Tahsin Özgür's is one of the most famous Turkish animators out there. His career has been full of hard work, travels and visits to many legendary animation studios, such as: Disney Paris, Don Bluth Animation Studios, Nelvana, and Richard Williams. Tahsin created and worked on timeless animation projects and on memorable characters.
Tahsin is a professional and veteran animator who started his career at Nelvana studios as an in-betweener on the ambitious feature project Rock & Rule many years ago, and has worked on several animated feature films such as Hercules, Tarzan, All Dogs Go to Heaven and more.
Tahsin has worked with famous animators, directors and supervisors throughout his active animation career, artists such as Glen Keane, Richard Williams, Bill Speers, Ellen Woodbury, Ken Duncan and many more.
Tahsin is now retired from animating on features and is mainly active on his private animation projects. As a retired animator, Tahsin enjoys the freedom to create art in his own unique style and fashion.
Thank you very much, Tahsin Özgür, for this interview! We would like to start with you by telling us about yourself. Where are you from?
How flattering that you should show interest in me. I am Turkish; born in Istanbul in 1956, just in time to ride the wave of the revival of classical animation and experience it’s retreat before CG.
What do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?
I enjoy travel. My father was an air force officer, and military families are shifted from post to post, so changing locales was the normality of my childhood. Growing up, I discovered it had become something I wanted. As it turned out, such a predisposition was exactly suited for a career in animation, especially if one is not employed long-term in an established studio.
I also have a special interest in railways; something I have in common with more than one animator, and own a fine collection of models, though still lack the space for a layout. Now, being retired and also childless, my wife and myself travel quite frequently for pleasure.
How do you summarize the growing up part and how does it involve animation?
As we moved around, there were times I had lots of friends, and other times when I had almost none, so that I have learned to be a loner as well as reasonably social.
Travel exposed me to the world, models helped me reproduce things I had seen and liked elsewhere, and drawing allowed me to create new fantasies based upon all that I had seen. I even had an imaginary country, which I inhabited in play. Things I had seen or read about would have their reflections in that country, which I would draw. I would draw its cities, its people, and the battles of its armies.
Being imaginary, I wouldn't have to worry about accuracy. You can see the ingredients that are conducive to the development of an animator’s mind-set.
I met animation when my father was posted in Washington DC on a NATO post; I was three years old when we went there and five when we left, and naturally I was glued to the TV set, watching cartoons. Television did not come to Turkey until much later.
Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?
My mother says I was three years old when I first started to draw. I guess most kids play with pencils and crayons when they are that young but I simply kept going. It was the perfect vehicle to create worlds for myself. I was influenced by comic books a lot.
I still have a drawing of a cowboy at sunset, with receding perspective, which I drew from imagination when I was eight.
After we returned to Turkey my mother kept me supplied with comic books, mostly American, so that I wouldn’t forget my English. The unexpected extra benefit was the catalogue of visual idioms they provided.
101 Dalmatians came out just before we moved back from the US, and I believe it was the first Disney feature I had seen in the cinema, or perhaps any cartoon feature, or maybe any feature film at all. It is still one of my absolute favorites.
Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?
Through a series of fortuitous circumstances and twists and turns of events, many of which did not seem positive at the time, I managed to get a proper training in animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, near Toronto, Canada.
The college offered a three-year International Summer School program, which I attended from 1980 to 1982.
When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?
As soon as I found I had developed my drawing skills to a point where I could draw the same figure repeatedly, I began to hope I could make my drawings move. That point came at art school, at the University of Ottawa, Canada. My first experiment must have been in 1976.
Did you have a natural talent? Have you always had the skill to draw and animate?
Not to sound too vain about it, I would say I had a natural inclination, which helped me catch on quickly.
What was the first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?
The very first time I ever earned my living was at Nelvana Ltd., Toronto, as an in-betweener on their ambitious project Rock & Rule. That was in 1981-1982, between two terms of the Sheridan College program.
