Interviewing the Animators
In a time when animation is becoming more mainstream, when technology is breaking ground daily and talent is being heralded like it once was centuries ago; isn’t it interesting to see a medley of animators realizing their art?
The Oscar Nominees for the 1998 Short Animated Film category are representative of this diversity within the animation world. From Stop Motion to CG to Traditional-old school combined with cutting-edge technology enhances the inherited theory of what is hip and hot-raising the level higher. And yet in this modern-day world, an age-old argument cries for an answer: Do these tools depict the animator?
Certainly, the answer will vary and each opinion contrast another’s – but why not pose such questions to those who currently hold the limelight?
Mark Baker is an animator, writer, and director. He has had the honor of being a three-time Oscar Nominee for his shorts “The Hill Farm,” 1989; “The Village,” 1993; and “Jolly Roger,” 1998. Jolly Roger is a humorously animated film about a crew of ruthless pirates who plunder and destroy, and how a little ship of scavenger pirates steals what it can.
Stefan Fjeldmark and fellow animator Karsten Killerich’s created “When Life Departs”-an animated film inspired by children’s drawings combined with a documentary soundtrack of thought-provoking statements about children’s attitude towards death. Fjeldmark is a first-time Oscar Nominee who is currently directing “Help! I’m a Fish!.”
First time director Jonathan Myerson and animator Christopher Grace (who acted as executive producer) filmed “The Canterbury Tales,” a short based upon four stories from the English medieval classic by Geoffrey Chaucer. Focusing on Chaucer’s 600-year-old poem the film recounts stories told by pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas in Canterbury.
Mark Osborne, a stop-motion director, and animator, produced “More,” a story of an inventor who struggles through his joyless life in a drab and passionless society. He works to finish the invention he hopes will give his life meaning and worth. Upon its completion, his world and that of those around him transforms. This story shows how success does not come without sacrifice, as the inventor realizes that the true essence of his inspiration cannot be manufactured.
JC: What direction do you see animation heading in now from a technical standpoint?
Mark Baker: I see more and more use of computer techniques, but used in such subtle ways that their involvement will be all but invisible. Stefan Fjeldmark: I think that the clever filmmaker will find that he or she has a greater freedom to choose a specific style or visual, as more and more techniques become available. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see most people use it to hide the fact that they don’t have an original idea.
Jonathan Myerson: There are two camps in the 3D world. As it happens, one seems to be championed by the British-namely us and Aardman-which is to stick with real materials, where the images are actually still created in genuine 3D. Aardman work in clay, we work in silicone/latex, but these are minor differences compared with the other camp, largely in L.A., which is creating the 3D world entirely inside a computer. I think it is still worth calling the latter 3D-as far as the punters are concerned, that’s what it looks like. So, between them, the computer and the Hollywood budgets will always be able to be more impressive than us-but our advantage is that our characters don’t look like they’re made out of plastic, our characters don’t shine, they look interesting rather than perfect. For my money, CGI has yet to overcome this obstacle. It has yet to develop that variety of texture, which makes genuine 3D so watchable.
Mark Osborne: I see animation as heading in many directions. The advancements of the computer as a tool have greatly enhanced all forms of animation and they have threatened some more traditional forms like stop-motion, but I see a huge groundswell of support for such archaic forms of animation because the strengths of the different tools is becoming apparent. Computer animation is striving to look more and more organic, and that tells me something about the importance of the organic qualities that are inherent in any form of animation that is created by an artist’s hand.
JC: What was key in choosing what form of animation you used?
Baker: I wanted to avoid having the original pencil drawing traced, so scanning and coloring them by computer achieved this.
Fjeldmark: The stylistic choice was extremely important in “When Life Departs.” The concept was to interview real kids about their view on death, and visualize this. What would be more natural, than to use children’s drawings for this?
Myerson: Our film, used both 3D animation – from one studio, Christmas Films in Moscow- and 2D from three different studios in Britain. The choice was simple: the Moscow animators are brilliant and you’d be foolish not to use them. They have honed a 3D technique which exists nowhere else in the world. When it came to the 2D studios in Britain, we put the tales out to tender and chose the most inventive, exciting directors we could find. You have to remember, we are making animation for animation’s sake-we don’t focus group it, we don’t plan marketing tie-ins, so all we want is the best.
Osborne: I love stop-motion not only because I love to get my hands dirty, but because it is the closest form of animation to live-action, which I love. I can get inside my set with a camera and lights and create an atmosphere that is a direct response to the character and the scene and the materials. If you are lucky, there is a spontaneity and a liveliness that occurs in the physical world that is so unique and kinetic.
JC: What was your production timeline?
Baker: ‘Jolly Roger’ was produced over a period of one year for animation and six months for pre and post production.
Fjeldmark: Approximately 1 year.
Myerson: The script took about a year to write-condensing an epic poem, creating it in two languages (modern and Middle English) – and then the animation took about 18 months.
Osborne: The film started as a simple summer project that grew exponentially once the IMAX format was introduced. We started with a full-time schedule of six months and it ended up taking about nine months. However, the conception phase of the film actually took a lot longer considering this film linked ideas and fragments dating back to five years earlier.
JC: What was your budget?
Baker: The budget for Jolly Roger was £160,000.
Fjeldmark: Around $150,000 US Dollars.
Myerson: Countless hundreds of thousands of pounds. I don’t know exactly, I just spend it.
