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Paperless animation's magic

My dog Tulip

Asaf Agranat: My mind gets bogged when I try to think of creating a feature length animation. the reason, in large, is the overwhelming scope of production - staff, time, budget etc. But, come to think of it, it does not necessarily have to be so. Your film is a shiny example of how it is possible to create a big-screen-worthy, over 80 minutes long film, employing no more than 2 personnel for most of the production period, and all this in under 3 years. I believe this would not have been possible in pre-paperless days. What exactly in TVPaint Animation allowed you and Sandra to work so quickly? What was your workflow?

Paul Fierlinger: First, it is necessary to take into account our accumulation of a decade-and-a-half of production of long-form films. Sandra and I have been making 30 minute to one hour films since 1992. It takes us about a year to make a 30 minute TV special – but this was so even before we switched to computer technology. There is no mystery in how we get so much footage covered in a year; we work long hours.

I draw between 12 and 16 hours a day. This amounts to two shifts a day. Shouldn’t any experienced animator be able to draw a 15 minute short in a year – or thirty TV spots, which comes to something between 15 and 20 seconds of film a week, or 3 seconds a day; working 7 days a week? Now double that output and you are animating about 5 seconds a day, or half an hour of film a year. At that rate you have a feature film done in less than 3 years. Of course, I have to draw a couple more seconds a day because it takes time to write, record and edit a film too.

Where TVPaint’s paperless technology comes into play is in the expedited productivity and quality of work. Our first TV feature, a 60 minute autobiographical film, called Drawn from Memory was made mostly by the two of us in 2 years and on 16 mm film. But the resulting animation was rough by our current standards. I animated in threes and even fours at times, and the characters I drew were mostly your typical, simplified magazine type caricatures. This is because I had to spend long hours shooting on the Oxberry stand and making physical cuts while editing on a flatbed machine. We eventually had to get someone to run the Oxberry so that I could concentrate more on animating. You animate better if you know someone else will have to shoot those complicated camera moves you hand out so generously throughout the film.

In computer technology the shooting part has been eliminated, the physical splicing of clips has been eliminated as has the threading and running of a movie projector and the driving of film cans back and forth from the lab.

My Dog Tulip, the theatrical feature we just completed, features mainly two characters; an elderly man and a German Shepherd bitch. There is hardly a scene in the film without a dog or two or even half a dozen of them. The dog, as all cartoonists will acknowledge, is the hardest creature to get right. I had to learn how to draw and act Tulip on the go and if I had to do this with pencil on paper in full animation in twos, I’d still be working on that film for at least another year or more. Paperless technology cuts away the accumulation of physical tasks associated with the handling of paper down to zero.

That’s a lot of saved time! When you think of all the tasks associated with the handling of paper, when you have to unwrap a bundle, punch holes into every single sheet, which you pick up first on your right and lay down on your left, carry the bundle over to your desk, pick each sheet up on your left and after drawing, erasing, flipping cussing and throwing a few sheets into a wastebasket you lay the good ones down on your right. All along you have to carefully number each sheet and record the numbers into your exposure sheet. There’s a lot of erasing and cussing involved in this task too.

You have to gather the finished drawings, carry them over to your copy machine and cuss and sigh as you slowly feed each sheet through the machine which is connected to your computer. This involves the lifting and laying down of the cover – twice per sheet no less – and after you’re done with that, you still have to empty the wastebasket, wipe the eraser crumbs off your desk and pat attention to this: you haven’t seen a single second of your work run before your eyes, connected to your brain, in real time! I mention the brain because you have learned very little from all that work.

This unproductive handling of paper surely takes up more time per drawing than it takes to put a drawing on that sheet of paper. Without the benefit of instant replay and the real time scrubbing that paperless work affords you, your acting and drawing skills improve very, very slowly. When I look back at my old films I see only small improvements from one to another but when I compare each paperlessly drawn film from one to the next I can see huge leaps of improvements. And that’s the answer to your question how to get money for a feature film – you get it only after you make a few good films. It took me fifty years before anyone would trust me with decent funds for a theatrical feature. You younger people have all this paperless technology available to you and so many of you are wasting precious years of your short lives by still drawing on paper. I don’t get it.

