Friday 25 November 2011

Tim Allen interview

Hello guys and gals,
Now this next interview is pretty special to me. Sharing some words with us is Tim Allen, a leading stopmotion animator who has worked on many great features including Fantastic Mr Fox, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.

My first introduction to Tim's work was during a guest speech at UWE, Bristol. The university's senior lecturer, Chris Webster, had taught Tim many years before at Glamorgan University. They both spoke about the importance of having passion for being a character animator. I didn't quite understand their words at that time, yet somehow, listening to these people sparked a little flame inside of me. Since then, I have always known what I wanted to do as a career. My warm thanks to both.

To the rest of you, I hope you all enjoy the read!

How did you get into stop motion? When you first started animating, was it always your goal to work with puppets, or did your enthusiasm for stop motion come later?
As a kid I was always drawing cartoons & reading comics & I don’t think there was ever much question that I’d do anything other than some sort of artistic profession. Actually I’d never even considered I could do animation as a career until I was haphazardly looking at university courses. I’d committed myself to an art based profession studying a 2 year art BTEC in favour of the more academic A-level route. I didn’t know what to specialise in next & was sitting in the waiting room for the open day of a model making course when someone came in saying “Is anyone here for the animation degree?”. My eyes popped open at the idea I could make cartoons for a living! It sounds cheesy but from that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I visited every animation degree I could find until I saw that Glamorgan uni taught stop motion. That was it - animation with models. I’d found my calling.

With retrospect I think I was very lucky to find a career path that I passionately wanted to follow.

You graduated from Glamorgan College of Art, with a 2:2. To my understanding you struggled at first. Please may you talk about this experience, and what you believe turned your troubles around.
I was hit & miss at the start really. I made some successful work & some that the tutors couldn’t stand. At the humble age of 19 I was sophisticated enough to be highly amused by toilet humour. I crafted a film about a waste disposal system for the distant future, dubbed Toilet 2000. This ingenious device for the next millennium could remove body excretions without any need for unsightly straining from the user. Can you believe my tutors hated the film & at the critique ripped me apart in front of my fellow students. It didn’t help that the film wasn’t completely finished, though perhaps fortunate that it was only the sound effects missing.

I had actually worked incredibly hard on it & felt mortified. It made me utterly dedicated to prove myself on my future projects & create some of the best work in my year group. The story has a happy ending as I won the ‘Glammie’ for best 3rd year film with Kaptain KerPOW. I’m still proud of this if only that it was a personal victory to come back from feeling so shamed. The tutors remain good friends of mine & I’ve taught alongside them many times. One of them does enjoy jokingly reminding me of this fateful day whenever I’m giving a lecture to his students!

(Kaptain KerPOW! is the property of Glamorgan University, Wales)

Can you talk about the work you did once you graduated and how this prepared you for your role upon Corpse Bride.
At the time I left college the stop motion industry was having one of its occasional slumps in work, making jobs very hard to come by. I travelled all round the UK visiting every company I could find doing work experience & whatever I could get. This gave me a good understanding of what was out there but it took a year & a half to land my first animation job. The work was predominately children’s series back then & I’d travel to wherever a project was, in part just to keep employed. I actually loved working for many different companies, practising various techniques. Every time I did something new, I felt I was progressing & it was this feeling of learning new tricks & improving on my understanding of animation that was now my driving force.

I’d been animating professionally for 6 years & think I was becoming quite a flexible worker. At that time Corpse Bride was on the horizon as an upcoming project & seemed an unmissable chance for me to make much higher quality animation. However I sent 3 separate showreels before I even got an audition. By now I was very used to walking into a new studio environment & trying to mimic the animation style, but this was a real test – could I work at that quality level? I think my experience in adapting to new environments was what got me the job. Simply put, I asked the other animators what the director did & didn’t like & focused my audition accordingly. If there’s any key to how I got my first feature film, it’s those years of learning a broad range of approaches to animation on different projects.

What is like working for Tim Burton?
Well Tim’s only ever been lovely to me in the encounters we have & shows a lot of gratitude for the work we do. I don’t get much direct interaction with Tim as there’s an animation director as my main point of contact. He takes what Tim needs from the character & story & guides me on the best way to practically make that work in stop motion. Tim often likes the work to be dynamic & it’s not unusual for him to speed my work up by taking the odd frame out!

I’ve been lucky enough to have several surprise visits when he’s partially happy with a shot & he’s popped in just to tell me personally! You can’t help but feel flattered & a bit stunned! Our last conversation involved whether or not a vampire cat was more powerful than a Frankenstein dog. Guess you’ll have to watch the film to find out...