Osborne: What was planned as an extravagant $45,000 35mm film ended up costing about $150,000 in out of pocket costs, but we had about $500,000 dollars in donated services and labor from the Large Format Cinema Association members, so it is very cheap considering the format we used.
JC: How do you feel about the participation of large animation companies in the animated short categories?
Baker: Making an animation short is an expen-sive and mostly profitless business. “Jolly Roger”was produced by Channel Four Television’s money.
Fjeldmark: I feel good about anybody participating in the animated short categories. There are not too many good films as it is. The large studios may be able to raise the standards.
Myerson: I don’t know. Are we a large animation company? We’re certainly not Fox. Nor are we an exclusive animation company- S4C is a broadcaster. Generally, I think it is a shame-especially if it means we get more and more software pilots entered into the category. You should only make a film if you’ve got something to say, not just because you’ve got some software to test out. I want to see films with stories, not just wizardry.
Osborne: Well, I have to say it’s a tough battle out there and you would hope that the material is the most important thing. This category was established to recognize the studio shorts back in the day, so we can’t be too surprised or upset when they dominate. There have been some interesting independent work that has risen to the top and changed the way people think about the category. So I think it’s great that it is as broad as it is these days.
JC: Because the animation houses have more resources-do you feel that it benefits or inhibits the project in any way?
Fjeldmark: Resource or no resource, it takes a crazy person and a lot of persistency to make a truly meaningful film.
Myerson: Not really. We all want to see the best work done, don’t we? I happen not to like CGI very much, but that’s a matter of taste.
Osborne: Well, personally, I think for the most part the larger a project gets the more it gets watered down so it’s not necessarily a benefit to have a studio behind you. Resources are great but resourcefulness is invaluable and can some-times give you a slight advantage creatively.
JC: With the growing popularity of digital animation-do you think that other animation styles will suffer at all?
Baker: Jolly Roger was made with a mixture of traditional and digital techniques. Animation has always been a very technical art, computers are simply the latest tool available to animators.
Fjeldmark: The only people who will suffer from the fact that digital animation is developing as rapidly as it does, are the people who refuse to accept new times. I have a hard time imagining a creative computer.
Myerson: I bloody well hope not. In fact, if I have anything to do with it, it’s CGI that will suffer. I’m going to back the audience to ultimately realize that animation is supposed to be different from live action, it’s supposed to have texture and oddness and unpredictability. Some of these fantastically realistic CGI pieces are turning out so realistic that there’s no point in them, you might as well use live action and then you’d get better acting (actors on the whole are better than animation directors.)
Osborne: The digital advancements will help all around, and I think there will always be room enough in this world for any type of expression that comes along. The novelty of digital animation is wearing off and animation films are being judged on what’s on the inside, and that’s what matters.
JC: What is your background that led you to become animators?
Baker: Before wanting to animate I just wanted to make films, animation was a way of starting and I’m still doing it!
Fjeldmark: Some gene defect I presume. It is quite a magical thing to bring life to an inanimate object.
Myerson: I’m not an animator. I’m a writer. I want to write interesting films. Animation allows me to do that. As Director, I can ensure that the script is then told in the right way, stretching and exploiting the medium.
Osborne: I was studying art at Pratt Inst. in NY and made the transition to the film school where they had one animation class. I fell in love with the process and decided to explore it further at CalArts in CA. There I made live-action films and animation films to develop my artistic skills as well as my storytelling skills.
JC: Was Oscar candidacy a goal for the project?
Baker: Since this was my third nomination I was aware that it was a possibility, but all prizes are a bonus. The ‘goal’ was the finished film itself.
Fjeldmark: No. I was quite shocked to find that an unpretentious story like ours got as far as it did.
Myerson: Never even crossed my mind. We were just making the best possible film and maybe a few people might watch it one dark evening on BBC.
Osborne: I think it was a goal ever since seeing some of the nominated shorts back at Cal-Arts in 90 and 91. I couldn’t believe that there actually was a category that was within reach. It stayed in the back of my mind and I figured that it would be the end-all to be considered.
JC: How did you come to work [with your partner]?
Fjeldmark: [Karsten Kiilerich and I] met at an animation course 17 years ago, worked on several projects together and formed the company A.Film with 3 more guys in 1989.
Myerson: [Christopher Grace] is the Welsh animation supremo. He was looking for writers for an earlier project (Testament) and I was then writing a trilogy of radio plays being recorded in Cardiff by the woman who was also voice directing.
Osborne: Well Steve Kalafer, the producer of the film has known me ever since I was five. He is a friend of my dad, and he has been really supportive of my endeavors. After I had gotten some attention for my animation, he told me that he would help me and fund a short. A few years later I took him up on it and now he is producing my feature film project, “Dropping Out.” It’s a great relationship and I’m lucky to be in business with Steve.
JC: Do you have any insights for other animators?
Baker: Only that I think it’s always good to come up with your own original solutions.
Myerson: Stick to traditional techniques. CGI is a cul-de-sac.
Osborne: Experiment and explore, go places that you are afraid of. Keep telling stories, no matter what medium and no matter what style. Story and expression is the most valuable thing you can offer the creative world. Everything else will begin to fall into place behind your story because it has to support it.
Header Image Mason Pelt
Jennifer A. Champagne is a co-owner of Venice-based FX boutique.