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Slow Motion Heroes: Demand Is Steady for Cel, Stop Motion, and Mixed Media Animators

Nowhere is the medium more the message than in the world of TV commercials,where choosing the right creative technique can often make or break acampaign. While CGI is the most obvious agent of change in TV commercials,some artists and creatives report an anti-CGI backlash.

In this view, the most creative work is still being done with traditionalmethods, or through mixed media. As director John Lindauer, who works outof Pavlov Productions, Culver City, explains, “Computers can now completelytake care of the reality stuff, and that means other techniques no longerhave to. As a result, those of use who do mixed media work have morefreedom.”

That’s not to say computers aren’t infiltrating such projects-they arefrequently used to touch up, composite, or manipulate the images. But thereremains a healthy job market for “traditional animation stylists,” in thewords of pencil animator Bill Plympton, a hero in the world of animationfestivals, who is repped for commercial work out of Acme Filmworks.Plympton is an unapologetic pen and paper animator, a gatekeeper for the”the old-fashioned way.”

“There is no question we’re getting more work than we’ve had in the past,”says Ron Diamond, founder and president of Acme, a company with a strongcel, pencil, and mixed media niche. “We always have five or six commercialsin production at any given time. There is plenty of demand for moretraditional techniques, and often, ad agencies will come looking for aparticular artist whose drawing style is unique or well known.”

Much of the commercial work such directors are doing these days isexperimental and sought by agencies specifically because it looks so”un-CGI-like,” and because, unlike most CGI spots, the director is oftenthe main artist. Some do use digital tools, but rarely to create images,only to manipulate them.

“In my case, I have an experimental film background, and that is true ofmany like me,” says director Chel White of Curious Pictures, San Francisco.”That helps us when we create commercials, because we are continuallyseeking new techniques, new visual approaches. Those trained as computeranimators tend not to experiment as much, and only within the computer’scapabilities.”

Here’s a look at how and why these three animators-White, Lindauer andPlympton-continue to ply their craft through traditional means.

Bill Plympton, Acme FilmworksPlympton is a color-pencil specialist and well known filmmaker who createsthree or four spots a year for Acme clients, some of whom request hisservices specifically after seeing one of his animated films. An OregonState Lottery commercial he created a few years ago, for example, wasconceptually taken directly from his short film One of Those Days, and thatwas hardly the first time.

“A lot of agencies want a warm, human look for the spot, and you can dothat better with pencil than computer,” he says. Indeed, agencyMcCann/Erickson, New York, on behalf of client AT&T, specifically requestedPlympton last year for a hand-drawn series of spots. Alternating betweenhis New York home and Acme’s Los Angeles headquarters, Plympton can do themajority of such work at his kitchen table or a small Acme light table,lugging around only his pencils and a pad of paper. He recently finishedtwo similar 15-second sponsor promos for 7-11 to air on PBS with the showWishbone, which he finished in less than a month.

“The client sends me their rough version of storyboards for the promos, andI then redo the boards in my style,” he explains. “Once that is approved,we create an animatic, which is simple because all we need to do is addsound to my simple versions of the drawings. We might make some changes atthat point to improve timing, and when the animatic is approved, we do arough pencil test, which is just the full animation without the color andas close to the finished sound as we can get; then, we’ll do a color model.Sometimes, a second pencil test will follow to show changes. If that’sO.K., we go ahead and do a finish.”

Acme will often shoot Plympton’s drawings and much of its cel work with itsOxberry camera onto 35mm film, although for some projects, including the7-11 pieces, they have lately taken to scanning the artwork into aMacintosh G3 computer with a large, flatbed Umax scanner. In such cases,the company now assembles the images in the Mac, using Adobe After Effects,does the editing finish on an Avid, and transfers the file via Exabyte orJaz drives to D-1. The piece can then be shipped to the client.

“We’ve taken to using the computer to finish work like Bill’s latelybecause, with light backgrounds, it can balance the images better, avoidinghot or dark spots that you get with film,” says Diamond. “Darker images,however, we still usually shoot with the camera and manipulate withtelecine.”

For more ambitious cel projects, such as the recent :30 “G-Police” Acmedirector Peter Chung created for Sony Playstation/Psygnosis, Acme createsthe animation exactly the way traditional cel-animated TV shows are made:Either hand-drawing and painting cels at Acme’s offices or overseas. In thecase of the “G-Police” spot, Chung traveled to Korea and supervised thedrawings, laid the commercial out and supervised the photography process,which was done conventionally at DR Movies in Seoul, Korea.

