When Martin Rosen, the producer of Watership Down, set up The Plague Dogs Arthur was again called upon to work as a senior animator. (George Jackson and Tony Guy also shared the same credit) This time he had to go to San Francisco. Says Arthur, ‘When we went to the States we thought we would be working with veteran Disney animators. It would be a chance to learn a lot, although maybe feel a bit inferior. As it turned out the animators would not come out of L.A. to San Francisco.
He did get to meet some veteran Disney animators, one of them being Phil Dunbar who animated Thumper in Walt Disney’s Bamby. Says Arthur: ‘Bill Melendez told me of the trial and error period concerning Phil’s animation of Thumper’s first meeting with the girl rabbit in Bamby. At first he tried the usual cartoon reactions like Thumper’s eyes coming out on stalks but it did not look right. Walt Disney said, ‘Tone it down.’ Phil reduced it to Thumper tapping one foot continuously and drooping one of his ears. This got the desired effect.’
Among Arthur’s scenes in Plague Dogs was the laboratory sequence with the monkey being tested out in a canister and the dog’s escape through the incinerator. Video line testers were used on Plague Dogs and Watership Down so they could hand their drawings in in the morning and see the results by lunch time. Arthur adds, ‘The drawings were also put onto 35mm film and the sequences joined up to make a composite reel, so raw film is used despite video.’
When Arthur worked on SuperTed he worked at home, although he had to make the 300 mile round trip to the Siriol studio in Cardif, Wales every few weeks to deliver his scenes and pick up new ones. Arthur prefers working in a studio rather than at home, ‘Working at home you don’t get the inter-studio feedback. Someone saying, “Who did that? It’s great.” Or adversely saying, “That’s trash.” So it keeps it alive.’
Working at home does not mean you can relax the pace. ‘If there is a scene at the studio with the name Arthur on the cover and I don’t turn up on time to pick it up, I am sure that if someone else turns up later that day looking for work they will say to them, “You had better take this,” and rub my name off,’ says Arthur. ‘You have to keep in touch by phone and inform the studio of any problems.’ As a production nears its deadline the pressure to get it finished often builds up but Arthur likes this. ‘When the pressure is there I work quicker and I think I also do better work. The worst thing a person can say to you is: “Don’t rush yourself, there is no real hurry,” because invariably you will put it on one side and go off and play golf or something.’
I asked Arthur what guidance the studio gives the animator for a particular sequence. ‘Generally the studio supply the animator with a storyboard and layout with field sizes marked, the tracks and pans, and the length of the scene. This sets the scene for you. For example a scene might start on a wide shot and end up on a close up of the face. They let you know if you are going away from the look of the character. Maybe the nose is too big and so on. It takes a while to get used to a new character. When you are used to it you do good animation without having to think about proportions and shapes. Arthur cited an example of one animator he knew who drew really rough and the studio were worried that he was not getting the character right. He said, “Have they seen it move?” and sure enough when the line test was projected it really was the character and it moved beautifully. The clean up department could add the necessary detail.
Arthur showed me some drawings of a bird circling around in a figure of eight. Some of the drawings were in black pencil while others were done in blue and red pencil. I asked him to explain this. ‘It is to show the inbetweens. Anything difficult is indicated in blue or red so that the assistant animator can get it right. If the drawing is being transferred to cel by Xerox then the blue pencil will not photograph and with tracing the red and blue lines will not be traced.’
I mentioned the developments in computer animation where two key drawings would be fed in and the computer does the inbetweens. The result could be plotted out on paper and modified as necessary. What did Arthur think of this? ‘Well, that would be great. There are very few good assistant animators around. If you have got someone who is not used to inbetweening you could do a pile of good key drawings where the action moves beautifully. You do your breakdowns in coloured pencil to help the assistant, if you know they are going to have trouble with certain actions, and you run through the drawings to explain them. Even then when you get them back they can be miles away from what you want. When a face moves round it is sometimes better to have it drop during movement or to add a blink, rather than have the eyes staring open all the time, a blink keeps it alive. Some assistants will take the drawings half way through the turn and do one drawing with the eyes closed. You don’t see him or her blink because one drawing is a twelfth of a second. (Double framing at 24 fps) They don’t realise that if the one before is half shut and the one after is half open you would see the blink because it has six frames. That is only a minor thing, sometimes they will lose sizes. They do as many drawings of the turn as they can with the face that you did in the first key and then half way it will jump to the drawing you made on the next key, and continue round like that. Those are only a few examples of what I have come across.
But would the computer do a good job? ‘Some of the perspective work they do with computers, turning around houses and cars, looks beautiful,’ says Arthur. ‘Computers seem to be very adept at changing a shape into another shape at the moment… but there has to be the human element to produce creative character animation. As David Hand once told us: ‘…we can teach you how to draw, but animation comes from here…’ (placing his hand on heart.) ‘In the future hand animation may become so rare that it is regarded like antique hand made furniture is now, where it is considered far more valuable than mass produced items.’
It would be nice to think that future generations will put a high value on the work of Arthur Humberstone and his contemporaries.
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Printed in Animator Issue 14 (Winter 1985)