I was in the team of Gian Celestri, so I worked mainly on the Mylar and Cindy characters. I did bit pieces on others as well.
You worked for some time at Walt Disney Animation Studios: what were you working on? Which characters, at which movies?
I worked at Walt Disney Feature Animation France in Paris (Montreuil) from June 1996 until Christmas 1998. I was an animator in Ellen Woodbury’s team on the Pegasus character in Hercules.
Ms. Woodbury was in the LA studio and directing me from over there; that was the general procedure for that film, with the exception of Dominique Monfery who was a supervising animator based in Paris. Then a great miracle happened and Glen Keane came to Paris to study sculpture, and the studio offered him the possibility of working as a supervisor from there.
It was a miracle on par with the circumstances that had taken me to Sheridan College years before. I became an animator on his team, working on the title character of Tarzan.
Why did you decide to leave Walt Disney Animation Studios and move to different studios?
I will always regret that decision; it’s the one thing in life I would have done differently.
As we neared the end of the production of Tarzan, there was uncertainty about the future of the Paris studio. There were no new projects assigned to it, and Messrs Schneider and Schumacher came over to make a talk that seemed designed to take the wind out of everybody’s sails - a far cry from the upbeat gathering with the three-studio satellite hookup at the Chateau de Vincennes at the end of Hercules.
I had aging parents back home, with their only other offspring away in Miami and not coming back, so I thought it was time to quit while I was ahead. My father was 78 years old at the time, and my mother 73.
I did not quit Disney to go to another studio. Upon returning home, we set up a small company with my wife. As it turned out, my father lived to be 93 plus, and my mother is still alive at 91, so I needn't have rushed.
I returned to studio life internationally on and off, but nothing was quite so exciting, inspiring and challenging as being an animator at the Disney studio while living in Paris, the city of art.
Tell us a little bit about the time you spent at Don Bluth Animation Studios; how did you end up animating for them? What steps did you take to get there?
I was in my final term at Sheridan College when I saw The Secret of NIMH, and was thrilled by its smart styling and energy. That was the summer of 1982! I really wanted to be a part of a team that did that kind of work, so wrote to them forthwith.
Since I was not a US citizen, I couldn't have hoped to be hired by a US company unless I was an exceptional talent; no one would bother with the red tape of a work permit for someone who was still a student. They wrote a polite refusal.
I returned to Turkey and started working at an advertising agency (Manajans), making animated commercials but also other illustration work, but kept writing to the Bluth studio. They always wrote back; they even sent me a poster of An American Tail, signed by Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman themselves. Then they moved to Ireland as Sullivan Bluth Studios, a move that presupposed employing international talent. Being freed of the watchful eye of the US unions was part of the story. When I went to the Annecy Animation Festival in June of ’87, I saw Bluth animators from Dublin with their American Tail crew jackets. Naturally, I chatted with them, asked them what it was like. One of them, his name was Conrad Winterlich, agreed to take my demo cassette to Gary Goldman.
When the festival was over, I checked my remaining funds. I had saved a few days for a short holiday in Switzerland, a country I especially like. I inquired about tickets to Dublin and saw it was possible to fly there, spend a day, and be back with time to spare for my flight home.
Ireland had not imposed visa restrictions on Turkish citizens yet so it was a matter of buying the ticket and boarding the plane! I stayed in a B&B and the next day showed up at the studio. Mr. Goldman received me.
Having seen my demo and already familiar with my letters he made me an offer. Modest wages, to be sure, but I would be an animator. I flew home, victorious but also anxious. I still had to wait for my Irish work permit to come through so I arrived in Dublin in September 1987, too late to animate on The Land Before Time.
I was put on in-between/cleanup, and could not reach the required footage for screen credit for that film. I started as an animator on All Dogs Go to Heaven, under the rigorous supervision of Ken Duncan.
What part of animation do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?
