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The Animated Scene: Sweet Home Animation

Joseph Gilland reminisces about his move into the sweet home of animation in this month's "The Animated Scene."

Joseph Gilland

The very first animated film I made was scribbled on some clear 35-millimeter film, and some unexposed 35-millimeter film, with a marker, some grease pencil and a scratching tool out of my father's toolbox. It was a school project. I was studying animation at the Montreal Museum of Fine arts School of Art and Design, where the academic leanings of the animation program were decidedly artsy. But what a great way to learn about the way a second is spread out across 24 frames! And what a low cost, quick, and simple way to actually create something that moves and is fun to watch.

When our whole class had turned in their little strips of naïve animation art, our teacher spliced them all together, and then we screened them while listening to various different types of music. It was truly magic. Truly inspiring. The images worked so well with the sound, it was as if it was all 'meant to be'!

From those humble beginnings, began a lifelong obsession with all things animated. Not content to simply scribble on film, I quickly devised a little drawing board with pins pushed through the back that held the film in place. With perfect little frames drawn underneath the film, I could draw on it with much more control, and actually animate frame by frame, seeing clearly what I had drawn on the previous frame. I managed a walk and run cycle and then jumped the character into some water, back out of the water, and then I set the character on fire... and so on, and so forth! I was so thrilled to have a little filmmaking studio, right there on my little desk in my childhood bedroom.

Check out American Pop to witness the sad state of animation in the eighties.

From there, it was on to the animation table, the disk and the peg bars, the paper and pencil, storyboards and layouts, rough animation and in-betweens, clean-up and tracing, cels and cel paint, the background paintings, the dope sheets -- ahh the process, the romantic old animation process. Good God, it took a long time to make a really insignificant and poorly made cartoon! Why did I keep going? If you're reading this, you probably know the answer. Animation is magic. Pure and simple. And so, we keep on going.

But through the years, as I moved on to bigger and better projects, the painfully work-intensive nature of making animated films in the classical technique took its toll on my patience, not to mention my peace of mind from time to time. No matter how much I love animation, it is an insanely painstaking process -- let's face it. And even with the technological advances that were opening new doors, the process wasn't exactly becoming more streamlined. On the contrary, as the biggest studios introduced more and more technology, the process became mired in 'pipeline' problems, old meets new politics and highly polarized departments responsible for different aspects of putting an animated film together fighting for resources and elbowroom.

The idea of course, is always to "collaborate," and there are studios and projects which have developed admirably smooth pipelines, but anyone who has worked in a big, well-heeled animation establishment can tell you (if they are honest) that there is an amazing amount of time wasted just trying to get all the vastly variable disciplines to come together and simply make a film. Animation studio politics get pretty crazy, whether it's a local yokel studio churning out a television series, or a major motion picture company with a budget in the tens of millions, making films that cost... A MILLION DOLLARS A MINUTE or MORE!! Yes, that's right. When we think of an animated film costing $100 million to produce, how often do we stop and think, "My God, that's $500,000 dollars for 30 seconds, the length of a television commercial!"

Which brings me back to my homespun yarn about making films in my bedroom for a couple of dollars worth of materials. And a little story about my career, directing and producing television commercials, for just a tad less than $500,000.

During the eighties, the animation business wasn't exactly booming. Television animation was creating some of its very worst Saturday morning cartoons, (sorry eighties cartoon fans) and the feature animation business? Well, check out Bakshi's American Pop if you want to see some of the worst rotoscoping ever done, or Disney's The Black Cauldron if you want to see just how poorly animation was really doing at that time. The television commercial business was still humming right along though, in spite of the economic recession, but, sometimes, even that was very slow. I stuck out the eighties in the animation business, mostly picking up local, relatively small-time television commercial work. I refused to work for any of the big Saturday morning outfits, as it just wasn't something that I aspired to do. Ever. So I got work here and there in local animation studios, boarding, pitching, animating and eventually directing television commercials.

At one point, I had become pretty chummy and well connected with various clients and ad agencies, and the opportunity arose for me to direct and produce a couple of television commercials with out the "studio" being involved. No receptionist, no 'PR' guy, no cleaning crew, no huge electrical bills or rental for a fancy space, no lawyers, no "producer" no financial "managers," no fancy boardroom furniture necessary. In fact, I animated one television commercial using a peg bar taped to a window on an old-fashioned wooden window frame, held up on my knees over an incandescent lamp. This was a pretty good arrangement actually, seeing as how it was as cold as hell in my Montreal apartment, and the lamp kept me warmer than the cranky old heating system could.

