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The Worldview of Youri Norstein

From a small flat in Moscow.

By Karen Rosenberg.

Youri Norstein with his multiplane animation stand in Moscow.

January 1988. A modern complex of high-rise apartments in outer Moscow. A small flat has been partitioned to create more living and working space for animator Youri Norstein, his wife Francesca Iarboussova, who is the artist for his films, and their family. By the dining-room table stands a bookcase laden with art albums, many from friends abroad. We are having dinner, a colourful array of dishes that I know has required hours of waiting in line in stores.

Youri Norstein believes in hospitality. In Tale of Tales (1979), his longest and most famous film, a traveller is invited to a table under a tree. “As in any decent society,” noted Norstein. One source of inspiration for this scene, he recalled, was “Georgian Song” by the Soviet singer/songwriter Boulat Okoudjava. Norstein recited it to me, gradually adding more of the tune, until he sang at full voice, spontaneously and unselfconsciously:

I’ll bury a grape seed in the warm earth, I’ll kiss the vine, I’ll pick the ripe clusters, I’ll call my friends together and tune my heart to love… Otherwise what is there to live for on this eternal earth? Guests, come together and enjoy my food and drink, tell me directly to my face how you feel about me. The Lord of Heaven will send me forgiveness for my transgressions… Otherwise what is there to live for on this eternal earth?

“I wanted this scene to contain eternal elements, without which life is empty and meaningless,” Norstein remarked to me.

The utensils and crockery on the table in Tale of Tales aren’t merely utilitarian objects, he explained, but represent a set of values. The jug under a grape vine is not only a container for liquid but a sculpture of a woman who must be filled. In much ancient art, he reminded me, the female figure was depicted with heavy breasts and a large belly, which suggest sustenance and new life which comes from the womb. The inhabitants of this society – the Biblical figure of a fisherman, his daughter who plays jump rope with a benign bull, his wife who takes care of the household, and a poet with a lyre – enjoy a tranquillity that is clearly Norstein’s ideal. By using a different graphic style – influenced by Picasso’s 1935 pastoral cycle – for this community, the animator implies that it exists on another plane. War interrupts its eternal harmony, but from the peaceful world a little wolf manages to take a sheet of the poet’s paper which, when rolled up, turns into a swaddled baby. “Once a child is born, that world is preserved,” Norstein stated.

War is not the only destructive force in Norstein’s worldview. There is an important scene in Tale of Tales in which a family rests in a park on a winter’s day. The parents sit on a bench while their child eats an apple and enjoys his fantasies. But then the drunken father drops his bottle of alcohol, ruining his son’s reveries. The Napoleon hat that appears on the man’s head symbolizes his domination of his wife. She, in turn, pulls her son, making him lose his apple. And the little boy completes the circle by imitating his father, so he wears a Napoleon hat as well. “That’s what’s horrible today: it looks like nothing is happening, but people are engaged in mutual destruction,” Norstein declared to me. “Children’s dreams can be squelched in a moment, as we try to compensate for our inadequacies by means of petty triumphs over others.”

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The Worldview of Youri Norstein – Page 2

Youri Norstein with his drawing of the little wolf from Tale of Tales. Photo taken in Jan 1987 in Sverdlovsk, at Norstein’s lecture to children and members of a local film club.

It is obvious from the way Norstein speaks these words that they are not empty platitudes for him. The power of his films may well come from the intensity of his beliefs. His work is not mere graphic design or a personal “recherche du temps perdu” although his films draw on folk motifs and his childhood memories. For him, as for many Russians, art is the repository of spiritual and moral values, and animation is, quite simply, a branch of art; although it can please children, it is not directed primarily at them. Of course, Norstein is not the only Soviet animator with such a conception of his craft, but he is a major proponent of this point of view. The success of his films – especially of Tale of Tales – with adult audiences has helped animation to be taken more seriously in the USSR, as well as abroad. Tale of Tales ran for about fourteen months at the Moscow moviehouse “Rossiya.” In 1984, on the occasion of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, it was voted the best animated film of all time by an international jury of 35 film scholars, festival directors, and programmers – a fact which has not gone unnoticed in the USSR.

Like many of his earlier films, Tale of Tales plays with Russian folklore in a manner that is too sophisticated for most children. The lullaby that is sung at the beginning of the work warns a child to fall asleep or he’ll be carried off by a wolf. But Norstein’s character moves in counterpoint to the lyrics; his wolf is no frightening, threatening creature. He doesn’t steal a child but a piece of paper which, to his surprise, is transformed into a baby. Then his role is one of preservation and protection. Like a new father, he’s confused and awkward when a life suddenly appears before him. Unsure of how to stop the newborn’s crying, he puts down the bundle, takes it up again, and then rocks it at different speeds in a cradle he comes across in the forest. Finally, to comfort the child, he sings the same lullaby about the bad wolf – an ironic moment.

Like many animators, Norstein has an excellent eye for human gesture. But it is his use of other visual devices that makes his films exceptional. The Soviet critic Michel Iampolski has noted that his camera movements are unusually complex for animation. This is partly due to the fact that Norstein’s animation stand permits the camera to move horizontally as well as vertically – a rare feature. Or perhaps one should say that Norstein designed such a stand because he wanted the ability to explore the represented space. Iarboussova, who graduated from the art department of the Moscow film school (VGIK), plans her drawings with the filming in mind. And Norstein works very closely with the cameraman, the third member of his intimate three-person team. The sense of mystery in Tale of Tales derives in large measure from the slow panning of the camera within a space whose contours are not revealed until the end of the film.

