Dick and I learned quickly what kind of mood he was in. As mentioned before, even when very busy, Dick was always approachable to be shown a test.If I saw him frantically flipping drawings, I usually waited a while as not to disturb him in 'action'.
One day he was hunkered down, working on a scene, when one of the assistant animators , who shall remain nameless, sauntered towards his desk. As this guy had a talent for stepping into dog%$@ , my attention immediately focused on the action to unfold.He hadn't read Dick's mood of utter concentration and approached him with a cheery: Hi, Dick, can I ask you something? Dick kind of surfaced from his animation fever to look at ... and gave him his attention. Needless to say, I was already grinning at that point.... said: Dick, can you draw the fish from Pinocchio for me?
If you ever stood near mount Aetna with the ground shaking, you may have an idea of what happened next ( to my delight, I might add, not for nothing is the word Schadenfreude a german word).
Dick's face turned purple, he threw his pencil across the room and started on one of his rants at the top of his lungs, about how he was trying to f^^#$^ make a movie and he wanted the f^$%$% fish from f$#^@ Pinocchio.
Still makes me laugh to this day.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Where did it all happen?

Well, here.
This is the inside of the Studio Christmas card when the production moved from Soho square to Camden for Roger Rabbit.
I think Hans Bacher gave me this card which has a picture of the iconic Soho square studio on the front.
We occupied the left half of the building on the first floor, for FX and editing and the right half on the second floor for animation.
Though the inside is more appropriate to anything relating to the Thief, the front of the card is nonetheless a who is who of all the players of the R.R. days.

Hans, Raymond and probably the most important animation personality in my life, the undefeatable and brilliant Mr. Meyer are depicted in the doorway of the studio.
I leave it up to all you guys to identify the rest...
Oh Nostalgia, you are such sweet sorrow.
Ah, yes and does anyone know who painted the artwork?

Ok, on a more jolly note, I remember the beginning of 1991 to be particularly snowy, the last time we had real snow in London.
I was on my way back home after a couple of Winter warmers at the Bone house with Sharon, Tanya and most probably Dennis and the rest of the Irish, when we were confronted by a bunch of suited people, bankers I surmised.
Now, in Germany, people would either just leave you be or they hit you with a snowball and then run away, but no, these guys raised themselves to their full height on the other side of the street and said:

Would you mind awfully if we has a snowball fight?

Aah, London, how queer thou art...

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The tale of the punch.

I began working at 138 Royal college street in a room on the first floor, that I shared with Alyson Hamilton and Margaret Grieve.
Andreas was in the room next door with Barbara Mc Cormack the colour stylist.
There was also a small wooden box on the floor that was hiding the part of the rostrum camera that was too high to fit into the ground floor, but that is another story...
Brent Odell who I was assisting, had already moved into the Forum, some 300 yards away and after about two weeks I too was moved into the larger studio.
He would speak in a thick northern accent and, having just arrived in the country, I nodded to his every instruction but did not actually understand a word he said, but that's another story...
Dick occupied a corner of the first floor, just outside the projection room, which was also home to the accounts team, but that is another story...
The Idea was that he would spent an equal amount of time at the Forum and at 138, there was however a problem.
In his room at 138, Dick had a Disney Cel punch, that was used on Roger Rabbit. For the Forum a brand new Chromacolour punch was purchased to serve the animators. Dick would bring over a Scene he had animated at Royal College street and proceed to punch his paper to do the breakdown drawings at the forum.
There was however a small difference in the distance of the pegholes from the edge of the paper.
As Dick liked rolling the scene off the pegs to check if it worked before linetesting it, he got increasingly annoyed that the drawings no longer lined up when registered by the paper edge rather than the pegholes.
One day...:God dammit Ian, this piece of shit, every time I roll this, it jumps all over the f%^&*£g place Jeezus Krrist, I'm working my fingers to the bone and this shit can't even line up...Damn, damn.... or something to that effect.
He then instructed Ian Cook to deposit the old punch at the bottom of the Thames.
I approached Ian, offering to do the disposing for him and, after consulting Dick it was agreed that for £1 sterling and the guarantee that the punch would disappear that night and never surface again, it would be mine.
That is how I bought my first animation punch for 1 quid...
A bargain, methinks...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Guest blogger Paul Dilworth:

Dick did ask me to do BGs after I met him on his doorstep. I had been going down Haverstock Hill trying to get commissions for house portraits. In the Spring and Summer I found I could get a couple of watercolors a week. I showed him some photos of rich peoples' houses that I had painted. He mentioned he was a film director. It must have been out of generosity of spirit that he rang me the next week and I had a go at a BG. To be absolutely honest I did recognize him on the doorstep, as I had been called in at the very last minute to help render an advert, in the Soho Square days, but I'm very sure he didn't recognize me. Anyway that is how I started on "The Thief."
I really appreciated the chance to work on the film. When I did my 3rd or 4th BG Dick said "put it in the bath." I was kind of shocked, thinking he may as well have said "throw it in the bin," but apparently that's what Errol did with his. After the initial shock, (within a second or two) I realized it was good advice, and not meant to be disparaging at all. The watercolors spread into one another and you can re-stretch the paper and go over it again. It gives it a nice hazy grainy texture. Errol's BGs were so good, and they all have that worked in quality.
John Leatherbarrow made them look so much better by his amazing wizardry under the camera. Here is a photo of this first BG. It was already half done I think, and I just added more colors to it. I remember doing the big flagstones in the Nanny and banana sequence before this, but they were just big squares. If you compare the two images you can see how John was able to exaggerate the contrasts so that in the actual film it looked really dark and the furnace glowed.
I think in those days at 138 Royal College St. (that's Dick's studio in Camden) there might have been only Roy, Neil, Raymond and John working there. Dick must have freelanced BGs out to people. When the film came out I certainly had no wish to be considered as "head of BGs " on the credits. I certainly wasn't. It just ended up that way on the credits. With regards to Errol's work, as I remember, Roy used to use bits that had already been painted by Errol (probably pre-production stuff) and combine them with his new fantastic layouts which fitted the scene, the animation, the match lines etc. better. It wasn't so much "cut and paste" as it was making use of some great stuff that had already been painted by Errol. Common sense really. The other BG artists who worked on the Thief were Douglas Kirk, Inga Davelouse, Claire Wright , Sue Tong, Jo Billingham, Malcolm, (apologies not remembering his last name,) and someone who regularly worked at Soho Square as a BG artist, but I'm dreadfully sorry not to remember her name too. There were other BG artists in America also. Working on the Thief was such a good time, seeing things emerge in rushes every day, and being part of something great.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

First Thief scenes

After the pan (Dec.13 post) the camera jumps in closer for this scene revealing the Thief. Paul Dilworth mentioned earlier that while he didn't paint the long pan BG for the previous scene he probably painted the BGs for these closer scenes, but I just checked with him and he said: "I think those bgs were all Errol's. They have that watercoloury effect and odd colour juxtapositions which looks great on film."
Paul will be doing a guest post soon and he might have some photos of his BGs.
Drawing the Thief required less emphasis on 3 dimensional construction than a Disney character for example. Instead it was more important to maintain a certain iconic graphic look (an exception would be Mickey Mouse's ears that are constantly cheated to maintain the iconic look). In that way he is closer to a Looney Tunes character. Dick would often say: this doesn't look like him, rather then he is off model. There were no modelsheets for him, sometimes for an extreme angle Dick would make the design up as needed. There were a few rules, though. If you watch this scene in the film you can clearly see how the overlap on the ears had to be approached. Instead of changing the shape of the ears, bending them towards a reversal, you would just rotate the ears a bit up and down.
He has no eyebrows, instead we used the zigzag pattern on his hat to support simple expressions. For a frown for example you would first pose him with his head tilted down using the reversal of the hat edge to define the top part of the eye. Then you would start to draw the zigzag pattern from the middle out starting with a V shape.

