Sunday, June 3, 2007

What's that in the sky? A head?*

I promised some art, didn't I?

Well, there's something, at least. That's an old animation loop done for a college class. The old fashioned kind, too: watercolor background and acetate cells. In the original film, done on a rather nice animation stand in the RISD Illustration department, I had the HeadBird flying across the screen. THis time, I just scanned in the cells and looped it in ImageReady. A couple of frames are missing, but it doesn't seem to have hurt it at all - but I do note that with the head staying in one place, you can see how much the shape of the head burbles over the 15 or so frames.

I know I mentioned this earlier, but my first big thing, my big ambition as a young artist, was to be an animator. Dozens of pristine pads were sacrificed to this end - I had specific requirements for their ease of thumbing. When I stared, I did front-to-back, but then I learned that real animators did back-to-front. For a lowly flipbook, all this meant was making it a little easier to flip and see the action. For traditional animation, back-to-front made a lot more sense, because a good animator's desk features a built in light box, with pegs on top to hold the specially-holed paper in place. Obviously, it's a lot easier to do the next frame when you can always see what the previous frames were.

I can't tell you how juiced I used to get as a kid, when The Wonderful World of Disney would show a rare behind the scenes moment of a lead animator at his desk, flipping through the loosely pencilled pages of some character doing their thing. Wow. Now that these things are a dime-a-dozen on any number of DVD extras, they've lost their potency, but at the time, these glimpses of the technique behind animation were so rare that it was really magic to see.

Sure, from one perspective, it's just a middle-aged guy sitting at a desk all day doing minimal variations on the same drawing over and over and OVER again. And given the factory method that Disney had, the animator in question wasn't one person but a team, for each character. The key animator drew every sixth or twelfth frame, and then his team of in-betweeners would fill in the rest of the action. Then they'd do the pencil test - actually filming the pencils to see if they lined up with the vocal track, if the animation flowed properly, etc.

Once everything was approved, it went to ink and paint. Up until 101 Dalmatians (I think), the pencil art was hand-inked onto acetate, then painted from behind. At some point, they experimented with Xeroxing the pencils directly on to the cels, which is why a lot of the 50's- 70's Disney films have that ragged look, compared to the smooth lines of the early features. I'm not sure which I prefer, aesthetically - the look of the later films is more dynamic, but the earlier films are superior in just about every way.

Sorry. I don't mean to go so much into the minutiae of it all (most of which I'm sure you already know), but it's just to illustrate how damn sure I was of my life's calling at a very young age. I like to think I was refreshing. Everyone else wanted to be a fireman, astronaut, Yankee, and I wanted to make animated cartoons.

I moved away from animation after I discovered comics in my very, very early teens, but both comics and animation got a lot out of me for the next few years. I was sort of scared away from animation pretty deliberately one day by an old man I met. I can't exactly remember the circumstances, or who he might have been, but as I recall:

A trip with my mother and her then-boyfriend, an Art Director from some big NYC ad agency, Harvey. Not to put to fine a point on in, but Harvey was the gayest straight man I've ever met in my life. He was also an incredibly self-absorbed and egotistical pompous twit with a really skewed sense of what constituted 'culture', but that's a subject I'll either get into another time or never at all. At any rate, we all ended up at a house somewhere in (again, I think) suburban Connecticut, the home of an elderly couple. For all I know, they could have been Harvey's parents.**

There followed an interminable day, but one thing that came up was my interest in animation. I recall that the old man was perhaps a designer or illustrator of some kind. He told me a warning story - one of the kind that I think adults tell kids to 'help' them - about the time he applied for a job as a Disney animator. Given his advanced age and the fact that this conversation took place no later than 1983, he'd either gone to Disney while in his 40's or tried out for Disney's first studio in Kansas City, but I digress. The old man told me a horror story of the test they gave him, having to duplicate drawings with a clock running, someone watching through a two-way mirror, etc. He made it sound more like a CIA interrogation than the place where Mickey Mouse lived. But what he kept hammering home was how hard it was, and how unlikely it was that I'd get a job there. He hadn't, after all.

That may have been the real turning point in my desired to become an animator. Certainly, there were a lot of other factors, not least of which the more immediate rush I got from comics and the fact that I could be more social with them (there's an odd concept, but I didn't have many friends as a kid and comics helped me find some), but having a guy who looked like a WWI veteran outright state that I wouldn't have what it takes to be one of the Disney team was a pretty definitive moment for me.

Weird, the moments that shape us. I mean, look at the above: I'd spent half of my life up to that point doggedly pursuing animation, but some old crank whose name and circumstance I can't recall - and yet, he put me off of my chosen path more than an entire phalanx of Guidance Counsellors ever could. And when I say 'put me off,' I mean put me off. While I can easily imagine returning to comics with full force, and have even taken major steps in that direction, I will never, ever sit down and make a flipbook again, and Dave the Animator is dead and gone.

That's all right. I mean, so is traditional animation, at least for now. Let's see what happens in 2009 when Disney's The Princess and the Frog hits theaters. Maybe it'll hit me, too.


*Old Benny HIll joke.
** One problem regular readers may discover is my unbelievably poor memory of my childhood. I've retained almost none of it, and I'm not making an exaggeration. All details, circumstances, names, dates should therefore be regarded as highly suspect.

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