Asaf Agranat: This last point of yours, about improving your skills considerably between each paperlessly drawn film, is a very good point in fact. I often overlook this point, and instead I observe how my drawings are so different from one film to another (only external viewers actually find the common style that underlines my drawings), thinking that I lack consistency - probably due to having too long waiting times between each film. But I should, in fact, look at the change of drawing technique as improvement, resulting, probably, from my constant (almost absolute) use of TVPaint Animation.
Another positive result that I experienced after using TVPaint Animation heavily, was that my drawing technique on real paper (i.e sketching, life drawing etc) became very pragmatic: I started drawing faster, as if to only mark down references to what should be drawn. I quite like this change, as it changed drawing into a tool to punctuating ideas, rather than for accomplishing full drawings. I later use those references when I am creating ideas for films.

Did drawing much in TVPaint Animation affected the way you create or draw outside the computer?

My dog Tulip

Paul Fierlinger: This may sound like an affect, but truthfully, now that I draw only in TVPaint Animation I have lost a lot of dexterity when drawing on paper. Once in awhile I have to sketch something for someone when I am not at my computer and it feels awkward, like drawing with frozen hands in the winter.
About changing styles; I sometimes wish I could change my style more. Now that I have finished Tulip and am in pre-production of our next feature, I made a determined decision to simplify my style, to make it easier (faster) to produce so that I could employ an assistant, but for some odd reason I can’t manage to get there. The film is again about one old guy who this time has a boat instead of a dog and I am so tied into emulating realistic body language with these scribbled-like lines that I can’t get out of the rut. It makes me wonder whether one can’t force this progress of changing styles in an artificial way and just has to go with the flow.

There are animators who’s specialty is to do just what I find so difficult, which is adopt another artist’s style at the beginning of every commission and faithfully adhere to it. Raymond G. is one of those and he had to remind me that it is not so easy for him to decide to work only paperlessly since he has to adhere to a whole variety of wildly differing styles, and I can imagine, often rendered with all sorts of contradictory utensils.

But there is one thing I feel strongly about and that is that drawing with the Wacom tablet through TVPaint Animation is a new utensil all by itself and deserves the same kind of respect that a pencil does, even though you can’t paint with a pencil. So I don’t want TVPaint Animation to be my pencil, I am curious to see what line comes out of the paperless usage of TVPaint Animation which should bring a new style out of me and just maybe, perhaps right now, it’s the style I was using for drawing Tulip and can’t get away from—I’ll just let it hold control over me for another film and see what else might happen in the ongoing process.

My dog Tulip

Asaf Agranat: I agree - a drawing tablet (in tablet PC digitizer form too) is a utensil all of it's own, equivalent, in terms of merit, to pencils and brushes. Of course it can do many tools simulations in a single stick, which is an apparent advantage. But it has a lot of limitations too, like any old-school tool has, and this demerits it and prevents from becoming an ultimate-super-tool.

For me, the digital painting tools are the silver lining of the computers world. I've been using PCs since 86', and have always had some kind of passion for them. This passion constantly evolved within the small-world that the computer consists, beginning from games, then into building my own machines, then graphic apps. Then, after my military service I worked in an Internet provider company as a network help-desk, and as I was surrounded by so much computers and computer derived life-style, this passion for computers was blown out of the water (luckily I had a year in Africa right after!). As a result, I now use computers as a mean to an end, instead of as an end in itself, which, I believe, is the better way to approach computers.

