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A Conversation With.... Chris Walker and Corky Quakenbush

In a small, quiet cafe, motion-capture pioneer Chris Walker and outrageous stop-motion animator Corky Quakenbush got together for lunch and discovered that even though their techniques may appear to be night and day, they actually have a lot in common.

Friday, January 23, 1998 The Rose Cafe, Venice, California

Chris Walker (left) and Corky Quakenbush (right). Photo © AWN.

On a sunny, lazy Friday afternoon, Animation World Magazine brought together two animation pioneers who use very different techniques: motion-capture trail blazer, Chris Walker, and outrageous stop-motion satirist, Corky Quakenbush. We met for lunch on the shaded patio of a small, funky cafe, just across the street from Chris' Venice-based Modern Cartoons and near Corky's Santa Monica studio. At first we were rather apprehensive about what they would have in common. After all, stop-motion and motion-capture do not necessarily lend themselves to comparison. Prior to the meeting both had told us they didn't know who the other was, but after less than five minutes at the table we were relieved to find that both were very familiar with and interested in each other's work. Corky had seen Chris' NBC special Steve, and Chris had seen Corky's MAD TV shorts, a series of parodies involving some of animations' most wholesome faces.

Corky is currently doing ten more shorts for MAD TV and Chris is working on a number of projects for both the European and U.S. market including a series of interstitials for Fox which will run during the month of February. Both were on tight deadlines but soon seemed very relaxed and talkative. We were happy to find that indeed there are many correlations between the newest and the oldest forms of 3-D animation...

Heather Kenyon: It's funny that you both knew each other's work but didn't know who was behind it.

Corky Quakenbush: That's because animators generally stay in their room all day.

HK: When you first say motion-capture and stop-motion in the same sentence, they are so different from each other, you think, "What could these men possibly have in common?" Therefore, the first question is about your backgrounds. How has it led up to the animation that you're doing now?

CQ: I started doing stop-motion animation because that was a way for me to create films by myself. I was 13 years old when I discovered what animation was and how it occurred. I'd been a big fan of Davey and Goliath. When I first saw that show, I was six years old. It was the only show on Sunday mornings that was kid-friendly. We were kind of "forced" into watching it, but it just blew me away. Even as a kid I knew it was not "real," but I could sense that it was three-dimensional and existed in space, and that intrigued me. I thought, 'What are these things and how do they move? Are they alive? Are they real?' It kind of freaked me out. Then when I saw Rudolph [Rankin/Bass Christmas special] in 1964, the first time it was on, that was of course the end-all to end-alls. I was really hooked. There's this magical thing that happened, that was a cartoon but it was real. That was real for me. That kind of thrill stayed with me and then as I got older I started doing flip-books on the margins of paper backs...

Chris Walker: Probably on your math books.

CQ: Exactly.

CW: That's where I did mine!

They share a knowing laugh.

CQ: Then I watched this documentary on PBS, and it was some guy explaining that he went into New York City schools and set up stop-motion/paper cut-out [seminars] in animation. He said, 'Yeah, we just have the fish here, and we move the character, and then take two frames then move it again and take two frames....' I had an epiphany. 'That's how they do it!' I thought. Of course nowadays, it's different. I taught an animation course in my daughter's third grade class, and went in and said, 'Okay can anybody tell me what animation is?' Half the class raises their hands. I call on one kid, he says, 'Animation is the drawing or series of drawings in which movement is accomplished by taking...' It's amazing.

CW: It's interesting to hear your story, Corky. In a parallel fashion, I think that's what drives any animator at the beginning. 'How can you get this done?' There's a certain aspect of that. I probably did similar things, as far as starting out. I really got into drawing, and doing cel, character animation. Then I started seeing what was happening with the computer. Then, one day looking at a stack of drawings that took me two weeks to draw, I knew I had to change some things and do another pencil test. But then I'm looking at a computer over here, which had a rotating cube, very primitive, but the cube was rotating in real time. 'Wow, that's kind of interesting,' I thought. 'This [cels] is going to take me a lot longer, maybe that [the computer] might do what I want to do eventually.' So I just started going into the computer domain. In the early days it was plotter artwork. We would do that one frame at a time, with a pen and ink, very primitive. I just knew deep down that they would be doing character animation or more sophisticated types of animation. Obviously that's been proven many times in the last few years. What's interesting now about your background, and the next project that we're doing, is that we are actually trying to mimic real things now.

