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Handycat

Reflections…

September 29th, 2006

With the completion of “Handycat” behind us, a few random thoughts about the making of our “Random Cartoon.” To Russ and I, this was more than just a 6:52 short. To us, this was a revolution – the reinventing of the wheel – our first production in Flash outside of some experimental pilot pieces.

Fred was the first one to say “go Flash.” Then a really good friend, Adam Dykstra who is an animator at Disney Feature said the same thing. Another good friend, Glenn Zimmerman, who has done most of the Flash animation for the “Garfield” website for the past several years, was already telling me how great it was. When the world starts talking, it’s time to start listening, so, as much as I was caught up in the romance of doing things the “old way”, we took the plunge and set up a Flash workstation.

Two days into working with it, I was hooked. Two weeks into it, I was ready to pull my hair out, because even with Glenn’s tutoring, I didn’t think I’d ever learn how to use the software. But, I got through it, and ended up doing a five minute pilot presentation on my own.

By then, Russ and I both knew that there was no going back. No more traditional X-sheets. No more cels, rolls of background paper, Graphic Zoomers, stinky trichloroethylene and alcohol to clean and fuse the xerographic line. No more vinyl paint and the struggle to comp the various levels. No more white cotton gloves.

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No more Richardson RB300 animation stand with an ancient Bell and Howell 2709 on it.

No more KEM flatbed, nor 35mm mag stock and track reading. No more film editing, nor negative conforming. No more film lab – no more telecine. In fact, even the full name of our company, Perennial Pictures Film Corporation, seems an anachronism when we aren’t using film anymore.

I thought I would be bothered by the abandoning of the techniques and tools I had spent a lifetime learning. I was surprised how untrue that was. So, you can teach an old dog new tricks, I guess. And the old dog was able to pass along some of his new tricks to the younger dogs - namely Daryl Pyle and Charlie Cooper who animated most of the short.

When we started production on “Handycat” we had not yet created the model for a Flash production pipeline, and there were challenges along the way. A note of thanks here goes to Ashley Postlewaite at Renegade for taking the time to give us a tour of their studio and for generously sharing her considerable knowledge. Seeing that they could make it work gave me confidence that we could, too. And as a little aside here, from the time I was 14 years old and wrote Bill Hanna a letter sending him some of my work and asking a bunch of questions, to this day, I continue to be grateful that I am in an industry where there are so many just plain nice people who are willing and eager to share their time, knowledge and friendship.

In the new pipeline, traditional X-Sheets were gone and replaced by the Director’s Timeline that mimicked the Flash timeline with a dash of good old fashioned bar sheet thrown in. Traditional camera field sizes didn’t apply anymore we switched to doing everything that didn’t have a zoom or pan to a standard field size that could be done on 8 1/2 x 11 paper instead of the traditional 10 1/2 x 12 1/2. Letter sized paper (we continue to draw on paper though this may well change one of these days soon) allowed us to use inexpensive sheet fed scanners to input the drawings, and even saved money on silly things like scene folders and boxes because we could pick ‘em up at the office supply.

We had to figure out along the way who was going to “paint” the “cels” – the animator? An assistant? Someone who just did that? Well, it turned out to be a little of all three, and those kinds of decisions continue to evolve. And, who was going to scan stuff, and how do we cut the track and slug it into the Flash scene, and do we put the layouts into the Flash scenes or just hand the paper layouts to the animator? Thanks to Keith Myran, who used to run our camera among other things, for picking up a lot of these technical jobs. Even though the work was new to him, I had a sense of security knowing a trusted person was doing it.

It was a bit of a communications challenge to have our Layout/Background guy, Andy Friz, in Columbus, Ohio while we were in Indianapolis, but rather amazing that he could email both layouts and finished backgrounds our way and all we had to do was “plug ‘em in.”

I mentioned some of the traditional tools and techniques we had to give up. There were some other things that we had to “give up” that cause me no heartache at all. DUST! No more dust on the cels. That means if the designer wants to use a black or very dark background, dust isn’t an issue. RETAKES! In 35mm, one mistake in one frame of a scene and the whole thing has to be retaken. We used to try and limit the footage length on our scenes just to keep from having to do 90 ft. retakes. Now, you can see mistakes and fix them right then and there and the scenes can be as long as they need to be. And we can have 99 levels instead of just 4. And there isn’t any comping of paint, and an arm on one level and the body on another doesn’t have a “seam” anymore.