What was most intriguing to me about that directing and producing experience, was the fact that making an animated commercial wasn't nearly as expensive as every one made it out to be. What was expensive was all the overhead and the various costs of running a studio, not to mention all the schmoozing and long high-class lunches, drinks, etc. that the studio hotshots loved to indulge in. But for me to find enough paper, the right drawing tools, some cels and cel paint (easily concocted from common latex house paint and dyes), some leftover dope sheets, maybe a couple of animators or assistants to help me and, finally, an Oxberry camera stand to shoot the thing on, well, it didn't cost very much at all!

After everyone was paid and went home, I found myself with quite a lot of leftover cash from the original budget of these films. A great deal actually, and I was stunned at how easy it was. Thankfully, I didn't get any big ideas and start up my own animation company at the time, although it was tempting. But, alas, I am not a businessman by any stretch of the imagination, and, even if I was, I would probably have just ended up with the fancy building, the fancy entrance, the receptionist, the 'PR' guy, the producers, the accountants, all the overhead and accompanying headaches and ulcers as well.

So I learned a very valuable lesson. The same lesson I had learned scratching on unexposed film stock back in my school daze. Animation doesn't have to be expensive! Ah, I can hear my beloved colleagues now, sighing as they read this. Chuckling at my naïveté, my charming misunderstanding of how the animation business really works. But don't worry friends, I worked on Disney's Tarzan and a half dozen other Disney films too, remember? Believe me, I know how the money goes, and where it goes too! Feature film after feature film, I have watched awestruck, as countless millions upon millions of dollars went the way of the dodo bird. And in the television animation business, good Lord, how well they spend money! All the marketing, and the, and the... damn, it boggles the mind. Animation is BIG BUSINESS, after all.

And then there's the Bill Plymptons of the world. Food for thought. And legions of animators all around the globe making captivating animated films on shoestring budgets.

Yes, it is possible, and it always has been possible to make beautiful films for very little money. And now, maybe more than ever.

We all know the digital breakthroughs of the past two decades have brought us to the point where an animation artist can make a pretty amazing and sophisticated film on little more than a single laptop computer. If said artist prefers to draw on paper, cheap scanners and free composting shareware can make your classical animation projects spring to life.

Once the initial expense of the computing power is out of the way, (and even that is getting pretty damned cheap), the only real cost is time, food and then, of course, the post-production costs. But if one wants to distribute their work on the Internet, the existing computer can take care of the whole post-production shebang! Sound, editing, formatting, all of it is a click away... piece of cake!

Shots from Gilland's recent homemade animated short.

A year ago, I was still profoundly allergic to Macromedia's Flash program. Just the mere mention of it had me breaking out in fits of itchy discomfort, images of frightfully bad and tasteless Flash animation viewed on the Internet dancing in my head like really disturbing nightmares. But, go figure. Recently, I have put together a couple of my own little animation shorts, combining hand-drawn animation with Flash's ass-backwards and awkward animation capabilities. Complete with soundtracks created entirely at home, digitally, with sound quality that would embarrass a full-blown sound recording studio from the eighties. I am far from being a computer savvy guy! Sure, I get by, I poke and prod, and I find my way. It is fun, it is a challenge and it is really exciting.

And now I have finally returned to where I started, when I was drawing directly on film back in the seventies. I can create animation quickly, spontaneously, on the fly and see the results quickly, with sound, and you know what? It's magic! Just like it was then. And I haven't even scratched the surface. I've got a couple of digital cameras, lots of paper, I still have my trusty animation table, drafting equipment and a wide assortment of capable software. Hell, for my son's history project back last June, we threw together a miniature movie set and a couple of clay characters, and shot a short stop-motion film, using a mini DV camera, and some free software for capturing frames at 24 frames a second, instantly converted to a QuickTime movie. Hot damn! It was SO easy. And it looked good too. Amazing!

All this to say, homespun animation is back, it never really left and now it is better than ever. Hey, if you want to get a job in a really big studio, and play with the big shots, have at it. Be my guest. It's all good. It's fun too, but remember, at least half of the money spent producing a $100 million cartoon is not spent on actually making a cartoon. It is devoured by countless people who supposedly facilitate the making of cartoons, or something like that. (I feign ignorance, heh, heh!) Billions of dollars on through the ages, spent by people who don't actually "make" animated films, but are somehow inexorably drawn to its allure, or maybe, its money? Whatever.

The bottom line is, if you love to make animated films, make them! Make them whether that pie in the sky studio loves your portfolio and hires you or not. Make them because you can. Make them simply because you love animation, not because you're shooting for a big house and a cushy retirement fund. Just make them!

It's fun, it's easy! It's ANIMATION!

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as 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 writing a passionate book about the art of animation.