“In Tale of Tales,” Norstein told a Boston audience in 1987, “I wanted to convey a spiritual experience.” Perhaps his main means of accomplishing this is light. An intense brightness, spilling from an open doorway onto a dark corridor, draws the little wolf into the scene where the poet sits with his lyre. How did he achieve this halo-effect around the doorway? Norstein told me that the doorway was placed on the top level of his multiplane animation stand and a white sheet of paper was put on the second level, a little lower down. Then this white paper was overexposed. The poet’s world was bathed in an unearthly amount of light by another method. This pastoral scene was shot, Norstein explained to me, on extremely light-sensitive high-contrast film which makes half-tones as light as white areas. In this way, the total white area was increased. When the little wolf leaves this radiant world, he carries a paper that also shimmers with light. (One might say that the poet’s paper is magical even before it turns into a baby.) This effect was accomplished by yet another means. “We directed a light at the paper that was six times brighter than that directed at the other objects in the frame,” Norstein revealed.

The little wolf is softened by another kind of light. He becomes a guardian of the hearth as he is depicted next to a cooking stove where a fire burns. Later, outside in the cold, he roasts potatoes in an open campfire – a scene that recalls his domestic role and thereby emphasizes that the war has destroyed a home. The vibration of the flames should attract the viewer’s attention because Norstein has used live-action footage to heighten the campfire’s intensity. (The multiplane animation stand which he designed allowed him to do this.) As the little wolf is illuminated by the fife’s peculiar glow, he acquires some of its comforting warmth.
“For me, the most important thing in film is light,” Norstein told me in Moscow. It is not surprising, then, that Rembrandt, that master of chiaroscuro, is one of his favourite artists. Norstein’s layered cutouts may be attempts to imitate Rembrandt’s richness of texture, which he admires. (The animator has glued celluloid to paper, applied watercolours to aluminium foil, and scratched acetate to achieve a depth and variety in his films.) And the choice of Rembrandt as a model suggests that Norstein aspires to produce not just art but great art through animation.

Norstein’s current project, a feature-length film, reflects such ambitions. He has taken on a 19th-century Russian classic, Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Its hero, Akaki Akakevich, a lowly scribe in the Czarist bureaucracy, is the butt of jokes by his colleagues, who would never dare tease their superiors. “Leave me alone, why are you insulting me?” is Akaki’s famous cry, which every Russian schoolchild knows. Norstein told an interviewer for the Soviet film journal Iskusstov kino, “I’m continuously trying to remember the feeling of horror I experienced in my childhood when I read that sentence for the first time. The horror of powerlessness.” Judging from the ten-minute work print I saw, Norstein’s Akaki will have the long twitching nose and the small paws of some little forest creature. By making him move like a scurrying animal, Norstein underlines Gogol’s warning about what man can be reduced to.

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The Worldview of Youri Norstein – Page 3

For Norstein, the denigration of human beings is not a historical problem. “In ‘The Overcoat’, Gogol chose the most painful situation in the modern world,” reads the published scenario for the film, written by Ludmila Petrushevskaia with Norstein’s help. Yet that doesn’t mean that Norstein sees his film as a coded attack on the Soviet state alone. First of all, the practice of getting around the censor by using hints and allegory is, he thinks, an unworthy goal for an artist. “As a result,” he told me, “sincerity is utterly lost.” And, second, he isn’t drawn to films which criticize the socio-political ills of the moment. They are needed but, unlike works of art, will not last long, he believes. For Norstein, “The Overcoat” is relevant today in a more philosophical sense. “I have the feeling,” he said to me, “that Gogol intended this work to live on into eternity so that if there were an ideal society – which is, of course, impossible on this earth – its inhabitants might peer into this black abyss into which they, too, could tumble if they were to lose their conscience and their compassion for others,”

Norstein’s Akaki Akakevivch will, I think, evoke compassion because he is a character of considerable complexity. In his own way, Akaki is an artist: Norstein depicts him at home, copying documents with a carefulness, tenderness and joy that are lovely as well as pathetic and absurd. This scene, in which the hero’s face is transfigured by light as well as by his expressions, is a brilliant work of animation. Animator Caroline Leaf, who also saw it, caught both its humanness and its humour. “We don’t know whether to laugh at him or to feel pity,” she told me recently. Indeed, that uncomfortable meeting of emotions seems to be what this film is trying to build. “Sometimes defencelessness is funny,” reads the scenario.

“A small work of art can give people the ability to comprehend life’s essence, its tragedy, in a condensed form,” Norstein told me. Belief in the mission of art has probably prevented him from abandoning The Overcoat despite a host of obstacles. He began the film in 1982, but work halted for a year because the cameraman wasn’t receiving the proper salary; then sickness held up progress; and finally the Moscow animation studio took over Norstein’s work-area because he had exceeded the time allotted to him. For a while, he had to support himself on meagre lecture fees, but since October 1987 he has been receiving his salary again. The Soviet Filmmakers Union has allocated money for the film out of its Gorbachev-era fund for independent productions but, as of this writing, the Moscow City Council (Mossoviet) still hasn’t come up with an alternative workspace.

Although he has been offered facilities in Europe to complete the film, Norstein wants to stay in Moscow, where his family, colleagues, and friends help him with advice and emotional support. For, despite his acquaintance with the history of world art, he is clearly at home only in the Russian intelligentsia. Its traditions, its values, and its vocabulary have formed both him and his works. “If we try to free ourselves too quickly from everything which hampers our comfort,” he told me in Moscow, “we can lose the most important things in life as a result.”

