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About "My dog Tulip"

My dog Tulip

Asaf Agranat: Paul, I went into the Tulip film website and the first thing that I encountered was the song that the choir is singing, and I just had to laugh. I thought it is great idea to use angelic choir singing about dog behavior with the simplest, most straight forward words. It made me remember what I usually feela about your work: It is good natured in it's core, even naive, but peppered with moments that pronounce that this cannot be the work of a naive artist, nor it is trying to be naive. On the contrary, only an experienced artist will be careful to present sophistication through simplicity. This constant weight shifting between real (even serious) moments and absurd moments extend the notion that all your work is drawn-from-life (your life, even when you tell the story of someone else), and that all absurdities and contrasts are already there. I feel that this is the heart of your films. Is this how you feel about your work too?

Paul Fierlinger: I would never venture into a film whose topic I had no personal connection to. I couldn’t possibly make anything useful out of a subject I knew little about in a personal way. There’s a scene in Tulip in which Ackerley walks over to his bar to have a drink while Tulip is having puppies. Only much later did I notice that I drew Ackerley reaching for the bottle the way I have to in real life with my bad shoulder and I was not aware of animating Ackerley like that at the time.

Sometimes this makes acting my characters difficult for me, for instance when I have to animate women. Having never been one, I step into the task gingerly and have to keep asking Sandra if she thinks it’s alright, what I’m doing.

Asaf Agranat: According to this, maybe the more awkwardness and disabilities one have, the more one's animated characters will have particular personality :) (Sometimes I think that this is what makes, say, Robert Wyatt's (who's in wheelchair) music, so different from everything else).

Since 'Tulip' is a feature film, it demanded big dedication and much effort over a long period (I wouldn't believe you if you say it didn't). When I come to a point of choosing what to make my film about, I feel that everything can have tremendous importance (because it's my creation), and this kinds of stresses me. Do you get like this? What made you decide to make a film about a relationship between a dog and her owner?

My dog Tulip

Paul Fierlinger: You’ll have to take my word for it then; Tulip wasn’t any more demanding for me to work on than any other job. On the contrary, it was less stressful than anything I have ever undertaken in my 50 years of being an independent animator.

"My Dog Tulip" is made of 116,640 frames. I draw every second frame (or shoot each drawing twice) which makes 12 original frames for each second of projection time therefore 12 x 60 = 720 drawings per minute x 81 minutes = 58, 320 drawings.

Now to be realistic, some frames are hold frames, where there is no motion, a few frames get recycled in so called cycled animation, which I use very little of. On the other hand, many frames are made of several drawings. Wherever more than one character appears in a scene, each one is drawn on its individual layer and counts as an individual drawing. Lastly, one should count all the drawings that went into roughing out each scene, the discarded drawings that went out with scenes finished but never used in the film, and the many occasions when I almost completed the animation of quite a few scenes, only to discard these and start afresh.

I have never bothered counting the hold frames and the compounded amount of individual drawings and the discarded frames but it seems safe to guess that Sandra and I drew and painted about 60,000 drawings that went into the final picture. The film is made of about 460 scenes and some scenes use more than one background so it is safe to say that Sandra had to create about 600 individual background paintings.

I divided the story into 14 parts for manageability, by which I mean mostly computer file management. But mentally I got right into that scheme too – I had roughly 36 months to draw 14 five to six minute films. That’s pure joy! Who wouldn’t want to be told, “You have 2 and a half years to make 14 really short shorts – are you scared?” Imagine that: two and a half years of worry free work, making your own films with no supervision, all at home and receiving a handsome check every month with the regularity and dependability of an office drone.
It took us 2 ½ years to draw and paint Tulip but 3 years to complete the entire project from the first preproduction day to last post-production day. No paper was used in the production of this film and no dogs were harmed. We never left our country or home with the exception of about 4 recording day trips to New York City (ah! And one visit to a film festival in Amsterdam). We work 7 days a week including holydays and I draw 12 to 16 hrs every day, Sandra paints 6 to 12 hrs.