You worked on a wonderful and complex scene of Lord Barkis, giving a wedding speech that includes a small continuity error. In this shot, a camera tracks down a table of guests, each served a plate of chicken. For the next shot, Tim Burton requests the chicken is replaced to include the gag 'there is an eye in me soup'. The error is most often unnoticed while the gag adds to the entertainment value.
As the animator of the shot, please may you share your thoughts on this change.
Lord Barkis's speech
Ha yes I forgot about that one! The soup joke was thought of either whilst I was doing the big table shot or just after, I forget exactly when. I did point out the continuity issue as soon as I heard about it, but they were already aware & felt the gag made it an acceptable compromise. The wedding speech shot was intended to be gray & dull in its uniformity. The identical chicken meals were intentionally mediocre & unappetising to emphasis the soullessness of this sham wedding. Also my animation of the guests was aimed to be apathetic to the event. It was felt that replacing Finnis’s chicken meal with soup for continuity reasons would spoil the uninspiring symmetry of the table layout. It could even be distracting from the story if the audience start wondering why only one person had a bowl of soup.

All the animators were given a prop from the film as a leaving present on completion of the film. Mine was a little tray complete with cutlery & plate of chicken!

"Mrs Everglot 'There's an eye in me soup'"
You now have the opportunity to work on Frankenweenie. Have you noticed differences in approach to animation style between the two features?
Frankenweenie is a bit snappier in its timing which makes it fun & less painstakingly controlled than Corpse Bride was. Yet I learnt great discipline from subtle movements & acting on Corpse. With Frankenweenie I’m doing much bolder, dynamic spacing, & the emphasis in getting the anatomy & use of weight right has been difficult but educational. It’s great to work with much more experienced animators than myself as I continue learning new approaches to animation. Frankenweenie has also given me the opportunity to work with 4 legged characters a lot!

The clearest change with Frankenweenie is that we have much less preparation time so it’s more hit & miss whether we get the shot exactly as intended. Ironically less preparation time slows the animation down so we work under a lot of pressure to minimise this. We all need to be faster yet get it right first time.

You also worked upon one of my favourite stop motion shorts, Susie Templeton's 'Peter and the Wolf'. I really loved the film for taking its own independent approach to the story. Please talk a bit about your thoughts on the film and your experience working upon it?
I’m very proud to have been a part of this film as not many people outside of Poland were involved in the shoot & it’s certainly a unique project. Suzie Templeton deserves so much credit for the film’s Oscar winning success & it was very tough to keep it as close as possible to her vision. It was actually a very hard film to work on. There were so many complications (time & money to mention but two!) that made it very difficult to give Suzie the shots she wanted.

Animating realistic acting to music was a fun challenge & also it was hard to get so much emotion out of puppets that had virtually no facial movement other than rotatable eyeballs! A big part of the experience was working in Łódź, Poland & soaking up the lifestyle. The Polish model making is simply beautiful & I really rate their attention to detail. Se-ma-For have a very long & interesting 60 year company history & had developed many of their own techniques that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Europe. It was a culture crossover with British production company Breakthru Films blending with mostly Polish workers & this made the experience very interesting for me. There were some inevitable clashes but it also broadened horizons for all. I for one had to learn to drink neat vodka!

Character DesignI’ve since been back for a much longer stint to Łódź. I was animation supervisor on Breakthru film’s last project The Flying Machine directed by Martin Clapp which was an even more ambitious film than Peter & the Wolf. They have been the most gruelling two productions I’ve ever been a part of. It must have been worth it though - I’ve made many friends in Łódź & brought back my Polish girlfriend Monika!

(Please click pic to watch Trailer)

Please tell us about your animation process.
Every production is different, so my answer would be tweaked for each one. To generalise, my role is to make the best of the situation given & try to make the shot work in context with the film. In plain English, this usually means getting the shot started as quickly as possible, & animated to a tight deadline. Of course I must make sure it tells the story & keeps in character. The key is really in the preparation. Once I’m mid shot, most of the time I rely on my instincts. I try to take reference frames as a guide of the key frames to hit. If I’m luck I’ll get a chance to rehearse what does & doesn’t work for the shot. Occasionally for trickier physical shots I’ll do a live action video, commonly called a LAV (videoing myself in real time) to help give me a few practices at getting the anatomy & timing right.

Before tackling a shot, how much time is spent building an understanding with your character and puppet?
Well I’m afraid these days there’s never enough time! It can take many shots before you really understand the dos & don’ts with a character. Normally you are very lucky to get an animation test before using a new puppet. One of the best ways is to talk to animators who’ve had experience with the character to learn from their mistakes & follow what they’ve found successful.

If a directors confident with how you animate a character you may be with that character for most of the film. It’s easier than casting lots of different animators who’d all have a slightly different style. I look at my first shots with a particular puppet & often cringe because I can see how much better I’ve become with it over time.

