DJ: What about transferring for the American market as their television runs at sixty-fields-per second whilst in Britain it is fifty?
NL: The system used is called standards conversion. Every fourth field is seen twice for NTSC.
DJ: When American programmes are transferred for British television you often see strobing on fast movements.
NL: That happens when programmes produced on film at 25 frames-per-second, or Secam/Pal video which is 25 frames-per-second, are standards-converted to NTSC for the American market and then standards-converted back. Until recently there was no way for the standards converter to know which of the fields were duplicated so it is probably taking out frames that should be left in and leaving in the frames that were duplicated when it was originally converted, so it can be quite disturbing.
DJ: When you direct a production how much involvement do you have with making animation drawings?
NL: I regard myself primarily as an animator. I try to avoid doing anything else if I can. I would say I am sat at my desk as an animator 40 weeks of the year. There are three partners, I have a producer, who handles most of the marketing and client liaison. A financial director who looks after all the accounts and invoices, and when she is not busy with that she paints cels. I help with the marketing but am mostly involved with directing and animating, so as a trio it works quite well. There are four animators in the company and all of them direct a bit. I direct just over half the output, one directs about a third and the other two share the remainder.
DJ: When you animate do you do complete scenes or do you do key drawings and get an assistant to inbetween them?
NL: It depends on the scene. I never do all the drawings and I very rarely do cleaned-up drawings. I almost always do roughs and I maybe do just under half of them. But they don’t necessarily all need one inbetween between them. It depends on the action. If the action is fast then you would have to do virtually every one. If the action is slow you may have four inbetweens. The amount of change in position determines how many intermediate drawings you leave for someone else to do. These days I almost always act out the movements on video, then the action becomes more plausible. If you have a live-action guide all the timing considerations are sorted out.
DJ: It is a bit like rotoscoping then?
NL: We never rotoscope it. We use a video printer to dump-out every fourth frame, say, as a video print. At Disney they have been using a similar technique for years. They would pre-shoot scenes on film with actors when it was appropriate. Some things were so different from live-action that it just wasn’t appropriate. They would put the film in a rostrum camera, project it down onto a flat bed and make photographic prints of every frame, or every second frame. They would peg-up those photographic prints so they were all in register. The animator could flick through them in the same way he would flick through his drawings to see how they relate to each other. Once he had totally understood the movement involved in that particular action he would then put it to one side and start drawing it, embellishing the action and exaggerating the action to make it suit the animation medium more where appropriate. These days it is reasonable to do that even within the time constraints of commercials because you can shoot yourself on video, which is instant, and then make prints. Our little Sony video printer never stops. So you’ve got all the timing problems sorted out. Then you’ve only got the problem of how you embellish that action and make it bigger and more dramatic. It seems a vanity to have a series of photographs of myself by the side of my desk while I’m busy drawing but it provides a tremendous reference to work from. The resulting animation always looks completely different but it gives a plausibility to the action which I personally find very difficult to achieve any other way.
DJ: Did you use a video reference on Round the Bend?
NL: No we did not use anything on that because the actions were not suitable. It is mostly used where we have a separate drawing for every frame. It depends what you are trying to achieve. Someone like Oscar Grillo seems to have such a natural sense of timing I can’t see that he’d benefit from live action reference, his animation is just so lovely. Someone like Tex Avery would not benefit from live action reference either. You have to decide on the best approach for each particular problem. We made a five-minute cartoon for Shell lust over a year ago where we used video reference throughout. It was a training film for forecourt staff. We made 200 copies for petrol stations to use. We are making another one for them so it was obviously a success. The audience of training films will often be reluctant viewers so the film needs to grab their interest. A cartoon scores there because it is different from the usual approach. A cartoon character can really take the Mickey out of doing things wrong. You can exaggerate and yet at the same time make a point. In a sense our film was terribly patronising, if the same thing had been done in live action I think it would have had the opposite effect because it would antagonize people. Cartoon is burlesque and can get the message across.
Printed in Animator Issue 25 (Summer 1989)