A Conversation with Fraser Maclean

Late last year I posted about a remarkable new book by Fraser Maclean entitled, Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout. Shortly afterwards, I struck up an inspiring conversation with the author, a few excerpts of which, I’d like to share with you.  Fraser was more than generous in answering all of my questions about the process of putting together this a gem of a book. I do have aspirations to write my own animation books some day, which is part of the reason I briefly got involved with the Walt’s People series. Apart from discussing the production of his book, our conversation was also incredibly inspiring for the animation student, with Fraser giving sage advice I’m sure a lot of you will appreciate.

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In my first message to Fraser, I complimented him for the creation of a very unique kind of animation book; one that has both an abundance of great text and great art (most books ending up one or the other at best).  Here’s what Fraser had to say about the production of Setting the Scene:

Even though I knew ahead of time that it would be a complicated project in terms of permissions and clearances (there being nearly 400 images in there that all required exhaustive ownership checks, copyright searches and licensing clearances), I don’t think I would have believed just HOW involved and time-consuming a research exercise like this could get.

But – as they say – “you live and learn…”!

The purpose of the book was never to provide only “coffee table” material, although I did obviously appreciate that, in order to recoup some of the costs on a project like this, it would need to have colour in it – since my own original mental picture of it was page after page of blue pencil and graphite images.

When I approached Chronicle it was Craig Barron and Mark Cotta Vaz’s “The Invisible World” that I cited to Matt Robinson, who originally took an interest. When the company Board then approved the original proposal back in early 2008, the contract asked for 48,000 words – but I eventually delivered over 60,000, expecting them to go at it with a pair of garden shears….To their credit (and my amazement) they kept pretty much every word – which was a relief, since it mattered to me to let the artists and technicians “speak” as much as was humanly possible.

There’s an incredible amount of artwork in this book, as Fraser mentions above (nearly 400 pieces). I asked how he managed to get all the permissions for such a large number of images, many of which I’d never seen before in any other books or online.

The shortest response would probably be to say that finding the individual items was, in many instances, a lot easier than tracking down the studio or the corporate entity that owned the IP – and then, beyond that, working out how to negotiate and afford all the per-image licensing fees. Loads of people outside of the process suggested claiming “fair use” in an attempt to by-pass all of that hassle. But I wasn’t comfortable at all with the idea of trying to make the project look purely educational when there was clearly such a “coffee table” dimension to it also. Nor did I believe it was fair to expect these archives to offer up material for free when even the collections that are owned by the bigger studios need somehow to pay for the storage, restoration and protection of all these rare pieces.

But it added a whole year to the process – once the manuscript had been completed and approved by the publisher. And simply to track down most of the pieces meant two separate trips to the USA. Plus a whole lot of time tracking down individual private collectors over the internet and talking with them to see what they felt about allowing items from their collections to be scanned or photographed for inclusion, never mind the question of arranging and coordinating the scanning and photography itself.

From the curators at the larger studios to the families and descendant of the various animation pioneers and the enthusiastic private collectors who buy up rare pieces at auction – all these people were amazingly kind and cooperative, no matter how tightly the IP owners then held the licensing reins.

Without a doubt the most rewarding and inspiring part of the process was meeting and talking with all these amazing artists and technicians. Being something of an animation “mongrel” myself (inasmuch as I’ve never studied animation formally, nor have I ever been long enough in any one job on the production line to become truly accomplished at any individual task or skill), it was both moving and humbling to sit there and find so many of these experts, these stars in their own chosen fields, cheerfully opening up and sharing all their experience.

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With the individual character cels positioned closest to the lens, three separate flat levels of scenic artwork were moved sideways as each frame was exposed, the increments of these movements being smaller the farther the artwork as from the camera. Following a technique that is still in use today, the animators broke the background artwork into sections that could “repeat” endlessly; as each peg-registered section passed beyond the edge of the frame it could be moved back and reintroduced on a separate sliding peg bar behind the character cels. The hero and the villain even have their own distinctive passing background elements associated with them.Frame enlargements courtesy of Image Entertainment, ©1934 renewed, courtesy of Film Preservation Associates, Inc.; Thanks also to David Shepard and Don Iwerks; Author’s Note: to illustrate the process, modern standardized peg strips have been “attached” to the re-constituted artwork levels in this example; as can be seen elsewhere from artwork that has survived from the 1930s, a number of different peg registration systems were in use at different studios. Sadly none of the original artwork from The Headless Horseman could be traced.

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The Fleischer “stereoptical” turntable camera in use during photography for a Popeye short. Play Safe (1936) directed by Dave Fleischer & produced by Max Fleischer.

Photograph courtesy of Ray Pointer/Inkwell Images; Popeye and all associated characters © King Features Syndicate, Inc./ ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.; Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Fleischer, Virginia Mahoney, and Stan Handman (Fleischer Studios, Inc.), King Features, New York and Paramount Pictures Corporation.

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Dave Fleischer operates a gearwheel of the rotating turntable on which the studio’s “Scenics” supervisor, Bob Little, built the miniature city for the opening title sequence of Mr. Bug Goes to Town (Paramount, 1941). Photographer unknown.

Photograph courtesy of Ryan & Stephanie Englade; Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Fleischer, Virginia Mahoney, and Stan Handman (Fleischer Studios, Inc.) and Paramount Pictures Corporation; [Right]

Fraser has taught classes at various schools and festivals around the world, so we inevitably ended up talking about education standards as they pertain to the animation industry. As I’ve attended a number of schools myself, I have a pretty good idea of which schools are simply businesses parading around as schools, and which schools are the best value for your money. Unfortunately there are a lot of good and bad schools out there charging a lot of money. If you’ve paid a lot of money for school, it can lead to an heir of entltilement among some students when they graduate which they’ll likely carry with them throughout their careers. I’ve always tried to stay humble. I’ve also been in awe of every part of the process from day one, so I’ve never understood this mindset. Fraser had this to say about animation education and having the right attitude:

I do worry that a global traffic jam of character animators is beginning to build up – and I’ve worked with (although the worst of them would say that I’ve worked “for”) a worrying number of character animators who seem to think that the job of everyone else on the crew is to support the crushing weight of their talent.