The waiter swings by with a question...

CW: Anyway getting back into the 3-D thing. Most people get into the computer so that they can basically make this teapot [for example]. That's what they want to do, that's their aim in life, which I find odd because I come from animation. We're actually trying to do something now that's similar to Thomas the Tank Engine but it's with airplanes. The airplanes look like real models, real toys, but their faces animate. It's motion-capture on the face, being done in real time. We're actually imposing them into miniature backgrounds, real table top miniatures.

CQ: That's very interesting to me too because I'm also interested in the marriage of the two technologies.

CW: You should come over, take a look.

CQ: Yeah, I'd like to.

CW: Let's go.

They act like they are going right there and then, getting up from the table! Fortunately for this article, they sit back down again, laughing.

CW: We don't have it in the miniature yet but we've got a plane up and running.

CQ: There are certain aspects to both sides that are very appealing. We did one marriage of the two worlds in Sex Toy Story. It was a parody of Toy Story. We knew that it was going to take too long to create everything in CGI, so we opted to use puppets for our characters and composite them with CGI backgrounds. We kept the kind of feeling that Toy Story had, so that people would look at it and feel they were looking at a CGI thing. It was all sex toys: "Woody" aka "Midnight Cowboy," with a little vest and chaps and bare butt, and a vibrator, "Buzz Light Touch." It was fun because we had to light everything in front of a green screen, imagining, "Where am I going to have my light sources?" In a CGI background, you're just going to stick a light out the window somewhere and everything falls into place. We had to duplicate that in the real world with these characters in front. Reflections in Buzz's helmet and things like that made it really interesting and quick! We had basically three weeks to create characters and animate them.

CW: Wow, that's fast.

CQ: In that sense, stop-motion can rule. But that's only one [short]. Something like you're doing, if Oedekerk decided to do a series...

CW: Yes, it's a problem for everybody. Either you have to send it overseas or... I've often thought it was strange for me to approach Saturday morning, with the most expensive amount of technology and time. It didn't make sense because it's the smallest amount of budget you can get in TV. I've been sort of running on faith that the technology will get cheaper. Computer graphics has a very strong elitism of, 'The guy with the biggest toys wins' sort of thing, at least historically. Now, it's getting a lot better. Get a PC, a copy of Lightwave and do your thing. That's really great because it's much more egalitarian. Still, to crash the Saturday episodic [market] is extremely difficult. We're [Modern Cartoons] really putting all our energy into that right now, to figure out how to make it cost effective and still do great work.

CQ: I think it's getting easier, as the prices come down and the technology expands.

CW: The thing is, I'm starting not to call what we do "animation," because I think it might be misleading. It has a visual quality of animation, a lot of exaggeration and things that you would associate with it, but we're starting to shoot these things like a sitcom. Everyone gets in a room. They put on these suits, and the actors are actually the characters. They're in a virtual environment, and you're cutting camera live. At the end of the day, you have a whole show on tape. You edit it, and put in special effects afterwards. It works for an episodic where you're writing it on Sunday and the show's on the air the following Saturday. That's the paradigm for how we're approaching programming, except that it does kind of have an animated quality. I don't even know what to call it anymore, because we're approaching it from the standpoint of live-action, but it's visually an animated episode. Now, it's a lot harder to do the sight gags, like hit someone over the head and flatten them. That's the bleeding edge that we're trying to accomplish. It's another whole industry, really.

CQ: It seems like a natural progression of things, to go toward that.

HK: This leads into our next question: How do each of you personally define animation?

CW: What did that third grader say?

We all laugh.

Comedian Steve Oedekerk's computer counterpart, created by Chris Walker and his company, Modern Cartoons. Image courtesy of Modern Cartoons. © O Entertainment.

CQ: Any kind of thing that we're doing, on film or on tape, the human eye is seeing projected images one after another. Even live-action is, if you look at it from a certain standpoint, animation. You've got a series of still frames that when put together include motion [persistence of vision].

CW: I think it depends on who you talk to. It's somewhat subjective. I know that certain people in the industry would say King of the Hill is not animation. They think that the classic form of squash and stretch, Disney style, is "really" animation, and everything else is some other beast. I don't even know what they would call it. I don't make those judgments. Obviously, I'm in this weird cutting edge area. We have yet to define what were doing, to give it a name. I tend to think that it has more to do with visual quality than how it's animated. What do you think, Corky?