Over the years, he has learned to stick to his principles and wait. On his first film, The 25th, The First Day (1968), he made concessions which he prefers not to discuss. “I learned from that,” he told me. “I vowed never to compromise, even in small ways.” When Tale of Tales turned out to be almost thirty minutes long, rather than twenty minutes as the scenario called for, he was asked to cut any ten minutes from the film. “I categorically refused,” he recalled, and the film sat on the shelf for half a year before it was released. “That’s not a long time in our cinema,” he added.

Because Norstein works with a small team, invents new methods, and re-shoots some scenes, his films may not fit into a normal production plan. But the results also transcend the usual. Conscience, sincerity, compassion, life’s essence, spirituality -these are the animator’s key words. Among Russian filmmakers, perhaps only Tarkovsky has succeeded as well in giving philosophical ideas visual form.

The Overcoat update

The French television company La Sept and Yuri Norstein have recently signed a contract to enable The Overcoat to be completed.

In 1984 Louisette Neil recorded a programme with Yuri Norstein in Moscow. It was broadcast by La Sept the year after. The programme was a great success and resulted in Jerome Clement’s decision to help produce Norstein’s film The Overcoat. It has taken several years to clarify the terms of the co-production but it is understood a contract was signed by both parties in May. Yuri Norstein hopes to finish the film by 1996.

The author would like to express her gratitude for the help of Louise Beaudet, Inna Kisseleva, Caroline Leaf, Eliot Noyes and the late Charles Samu, without which this article could not have been written.

Karen Rosenberg is a contributing editor of “The Independent, A Film and Video Monthly,” published in New York City, and often writes on Soviet cinema.

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Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)

Psychology for the animator – Mind over pencil

Animation, like any art form, is a medium for presenting ideas. A lot of psychology is concerned with the study of communication, the way we perceive the world around us, how we attend to it, and how we process and react to sensory stimuli. Some understanding of psychology can thus help animators when communicating their ideas on film, writes Christopher Barnatt.

Like animation, psychology is a discipline that can be studied for life, thus I can only scratch the surface of its uses for the animator here. Hopefully, however, I can introduce some different avenues of thought for exploration in developing your productions.

Let us start on the basic perceptual level, we know animation is made possible by the ‘persistence of vision’ – i.e. that a series of still pictures presented quickly in succession can give us the illusion of movement. This occurs for two reasons. Firstly, the brain can only process images so quickly – if you present different pictures fast enough, the brain does not have time to perceive them as separate still images.

Secondly, and often overlooked, is the fact that the retina on which the image is focused in the back of the eye is like any other photo-sensitive surface, and that an image takes time to fade from it. When you watch a series of frames at normal speed one picture has not completely faded away before the next is ‘arriving’ on the retina: thus, in a way, frames are dissolving from one to the next.

Now let us consider whether animation is perceived as ‘smooth’ or flickering. Illustration (a) shows the position of a ball in five consecutive frames of animation, each to be presented for just one frame. Each picture overlaps the one before, thus the images of the ball on the retina will overlap: the animation should not flicker.

In (b) the motion is achieved in just three pictures at two frames each, the images will flicker as individual positions do not overlap. Note it is not because we are now dual-framing that the ball flickers, the five positions in (a) could be shot on doubles and would probably not flicker.

Illustration (c) is like (a) except the ball is now coloured in rather than just outline. This sequence will appear smoother than (a)

and slower. The solid ball produces a greater change in the retinal image. In (d), ‘blur’ has been added to the frames in (b) note that it extends just over the previous position, to produce an overlap in the retinal image: the animation should not flicker. Illustration (e) is a lateral solution to stop flicker and use less positions than in (a) make the ball bigger so consecutive positions do overlap! I hear the purists screaming, but such a change can save a lot of time, paper, cels and painting. Other solutions could be to stretch the ball so consecutive positions overlap, or to change the angle of motion so that the ball comes towards us, with one position covering the other.

Finally, if an object has to move quickly across screen and positions can not overlap
(even on singles), make the object’s line work and colouring as complex as possible. This means the brain is more likely to perceive the different frames as the same object moving, rather than as different objects flickering in and out of existence. Complex objects are more likely to create patterns that the brain will recognise again. A simple object may just be seen as different ‘blobs’ of colour flicking on and off the screen.

To summarize, providing a reasonable frame-change rate is used (24 fps, 12 fps (doubles) or maybe even 8 fps (shooting triples), the main factor that affects the smoothness of animation is consecutive image overlap – not the speed of motion across the field. Solid, complex objects will invariably flicker less.

“Communication”, psychology tells us, “is the power to create shared understandings.” These can be achieved in many ways, not just by the use of actions and words. “Emotional expressions must be met by emotional expressions” is a phrase to bear in mind when animating more than one character on screen at a time. Each must be orientated on gesture and posture to both the situation occurring and to the actions of the other character.

When two people (or mice or purple-spotted dragons for that matter) are animated conversing, turn-talking should be seen to occur: the two characters must switch between active and attending. Such a switch will not appear natural ii it is indicated only by one stationary head stopping talking and another starting to speak – turn-talking is not a simple on/off ‘cut’. In many ways it is more important to animate the ‘listening character’ than the speaking one if the listener is not seen to react to the speaker a shared understanding will not be portrayed, no emotional link between the characters will be perceived, and thus how can the audience be expected to relate to them and their situation?

Psychologists have observed shared, locked-rhythms in existence when people communicate – both in spoken and non-spoken language. Cues in communication exchanges (the tilting of the head, the raising of eyebrows, the movement of a hand), which usually occur subconsciously, allow those involved in communication to anticipate when the active to attending switch will occur. Such cues, when animated into one character, should also be seen to invoke a response from the other, a reciprocal move allowing one emotional expression to be met by another.

