At the same time, I had made two short films at Halas & Batchelor, one called Quartet which won first place in the Chicago Film Festival. The other one was called A Short Tall Story which, I was subsequently told by John Halas, was adopted by the United Nations, it had a peace theme to it. I didn’t animate either of them, I wrote them and did the backgrounds. John Perkins animated them. I thought that I could get into the Canadian Film Board with the ideas I was originating. But luckily for me, when I wrote to Richard Williams for the second time my letter arrived on the very day another animator was leaving and he immediately said: “Yes, come in.”
The day I got in there I suddenly realised that I was to be Richard Williams’ own assistant. They were doing A Christmas Carol and as well as animating, he cleaned up everyone’s animation to get that incredible look. I was inbetweening Ken Harris’s animation, but with Richard Williams’ cleaned up drawings. The day I walked in I had never done an inbetween in my life, and I had certainly never worked straight onto cel which is what they were doing. It was highly complicated engraving style and I was very slow. Dick said that it did not matter about speed, but accuracy was most important. I was doing four drawings a day to Start with but gradually got faster and by the end of it I was wizzing through with the rest of them. I was thrown in at the deep end but in retrospect I am grateful because I learnt so much that way.
The Richard Williams studio had done the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and while Dick was in America working on Raggedy Anne and Andy the titles for The Pink Panther Strikes Again came in. He asked me if I could do it as he wouldn’t be around. Having learnt traditional animation techniques it was wonderful to apply it to a famous character.
D. J.: I saw Richard Williams when he did a Guardian lecture at the National Film Theatre last year. He said that although he did not do the very first Pink Panther titles he decided that if he made his titles good enough people would think he was the first. And I must admit that it does seem to have worked.
T. W.: He certainly improved the characters. In a way Dick wanted to out-Hollywood Hollywood, and quite rightly so because at that time his studio was easily the best around. What’s happened now is he has spawned lots of little studios. The whole standard of British animation has risen and it is totally due to him. We went through his studio, he raised our standards and then we set up our studios.
The frustrating thing about London is that we are all pushing forward but there is no support to create anything bigger than advertising or the odd pop promo. This studio is dedicated to one day doing feature films. Cathedral was a wonderful training ground. It didn’t have the budget that we would have liked, but boy, did we learn from it! We made mistakes but it came out pretty well. We didn’t have any control over the scripting or anything like that.
D. J.: The design of Cathedral is nearer to the Halas & Batchelor style than your commercials.
T. W.: Not really – but it had to be that semi-realistic style because it is an educational film. The film is a self-contained story within a live-action documentary. There are five sequences of animation sandwiched between live action footage shot on location in France. All together it is a one hour film. It was made for Unicorn Projects, P.B.S. television and the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington.
We know there are some weak spots in it but we hope to improve in our next production which is Pyramid. We have already done a Leica reel for it and we are just waiting for the final funding to come in before we go into full production. I’ve got to go to Washington soon, to determine the final structure of the film.
D. J.:Is this an educational film?
T. W.: It is the same as Cathedral. It is the third in the series. We weren’t involved in the first one but we upped the production value on Cathedral, and on Pyramid it is going to go up again. The budget isn’t significantly higher but we have learnt how to get better value out of it and we will use full animation as much as we can. As you saw from the clip on our show reel we put everything into Cathedral. We made very little money out of it, only a lot of ulcers and grey hairs, but it was worth it.
We needed to get that first experience of film-making under our belts and Pyramid is the next experience. By the time it is finished we will have honed our film production techniques, and we will know how to make a film properly without taking short cuts. So many animated films take short cuts and the whole animation industry has suffered.
If you look at the list of all-time box office hits in animated films the first sixteen or so are Disney films and the next is Fritz the Cat. Fritz is many millions of dollars below the sixteenth and the sixteenth is way, way below the first five. Disney proved time and time again that the only way to make successful films was to do high quality, commit themselves totally to the budget and to the artistic integrity of the subject and be business-like and disciplined in everything. That’s the route we want to take. Unfortunately financiers don’t want to know. They say: “No one else has done it like Disney so if you’re not Disney then we are not interested.” Or “Yes, we are interested but this is all the money we have got and you have got to make it in a year.”
I will not take a film on under those circumstances because you need two years at least. It is a patient build-up to make good films. Cathedral went down well in the States, P.B.S. were delighted with the audience figures. We hope that Pyramid is going to have more impact and if it attracts enough attention perhaps we can venture into newer areas.