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Studios Have Come A Long Way Since 'Yellow Submarine'

Bob Balser, the animation director on Yellow Submarine, and his wife Cima share their impressions of the Oscar Showcase DreamWorks studio visit.

Bob and I, standing on the far left of the first row, join in the dramatic pose while 3-D stereo pictures of the entire group are being taken in front of the main campus fountain.

Editor’s Note: Bob and Cima Balser joined the Oscar Showcase Tour for our day at DreamWorks.  Bob is an animation industry veteran with an illustrious career that includes directing the animation on Yellow Submarine (1968) and animating the “Den” segment of Heavy Metal (1981). He’s a member of the Academy Shorts and Feature Animation Branch – AWN tries to get at least one member each year to join us on one of the legs of the LA tour.  Cima is his lovely wife and partner, and of the pair, the better writer. She shares their thoughts on the day at the studio.

By Cima Balser

In all our travels, we’ve always found Animation Studios to be great fun to visit.  UPA in its day had a bookcase filled with faux books, with carefully lettered titles on the bindings, such as “Brain Surgery Can Be Fun.”

In order to produce The Yellow Submarine, TVC in London had to rent additional space nearby.  The rest of that building housed offices of very austere insurance agents. During the entire time Yellow Submarine was being produced there, the receptionist at the entrance never recovered from shock as each day he watched the Carnaby-clothed artists march in and out.  One day there was a serious complaint from the tenant downstairs, and soon after the crew was reprimanded by a shamefaced John Coates.  We heard that a very, very large billboard size poster with carefully lettered “POOP” was being lowered and waved across all the windows of the office below.

Anyone visiting Bob’s studio in Barcelona would be greeted by a four foot high hanging, brilliantly colored, plastic bas relief of Mickey Mouse.

So yes, animators have traditionally played and had fun, along with their real work.

However, yesterday as Bob and I tagged along with Ron and Dan’s group of this year’s Animation short nominees, to DreamWorks’s campus in Glendale, where we were welcomed  by Connie Siu, and given a grand tour, we found that the bar had been lifted higher than we could have ever imagined.

Picture this: a few acres, give or take, of an enclosed wonderland (yes, there is a topiary of the rightfully famous logo), with a large fountain on one level, and below, spouts of water pouring into a lagoon, filled with koi fish. We were told that all the water treatments were meant to mask the nasty noise from the nearby 134 freeway.

The surrounding patios are filled with lovely trees and planters filled with blooming flowers.  And all the tables and chairs are wooden (no plastic in sight).

There is a large cafeteria where both breakfast and lunch are served to all the employees.  Forget about the old-fashioned water coolers, there are numerous stations providing coffee, tea, soft drinks, fruit and snacks – just help yourself.

That’s the outside. Once inside behold another wonderland, this time of technical wonders.  In a large room there is a group of artists “playing” with a way of producing a three dimensional virtual town, projecting it onto a large screen, in front of which the director can move around, holding a tool with a monitor – about the size of a Kindle - in and out, up and down “the streets” of the town, in order to choose where to place his camera and frame the scenes.

Another room, another whiz bang way of character development.  Then, MoCap – Motion Capture, with a full demonstration of the latest developments in what is capturing so many directors these days.

Lunch in a private dining room, with several animators joining our tables to engage us in even more tales of how and what they are working on these days.  Throughout all their explanations, I admit to feigning understanding their explanations, but our nominees were obviously hanging on and digesting every word, along with the good food.

Our conclusions:  Yes, these filmmakers must have the usual pressures, creative, time, and budgets – but they also surely are having tremendous fun and an absolutely great time!