I enjoy the actual process of animating; of the way my mind works while I am building a performance. I also enjoy how fresh the world looks after I have come out of an intense, concentrated session of several hours.
When I came out after a day’s work in a studio, it felt like I was seeing the city for the first time in weeks, and even the most everyday object or movement looked interesting and new; almost like a child’s vision.
Of course, I enjoy the buzz of seeing the drawings come alive on screen. When watching animated films, a lot of my enjoyment comes from recognizing the thought processes and appreciating the choices and interpretations of the animators. Naturally, rotoscoping and mo-cap leave me cold.
Did animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Did you guys hang out after work?
Yes they did, and commented on each other’s work. While this could be useful, it could also be detrimental if you tried to take on board too many ideas. After all, you are also under pressure to deliver footage.
I found my best bet was to put my supervisor’s word before everybody else’s; after all, there is still the director after that. But while I did not often ask for the opinions of my colleagues, I did observe and study what they did, and how they managed to make their scenes so good as they did.
Being only selectively social, I did not typically hang out with the studio people after work; certainly much less after I got married. I always had some good friends that I saw regularly after work, with whom I am still in contact, and who are now family friends whom we have entertained at home, with my wife’s superb cooking. Giorgio Mardegan in Dublin, Nancy Beiman in Berlin, my compatriot Şahin Ersöz in Berlin and London, Oliver Acker in Paris, Luca Fattore in Copenhagen have remained the closest. My wife, Lale, did inbetween/cleanup as a part of the team at Hahn Film, Berlin, and as such was directly befriended with the studio crew.
And here in the home country animators Erhan Gezen, Başar Muluk, Murat Çelik, Rıdvan Çevik and their families constitute practically all of our closer circle of friends. They consider me their teacher and we consider their kids our grandchildren.
What’s your animation workflow look like while animating? What did you learn along those years?
Though I love the whole process I am shamefully impatient with any phase other than the actual animation. I learned to work steadily, make every minute of the working day count, and then stop at quitting time for rest and diversion.
I learned the necessity of avoiding going off into tangents, though how well I heed that lesson is debatable. I have learned I must not fall in love with my drawings, that I should be ready to sacrifice the best poses if that will make my scene work better.
I have learned to be ready to redo everything from scratch. Though I dislike making storyboards, preferring to jump straight into animation, I have learned how necessary it is to take the time to do them.
In studio situations I have learned one shouldn't try to upstage other animators’ work, that scenes and sequences have to work as a whole and that the audience can follow only one area of the screen at a time.
I have learned that, with the images running at 24 fps (25 on TV) it is a challenge to make everything read clearly, and yet not be pedantic and dull. I have learned that in animation, freedom comes through discipline.
Which cool methods and ‘tricks of the trade’ do you use the most when animating?
I use the flipping technique for everything. I don’t make thumbnails, nor do I use pre-printed storyboard sheets for storyboards. I draw everything on punched paper, and flip as I think up and develop situations.
That way, I always see poses and actions juxtaposed against each other. I can easily shoot my storyboard panels and turn them into animatics as I go along. If something works particularly well, then it’s an easy matter to turn a storyboard drawing into an animation pose.
For animation, I do a rough pass, very rough, feeling the situation and the action. I use a soft blue pencil, my favorite for the purpose being Faber-Castell’s Polychromos.
This is done almost in a fever, the faster the better for fear of losing the spontaneity. That’s the magic moment where you either manage to put in the juice or you don’t. Then I test it and refine it. I rough out all the poses including in-betweens so that the full performance is there.
When I’m satisfied, I tie the animation down by going over it all on new sheets with finer blue pencils; Faber-Castell Col-Erase, starting with light blue and refining in blue.
I will be defining the keys and charting the positions of the in-betweens only at this stage. If my rough animation includes irregular, overlapping, eccentric elements between keys, I will check to see their contribution to the overall effect and indicate them too. Whenever I have felt overconfident, or rushed, and skipped the rough stage, the results have suffered.