Still, when I started animating I was constantly seeking for the easiest and quickest way for me to achieve results. I was trying different techniques involving real media and combination of programs, but the outcome was never IT, because the process often became the subject - it left a difficult room for creativity. So when I found TVPaint Animation it was quite a revolution for me, because it was the first time I encountered a computer environment that opened up the potential of creativity in the way that I desired, and not in the way that the software dictates. Within a single interface I could finally concentrate on the idea, rather than on how to achieve it. In a way, with TVPaint Animation there is no "thinking outside of the box" because there is no box. This software actually has little to offer if you remove the user out of the equation, because this is a pure tool - like a painter's brush is. I even think that if I had to take only one software to a deserted island, TVPaint Animation would be it, because it is an extension of my abilities. Or in other words - it does what I want, and then some.

What's your history with TVPaint Animation?

Paul Fierlinger: My history with TVPaint Animation goes back to the days before computers were of any use to our profession. I had madness within to break away from acetate sheets, and if I couldn’t get away from plastic sheets to ink my drawings on, I had to figure a way to at least print, not hand ink, my drawings. I went from those black Agfa sheets designed for overhead projectors, from which the black surface had to be washed away with water to leave only photosynthesized lines behind, to a $ 13,000 photo copier designed specifically for the printing of acetate sheets, over a period of about 10 years, at which point I was told about the Amiga computer and D-Paint and I saw the dawn of paperless animation was upon us.

I experimented with several emerging animation applications such as AXA and Crater, both in the $ 4,000 range but they still required drawings on paper. I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t be able to draw directly on the screen like the late D-Paint would let me do, which had by now departed from the world with the bankruptcy of the Amiga computer.

One day I was told that there’s software very much like D-Paint now working on the PC platform, which was called Aura, and I bought it without testing anything. It had just one layer and a light table like feature that gave you % 50 transparency – way too strong for meaningful inbetweening, but a tweakable pencil gadget with which I just might be able to draw some upcoming Sesame Street spots (I had earlier already made several professional TV spots with D-Paint). I contacted Aura’s developers and asked if the strength of the light table could be brought down to just 15 % transparency, that if they could do that for me, I could use Aura professionally, which led to Sebastien’s invitation to have me become a TVPaint beta tester.

Asaf Agranat: If I compare that 50% to 15% transparency request to the requests that you issue today, I can tell that TVPaint Animation have come a long way :)
(It's almost shameful to think that as a beta tester today I cry about things like the thickness of the border shadow of panel buttons!)

I think I share a similar 'madness-within', to find the ultimate digital way to animating (and drawing). I must admit that my reasons are largely financial. I think it started when I was in high-school, and I used to buy brushes and oil paint, but always avoided using them properly of fear of making mistakes and therefore wasting precious quality paint. And even when this fear was not really reflecting a poor financial state, it was ingrained in me. So the freedom came in the form of digital painting (as well as a whole new load of problems stemming in the fact that now I had too many options at my disposal). Now I'm not only free to make mistakes ('erase' drawing mode = god of earth), but learned that controlling the mistakes in my own way is almost what defines my style.

Moreover, I think paperless animation affords fantastic ground for experimental work. TVPaint Animation is perfect for experimental approach, as it allows for a lot of hands-on creation and per-frame treatment with immediate results. The ideas that come to my mind regarding experimenting in TVPaint Animation really get me excited. Do you attempt sometimes at experimental animation? did you in the past (even in pre-digital time)? Is there experimental work that you love or that inspire you?

My dog Tulip

Paul Fierlinger: I never got into experimental filmmaking. For many years I used to attend at least 1 or 2 international festivals every year and the experimental material bored me to distraction. Particularly now, since digital technology offers anyone interested, even on a low budget, too many easy special effects which in the past might have been breath-taking but now are just a big yawn.

I feel the same way about music; jazz or classical – the point is the expertise of the players and the moods their playing can evoke. You know when you are listening to someone who has practiced for years and can play with exceptional mastery of techniques. When watching animated films I have the same expectations. I want to enjoy mastery of drawing talent combined with exceptionally unique ideas; I’m not interested in watching someone’s mastery of many software applications.

Go to the part 1 : About "My dog Tulip"

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