What do you find most challenging?
Giving the director what they want in the time the producer allows – usually there just isn’t enough time to get it completely right.

Where do you find inspiration and influences?
I like to look at animators work & go through it frame by frame to study how they create certain movements. I often find myself thinking “Wow I wish I’d thought of doing it like that”. It’s great that we all have slightly different working techniques because you can keep learning from others.

If you had to choose any stop motion feature or short that you could have worked on, what film would you choose and why?
Jack Skellington, The Nightmare Before Xmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas. I was an art student when this hit the cinema & I just loved the visual style. I wrote my college essay on it (& got a pretty bad grade!) & it was the film that really made me think “I want to do this!”. Also it was the first of its kind in many ways as a big budget stop motion feature film which made the scale of the project pretty ground breaking. I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a few of the Nightmare animators. I get a quiet buzz from that & have always enjoyed hearing their stories of life in Halloween Town.

One of the 'limitations' of stop motion is that the physical elements have to stay still long enough to capture them. An obvious challenge to this would be the representation of water. Please talk a bit about how you have previously tackled this?'
Clingfilm used in Fireman Sam
In stop motion we generally accept that we can’t do photo realistic water. If you want that you need to go the (generally more expensive) CG special effect route. But stop mo water can have quite a stylistic charm & can be very convincing. Different types of water use different techniques. For example, raindrops on a window pane or watery/tearful eyes are normally glycerine. A single drop of water for a close up is best represented as melted glass or even hot glue from a glue gun. Water surfaces like puddles or lakes are usually sheets of Perspex upon which other water effects can be animated. Cling film is an easily recognisable stop motion water technique. It’s used for larger bodies of moving water like waterfalls in Fantastic Mr Fox or splashes in Fireman Sam. We wrapped it around wire for ‘tubes’ of water projecting from Fireman Sam’s fire hose. To give clothes a wet look in The Flying Machine I believe latex was painted into the fabric.

The Wind in the Willows director told me that for the ‘Messing about on the river’ sequence, the river itself was large quantities of wallpaper paste that the boat could sink into slightly but remained on the surface very convincingly. It released a toxic smell that filled the studio & would never get passed health & safety by today’s standards! Another stop motion favourite is KY jelly. It’s great for sweat running down a puppets face or animated droplets of water running over a surface. A traditional gag is to send a rookie runner out to buy 12 tubes of KY & see them return to the studio somewhat red faced!

( Tim's Fireman Sam water shot can be seen in his 2009 showreel)

Are there any exercises you can suggest to work on to prepare for character animation in stop motion?
Almost all animation should be considered ‘character animation’ as you need to believe that an inanimate object is ‘alive’! There’s a lot of tried & tested teaching techniques that I think make good building blocks for character work. Many animation courses use these techniques in a similar structure for a good reason - it generally works. For more novice students I’ve found it useful to separate performance into individual elements like simplistic lip sync, full facial lip sync & body mime language. Once students are getting to grips with each part it’s easier to put it together into a complete performance piece. That’s pretty standard practice though. I’d also suggest filming yourself or others a few times to get a range of ideas for how to approach the performance.

I do notice that there’s rarely animation classes focused purely on the eyes. These are the most important communication tool & there are so many tricks & tips in this vital area. I’ve given a few classes purely on eyes & found myself stunned at how many dos & don’ts there are. Even on Frankenweenie I’ve been learning new tricks to avoid being cross-eyed. The Tim Burton character designs are very prone to it & I still find it so easy to get the eyes looking in the wrong place.

A major problem stop motion students face is inexperience in how to make controllable puppets. How can you learn to animate a character if the puppet keeps falling down or the head is too heavy for the neck? When I teach I spend more time fixing puppets than going through animation techniques. This is a hard issue to solve as both puppet making & animation take lots of practice to learn & courses don’t have enough time available in the syllabus. I’d suggest buying a cheap armature for a start. If you use plasticine faces then mixing bees wax with the eye lids & eyebrows helps them maintain a firm edge & avoid going gloopy under the hot lights. There are so many more tricks like this, you need to pick it up one step at a time...

In your career to date, you have already enjoyed great success. Looking back at when you started animating, what advice would the Tim Allen of 2011 give to the Tim Allen of 1998?
Keep seeking to learn new techniques & improve. Try things outside of your comfort zone. Get out there, meet people in the industry & get to know their previous work. On a very practical note, when you’re earning, save for the quiet patches. Above all else, don’t forget to enjoy it – you bring dolls to life for a living!

Upon leaving this interview, I wish to leave you all with a glimpse at Tim Allen's 2011 showreel. Hope you all enjoy! If you have any thoughts on Tim's work, please share them in the comments section of this post. Thank you.

Interview by Steven Hawthorne