Watch people in conversation. When one person makes a movement whilst talking, almost always the listener will move too: shifting weight from one foot to another, tilting their head, and so on.

Psychologists using very high speed photography have shown that people react to each others subconscious moves in a matter of milliseconds. Having the speaker tilt his head, then the listener move his hand a second later may mean movement is introduced into a shot over a longer time, but it will not give as great an impression of a real, meaningful conversation as running the two actions simultaneously.

So when characters are interacting, always consider their reactions to each other. When producing character, emotion and involvement in a film, small, carefully planned reactions are frequently more important than the main action itself.

Over the years animation has developed its own language. We all accept the appearance of a thought bubble, or that if an object flies off-field and the screen shakes, that a collision has occurred (regardless of sound effects). This may sound obvious, but these are examples of the use of a visual language that we have learned from watching films. The whole world does not rebound if a mouse hits a wall – but we accept that the collision has occurred if indeed it does shake.

Many artists these days seem reluctant to use what I would term the “classic cartoon language” in their work – “a light bulb flashing above a characters head is silly isn’t it?” It may be, but like it or not we all infer that the character has just had an idea, possibly saving a lot of time and cels that can be better used elsewhere in the film.

Some pictures demand more attention than others. But which ones? A psychologist called Fantz in the 1950s did experiments to investigate what images babies pay most attention to. Although the experiments were to study how babies’ attention spans were developing, the results, although not surprising, should be remembered.

The most attended to pictures were found to be patterned, coloured, moving, three-dimensional, sound accompanied, self-deforming (e.g. a fist opens into a hand), and a little unpredictable. Faces were thus highly attended to – possessing all these properties. The extra interest colour, pattern and contrast add to pictures should not be ignored. Colouring a film in and using complex line work adds more to a film than just ‘art quality’, the extra movement often seen in outline-only films is necessary if they are to demand the attention of more visually complex coloured productions.

I have tried to cover some of the areas of animation development where I frequently think in psychological terms. A psychologist is really just somebody who looks at the world in a different way – watching the audience rather than the show. As animators we are creating the show. The more disciplines we can use to look at the world around us, the more interest and realism we can inject into our films. Good animators and psychologists have one great thing in common – both spend most of their time thinking.

Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)

Howard Beckerman New York animator interview

Howard Beckerman is a New York animator who worked at Terrytoons and the now legendary Famous Studios. Graham Webb met him at an animation festival and has documented some of his experiences.

Howard Beckerman.

The one thing that clinched the deal for young Howard Beckerman and put him on the rocky road to becoming an animator for the rest of his life, was simply to look up through the second-storey window of Ted Eshbaugh’s New York studio and just see the corner of an animator’s light-box, coupled with an anglepoise (or “Gooseneck”) lamp.

The sealing of his fate was as simple as that, convincing him so thoroughly that he has remained a stalwart of the industry for over thirty years.

This revelation happened in 1949 when Howard, fresh from high-school, was hired by none other than Paul Terry himself to join the famed Terrytoons, starting as office boy, then progressing to inker, painter and inbetweener.

Situated in the suburb of New York known as New Rochelle, Terrytoons was, at that time, the longest surviving animation studio, having started Life in 1921 as Fables Studios where Terry turned out an “Aesop’s Fable” every three weeks. However, when the live-action producer, Amedee J. Van Beuren stepped in to take over as Production Head, Terry opted out, taking with him his best artists and most popular character, Farmer Al Falfa, soon to create his own studio with partner, Frank Moser.

During his brief stay at Terrytoons, Howard began practicing inbetweening for Jim Tyer. One of the first things he recalls animating was Mighty Mouse escaping from the clutches of a giant cat.

Jim Tyer, on the other hand, was an animator of some notoriety who revelled in saving drawings by stretching his characters in certain ways. Tyer could stretch, squash and abuse his characters in a bizarre fashion and normally get away with it, but when Beckman tried to emulate this style elsewhere, management responded with a definite “NO”.

The atmosphere at Terrytoons was that of one big happy family with Terry as the benevolent father figure to his juniors in hopes they would remain there until their dying days… which was much the case with most of Terry’s artists.

Although a great training ground for the young turks, Terrytoons was a veritable reincarnation of Miss Haversham’s house in Great Expectations inasmuch as time seemed to stand still there.

Enhancing this Dickens ian atmosphere was home-made equipment, still in use from when the studio first opened in 1930, and Terry’s cousin, Charley Perrin, a permanent fixture seated at a desk on a platform overlooking the artists’ “Bull-Pen”.

Perrin’s eagle-eye didn’t miss too much from his perch and, when artists wasted valuable time chatting at the water-cooler or too long in the toilets, etc., he would deal with the matter accordingly.

The female workers were segregated and treated in similar fashion by the production manager, Frank Schudde, known as “Sparky”.

Charley Perrin was also the notorious instigator of a system of awarding a gold star to whichever animator turned out the most footage, in the hope that it would encourage the others to increase output… the idea probably worked when he was at school, but it was quickly discontinued at Terrytoons. Perrin also kept the key to the stores, carrying the Dickensianisms beyond all boundaries by requiring anyone needing a new pencil to present the used one, to show it was as far down as it was going to get, before reluctantly handing over a replacement. The same procedure was followed for light bulbs, etc.

These reminiscences bear out stories of Terry’s frugality although, being his own business, it’s understandable… nevertheless, he often helped people out by giving them loans, so he wasn’t without a heart.

Many of Terry’s corner-cuttings were doozies; no push-pens, Bulldog clips on the storyboards to save wasting tacks and the ingenious idea of keeping the paint in pancake syrup dispensers so that (a) the paint wouldn’t harden with a spring lid on it, and (b) the painters could tip out just the right amount needed without wasting any.

