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Getting to Know 'My Dog Tulip'

Paul Fierlinger regales us with the canine and digital challenges of bringing J.R. Ackerley's popular memoir to animated life.

Check out the My Dog Tulip trailer at AWNtv!

Tulip offers a rare sensitivity of human and canine interaction. All images courtesy of New Yorker Films.

Anyone still questioning the adaptability of traditional animation in the digital age should check out My Dog Tulip by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. It's not only a marvelous adaptation of author J.R. Ackerley's account of his bittersweet friendship with an Alsatian in England after World War II, but it's also the first paperless hand-drawn animated feature (using TVPaint).

Ackerley was a famous curmudgeon and his Tulip was a kindred spirit. "One of the reasons we made the film is to make it clear to people who are considering having dogs that they should rethink it if they don't understand dogs well," proclaims Paul Fierlinger. "We had been successful with dog films [Still Life with Animated Dogs, A Room Nearby] before and when Tulip became a possibility, I had always had it in the back of my mind as film material. I had to understand Ackerly better. Once I decided to do it, I had to look more into his past and got acquainted over email with his biographer, Peter Parker. And we became good friends."

It helped, of course, that the husband and wife team have been dog lovers and owners for decades (he draws and she paints), but Paul admits that he had never had great success in drawing canines before. "I was never quite happy with my work. It was my plan to put myself through that challenge."

Tulip marks the first hand-drawn animated feature to go paperless with TVP.

According to Sandra, painting Tulip "was hard and then I got into the swing of things, and most of my painting depends on how Paul draws it, so I can be loose. With the realistic drawings, I don't know how many layers I had to paint her in, but I learned to really enjoy it."

To make the movie visually interesting and arresting, the Fierlingers decided on four distinct graphical concepts. "We did that for two basic reasons," he says: "One reason being that 80 minutes of the same style is going to get boring no matter who draws it and who does it. I get bored very quickly sitting through an animated feature. The first and perhaps the only one I've liked is Yellow Submarine because it had so many different styles. We decided that we have to go through a few changes. The problem is that our story about two characters, a man and his dog, is not like Yellow Submarine. So that's how we arrived at the idea of portraying his various levels of delivery of the story in different graphic styles. One level is his early memories (in the style of a New Yorker cartoon); the next level is what he's thinking but not always realistic -- just fantasy (yellow pad scribbles); the next level is just his reactions to reality and with a lot of imagination in it (black-and-white line art); and the other one is realism: what was really happening (close to realistic dimensions and color)."

And, with a workload that consisted of drawing and painting 60,000 drawings in three years, going paperless was a godsend. They view drawing and painting with TVP on a Wacom tablet a liberating experience.

Christopher Plummer truly made Ackerley his own.

"TVP is a fantastic program," he boasts. "What helped both of us with the transition is that we started as beta testers when TVP had just one layer. And very quickly as soon as we asked for something, then the developers gave it to us. They were eager to make this a program for professional animators. Neither of them ever animated, and I believed that we were the first professionals that used the program. It was a very productive relationship. And so it was easy for us to adapt to it because most of it came from our needs. And then several other animators came on and there were discussions on the beta forum between us and how we work each one differently and these features should be made to work for all of us.

"The light table was crucial: it was just a button that you could turn on or off and it showed you 50% transparency, which was way too much. That's not dim enough to use as an onion skin. The first thing that I asked for was to bring it down a lot so I could start working immediately, and they said they would make it in increments. So we had a choice of three variations. And then that led to sliders and then that led to 10 neighboring frames on each side. We still got a brand new 'off pegging' feature of the light table."

Still, there would be no Ackerley without Christopher Plummer's warm and eccentric performance. But when producer Norman Twain suggested Plummer, it turned out that Paul was unfamiliar with him, but is delighted with the results. "

There are four graphical designs to instill visual variety.

"It was difficult for him because he had to lead the film; it's almost wall-to-wall talk," he admits. Plummer didn't want to read Ackerley or read about him. He even declined to see a few minutes of the film that had already been done. He had his own vision. For an actor like Plummer, pictures mean nothing.

Interestingly, his favorite moment is when Acklerly has a good laugh early on. "It's awfully hard to draw a laughing person to make them look realistic."

Now, the 74-year-old, who was Czechoslovakia's first indie animation producer, and has made more than 200 films, is embarking on another feature about a famous man: "It's the story of Joshua Slocum, who was the first man to circumnavigate the world alone in a sailboat in the late 1800s."

It's about how the world changed around Slocum. And, in keeping with the subject matter, Fierlinger is considering distributing on the internet, among other possibilities. There's never been a question about his adaptability.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.