Chel White, Curious PicturesWhite is well known for the Xerography technique, which is essentially theart of using photocopied images collage-style on film. But he is adept atmost mixed media forms, including cutout work and stop motion, and has alsocreated commercials using image projections, including a 1995 Coors beer adfor which he talked the agency into letting him film real, giantprojections of stick figures on real buildings, rather than creating a CGI,composite shot, as originally conceived.

“Except for some color correction at the end, almost that entire commercialwas done in camera,” he says. “It worked better than CGI because you gotall the nuance that you would have to spend days trying to create in acomputer, or doing without. I’ve done several things that appear to have alot of compositing going on but are, in fact, done completely in camera.”There are so few commercial artists adept at these forms, he says, thatlately, “I usually find myself bidding for jobs against the same two orthree guys.”

White recently created three 30-second commercials for U.S. Postal Servicepriority mail, two of which included mixed media work. One involvedprojecting stock footage of familiar New York and L.A. landmarks onscratched film (“I actually ran the film over in my car to make it lookworn out,” he says) onto actual Federal Express, UPS and Post Office boxesstacked and shaped to vaguely resemble the city skylines. The piece didinclude some Quantel Henry composite work to make trucks from the threeservices drive through the scene, but the key to the commercial’seffectiveness is the jumpy, old film projected onto the “box landscape.”

A second version was done almost completely with paper, except for acomputer-added shadow and puff of dust, showing those same landmarks on amoving map of the U.S. “We just made a big map and laid it out on acylinder that was about six feet in diameter, and rotated it toward thecamera to give the impression viewers were traveling across the landscape,”he explains. “The idea was to create the look of an old ’50s postcard, andthis method did that better than a computer could.”

After doing previous commercials for Ortho bug spray using paper and photocutouts that were then composited digitally, White did another one lastyear, called “Lock and Load,” that was done almost all in camera, usingtabletop setups of various photographs, shot with a long lens to give thema feeling of depth and dimension. “We’d wiggle the picture every thirdframe or so to make it seem loose, as though it was moving around,” hesays. “Of all the Ortho spots I did, I like that one the best. It lookedmore organic.”

John Lindauer, Pavlov Productions

As a child, Lindauer caught the mixed media bug watching simple, cutoutanimation done by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. He’s done stop motion, celand pin screen animation, among other things, in recent years. He also paidhomage to Gilliam with a 1996 anti-drug PSA using cutouts that exactlymimicked the Python animation, although he admits, unlike Gilliam, tomanipulating them in a Macintosh 85100-180 computer: “The first time I everused a computer myself for animation, rather than directing someone else todo it.” But before scanning them into the Mac, he took photographs of “junklying around my house and family photographs” and cut them by hand.

Although he was “uninterested” in using computers early in his career,Lindauer now says they “can play a role in mixed media,” but suggests thatrole should be in manipulating images crafted by hand.

A recent example is a 20-second promo called “Night Fishing,” in which aliving fish hook creature dives off a bridge to catch a fish for a new MTVanimation network called Loco-Motion. That piece combined cutout photomanipulation with computer composition to create what Lindauer calls”simulated stop motion.”

“That piece is a real pastiche in terms of technique,” he says. “There is alittle metal guy in it that I animated the way one would do stop-motion,but instead of shooting it onto film, we shot onto a series of photographsI had taken: The background is the inside of my house, and there is also aphoto of a beautiful sky. What we used the computer for was to layer theelements together and use tools found in After Effects to create an imagethat looks like real stop motion. Combining techniques allowed me to usetextures that are only found in nature or hand-made, and yet, also have theability to control the environment I was placing them in.”

Lindauer points out that the technique also allowed him to avoid the costof renting a motion-control camera, large crew, and telecine withoutsacrificing the organic, stop-motion look the piece required.

Lindauer is also one of a handful of artists to utilize pin screentechniques, and in fact, has a 600-pound pin screen apparatus at home that”a friend and I built a few years ago, made out of industrial steel, with186,000 pins in it.” Such animation, which he last used in 1996 for anaward-winning cable commercial for AICPA, is “basically stop motion,” hesays. “It’s just like moving clay, except you push pins instead.”