CQ: I'd have to agree with you there. I think it's creating a fantastic world that doesn't exist in reality, at least not in this form. I think that's what people get out of it...

CW: The test would be... Did you see Titanic? The shot where they fly around the ship; the shot where they did motion-capture on the Captain. Those guys went for realism but had a very illustrative quality which I loved. It was really interesting to see something that was obviously not live-action. I think most people would see that shot and think, 'Wow, what is that? It's totally different, but I like it.' I would still call that animation, even though they were going for the ultimate in hyper-realism. That's really the edge of what animation would be defined as.

CQ: I think it's the same thing with Toy Story, where you're trying to mimic reality, but in the same sense, the world you're creating does not exist in reality.

CW: Whether the history of animation has done this, or whether it's some psychological process that humans have, I think that when people look at something in motion like that, they think, 'Okay, you got me. You got my brain, my fantasy. I'll go anywhere you want to go.' You won't do that with live-action. There's a psychological threshold that you hit, with The Simpsons or King of the Hill, which by other standards may be conservative to the animator, but still you'll go anywhere with those characters. You'll buy just about anything they say. I think that's the mental leap. If there was an abstract definition of animation, that is what would have to happen [to the viewer].

HK: With some of the amazing special-effects shots though, you're really making a leap into that fantasy world that could never happen.

CW: The Fifth Element was visually unbelievable, but I still think of it as a live-action film. It wasn't like watching an animated film where I felt the limitlessness of the human imagination at work, where you really feel like, 'I'm stepping into a magical world.'

HK: Both of you are really on the cutting edge: Chris, with your technique, and Corky with your content. How do each one of you feel that what you're doing fits into the animation industry as a whole?

CW: Well, I'm happy to be undefined. My inspiration is about being between live-action and animation. Here's another art form entirely. All these shows come down to the talent you attract to it, the writing, the characters, all that. I tend to think that I'm doing my job if every show that comes out is completely undefined; no one really knows what it is or figures out how it was done. That's what's interesting to me, that it's cutting new ground. I've always felt that computer graphics as a whole has been able to offer storytelling new vistas. We're now witnessing the explosion of special effects films. Whether the stories are any better, that's another story, but they are able to do things that haven't been done before. I don't think Godzilla would have been done five years ago. Did I dance around that question, or what?

HK: I didn't even notice! How about you Corky?

CQ: I'm happy to say that I think there is a burgeoning industry in short-form animation. There used to be a lot of it, all theatrical shorts, but then the theaters stopped. Now with television, and hopefully with the Internet, these short forms of expression are going to find a greater audience. Also the shorter attention spans of people allow these things to find a home. It works on MAD TV because it's a sketch show. A few years back, Bill Plympton was doing short animation for a show called The Edge. Then there's Saturday Night Live with J.J. Sedelmaier's stuff. I've heard about sketch animation shows in the works here and there. I think this is all great. I think people are really open to it. It's visually stimulating.

I like what I do. It's just so fun. We have these miniature worlds that we build, and we are duplicating a certain reality. If I dare say it, they're 'cute!' For example, we had a great little kitchen set. We're doing a third segment of Clops, and they're going to find the Pillsbury Dough Boy gone nuts at a commercial shoot. So we've got this great little kitchen built, as big as a table top. It's almost like a hyper-reality. The next part that's fun is to shoot it like it's a real movie. Live-action for me is much more intriguing to do than animation. People who do cel's inconceivable to me how they can sit and draw the same thing over and over, making minute changes. People say to me, "Isn't what you do really tedious?" I can only think it can't be as tedious as drawing frame after frame. I'm looking forward to all the new technologies. What we do is primitive.

HK: Do you think that people perceive your techniques as being "adult?" Is it innate in the technique?

CW: I don't make the distinction.