Production at Terrytoons was always “two weeks”: Story development was two weeks, two weeks on animation, two in ink and paint, and so on… unfortunately the end product always looked like it, but by today’s standards, Terrytoons stand up surprisingly well.

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Howard Beckerman New York animator interview – Page 2

Inspired by the goings-on at Terrytoons, young Beckerman took an evening class in animation at a local New York college, much to the Terry artists’ bemusement who couldn’t figure out why anyone who worked all day in an animation studio should want to study the subject in his own time.

The class instructor, Irving Spector, informed Howard of a job going at Famous Studios for an inbetweener paying $5.00 more than he was getting at Terrytoons ($30.00).

He leaped at the chance and, despite the “one big happy family” atmosphere and Paul Terry’s “Dutch Uncle” approach to juniors, Howard departed for pastures new, much to Terry’s chagrin.

Situated right in the heart of New York at 25 West 45th Street was the now legendary Famous Studios, a product of Paramount Pictures after the even-more-legendary Max Fleischer had sold his own studio due to financial difficulties. The other big studio in New York was Ted Eshbaugh’s, just down the road at 35 West 45th, which had been the source of inspiration for young Howard a few years earlier.

Famous was managed by ex-Fleischer’s chief animator (and son-in-law), Seymour Kneitel, along with two Fleischer production managers, Isadore Sparber and Sam Buchwald, and employed the best percentage of Fleischer’s former artistic staff.

Here on 45th, since 1942, they fulfilled a contract inherited from Fleischer for Superman and Popeye cartoons as well as creating a wealth of new characters such as Casper and the friendly ghost, the giant duckling Baby Huey, a cat and mouse duo named Herman and Katnip, and the Rochesteresque crow called Buzzy among others.

Howard Beckerman describes the studios as being classier than Terrytoons, but lacking their laid-back friendly atmosphere… almost akin to an old-fashioned accounting firm.

Their equipment, in contrast to Terry’s “kitchen table” approach, seemed to be all inherited from the master… and Fleischer patented too! For example the desks were of Max’s devising; a light-box with “gooseneck” lamp combined and a disc that only worked by using top pegs with a metal bar that clamped the drawings to the pegs, plus another underneath so that the drawings could slide off easily without tearing.

These desks became collectors’ items, so-much-so that when Famous loaned out the surplus to artists working at home (which was often the case) not all of them were returned to where they belonged.

Famous was the largest studio in New York, occupying two floors with the artists kept downstairs and cameras with screening room upstairs. The cameras (four or five in all) were yet another inheritance from Uncle Max, two of which were specially built horizontal lathe-bed type, all holding 16 field and 10 field. One was used strictly for pencil-tests, and though it was a vertical stand it had no provision for trucking in and out.

The camera department, like the women inkers and painters, was in a separate building divided by an old iron fire-escape and considered “No Man’s Land” to young inbetweeners like Howard. He solved the problem by persuading Irv Spector to take his animation class on a field trip to see over the studio at night.

Like the cameras and women, many things were kept from Howard. Not so much out of vindictiveness but from an old fashioned notion that the artists didn’t need to get involved with cameras or to even see a screening of their own pencil tests.

This “Victorian” image was inescapable as you entered the studio and were confronted with an antiquated time-clock where everyone had to punch-in (another relic from the days of Uncle Max?) and a Union bell that rang for lunch, coffee breaks and when it was time to go home.

Beckerman recalls a moment of real Victorian melodrama when Izzy Sparber gave a public dressing-down to another Fleischer “inheritance”, a dancer known as “Pop”, Jack Williss. Williss, a friend of the Fleischer brothers originally hired as a dancer to help time difficult movements with characters in the features, had worn out his usefulness and taken to drink. Obviously having ignored previous warnings, when Sparber caught him with another bottle he was dismissed on the spot with a hearty “Get out!” falling short of “…and never darken my doorstep again!” in front of the other artists. As an impressionable junior, Howard found this a bitter pill to swallow, but nevertheless in keeping with other Famous out-dated practices.

Life at Famous wasn’t all straight-laced and stern-faced.., they weren’t without their pranksters; putting limburger cheese on the light bulbs, hot-foot gags or pasting cardboard cowboy spurs onto the victim’s heels just as he was about to go out, and so on.
To pacify the artists, Famous Studios was the first to induct “piped” music throughout the offices via a receptionist skilful enough to change records between typing.

One could always rely on the local talent when animators got tired of hearing the same tunes, they ‘drowned it’ out by moaning, singing off-key, blowing horns, ringing cow-bells and generally showing their displeasure, much to the amusement of the spectators.

The animation at this particular studio was high grade and could match Disney’s any day. Howard recalls doing some inbetweening for Steve Muffatti’s Land of Lost Witches (1951) where intricate detail on some watch characters was required, involving perfectly oval watches with tiny, spindly arms and legs.

This perfectionism has also been borne out by another young Turk at the time, when Lee Mishkin grumbled he did not know which eye was the correct one to draw shut when animating Popeye, he was informed by his elders that things were much tougher in the “old days” when the exact number of Betty Boop’s curls had to be drawn.., otherwise you suffered!

On a less painful note, Famous would encourage employees to participate in the current production by sending around a synopsis of the story and offering a cash prize for punny titles.

Howard Beckerman ‘s moment of glory was a title suggestion for a cartoon featuring Popeye and Olive holidaying at a summer camp where Bluto is the lustful camp instructor… Vacation with Play (1951), for this he received the tidy sum of $5.00.