I came upon this manner of working on my own and found it worked for me. Then I discovered Shamus Culhane insisting on it in his autobiography Talking Animals And Other People (chapter 8: "Tooling Up for Snow White", pages 166-169) and then ran into sections pressing the same point in his Animation: From Script to Screen (chapter 3: "Tapping into Your Creativity", pages 22-28 and onwards, and again in chapter 14: "Animating", pages 147-148).
This could be what Glen Keane calls "animating from the heart" (Disney's Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film , by John Culhane, page 72.)
What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?
Well, Tarzan naturally, and The Thief and the Cobbler because it went down in animation history as an epic failure.
I greatly enjoyed animating Abba, the Viking chieftain’s daughter, in Asterix and the Vikings, and that was the most handsome looking Asterix film. But the subject that was closest to my heart was Das Doppelte Lottchen, for which I did storyboard work. Based on the book of the same name by Erich Kästner, it’s a charming story of twin sisters conspiring to reunite their separated parents. It had been adapted by Disney back in 1961 as The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills as both twins.
Because this new animated adaptation was going to be animated cheaply in the Far East, I was allowed only storyboard work. I boarded the whole resolution and finale with much enthusiasm, but always sticking to the given script.
Unfortunately, that was precisely the part of the script they changed and simplified so that there is hardly anything left of my boards in the final film.
In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?
Unfortunately, I don't have to look for them; they spring out at me like spirits of Christmas Past. But I am happy to say there are quite a number of scenes I consider completely successful.
What are your thoughts of the general ‘work instability’ that a lot of animators talk about nowadays?
As a labor-intensive art that depends on teamwork, requires technology, and needs to be financed by someone who expects a profit, animation is dependent on too many factors. The work is bound to be unstable according to prevailing economic realities and the whims of the changing audiences.
The time-consuming aspect makes it difficult for animation to be very topical. It’s a vulnerable business and people who want to go into that have to be willing to accept the insecurity, moving on when the situation requires.
On the plus side, the skills and discipline required for animation jobs open the possibility of employment in alternate fields if need be, like illustration, storyboarding, and even film editing.
What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s) of all time and why?
I mentioned 101 Dalmatians; as far as I can remember the first animated feature I have seen. I was only five and it was my eye-opener. I still like the film’s brand of humor and I find the styling delicious.
I also like Sleeping Beauty, the film that preceded it, very much. I think it looks gorgeous; I find the humor very tasteful, and the use of music from Tchaikovski’s Sleeping Beauty ballet just magical.
Of the more recent films I like Brother Bear more than any; it has a powerful message that it delivers with a wallop, and it is mature enough to have no villains, just people (and bears) trapped by situations and their own preconceptions.
As for CG films, I am overcome with emotion each time I see Up; the incredible sadness of life, wherein the happier the companionship, the more painful the inevitable bereavement must be. For sheer pleasure of watching animation performances I would say Tangled!
What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation style?
While I prefer the American approach of full animation and lip-synch, with expressions and gestures adapted to almost each and every syllable, I am falling out of tune with the increased pace and the smart-aleck style of humor that is becoming more and more fashionable.
American animation is losing the timeless, universal quality that Walt Disney was able cultivate. As for Japanese animation, I enjoy the Ghibli films, the quieter ones more so. I am particularly a fan of Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whispers of the Heart, The Borrowers, and the more recent Princess Kaguya. I also very much like and enjoy Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, not the least because my father was a pilot.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?
Personally, coming from a country on the fringes of the world as far as animation is concerned, and running up against visa and work permit restrictions every time there is a chance to work elsewhere.
Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate? Which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?
I recall my first scene at Don Bluth, two burly rats squeezing a small one between their bodies during the rat race sequence. It was a fixed angle and a fixed pace, six-frame run cycles from head on, and I simply didn’t have the experience to pull a good performance out of the restrictions of the scene.