CQ: I think what's going to make a difference in your audience is content. If kids watch this Steve Oedekerk special or the jet plane show, they're going to be more interested in what the plane has to say than how it's done. I think it's the same thing with adults, maybe even especially with adults. I think the technique can work for you. What I do is more adult-oriented animation, and because of that there's more appreciation of those little details that I was talking about. For instance, when we did a parody of Gumby, in which "Gumboy" and "Poker" go into their dad's den, find a "Clayboy" magazine under the couch, circa 1967....'Wow, look at the plasticine on her!' They jump in and all of a sudden they are in the Sixties, in the Clayboy mansion. We made a little lava lamp. I think those little details would be lost on kids. Adults appreciate it.

CW: Do you think there's something to be said for the fact that all of us grownups, who were weaned on cartoons, basically never grew up?

CQ: Yeah, I think so. Comic books too. The seriousness that comic books took on. It's a real vindication for Mom. Mom was saying, "Your eyes are going to fall out from reading all of those comic books." Now our culture is immersed in them.

HK: Animation is being touted as the art form for the 21st century. Do you see that? Do you believe that? Do you think right now, in your careers, that there is a growing need for your content and do you think there will be in the future?

CQ: You would always hope so. As an art from, it's really the only kind of filmmaking that's affordable. You know, I was just at Sundance, and there was always this discussion about art versus commerce. I just made a live-action short, ten minutes long, and it cost $35,000. That's paying minimum wages, getting a lot for free. It's expensive. That means there are going to have to be investors somewhere, and that means that business and art are going to have to merge somewhere. If you go into animation, well, I could take an 8mm camera, make a film, transfer it to video, and really do the same ten minute film for maybe $1,000. So that makes animation an appealing art form for people who want to get into motion pictures.

What's been the biggest drawback of any kind of art form in the media is that there's been a very narrow distribution outlet. Thirty years ago there were only three networks. If you wanted to have something on TV, it had to go through those three networks. As cable opened up many different markets, we started seeing an expansion of a lot of different kinds of programming, niche programming. For me the greatest thrill is thinking about what the Internet is going to do. The Internet may well provide us with a direct route to the consumer. MAD TV has 5 million viewers and that's really a minimum. In order to be on a network, I have to have 5 million people who think my stuff is great. But maybe I want to do something that's so outrageous that only 100,000 people will like it. This way [the Internet], I can get to those people and suddenly 100,000 people becomes a much bigger number than it is to these people at the studio. Once our consumers can get right to us, to type in their credit card number and pay a buck to see a movie...

CW: Cut out the middle-man.

CQ: Exactly. I think the thing [the Internet] is revolutionizing itself. I would be lying if I said it wasn't exciting. John K is a pioneer. He will get his audience. People that go for Disney aren't necessarily going to go for Spumco. I've got three hours of material that I made by myself that I own. I would love to have it up on the "Space Bass" web site, and then people can come to it.

CW: You think it's going to work? Like Pay Per View?

CQ: Yeah, if it's 50 cents or a dollar, I think the marketing will follow suit. People say, 'How are we going to make money with the web?' So then they put advertising on. It'll be the same.

CW: John K will probably make his money on merchandising.

Wendy Jackson: He already is.

CW: So it's the same model as TV.

HK: That's the great thing about the Internet. Everyone gets their own channel.

WJ: Who's going to make the TV guide?

CW: I don't want to be the pessimist, but back in the early '80s, when I was in art school, everyone was talking about this new thing called MTV. Everyone said, "All the animators are going to have a place to put their stuff!" Well that didn't quite work out. We've been struggling for years to get any kind of quality into computer animation.

CQ: Well the first telephone sucked. There was one line from here to another room.

HK: The first words actually spoken were something like, "Can you speak up? I can't hear you."

WJ: It wasn't "this sucks?"

We all share a good laugh at that one.

CQ: Wait. Wasn't it, "Watson, come here, I need you"?

CW: I think someone rewrote that.

HK: What about you Chris. Do you feel that people in the beginning were like, 'Motion-capture, performance animation...what's this?' Do you think it will become more accepted and more widespread in the future?

CQ: Well the word of mouth on the net is so strong.