This means that I drew about 75 drawings a day, which comes to about 30 drawings in a normal 8 hour shift or about 3 or 4 drawings an hour, which is a perfectly relaxed pace.
This is my normal pace of work. I make many shorts every year and each one has a rough start because you have to meet new people to get along with, discuss schedules, budgets, rules, target audiences and the list goes on… Working on a feature means to go through that somewhat anxious beginning just once, after which everything else is just pleasant cruising; Whistle While you Work, don't be a jerk when there's too much to do.

Sandra and I had just finished making a couple of PBS 30 minute TV specials, mostly about dogs and human relationships (Still Life with Animated Dogs, and A Room Nearby). When Norman Twain and Howard Kaminsky called out of the blue (O.K., not blue, but New York) asking if we were interested in making a feature film for them about anything I wanted as long as it will be based on a famous book, my first choice was Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Around the World Alone, a story I had wanted to make for several years and had well thought out.

They shot that one down very quickly because they didn’t think it targeted a broad enough audience, which gave me the thought that I already know what’s a broad subject: Dogs! We receive letters almost daily to this day from viewers of our dog films. So I searched my mind for a famous dog book and My Dog Tulip, by the British author J.R. Ackerley sat right on the top shelf. Howard, a former president of 25 years of Random House Books, was familiar with the book, knew it was a controversial one when it first came out in the early sixties, and so we went into production within a few weeks.

My dog Tulip

Asaf Agranat: So despite the fact that you went and looked for a new source for a story (as in oppose to Slocum's, which was in your heart for some years), you still managed to adapt it to your film, and quickly created a work plan for it. If I try to imagine myself in that situation, i'd probably leave most of the film's ground work to slowly reveal itself intuitively during production. Ideas seem to mature rather slowly in my head. Do you find it is a problem for you, or do you actually develop all the ideas for a film in the initial stage? Is Sandra participating in the idea stage? What's the process that you go through when adapting from a novel?

Paul Fierlinger: Tulip was always in the back of my mind as potential film material too, just not as prominently as the Slocum (sailing) story was at the moment of the phone call. I read a lot of books and even more short stories and whenever I’m reading I’m following the story with an animators/illustrator’s mindset. When I tire of reading and put a book on my chest and close my eyes, I begin to see the story as drawings. First, I wonder what the foremost challenges would be, so with Tulip it would be dogs. They are the hardest creatures to get right, I could never get them the way I’d have liked to, so I think; let’s make a dog film so that I can learn how to draw dogs better.

A sailing film means lots of water and lines (ropes and boards and spars) running in perspective; huge challenges… I should be able to learn how to do that… one day I’d like to make a sailing film and I drift into sleep. I develop the attitudes of characters and the type of film in the initial stages. I also sense an audience in the initial stages so I come out of a haze while walking in the woods or doing something around the water, which is not a storyline or a concrete project yet – just an attitude I pick up and contemplate upon.
Once I know that a certain idea will become a real film because I have someone like a producer interested in it, my thoughts start to organize themselves in an order of complexity. I like to think of what would be the most difficult part of the story, which leads to solutions. In other words, I excite myself and get everything inside all worked up over solving the most difficult problems first. As you surely know from your own work, the making of animated films is all a continuous run of problem solving.

If it’s a novel which I am adapting, I read the novel again and again while making copious notes on small scraps of paper. I don’t know if I ever pick those notes up properly again, but putting ideas on paper, just the motion of doing so is like the trick of memorizing people’s names; you write the name down several times as soon as you hear it and you will probably remember it when you need it.
I don’t draw storyboards anymore and I start my films with scene one and go from there. There’s an attitude I want this film to have and I dress the character into that attitude and forward he goes… everything starts to fit in place like the first easy pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But I always get stuck at some point. I paint myself into a corner, because I never look too far ahead. That’s when I call Sandra to the rescue. « Look what’s happened », I tell her and she has to help me out of the corner, which she usually does because she approaches the problem with a clean slate.

Go to the part 2 : Parperless animation's magic

Go to the part 3 : The last word, but not the least