I mentioned footage just now. Well, there isn’t any “footage” anymore. So, how do you measure scene length? We’ve jokingly been saying “secondage” and maybe it’s going to stick

I can’t say enough good things about how well the Flash program has been designed. It does just about everything we want it to, and more.

Russ has learned how to use Final Cut Pro, and this, along with some sound software he got, allowed him to do all the sound mixing right here at the studio. In fact, we were able to do everything here in the studio with the exception of the dialogue and music recording and final transfer to Digibeta. The freedom to “try things out” that this gave us, was simply a marvel.

The recording session was great. Rob Paulsen did a wonderful job on Handycat. Larry Huber suggested we get June Foray to do the voice of Handycat’s customer, and what a grand suggestion that was. Not only did we get a great voice, but I now I get the chance to say I worked with one of the finest talents our industry has ever seen. What a lovely person. And she even “did” Rocky and Natasha for us!

And to close this rambling thing, I just want to say thanks to Fred, Eric, Larry, Therese, Claudia, Jack, Meredith and everyone else at Frederator/Nickelodeon for making this whole experience an extremely positive and enjoyable one. I for one, hope that it won’t be the last time we all work together.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above, I’m really happy with the way the whole project came down.

~Brian

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Congratulations Brian! Yeah I agree Flash is revolutionary! It’s amazing how much it brings the craft of storytelling and film making back into your own hands. As an animator it’s always been a bit frustrating to write, design, storyboard, voice and layout a film only to then send it 3000 miles away to another country for animation and then just let them ‘make’ your baby. Sort of like farming out stud services in a way. But that’s the ‘way it’s done” and you don’t really have a choice so you innovate and try to be as detailed and specific as possible. Until Flash arrived. With Flash it simplifies the process, putting you back in the driver’s seat or ‘animation seat’ and brings the final editing and tweaking back to you which I love. In fact even if you had decided to send the film out overseas and then got it back, if they sent you the .fla file you could do some of your own retakes thus cutting the budget and allowing you to adjust and tweak and do all sorts of adjustments including even adding scenes if the assets are there. Such an innovation only comes once every 20 years and we’re smack dab in the middle of it! Pretty cool!

 

What continues to astound me is how late in the game you can make a “fix.” Find a continuity error the day before you go to have the digibeta made? Fix it!

 

Brian & Russ, As the official (almost) oldest guy in the room, I’m reminded of so many of the changes technology has brought to my work. Starting in the 60s, the only skill I ever developed was as an audio tape editor, using razor blades and scotch-like tape to put pieces of magnetic tape together. Thousands of sessions later I walked into the studio one day in the late 80s and asked my long time engineer where the tape deck was; he looked at me sadly when he informed me they’d gone digital a year before. My first video tape editing was done in 1978 at Compact Video in Burbank because they were the first house in America to use computer controlled editing with SMPTE time code. I didn’t know how cumbersome manual video editing had been just months before. When I wanted to all my TV shows that way, the film editors in my life thought I had shot their children; they were “never” going to abandon the “feel” of handling film. Flash is just the latest change. It won’t be the last, and I, for one, can’t wait.

 

When we made a television feature, “The Ugly Duckling’s Christmas Wish,” we used a bunch of real little kids for voices, with what felt like a million takes on each. Russ edited the track on 1/4″ tape and I still remember what felt like mountains of tape reels laying around. I thought he was going to drown in it. Going to DA-88 was a step in the right direction, but being able to edit sound in the computer is really revolutionary.

 

Congrats on Handy Cat! I have no idea when I’ll be able to see it [living outside the states and all]. I’ll have to admit I was kind of sad reading this, I know Flash is just amazing and wonderful but the traditional stuff had such a strong sense of quality to it you know? I’ll miss it, but I’m sure you guys wont miss all the head aches! Great job, and great casting!

 

Hope you get a chance to see the short. I don’t think you’ll be able to tell much difference between the way we did it in Flash and the way we would have done it in cel/35mm. Honestly, the quality is better as far as distracting technical glitches. Still working on getting things like sponge texture in the backgrounds without making the files huge, but we’ll get there. Then again, the reason for a lot of sponge texture was to hide the dust on the cels and that isn’t a problem anymore!

 

I never knew that! [The more you know~]

 

Still, I’ll miss those days when film was imperfect and prone to those occasional mistakes and slip-ups that can be white-out too easily in the digital age.

 

Did you used to live on 54 Lyndale ave in Buffalo gary

 

Close. I used to live on Lyndale Ave. in Buffalo, but the number was 42. Who’s asking?

 

Whats going on Glenn?

 
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