Search form

The Animated Scene: Character Profiles from the World of Animation

In this months The Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland profiles his meeting with Norman McLaren and working on international animation crews.

Joseph Gilland.

A few months ago, I wrote about managing animation crews. Could there be a more eclectic, or colorful group of people on this earth, as an international animation crew? Of course theres always the theater, dance, music and movie businesses, with their flamboyant and often exhibitionistic look at me characters, forever outdoing each other in their outrageousness.

But the animation industry has a different kind of colorful character. Rather than being blatantly extroverted, animation artists are often a kind of troubled and twisted introvert who has unpredictable moments of extreme exhibitionism. The quiet withdrawn, pencil-necked geek, forever doodling cartoons on every available surface, who suddenly blurts out a series of wacky Warner Bros. era old-school cartoon sound effects is a perfect example.

Id like to take a walk through my animation studio memory lane, and fondly remember some of the most colorful characters I can think of. For obvious reasons, I will alter facts and change names and places wherever I choose, in order to protect the guilty. If you suspect that one of these characters is in fact you, dont worry, no one else will know for sure, much less believe that anyone so strange could possibly exist! But seriously, Im not naming names (with one exception) just spinning animation yarns.

Back in 1976, when I was first getting my feet wet in the animation business, I was working late one evening in a commercial animation studio in Montreal, doing shading with prismacolor pencils on frosted cels, coloring in some animated wrestlers for a television commercial. The client was a large Canadian banking company. It was a cold, stormy, snowy winter night outside, and the crumbly old brownstone buildings heating left a lot to be desired. It was chilly even indoors, and I was huddled over my light table, with my lamp as close as possible, for warmth. Hearing the scuffle of feet dragging across the floor of the studio, I looked up form my work, to see a bizarre apparition.

Here was a grizzled, white haired man, probably in his sixties, in a bathrobe and slippers, with a beard and Albert Einstein-like white hair sticking out in every possible direction. He had the unmistakable look of someone who has just awoken, and did not look like he was in any mood for conversation. I watched, probably with my mouth hanging opened, (I was 18 years old) as he headed for the back door, which opened out onto a fire escape. We were on the third floor of the old brownstone. He wrenched opened the back door and stepped out in to the swirling snow, cursing under his breath.

I leaned, to look around my animation table, to see what he might be up to. There were a couple of big garbage cans out there, and he was rummaging through them noisily, with much clanking and the noise of bottles and cans, cursing louder and louder as he dug deeper and deeper. Suddenly, triumphantly, he hoisted a large whiskey bottle out of the garbage can, which appeared to still contain an inch or two of amber liquid. He slammed the garbage can lid back down, came back inside and scuffled back across the room, snow flakes falling off of his shoulders, clutching the bottle, muttering under his breath about the *%+#$&!! cleaning ladies who were fool enough to throw out an unfinished bottle of perfectly good whiskey.

This was my first professional encounter with a famous animator, someone about whom I had heard wonderful stories, and I had been very excited about the prospect of meeting him, while working at this studio. After that day, I never did get to know him, but this unique little winters night memory is as clear as if it was yesterday.

Another particularly wonderful animation character whose name I will tell you, and who I had the honor to actually meet and spend some time with, was the National Film Board legend, Norman McLaren, God rest his soul. This is a story I have not told to many people, but one of the most powerful meetings of my life.

When I was studying animation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design back in 1974-75, I was particularly fascinated by the work McLaren had done, actually drawing sound waves and filming them on to the optical sound track of the film strip, on a specially designed camera made just for him at the N.F.B. I could never understand why it wasnt considered more of a remarkable feat in film history. Here was a director actually drawing his sound track! He had figured out how many lines per frame would create what specific note, and how changing the shapes of the lines, changed to tone of the notes!

Norman McLaren.

It captured my imagination, but there was no way to learn much more about it. It remained a mystery to me until a fateful day in 1979, when I mustered up the courage to walk up to the door of his studio at the National Film Board, and knock. Come in! came a shaky voice from the back of the room. Shyly, I shuffled into Normans office/studio, and stood staring. It looked like a museum of old filmmaking and drafting equipment. McLaren was famous for not being interested in new fangled technology like the flatbed film editing machines of the day known as Steenbecks. McLaren stuck with his trusty old green Moviola for his entire career. His room was cluttered with strange objects, and piles of paper and books. It was wonderful!

He bade me come in, and asked how he might be of service. I told him outright that I was just fascinated with the work he had done drawing sound waves on cards and shooting and exposing them onto the optical film track. Ah yes! he exclaimed, Let me show you! He began frenetically foraging through filing cabinets, and shortly produced several large manila folders, brimming with notes and drawings and the original sound drawings on cards! Take a look through these, he said, perhaps youll find something that interests you.

Well, Ill say it was interesting! It was all there, all the notes he had ever written on the topic. He said I should feel free to make copies of anything I would like to have. And then he offered to give me a little demonstration of how it works! Quickly he threaded a strip of unexposed film into his Moviola. Although he shook quite constantly, what he did next was just amazing. Focusing all his energy, he took a small scratching tool and made six precise little scratches on the optical track of the film.

One moment his hand would be trembling madly, and then he would deftly make these perfectly spaced little scores on the edge of the film. It was amazing how he could concentrate his energy. He then ran the film through the Moviola machine, and it made a little blip sound. You hear that note? he said. Then he made 12 little scratches, and ran it through again. Same blip note, one octave higher! He smiled mischievously, And what do you think I would get if we made 18 little scratches?