Most character animators out there don’t fit that caricature – but it is nonetheless an unavoidable fact that, in most commercial studios, there are only a very small number of character animators. And yet – in many colleges – there doesn’t seem to be much effort going into the teaching (or even the explanation) of any of the other key skills, from color design and special effects work to production management and efficient book-keeping (without which, of course, nobody works for long on anything…)

Which leads me to offer, again and again, the following advice to students: by all means hone your talents (in whatever area of animation production you decide to pursue) – but bear in mind that, in the longer term, wildly talented people who are a complete pain to work with – wind up not getting hired so often, no matter how dizzying their abilities. The pressure of all commercial work makes it vastly preferable to be crammed (for months on end) into a small, dark, airless space with somebody who doesn’t think the world owes them a living (and a premium parking space).

While I would never argue FOR mediocrity in terms of anybody’s work – I would argue strongly for everyone putting some thought and effort into being plain old nice-to-work-with, plain old good-to-be-around.

At the time of our conversation, I was putting the final touches on a shot I’d spent a great deal of time animating. The shot was pretty much done, but I was “nooding” around trying to make it better. Fraser cautioned me not get into a habit of doing this, and shared a great personal story to re-enforce his point:

The worry I have, though, is that most production situations simply don’t allow for that much fine-tuning – and it can actually be a bad habit to develop and a REALLY difficult one to break. I don’t know how far into the book you are – but the Ken O’Connor remark about Layout holding the “purse strings” of the production is really vitally important. The more time any one artist (or department) takes, finesse-ing one tiny scene (or even one BIG scene) the more of a log-jam builds up in the departments that follow.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s this was still very true for Special Effects. Often (in fact – on every job that I can remember) we would have to absorb ALL the delays that had been caused by the client and the Animation Director tweaking the Leica Reel and the rough animation. Thankfully, within that particular London set-up, all the clean-up animation was done by the animators, assistants and inbetweeners themselves – but the fact remained that, even if the client and the character animator/director wanted to use up all that time noodling – the broadcast deadline never moved. And WE were the people who then had to work through the night (and sometimes more than one night in a row), whether we felt like it or not, to key, assist and inbetween the required hand-drawn effects elements – which couldn’t be done until the animation was fully cleaned up, line-tested and approved.

On one job I remember being particularly angry and exhausted about it – only to find myself being confronted by Mary-Pat, a New Zealand colleague, who ran the Ink & Paint Department….  It was HER job to make sure there were enough Paint and Trace people (never mind Tony, the poor Xerox guy) who were actually available to work through the NEXT night to make sure that our effects levels were accurately transferred to cel, blacked-in and opaqued – so that they could then be sent to rostrum, ready for the “Flip / Flop” double-run of 35mm exposures on hi-con neg. And even THAT part of the process was dependent on when the processing labs actually ran the different “baths” each day. Those were all things you simply couldn’t shift or mess around with.

So – SHE was pissed at ME for taking so long to get all the effects levels completed. This, of course, was way before Ink & Paint got digitized.

In the real world of tight production deadlines – that whole “Hang on a minute – I’m being INSPIRED here….!!” thing can very easily develop into a kind of behavioral tic. Which is why I tend to encourage students not to be TOO precious about any one particular scene (or gesture….).

I personally find this perspective incredibly refreshing, but I can see how these situations can come about with everyone these days being specialists trying to do the best they can do to stand out. But time and time again I hear or read that the two most important things an animator can have are good skills and a good attitude. Fraser put it best here:

As I keep saying to people – it seems to me that the basic unit of currency in animation is enthusiasm. And the more talented the individual artist, technician, director or producer, it seems the happier they are to share what they know (and love) with others.

It was a treat corresponding with Fraser and reading his book. I’d easily label it the best animation book of 2011, and while I know a lot of you already trusted my first post about the book and picked up a copy, for those of you that haven’t I sincerely urge you to. You won’t be disappointed.  You can pickup a copy of Setting the Scene here.

Holiday Gift Ideas

These books are great! You can read them till you're old and grey!

I’ve got a lot of e-mails asking for book recommendations over the years. I’ve talked about doing a post, but never have. So I figured now was as good a time as any to write it (as you’re all probably looking for something to buy for yourself for Christmas). There’s a ton of animation books out there. Most are inspirational, some are informative, but some are just plain old essential. These are the books I’m listing here today, the essential ones.

I’m gonna be direct and say that, in my opinion, these are the best books an animator can have on his/her book shelf. If I had to whittle my shelves down to ten books, this is what I’d have left. They are the best because they are authored by masters. You will constantly refer back to them throughout your career, and always learn more from them. They will teach you almost everything you need to know as a modern animation artist from drawing to composing your shots to actually animating them with appeal. If you don’t have something on this list, I highly recommend you treat yourself. Here they are in no particular order:

The Illusion of Life
The Animator’s Survival Kit
Composing Pictures
Drawn to Life (Volume 1 & Volume 2)
Character Animation Crash Course
The Five Cs of Cinematography
Painting with Light
Animation From Script to Screen
In the Blink of an Eye
Cartoon Animation

Note: I would include The Famous Artist Course in Commercial Illustration (1960), but it is actually three binders, and much harder to find. You can occasionally find copies of this on eBay.