You would also be careful with the areas at the outer corner of the eyes where the ears connect, avoiding tangents. In the first drawing I got it wrong, if you watch how the lines of the screen right eye and ear connect.
The flies over his head followed him with a 16 frame delay, so they would hover over the space that his head occupied 16 frames earlier. This created nice overlap when he was moving.
Often the proportions of the Thief and his size in relation to his environment changed from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene. This would be a major concern in other studios, but Dick while aware of it said that it didn't bother him as long as it wasn't noticable.
I believe all these scenes introducing the Thief up to when he walks up the stairs to the Cobbler's workshop (not the ones with the Nanny, see Andreas' Dec.10 post) were done during the time between Roger Rabbit and the 90-92 Thief period.

The RR deal had allowed Dick to close down his studio in Soho. This included paying considerable amounts of severance pay to long time employees, which had never been an option before. Because of his reputation Dick had been able to demand payment up front from his commercial clients, which is very unusual. However as he was pumping money into the Thief, incoming funds were used up immediately. The studio always needed to keep rolling and bring in new projects to cover the current expenses.

He moved his operation to Camden where he had bought a small building to house his personal production, while the RR operation rented lots of space in an office building close by, called the Forum. After RR the studio shrank down to a small group: Dick himself, Roy Naisbitt, Neil Boyle, Raymond Guillaumet and John Leatherbarrow. With the financial situation in limbo they plowed ahead, for the first time able to concentrate on the Thief full time. They did only one commercial for Air Canada to help pay the bills and a short title bit for the “I Framed Roger Rabbit” documentary.

At the Oscars after accepting his Oscar for RR Dick was approached by Producer Jake Eberts (Ghandi, The Mission), who expressed interest in becoming involved. He eventually engineered the deal with Warners.
Ken Harris had probably animated a rough version of these Thief scenes and I would guess that they were redone by Dick, assisted by Neil. Neil also animated the non-character bits like the boots in this scene:

By the time I joined the studio in March 1990 Neil had started to animate his own scenes , but this scene was in rushes a few times and I remember admiring the animation on the boots. For me they made this scene and created a nice connection with the BG. Also very nice interaction with the ears. These quiet Thief scenes juxtaposed against the wild stuff with the Nanny feel nicely underplayed.
One thing I like about a lot of the scenes in this film is that they are done with good taste.

In this scene Dick's drawings suggest that the Thief might have a huge behind or maybe it's all the stuff under his coat that he has stolen. In later scenes we can see that he has a very thin body.
Some people feel that the Thief is a self caricature of Dick. He told me that he designed him as a caricature of Ken Harris, without telling him. I think both are true.

The last 2 scenes were entirely animated by Neil. See Jan. 30 post.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

More Art

Steve Worth from the Asifa Animation Archive left a comment on the Dec.11 Ken and Art post (Thanks Steve!) which I would like to pull up here:

“I worked with Art at FilmFair when he was animating on Thief. Williams had him reworking scenes that Ken Harris had already animated. (I remember some scenes of vultures.) Art was pretty unhappy with the job. He said he didn't see anything wrong with Harris's work, and Williams couldn't articulate to him what he wanted to be done differently. There seemed to be a communication breakdown between Art and Williams, who was working in London.”

The vulture character Phido is Zigzag's pet. Dick designed him as a caricature of Peter Lorre. The model had changed quite a bit from the time when Art had animated him. The scenes with him where redone again in the 90-92 period, some of them by David Byers-Brown and Dean Roberts.
Dick's 2nd studio in LA (he also had a 3rd one in NY for a while) was located in a building at the T-section of Barham Blvd. and Cahuenga Blvd. I'm curious if Art worked there full time and was working freelance at FilmFair. Steve, do you remember the year?