Chris Walker

CW: Yes, I do. I think it will take over the whole industry actually. Intrinsically, the computer can do anything that you can describe, that you can tell it to do. The problem is telling it. We've been in this long process of describing to the computer all of these complex things. As we keep evolving, it will look like cel animation. It will look like clay, though it probably won't animate like clay. Visually speaking, it will start taking on different mediums. It's not really limited in the spectrum of all that. I don't know about animation being the art form of the future. I have to think twice about that. It would be wishful thinking I suppose. At the level that you're on, you are actually creating an art form. The level that I'm on is that I'm getting involved in commerce, and trying to solve that problem. Obviously you want to inject as much quality and "art" into the process, but at the same time we've got to figure out how to get the animation done here in the U.S., not let people burn out in the process, and still come up with a great product. That's been very difficult, particularly because computers have been expensive. But when you talk about art form, I think more about fine art. I don't know how much what I do will fall into that. As far as computer animation and its potential, I think that where it can go, as far as doing really an art experience, may be closer to a Fantasia or an image evolutionary experience in terms of light and motion. What the computer can offer is all that with a complete immersion. You can actually walk into a stereo environment because the computer is actually building a facsimile of our world. I think from the standpoint of pure art, that's where it can go. It's up to the artist to make something of it.

CQ: When you look at something like Myst or Riven, the visuals in there are very beautiful. They don't have to go out and create that world. The whole movie business has always from day one asked, 'How can we make something better than it is in reality?'

CW: And to amplify it.

CQ: For me, I'm really intrigued in the low-tech things, like glass paintings. Things that somebody sat down and thought, looking through the viewfinder of the camera at a two dimensional world, 'I'm going to make a painting out of this world. We have these streets and these buildings...but behind it, let's put in Baghdad.' It's a special effect and it's done in a really low-tech way, by just putting in a piece of glass and painting it. That's artistry. I think as an art form, everything that's media-oriented is opening up to the individual as an artist. People have sound design studios in their home, music studios in their garages and they're putting out good stuff. It isn't like someone twenty years ago with a cassette recorder, guitar and microphone. It's a whole different world out there.

CW: It is interesting that you put the two of us together. There really is a big similarity in what we're doing and the industry is starting to coalesce towards that. I know the Henson people are really excited about what motion capture can do, because they are performers. I never envisioned that. I thought I was going to be doing Saturday morning cel animation.

CQ: I think it's going to be great when the computer world can create real motion that people don't feel has that computer edge. You can almost see the mathematical curve.

WJ: I don't feel that when I'm watching motion capture versus straight computer animation. You can see the subtleties of motion.

CW: This is how I differentiate motion capture from other forms of animation. You can talk to the character. The character will respond and have a soul you're just not used to seeing in an animated character. There's something about that where there's a depth, the response the character has. It's not really puppeteering. It's a real person. So you've got this weird mixture of fantasy and reality. I think it's safe to say that most hand animation has been worked to death, scripted and storyboarded. Not to say those aren't good tools for planning a show, but you get the sense that it went through a factory. Whereas this [motion capture] has a depth of personality, a spontaneity.

WJ: It seems like you have that too Corky. Not in the same way but you shoot pretty quickly.

CQ: Yes, there's a scene in Raging Rudolph where Yukon Cornelius winds an elf's head in a vice. That came out two weeks after Casino opened.

CW: The funny thing is that Steve Oedekerk wanted me to do that with him. I said, "Steve, I've got a lot of work to do, are you sure you want me to do that?" He wanted his eyes bulging and popping out. I guess that scene has gotten around! We're doing something for Fox right now, and a lot of projects in Europe, in a way, we are creating characters that are like actors.

WJ: Now, see if you can get an agent to represent one of your cyber characters.

Chris (left) and Corky (right) enjoy a meal and conversation. Photo © AWN.

CW: That's what's going on, seriously. Everyone has this thing about owning a character, owning everything, everywhere down the line. We say, 'You can't own this, this is an actor.' They say, 'Oh really? Can I talk to their agent?' and the paradigm shifts. I don't know how much I want to follow that paradigm but at least it keeps people from buying everything out from under you. The thing about the industry is that it's completely merchandise driven. People are not paying what it actually costs to put a show together. This is what's happening on Saturday morning. They're all banking on the fact that they'll make a lot of money in merchandising. That's why we have such a huge animation industry. In Europe, they don't know anything about it, and consequently, they don't have money to do shows. You're damned both ways, essentially.

CQ: I have a character named Ricardo. He's controversial. A lot of times when you're pitching for TV, you get one shot. If someone says, 'No, it's not for me,' you never get another shot. However, you can essentially re-do the character a bit, introduce him with another face, and give it another shot. The real true character is behind the face.