Perhaps I should have stayed with Norman a little longer that day. But I was only 21 years old, and extremely shy and nervous to be in the office of this living legend. I quickly ran off and made copies of his notes, and returned them to him. He was warm, friendly and smiled a great deal. I ducked out and scurried back to my work heart pounding. Its a testament to the nomadic nature of the animation business, that in the following years the notes that I copied that day, sadly did not survive with me.

I moved far too many times in the next two decades, and never hung on to my material possessions for very long at that point in my life. But I had been there, and rubbed shoulders with one of the truly great innovators and legends of our craft. God rest his beautiful soul. A far cry from the crusty old fart digging his whiskey out of a trashcan!

Now lets fast forward to the early 80s, for a quick look at a unique management character, working on a major motion picture, somewhere in eastern Canada.

With her office down the hall from the coffee machine, door always opened to observe the comings and goings, watching, listening and observing every move by every artist and production worker on the sizable crew. lived the Production Manager from hell. Nickname: The Dragon Lady. Unreadable. Intense, Focused. And dangerous. With a reputation for skinning people alive and firing artists quickly, without pity. Without hesitation. Show up at the coffee machine late, and you might get a Hey you, so how are you this morning? that could cut you right in half. Was she kidding? Were you about to get fired? Was that a smile? Or a sneer?

Seeing all, knowing all, the ultimate Production Manager from hell, tending to her errant flock. And then, late at night, the click, clack, click, clack of her high heels in the corridor, doing the rounds, watching, listening, checking. Never knew when she might come, so you always had to keep your head up! One night, at about 2:00 am, while I was doing clean up animation drawings, I felt a strange, menacing presence over my shoulder. Someone watching? I looked up nervously, to see her there behind me, arms folded across her chest, smirk on her face. So this is how you get so much work done, eh? she hissed. I looked up at her. She smiled. I smiled. We had a nervous laugh.

I asked her how the hell she snuck up on me like that. We had another laugh. She sat down and we talked for a while. And weve been good friends ever since. Taught me right then and there, big time, to never judge a book by its cover! Dragon Lady was just doing her job, and under the intimidating exterior, just a warm human being. (I dont know that she ever fired anyone from that particular production either, and she had ample reason to on several occasions.)

And heres a final story to cap off the first one, once again with a little tip of the hat to John Barleycorn, the spirit of animation, especially in Ireland. Which is where this next little tale took place once upon a time, back in 1992. And this isnt about one particular individual character; its about an entire department full of characters!

Its my first day on the job, at a really big animation studio, more than 300 artists in all, in a massive building in Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Liffey River and across the river, the Guinness Brewing Co. Being the extremely responsible chap that I am, I arrived at work at precisely 8:30 am, which is when I was told the first people might be expected to start arriving. I have just relocated from the Hollywood Hills, I am a little off balance and already suffering a little bit of culture shock. Everything is so Irish!

The receptionist is delightfully Irish, and she makes me feel welcome, chatting for a bit, and assuring me that folks in my department will be showing up for work any minute. Time passes, it is now 9:15 am, and still no one has shown up. Im slightly perplexed, but not overly. Ive seen this kind of thing before. Slow start on Monday is all. So I wait. And I wait. At 10:00 am I am back talking to the receptionist. Surely to God someone should be here by now? Aie she says, Maybe they were up to no good last night!

Finally, at about 10:15 am, a red-haired, green-eyed girl who couldnt possibly look more Irish, comes rushing into the department, looking completely frazzled and out of breath. She has far too much makeup and perfume on, and looks like she woke up just minutes ago. Ah Jay-zus, she says, You moost be that new fella? Beggin our pardons, but we were oop partyin last night till an ungodly feckin hour, and I dont think youll be seein anyone till noon or so! Im the department manager, and I rushed in as soon as I could would ya like a cooppa coffee? So we got a cup of coffee, and we sat and talked for a little bit.

Seems it was one of the assistant animators birthday Sunday night, and the gang had met at a pub down the road for a pint. Keep in mind, I had just moved here from L.A. where the last time I had a party, the fridge was still full of beer when everybody left around midnight. This seemed like an entirely different breed of animation artist here in Ireland, something more in line with my brethren back up in Canada (or the crazy folks back at Spumco on Melrose).

By 11:00 am, people really started showing up in earnest, each one looking even more disgracefully hung-over than the last! One by one I was introduced to the crew of animation characters who would be my closest friends and colleagues for the next three years. Mostly Irish, but a couple of guilty looking Yanks as well as a serious space cadet from New Zealand. My new boss (from California) finally showed up, and decided we should head out to the pub, to celebrate my arrival. By 11:45 am, we were in a pub down the road, across the river from the Guinness factory, drinking hot whiskeys and Guinness! Welcome to Ireland, I thought to myself, as I raised a glass with my new boss

Authors note This animation crew was one of the hardest working group of animation artists Ive ever known. We created some beautiful work over the next three years that I was there, although we did party pretty hardy on a fairly regular basis. After my three-year stint in Ireland, with a liver the size of a football, I put down my last pint, and took up good clean living. Cant seem to shake this animation habit though!

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is head of the classical and digital character animation programs at the Vancouver Film School, and writing a passionate book about the art of animation.