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Don't Quit Your Day Job, Work the Night Shift

Dutch filmmaker Piet Kroon contributes the first in an occasional series devoted to a day in the life of an animation artist. Herein, Kroon explores the whys and wherefors of how he balances working as an independent filmmaker while holding down a full-time job at Warner Bros.

The first thing I do in the morning is check my fax machine. Most mornings I will find designs sent to me by Gill Bradley, the art director of my film T.R.A.N.S.I.T. Sometimes I find key poses from one of the animators for approval. Then I log in to pick up my email. Production notes from Iain Harvey, T.R.A.N.S.I.T.'s British producer, or correspondence from Picture Start, the Dutch co-producer. Real urgent issues I try to deal with straight away, but there is not a lot of time in the morning. I have to get to work.

I drop off my son at his school, after a busy family breakfast, and get on the freeway to drive into Glendale. By day, I work as a storyboard artist for Warner Bros. Feature Animation. By night, I direct a 10 minute animated short, that is being produced in Europe.

From time to time everybody who works in the animation industry should make a short personal film. Most people haven't done their own thing since college. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy working in feature animation very much. The quality standards are high in feature animation. You have to push your limits, so you grow as an artist.

But on the other hand there's the"cog in the machine" trauma.Working in a big studio your artistic scope is precisely defined: you are animating, doing lay outs, clean ups or painting backgrounds etcetera. It is virtually impossible to influence anything beyond your scope. You are making the film that the studio has bought off on. The reels are locked, the dialogue is recorded. The big machine is running.

That's why every now and again you should put together your own little machine. Celebrate your strengths and learn to live with your weaknesses. Exorcise some of your own demons along the way.

Piet Kroon's DaDA.

Dropping Out to Make DaDA

After having animated on Amblimation's Feivel Goes West /An American Tail II in London, I dropped out of the feature animation business to make DaDA, a 10 minute short, produced by Cilia van Dijk and financed by the Dutch Film Fund. I wrote the script while I animated with Paul Driessen on his film The Waterpeople. I guess I took a cue from his work: to develop a film out of a simple, strong, visual idea.

In DaDA, everybody walks around carrying books on their heads. The more books stacked on your cranium, the smarter you are perceived to be. The story takes off when a little boy is born with a perfectly round head. To the horror of his parents no books will stay put, no matter what they try. Ultimately, they take their son to a hospital, where a learned scholar saws off the top of the kid's skull to study his brain. The doctor discovers the kid is really a genius. He realizes that it is not the books you carry around that matter, it is how you "process" them and create something new out of them. The final twist of the film, that somehow seems to be especially shocking to American audiences (maybe because they are suckered out of a happy ending), is that the father feeds the brilliant brain to the cat. Because with the top sawed off, he can pile an infinite amount of books on his son's head. He'd rather have a kid that looks intelligent, than an intelligent child.

While I was working on DaDA, I became a father myself. Actually, the last scene I animated before my son Jesse was born was the one of the expectant father nervously pacing the room (off screen sound effects provided by my wife). Beyond that, life has not imitated art yet. We have no cat.

So what demons did I exorcise? The story has a lot to do with my background in university. Somehow, the book list you attached to your papers always seemed more important than the paper itself.

I studied Film and Theatre Studies, that is where I (re)discovered animation and made my very first film, The Balancer (1987).

DaDA made it's international debut as an official selection of the 1995 Berlin Film Festival. Since then, it was screened at Zagreb, Hiroshima, Ottawa and many other international film festivals. Over the two year period it toured the festival circuit, it received a number of special mentions and won a couple of awards, like the Golden Mikeldi for Best Animated Film at the Bilbao Short Film and Documentary Festival 1995.

Ready To Be a Cog Again

It took me two-and-a-half years to complete DaDA. I wrote and directed it, animated (most of) it, organized the xerox and paint (with the help of numerous volunteers), personally put down every single cel under the camera (those are my fingerprints up there!), edited it, and supervised the effects and sound editing. Believe me, even though it was a blast, after that you are ready to be a cog in the machine again.

So a year-and-a-half ago I moved out to Los Angeles to work as a storyboard artist for Warner Bros. Feature Animation. WBFA is a brand new outfit, which is great from my point of view, because everything is still in flux. There are a lot of opportunities to grow. I studied Film and Theatre Studies, that is where I (re)discovered animation and made my very first film, The Balancer (1987).

DaDA made it's international debut as an official selection of the 1995 Berlin Film Festival. Since then, it was screened at Zagreb, Hiroshima, Ottawa and many other international film festivals. Over the two year period it toured the festival circuit, it received a number of special mentions and won a couple of awards, like the Golden Mikeldi for Best Animated Film at the Bilbao Short Film and Documentary Festival 1995.

Piet Kroon's DaDA (Gila van Dijk Film Productions).

Animating is like acting. Storyboarding, to me, is filmmaking in the truest sense. It is about experimenting and developing. You basically get to take the first whack at visualizing a script or a treatment. You go through the whole cinematographic process of staging, breaking down sequences into shots. And you explore character relationships, dream up gags, anything to make the film more entertaining.

You sketch out you story ideas and pitch them to the director and the producer. Like a carsalesman you talk them through the continuity boards, giving your best shot to sell the exitement, the drama, the fun. Sometimes they buy it, sometimes they don't. Your soul gets stepped on a lot in story. It's one thing when an idea or gag is rejected, what is worse is when they are half used or used the wrong way.