It was my first animation scene there, the first for any film studio. The length was three seconds or so, and it took me a month and a half to get it approved. I almost got fired for not delivering. I had made such a song and dance for so long about wanting to become a character animator on a feature film that I couldn’t afford to fail, so I just persevered.
When it was finally approved I checked to see how many pencil tests I had done. Over fifty!
Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?
I was full of admiration for the work of John Pomeroy since I had seen The Secret of NIMH. That certainly had a lot to do with my desire to work in Don Bluth's studio. I met a lot of great talent once I got there; I have kept meeting them ever since.
To be fair I had started rubbing shoulders with them in my Nelvana days. To me animation studios have been places of awe, and it’s hard to start singling out names where there is so much talent and artistry. Let me confine my answer to those whose work most appealed to me strictly personally.
Since Nelvana I have had a special admiration for Charlie Bonifacio, whom I met again at Bluth. Glen Keane’s strengths are well known and it was inspiring to work under him, and understand his approach.
I find Sergio Pablos’ animation delicious. I worked with the very modest Luca Fattore in Copenhagen and later presumed to supervise him from Halle for Friends Forever and really got to appreciate his special flair.
My compatriot Şahin Ersöz, with whom I worked in Berlin and London, always amazed me with his facility, how swiftly such lively performances flows from his fingers.
But my ultimate mentor was James Macaulay, an instructor at Sheridan College. He inspired me as an artist, a craftsman, a hardworking perfectionist, a dedicated teacher, and a gentleman. I corresponded with him in recent years. He has only just passed away.
Tell us about the "Silent Movie" sequence that you animated, where did the idea to make a "day in the life of an animator" come from?
I was invited to display my work at a group exhibition at the Apel art gallery in Istanbul, where I would be exhibiting with artists working in different media.
The unifying theme was to be "Tales of 2001 Nights", for the millennium year; the exhibition ran from January 5th to February 5th 2001. My aim, when joining such exhibitions, has always been to explain my art, to try to earn for the art of animation the recognition it deserves in the "Art" world. So I took Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the theme of which is the "Tales of 1001 Nights", and laid the images over it.
I wanted to show the bread-and-butter side of animation, of working for a production, and wanted to present the animators who work in that field as veritable artists who always have the wish and the skill, if not the time, to create something of their own.
I couldn't lead the thoughts of the spectators to the desired conclusion through images alone, and I certainly did not want narration. The obvious choice was captions and from that came the idea of making them silent-movie style, which seemed to go well with the idea of old tales.
What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?
Yes, naturally. The market seems to be divided between cheap ones and would-be blockbusters. The former try to make a buck by cutting expenses and the latter by steamrolling over the competition with overproduction.
You can only go so far down either road. Good stories, convincing characters, and artistic integrity should be the standards by which animated films are made.
Shoestring budgets and cheap labor are cruel, monster budgets and overblown production values are nonsensical and exhausting.
Do you think animating a 3D film is more fun than a 2D film or the other way around? What are your thoughts?
I enjoy animating at a desk on paper with a pencil. It is entirely my own preference and not a statement about one technique being superior to the other.
What are your thoughts about online animation schools like Animation Mentor, iAnimate? Would you teach there if you had a chance?
I haven’t checked into them but I imagine they must be good. I am aware of some very respectable names involved in teaching online so I have full confidence that the advice they are giving is sound.
I never considered such an option; too many distractions! For the time being I don’t think I can undertake yet another commitment.
Do you think such schools mass produce animators to the already ‘low demand’ from the studios themselves?
That holds true for almost any field; education provides the means for students to fend for themselves in the real world; only in systems like communism do you have strict government control that programs education to meet future needs, but then the state tells you where you will work; job security in exchange for freedom! Besides, animation is something you should take up only if you love it, and we all know love means never having to say you’re sorry.