Having spent two years at Famous under his teacher and mentor “Spec” Spector, young Howard Beckerman received an ill-timed “Call-up” in 1951 and had to leave the studio in favour of the armed services, returning to Paramount’s cartoon division in 1966 when things had changed drastically… unfortunately, not for the better.

Famous Studios, by now, was the sole property of Paramount; renamed, not unsurprisingly, Paramount Cartoons.

All three partners had since died, Seymour Kneitel being the last in 1964, now comic artist Howard Post was in charge of the studio.

Howard Beckerman arrived with Shamus Culhane’s outfit when he was called upon to breathe life into a dying art form… theatrical cartoons… without spending too much money. He was instructed to resuscitate the ongoing series; Honey Halfwitch a child witch remnant of Casper the friendly ghost and Sir Blur, a medieval Mr. Magoo… as if such a thing were needed.

Culhane’s tenure at Paramount was predictably short-lived due to rising costs, sinking standards, and the arrival of the conglomerate corporation of Gulf and Western who took over Paramount and quickly discovered there was no need for animated cartoons, theatrical or otherwise.

Child prodigy, Ralph Bakshi, succeeded Culhane’s little group and managed to sink the entire department without trace within a matter of months, destroying everything but Bakshi’s ego as, in later years, he went from success to success from the highly controversial Fritz the Cat (1971) to Lord of the Rings (1978), et al.

Unlike Ralph Bakshi’s up and down career, Howard Beckman diligently carries on, delving into every aspect of cartoonery from animation and comic strips to teaching and even writing about the subject he knows best, outliving two of New York’s most prominent fun factories; Famous Studios and Terrytoons.

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Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)

Goblin – a bedroom studio winner

Tony James was one of the finalists in the BBC television Showreel 88 competition with Goblin. He explains the background to the film.

As a pre-TV child I grew up with a love of cinema and theatre, and recall performing, writing and painting scenery for my brother’s amateur company in Birmingham. My father made me a puppet theatre for my tenth birthday and I gave performances at school and the local hospital at Christmas. I was once punished at school for making flip books.

At the age of nineteen I bought an Admira 8F cine camera. The second roll of Kodachrome through the camera I shot on single frame. Furniture whizzed round the room, an apple peeled itself and the Christmas turkey made a miraculous recovery and waved at the camera.

Despite the popularity of this film it was not until some years later, when I saw Bob Godfrey’s Do it Yourself Animation Show on BBC TV, that I began to see animation as the answer to the frustration I felt with my hobby. I went for cut-outs first but after creating a few title sequences for holiday films I soon tired of those flat stiff characters. Plasticine did not fare better, drooping under the heat of the photofloods between takes, and soon consigned to the kids next door. I loved the full flowing living animation of the Disney films and knew that only cel would give me this, but all that work, the equipment and the expense. How could I learn the secret of bringing a character to life? The TV show was obviously aimed at grabbing your attention, but did not, I am sure, expect you to rush off and make a fully animated short.

Tony James with his multiplane rostrum.

My first call was to the local Arts centre but they turned white when confronted by a forty-year-old civil servant in a suit. It seemed to me you needed a UB4O or a trendy cause to unlock that Aladdin’s cave of equipment and know-how. I began to think I might never get started when I met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston signing copies of their book Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life. They said “Go for it,” so I did.

The book was a revelation. I had all the instructions I needed. It did not matter that my drawing might not be up to professional standards. I was not competing with the professionals, and I had one thing they did not – all the time in the world.

I decided to try a short ten second sequence and if it worked I would build a rostrum and make a film. I bought a box of overhead projection film, cut them in half and punched them with the office punch. Two sawn off brass screws were my registration pegs and a sheet of glass with cellotape hinges my platen. No costly animation paint for me. I used Matchpots, those 25p samples of emulsion paint from Crown.

Right from the start I was convinced that it would be necessary to shoot at 24 frames per second, two frames per cel. So as not to waste time or effort, the scene I intended animating for the test, if satisfactory, would end up in the final film. The story was simple. A baby badger is kidnapped by a Goblin and rescued by his mother. The rescue was still a bit of a problem and not very convincing but I was keen to get started. The watercolour background looked good and I was pleased with my first character, Mrs Badger. She is rolling pastry when, hearing a noise, she rushes off wiping her hands. This first step took me a month to complete. After a further ten agonising days the little yellow packet of Kodachrome dropped through my letterbox. The result, for me, was magic. She seemed to have acquired a life of her own. Drunk with success, I decided my film would be double the original length and in multiplane.

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Goblin – a bedroom studio winner – Page 2

Stills from Goblin by Tony James.

I constructed a rostrum from chip-board and wood scraps, which did not look too bad once it had a coat of matt-black emulsion. It had four planes, each with wooden sliding bars and a window of plate glass. The only tool I use well is a hammer, so after a hard days filming, my rostrum would lean against the wardrobe for a rest.

I went about it all the wrong way, abandoning my pre-recorded soundtrack and dope sheets as new ideas popped into my head. Sometimes I would get so carried away I would forget to number the drawings and could not make out their correct order. I watched all the animation I could on television and video and collected quite a library of books on the subject. I soon learned that animation is a very antisocial hobby. Instead of going to the pub at lunch time I could be found tracing my previous night’s drawings onto cel. I was so intoxicated by animation that even if I had known it would take me over four years to complete one film I would not have given it a second thought.

Not that it was all joy. My lack of drawing skills caused many a despairing moment. A-two minute reel that had taken me a week to film came back underexposed, another with the registration pegs showing. There was also the late night session when I was filming a very involved shot which included moving three layers of background at different speeds, trucking in the camera, altering focus between shots and changing cels. Half way through I fell asleep and awoke two hours later unable to remember if I had pressed the shutter release.

