Trace and paint with Maggy Clark

Maggy Clark tells Animator what paint and trace is all about. It is based on a taped interview conducted by David Jefferson.

I started at Halas and Batchelor, like a little factory girl sitting there painting the white bits on the cels and somebody else did the red bits or whatever, and moved into tracing which is the next step – and progressed. A lot of people stay in paint and trace, they are housewives, they are people who have no further ambition than to earn pin money. If you aspire to something better then it seems like painting by numbers but it is perfectly O.K. as a job.

Painting the cel

When you paint a cel the paint should be thinned so that it is very loose, a bit like single cream. That’s how I tell the painters I train that it should be, although when they start off they are horrified to see it like that, they can’t use it at all. Quite literally you just flood it on. You should do it over a light box really. It has to be opaque because it is being filmed. The paint practically drops off the brush and you push it to the edge of the work, you don’t actually paint it in the sense that you get a brush stroke through the paint. Large areas are a bit trickier. When you are doing large areas you should tape the cels down because the cels curl. There is a skill in getting used to the paint.

When I was handing out work to people and we got very busy I was giving work to people I didn’t know terribly well and you wouldn’t believe the state of the cels when they came back. Because they have to have a bit of confidence to put it on that wet, and sometimes you have to put colours next to each other because you have got to get it finished quickly and the drying time is limited then you can’t put it on quite as wet as that because it runs. Different circumstances demand different techniques. If you are overlapping colours always put the dark colours on first. There have been paints that you can’t do that with because they bleed into each other even though the first colour is dry. Sometimes if you put a wet colour on a dry colour it will lift it up and make it crack, and bleed into it and all sorts of things. Good paint shouldn’t do that.

Tracing the drawing

On the tracing side a lot of work has been done by Xerox but a lot of people are moving away from Xerox again because the registration is so difficult and also the animators have to make the drawings that much tighter and cleaner otherwise its going to Xerox. I still do a lot of tracing. That is more skilled, it is definitely a skilled job. We use all sorts of things for tracing, Chinagraphs, Rapidographs, pen and nibs. I’ve got a job in at the moment that’s got to be paint traced using a nib and the actual paint so that when it’s painted it’s got no outline.

I do a lot of medical stuff, diagram work and I use ruling pens, compasses, and technical drawing equipment but if you are doing cartoons there is a knack, you have to interpret the drawing on the paper. I’ve seen some awful tracing. A bad tracer can make the drawing lifeless and you are after all drawing from the paper onto the cel and that’s the thing that you are going to see on the screen. A bad tracer can ruin a good animation.

Chinagraph needs the most experience because Chinagraph’s awkward for people who are not used to it. Once you have got the knack it ceases to be. You learn things like keeping them in the fridge because it’s a wax, as soon as it starts to get warm it is a problem. You have ways of touching up the lines and things. Wooden kebab sticks are very useful in this business, you get them from the chinese supermarket in Gerrard Street. You can off paint with them and tease Chinagraph line down if it’s got a bit mucky. And also Staedtler rubbers in a pencil shaped holder are pretty good with Chinagraph lines. You have to match the lines from cel to cel otherwise it blimps when it is filmed. I did some work on The Snowman, some back painting and some rendering. Rendering is what goes on the front of the cel after it has been traced and painted. You have to follow that through from cel to cel. Normally the animator will indicate something on the drawings.

Breakfast Time TV titles

I did the credits and titles for Breakfast Time on BBC 1 TV. That was a huge job. It was Xerox but every practically painter in London was trapesing through this flat to get that stuff to take away and paint because the BBC don’t have an in-house painting studio. They don’t have a central animation studio. Each department handles its own job and obviously the News department doesn’t have a huge cel painting studio.

The rates have gone up in London so a lot of studios can’t afford the space for paint and trace, and also studios just starting up. Actually they get much better work from freelancers because people working at home work much better.

Printed in Animator Issue 12 (Spring 1985)