Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Striking the Mother Load

As a worker bee in the hive of television animation you were "paid by the pound". You got a minimum salary but were expected to turn in so much "footage" or scenes or drawings to justify it. This resulted in the general opinion that television was cheap "rush" work. If you longed for respect, you had to move into theatrical features. This basically meant you had to work at Disney because they had the "lock" on animated features. Disney was considered the "Cloisters" because they didn't seem to fraternize with anyone from television and didn't know what was going on in animation beyond the walls of their studio. Amazingly, they never got laid off! Everyone wanted to work on a feature project but Disney was a "closed shop". You had to be born inside the walls, it seemed, to get a shot at working there. (This was more true than not. Disney workers beget Disney workers!) This all changed in the 70s when the underground comic book movement beget X-rated animated features!

There was a new look to animated features and it was an adult look. It was irreverent, sexy and foul mouthed. It mocked established institutions like government, religion and politics. And it did it all with the raw, unbridled look of underground comics. This movement was headed by a young man from New York, we called him "Vinnie", who brought the world of underground comic book artists to the screen. At the beginning of his rise I ended up working at his studio. During a drunken luncheon one day Nandu, an animator friend of mine, and I decided to enlist with this new studio and embrace its vision to take on the Disney giant. We were hired after an interview, Nandu as an animator and I as his assistant. I was finally working on a feature production. I had hit the mother load!

There's a lot of good things about working on a feature. First off, it's a union staff position so its pays well every week and comes with full benefits. It's a long-form project so it could last two years in production! Best of all, you have all the necessary time you need to do your best work. Of course, this was NOT a Disney feature but an independent production which meant Vinnie could make up his own rules about how the picture was to be made. He took some "shortcuts". He didn't photograph the rough pencil animation before it was painted but waited to see how it looked on the scene in color. Instead, he would "flip" the animation in his hands to see how it played. Tim, another animator on staff, picked up on that and only gave Vinnie completed, cleaned-up roughs to look at. He had a special relationship. His wife was also on staff as his exclusive assistant and his daughter was her exclusive inbetweener. Tim was a favorite because Vinnie could see his work fully as he flipped it. I had worked with Tim before and always thought his work was mediocre but the boss loved it.

The rest of the animators had to use assistants and inbetweeners from the "pool", like me. Vinnie expected a reasonable amount of work from his animators and Nandu had difficulty meeting that demand without utilizing some "tricks" he learned in the television business. Nandu was a master of the "invisible hold". He would keep a character in one position for no more than a third of a second or 8 frames of film. Even if the character stopped moving his body, something else on the character, his arm, his hair or tie, would continue animating. This was known as "overlap" in the industry. And before the character started moving again, he would begin the animation with a simple action like a hand move, an eye blink or a head bob preceding the actual movement of the character. This was called "anticipation". Overlap and anticipation were the marks of an excellent animator. In order to save money in TV animation, Nandu would use separate drawings of hands, heads and eyes animating atop a character body at rest. Employing this technique, he was able to make the footage demanded by Vinnie. The trouble was, it didn't flip well. A character would move a short while then separate into many body parts making seeing the action out of context on paper impossible. This gave Vinnie the impression that Nandu was a "hack animator". They quarreled and Nandu left. But I stayed on. Other animators liked me and was given prestigious, if difficult, assignments.

I stayed at that job long enough to see justice play out. Eventually, all completed animation was painted and photographed onto 35mm film and Vinnie got to see it in action. Tim's work, which seemed so wonderful on paper, was revealed to be mediocre and he was sacked. However, when Vinnie saw Nandu's work on the screen, he was delighted. He loved it and wanted the animator who did it praised and given more work! He seemed confused when he was informed that he fired that artist earlier. Vinnie never even knew who did what on his show. And he certainly wasn't able to tell good from bad by merely "flipping" it through his hands.

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