On the basis of the storyboards the timing of the film is worked out in the storyreels, the first mock up version of the film to be, complete with soundeffects and scratch dialogue. Then the exact cinematography of the shots is determined in lay out and the scenes are distributed to the animators. So when you work in story there will never be a single drawing on the screen that you can call your own. Nothing to point at. There are not many people willing to be bored to death with endless stories about who thought of what and which idea sparked what gag three months later.

The film I work on at Warner Bros. is called Quest for Camelot, directed by Frederic DuChau and produced by Frank Gladstone. It is to be the first fully animated feature that this studio produces, not counting Space Jam, as a combination of live action and animation, and Cats Don't Dance (which Warners basically acquired as part of the merger with Turner).

Mixing Arthurian myth and fantasy elements, Quest tells the story of a young girl who has to rise above herself to find the lost sword Excalibur before a ruthless barbarian overthrows Camelot. For the story crew, it presented a great challenge, since the film was, to a large extent, developed on the boards. A crew of 12 storyboard artists delved in and produced numerous sequences and put several versions of the film on a reel. Of course, there were trials and tribulations and, as always, it had to get really bad in order to get any better. There are always war stories. The good thing is that Warners did not lose its cool. They kept hammering away at it to get it right. Story on Quest is winding down now and the studio is already in full production.

Of all the major studios that got into feature animation, Warners has, in my mind, the biggest potential to actually get a piece of the Mouse's action. The box office success of Space Jam is a case in point. The studio is part of a gigantic media conglomerate and can really put a film in the marketplace. My son had never heard of Michael Jordan, but guess who he pretends to be when he is within 10 feet of a ball now?

Character modelsheet or Piet Kroon's T.R.A.N.S.I.T.


Right before I moved to America I had written and storyboarded another short film,T.R.A.N.S.I.T. I left while it was looking to get financed. Producers Iain Harvey and Cecile Wijne had to raise serious money (that is, for an independent short), because of the special way the film was set up. T.R.A.N.S.I.T is a film in sequences, each sequence (of about a minute each) to be designed in a different graphic style, to be animated by a different animator, directed by me by fax, phone and email from L.A.

In the Netherlands, most directors of animated films tend to work alone, and tend to work for years and years on a film. There are a number of reasons for this: their films are highly personal, executed in a highly personal style, and this way they do not have to split the money.

I was always at odds with this approach. Some people are great designers, but couldn't animate to save their life. Some great animators don't have a story to tell. I believe working with different people can only strengthen your film. It's better to get feedback upfront than after the fact. As a director, you should be confident enough to take in influences, harness them and keep the vision. Also, on a more practical level, with a bigger team you can produce the film a lot faster and move on to the next idea. Two-and-a-half years is a long time to spend on 10 minutes.

The downside of working with more people is you have to have money to pay them. When you work on your own brainchild, it's easy to work for peanuts. If the government grant runs out, you just take on commercials to keep yourself going. That's how I produced DaDA and I did have a few people I paid on that. Last summer, T.R.A.N.S.I.T finally came together as a full-blown international coproduction with financing from the Dutch Film Fund, Canal + in France and Channel 4 in England. So, now I spend my evenings writing notes and memos, reboarding bits and pieces, doing layouts and character sketches. Five sequences are already underway. I took great care to make an extensive storyboard and a tight reel to guide the animators along. Later this month the first scenes will start to trickle in, and I will know if the monster will come alive.

Set in the 20s, T.R.A.N.S.I.T tells the story of a tragic love triangle. We meet three characters and find out just how they interrelate as the film sweeps across Europe in seven sequences. Working out the art direction proved to be an enormous task. London-based art director Gill Bradley selected and defined seven graphic styles, derived from the art deco period, inventing new animation techniques along the way.

Character design by Gill Bradley for Piet Kroon's T.R.A.N.S.I.T.

Getting the characters to translate consistently from style to style was one of the biggest tricks of the film. We decided to base the characters on real actors. Last November, when I was on a quick working visit to London, we arranged a video shoot. We had cast the film beforehand. We had the actors act out scenes from the film, as reference for the animators. The main purpose was to give the animators a clear picture of who the characters are. But they might also pick up some little idiosyncratic quirkinesses: pouting lips or a sweltering blink. To me, that is what separates great animation from good animation: if the animator reaches into his or her own experience and captures the stuff that life is made of. Have your characters rub their noses like your aunt Edna and you've made them human. The extraordinary lies in the ordinary.

I was lucky to get a great team of animators to work on T.R.A.N.S.I.T. Michael Dudok de Wit, whose film The Monk and the Fish was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994, is doing a sequence that is set on an luxurious ocean liner. Keiko Masuda, who did marvelous work on The Taylor of Gloucester, animates a fateful night in Venice. Arjan Wilschut, a young and coming Dutch animator who also animated on DaDA (and most recently on Joanna Quinn's Famous Fred), has a bloody confrontation in Amsterdam. Valerie Carmona, a charming independent filmmaker from France, presents a champagne picnic in St. Tropez. A great new talent fresh from the Royal College of Art, Andrew Higgins, will conduct a murderous tour of Egypt, together with Gill Bradley. Another great Dutch animator, Jeroen van Blaaderen, gives chase on the Orient Express. Nicolette van Gendt, who did some amazing work on Geoff Dunbar's Daumier's Law, gets to handle the steamy love scenes in Baden-Baden.

In April, I will take another trip to England to direct the opening and closing sequences. They will be done by Richard Randolph of Ealing Animation and involve the North Sea, a diver, and hopefully no rain.

By July 1997, T.R.A.N.S.I.T should be ready, and strawberries will never be the same . . .

Piet Kroon is a Dutch filmmaker currently employed during the day at Warner Bros. Feature Animation in Glendale.