As the months turned to years my drawing improved, as did my rostrum. I constructed a more solid set-up and bought a professional disc. The platen was made from a do-it-yourself article in Animator magazine – no more Cellotape.

After working on the film for so long I was unable to judge what, if anything, I had achieved. I gave the first showing to my family, who were, predictably, full of praise. However, colleagues were obviously expecting Tom and Jerry. After all, cartoons were supposed to be funny, weren’t they?

I entered it for the BBC Showreel 88 competition and two months later a telephone call informed me I was one of twenty finalists. Even if I did not win a prize an excerpt from my film would be shown on the programme. A film crew came to my house and shot an interview which was to be shown together with the clip on BBC2 TV. At the awards ceremony, taped at the Watershead Arts Centre in Bristol I still did not think I would win a prize. The show began and the monitors flickered on around the theatre. There was my animation as part of the title sequence for the programme. That was a marvellous moment. To think something I had created was to be part of a TV programme and seen all over the country was prize enough. As it happened, I came joint second and won a thousand pounds. The local paper did me proud with a double page spread about Goblin including several stills from the film and a picture of me in my bedroom ‘studio’ with the caption “The bedroom Disney”.

Recently I was invited to take part in a BBC2 documentary The Animators directed by Rob Harrington. This went out in November ‘89 to coincide with the Bristol Animation Festival. I was very proud to be seen in the company of so many respected professionals.

My film won the Movie Maker Ten Best competition and was shown together with the runners up at Kodak’s headquarters in Hemel Hempstead. I received a cheque for a hundred pounds worth of film, tape and CD’s. Unfortunately it seems that I shall have the dubious honour of being the last Ten Best winner as the magazine which promoted it has gone out of business.

During November HTV came to tape an episode for Rolf’s Cartoon Club at my home. As my film was made with my young niece Sarah in mind the producer, Doug Wilcox, thought it would be nice to have her answer the door to Rolf Harris in the film when he called to see the ‘studio’. Rolf Harris soon put everyone at their ease and the interview was a joy. His love of the medium is obvious. He told me that he only wished that he had learned more about animation when he was a young man. We were invited to the HTV studios the following week to see Rolf in action on segments of another episode and spent time in the control room and on the studio floor.

All this because of 2,359 sheets of acetate, 47 watercolour backgrounds and four of the most rewarding years of my life – so far. Finally, I have started on a new film, a scary version of the King Midas story.

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Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)

Bridging the great divide

Computerised video graphics have strongly challenged practitioners of diagrammatic film animation. They have also been used by Disney and Hanna-Barbera to create animation for segments of cartoon feature films. Ken Clark gives an overview of computer graphic systems available today and some advice about bridging the gap between traditional animators and computer technicians.

Still from Jetsons - The Movie by Hanna.Barbera.

When I began collecting information about the new form of picture-making using a computer I did not forsee the strides that would be made in its development. Film manufacturers have worked tirelessly to improve the speed, tonal range and granular structure of the film emulsion and that same drive has taken us from a 405 line television picture to 625, through to much higher resolution scanning systems, thanks primarily to space research. HDTV 1125 and 1250 line experiments will continue along with liquid displays, flat screens to hang on the wall, and optical laser disks.

International Time ‘90 – The Interactive Multimedia Event, held in London last October, endeavoured to convince us that the computer had become the heart of all systems. ‘Multimedia’ is interactive video involving a video recording device (tape/disc), a computer with appropriate software, and an input device such as a graphics tablet with stylus pen. This permits the combination of a wide variety of diverse activities: computer generated video graphics; word processing and photographic illustrations for publishing; voice and high quality music; still and live video images; material imported from film; and of course animation.

The key to this versatility has been digitisation. Digital sound and vision do not suffer the degradation which bedevils audio tape and film when subjected to multiple re-recording. However, each picture digitised by the computer requires a great deal of memory storage space. The problem is now being eased by microchips made by Digital Video Interactive (DVI). These control very high compression and decompression of video images, the answer to greater frame capacity. Other improvements in storage capacity include Hypercards and C-Cubes – all available at extra cost. The price of systems in the forefront of this technology is extremely high, indeed, so high it is beyond the reach of the majority. But this is one manufacturing area where prices decrease as improvements increase.

Electronic image generation challenges the old methods, and there are those who fear for their jobs while their rivals jealously guard their flanks. Hence the ‘Great Divide’.

Many years ago, active film cartoonists in Hollywood saw their numbers dwindle from 1000 to 600 over a period of two years because of work lost to cheaper foreign studios. Then a British national newspaper drew attention to the fact that Hanna-Barbera were trying to install a ‘computer cartoonist’ in their Hollywood studio.

Paul Connew reported, “The electronic marvel, they boast, can do the work of 35 flesh and blood artists and technicians. It can paint in background scenes, produce drawings, pull out stock file shots – and even do a limited amount of animation.”

Naturally, the effect of this revelation on the staff was predictable. Even at that early stage they anticipated it would “take the soul out of the industry.” We now know that in the wrong hands or to be more precise, used incorrectly, it can be totally soul-less.

The Walt Disney Studio was of the same mind. Their spokeswoman Jan Jorgenson was quite adamant; she said they would never go in for computers. They used nothing but hand-drawn animation, believing firmly in cartoon people.

The division grew out of the nature of the new medium. In the beginning there had been no need of film animators. The work was accomplished by computer engineers and designers. They made the frightening number of calculations and geometric manipulations necessary to the production of a single electronic image. It was only when the term ‘animation’ became widely used that film animators began to sit up and take notice. Yet there had been earlier warnings.