2D animation vs. 3D animation; what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
That it shouldn't be a battle! I enjoy classical music, and I also enjoy rock, and I also enjoy jazz, and there are many other harmonies from around the world that I enjoy; I don't feel compelled to choose a favorite.
Technology brought us CG, and it grew into a viable tool for animation with very special strengths, its own distinctive flavor. By rights, pencils should remain as viable as violins are in the age of electric guitars and synthesizers. I would say the same for stop motion.
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as of 2015?
In fairness it is only thanks to my wife, Lâle, that I ever managed to complete one auteur film: Kebabaluba in 1995. She put on the pressure to finish it, skipping frivolous details. She coordinated the hand coloring and did most of it herself. Kebabaluba was shown at many festivals, and we took a bow for it personally at Annecy in 1995. She also did about half the clean-up, the rest being done by my Başar Muluk, my student at the time. Aside for little snippets for students or for sharing on the internet, all my efforts towards a second private film have remained incomplete.
Yes, I have something on the pegs right now, no I can’t tell you what it is. I have to finish this interview to get back to it! So, moving right along...!
If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?
I worked on the same project, in the same studio as John Pomeroy, was in Glen Keane’s team, even reached back before my time on The Thief and the Cobbler where I re-animated a scene that had originally been attempted by Art Babbit, and have had the pleasure and honor of working with many great talents whom I have met on the way.
So, I really couldn't have wished for more. Certainly there are artists I would have loved to meet and chat with, both in the animation field and outside.
What I do regret is that Şahin Ersöz and I never managed to coordinate our lives and efforts to do something for Turkish animation- a historic opportunity lost! But that’s Turks for you!
When and why did you decide to retire from animation? The last movie you worked on was "Friends Forever" according to IMDB. What has happened since?
Once upon a time some opportunistic politicians brought down the retirement age to covet votes. So when I discovered I had the option to retire early, I took it. I would have liked to go on but a lot of the fun had gone out! I officially retired with a state pension in late 2008. I went on teaching for a while after that but I could teach only so much to unwilling students who would be going out into a milieu completely different from what I had known. Of course, I could still accept a contract, but that didn’t materialize.
On Friends Forever. I was animation supervisor for a crew of varying talent spread across the globe, and it was very stressful to have to correct so much strictly online, mostly with words, without being able simply to take a pencil and say, "let me show you what I mean".
I must here pause to say one great asset on that project was my friend Erhan Gezen, who animates with a facility that recalls Şahin Ersöz. His scenes went through swiftly, and because he is my compatriot, I was always afraid it would look like favoritism. It wasn't really; his scenes speak for themselves.
There was the possibility of working on one more feature after my retirement, and it promised me the opportunity to work in Switzerland, a great finale considering how much I like the country.
That was Titeuf, le Film.. The studio that offered me the position, SWAMP in Lucerne, lost the commission, so that was a rather cruel disappointment. Then Neomis in Paris, which used to be the Disney Paris studio, offered to let me work on that same project from home. I started, had several scenes approved until suddenly they turned around and said they couldn't use any of it.
That was another disappointment. (But Bruno Gaumetou of Neomis very nobly compensated me for the time and effort.) Some time later I learned that Neomis hadn’t been paid by Moonscope, which had been producing the film.
That’s how Neomis, the last remnant of Disney Paris, vanished. The cruelest disappointment of all!
If you could go back in time, what would you do different in regarding to the world of animation?
That’s easy. I would not have resigned from Disney, at least not so soon!
Do you find yourself checking out other animator’s works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new stuff from them?
Absolutely. I even go frame by frame through select scenes on my DVD’s.
Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?
I asked a very similar question to Dick Friesen, our first year teacher at Sheridan College, when he was getting ready to leave for LA to work on the effects of The Raiders of the Lost Ark. His advice was. "Don’t waste time thinking about how you’re going to do it. Do it!" Since then I have taken him at his word.