Speaking at a one-day symposium in Didcot in 1971, John Halas discussed ‘Past, Present and Future of Animation’, and advised his audience that the most important matter requiring immediate attention should be the reduction of the gap which existed then between artist and computer scientist/engineer. I have news for John – the gap still exists!

Recently a respected director told me he had entertained a video graphics salesman at his studio and not understood a thing he had been told. He had failed to appreciate how this technology might help him in his world of film and sent the man on his way with a flea in his ear. This is not an isolated response.

A few months ago I attended the Computer Graphics annual celebration. On my way round the stands I asked everyone why they did not call upon film animators for their advice. One representative volunteered the information that his company had invited a leading London animator along to address their graphics personnel. The experience had not been a success. The outcome had been a total lack of comprehension on both sides. I suggested that since their company specialised in formal graphics rather than comic cartoons they ought to have invited a diagrammatic film animator.

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Bridging the great divide – Page 2

At the Odeon, Marble Arch that same evening I watched a succession of short sequences which they called idents and stings, all demonstrating the current state of the art and competing for the annual awards. The most memorable effects were those which simulated water; raindrops falling on to dry sand and building up to a flood; a torrent of water thundering down a ravine towards the viewer – very realistic. The programme demonstrated a wide range of applications but the lasting impression was of images and type twisting, turning, gyrating through space, hell-bent on displaying their 3D propensities. There were a few exceptional examples of character animation but for the most part I witnessed progressive manipulation of images rather than anything resembling full animation.

Computerised video graphics has a long way to go before it can compete on equal terms with traditional feature cartoons. It still has a lot to learn – if it is prepared to listen.

Conventional animation has been around for over 90 years, growing, experimenting and evaluating. At best, the computer industry has had a little over 15 years in which to develop their present level of expertise.

When Alan Kitching began working on Antics in the late Sixties/early Seventies it represented the first professional attempt to link the traditional with the emerging technology. More importantly it tackled the task from the viewpoint of a film animator. Subjected to constant upgrading, it is still too expensive for the smaller studios who would have to outlay something in the region of £50,000. The more affluent however have taken it on board and are making it earn its keep, notably in Swedish studios, and at Nippon in Japan.

It is my belief that the computer based line tester is the gateway to the bridge across the divide. Stan Hayward with his Amiga 2000 line tester, featured in Animator issue 27, shares the same ambition as Alan Kitching. Both men would like to see video animation become a curriculum subject with appropriate equipment installed in every school. Stan’s experience with children of all ages has proved that animation fascinates them and inspires their imaginations.

Chromacolour’s Amiga 2000 line test system costs approximately £10,000. A system based on the Amiga 500 around £3,000. But if you already possess a video camera, an Amiga 500 computer and a domestic television set then the extra equipment may be brought for under £700.

The Amiga systems have ‘Paint’ software to colour your line drawings, the ability to sync a sound track with sound playback one frame at a time, making it easier to ‘read’ the track, and even a built-in simulated voice which can be programmed by the user.

EOS Electronics AV Ltd have made available their Supertoon line tester at a little under £5,000. Their model uses a colour camera, S-VHS video and safe low voltage lights. Like the Chromacolour system it is targeted at universities and colleges with tight budgets.

The Quick Action Recorder from NAC Inc.

Probably the best known line tester is the Quick Action Recorder by NAC Inc. Launched in 1979 it can be found in over 30 countries including the Yorum Gross Film Studios, Australia; N.F.B. of Canada; Shanghai Animation Film Studio; Wang Film Production, China; there are four units in the Walt Disney Studio, and 68 units scattered throughout Japan. In the UK there were 24 at the last count, two of them at Cosgrove Hall and two at Universal Pictures. A 4 Megabyte QAR will accomodate 960 frames, storable on floppy disc. The basic QAR is £11,500.

All these line testers do a similar job but the quality and frame storage capacity is reflected in the price.

The computer based line tester has proved to be a great advance on the film or video line tester. Once the animators’ drawings are photographed they can be viewed at different frame rates, forwards or backwards, and in any chosen order, by giving the computer a few instructions via the keyboard.

Computers that manipulate or ‘animate’ the image are a big step up from line testers in terms of computing power and complexity of software but they have at least two things in common: someone supplies the images they work with; someone decides how the images will move. Computer based animation systems must be regarded as another tool, one that can relieve the film animator of a great deal of drudgery. Much of the present output is limited in style of presentation. They may call the results ‘animated graphics’ but for the most part they are little more than camera pans over, under, round and through the chosen subject, combined with squash, stretch, ripple effects and metamorphosis.

I have received a large number of computer graphic show reels. They consist of immaculate type and graphics going through their paces like well trained circus performers eager to show their expertise and versatility. This they do to perfection, but oh so relentlessly! After three reels of constant gyration the eye wanders from the screen to rest thankfully on inanimate furniture. They do succeed in proving to a lesser or greater degree that the occasional spot effect in the right place can be very effective. If they do not attempt to emulate the cartoon or model films we know and love, it is due to cost, lack of computing power, and often a genuine desire to deliberately avoid that market. What comes over quite clearly is that this tool is available to all and sundry, so why not let the old techniques benefit?

Traditional animators have much to offer the computer animators, especially those who are beavering away re-inventing old principles. Principles which were first defined and illustrated in Animated Cartoons written by E.G. Lutz and published in 1920.

Sophisticated computer imaging systems do not differentiate between a spaceship’s flight through space, a flying logo, a simulated drive up a motorway which only exists as a set of draughtsman’s drawings, or a pan round the Seven Dwarfs’ cottage. They each have their place in the scheme of things.

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