Tim is a freelance stop motion animator from Fleet, Hampshire who has enjoyed a 14 year career on a wide range of stop motion projects. Most recently he's been animating at Aardman on Shaun the Sheep and also at WoodsFilm on their promotional campaign for Boomerang TV. On special occasions, Tim ventures out to teach at universities, give workshops at festivals and teach the next generation of stop motion practitioners. His exploits have seen him been travelling all around Europe & beyond.
Some of Tim's many projects include Tim Burton's Frankenweenie and Corpse Bride, Fantastic Mr Fox, Peter and the Wolf and Creature Comforts USA. Tim was Animation Supervisor on The Magic Piano creating some of the most ambitious animation of his career.
Thank you very much Tim Allen for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself? What are your hobbies? What do you love to do outside of the world animation?
The pretentiously simple answer is I just love learning. Originally I had been obsessive about animation, but once my animation career was well and truly underway, I realized that I knew little about anything else.
So for many years now I've loved learning about history, science, philosophy, sociology, religion - anything that helps me understand what makes people the way they are. I love to visit new places, create happy memories and learn something new. Any day that I learn something new or discover I was wrong is a good day. I see it as progression. If I wasn't learning and applying then I'd feel pretty unfulfilled.
Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?
I was brought up in Fleet, Hampshire, a nice little town in the country that's an easy commute to London. My Mum always encouraged us to get involved with community activities such as town carnivals, pantomimes, scouts and anything involving interaction with others. I now really appreciate the benefits this must have given me as working and dealing with people is a truly essential life skill.
My brother and I are a similar age and we spent a lot of time playing together and reading comics. It was great to have someone to share all that with.
Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite artist?
Oh I drew loads. As a kid I could name a few Transformers or Batman comic artists that really inspired me (Geoff Senior and Norm Breyfogle respectively). I also very much wanted to emulate Jim Davis's Garfield. So initially it was all about comics.
Did you go to Art School? Which one was it, and when did you graduate?
When I was leaving school we didn't know exactly which direction I was heading in, but it was clear it was all about art for me. So after school I spent two years focused purely on my artistic development at Basingstoke College of Technology. It was a BTEC national diploma covering fine art, graphics, fashion and my chosen specialty, 3D (anything from sculpture to interior design).
How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator, and especially a stop-motion animator?
As an art student, I didn't have much direction and I was looking at model making courses for university as my best bet. I went to the Arts University Bournemouth for an open day to see their model making course.
By pure chance as I was waiting, someone popped their head round the door and said, "Is there anyone here to see the animation course?". I bolted upright - I'd never heard or considered that you could do a degree in animation! I was utterly sold. Models and animation in one! I was a huge “Nightmare Before Christmas” fan and the idea of being on a set like that was the most exciting thing I could imagine.
At that time Bournemouth didn't do stop motion but Glamorgan university (now the University of South Wales) had a strong stop motion department.
I worked with new found focus and hunger to earn myself a place on their course, where I was incredibly happy to meet so many likeminded people, who are friends to this day.
Every year I still make the trip back there for the end of year show The Glammiesso I've always kept close ties with the course that started it all for me.
Tell us a about how your Stop Motion Animation career started? Who did you contact to start the career?
Everyone I could! It was a tough start, I contacted companies in Cardiff, near to Glamorgan University, but at that time most projects were fully crewed. So I started looking further afield, then further and further.
Step by step, I visited almost every single stop motion company I could find in the UK. Most people were very friendly, but I now can look back and see that it was at a time when projects were already crewed up or winding down, before a natural slump in work was developing.
I went to festivals, parties, rang companies, and knocked on doors and anything else to create opportunities. I did unpaid work experience placements, one being on the first series of Bob the Builder.
Eventually some work experience in Bristol led to the occasional bit of assistant model making, normally just a week or two, mostly at commercial company Elm Road. I committed to looking for work in Bristol and moved, when suddenly I was offered an animation audition in London! It was for a very low budget educational TV series called El Nombre at Ealing Animation.
I've always joked that I got the job because I was very hard working and cheap, which may not be untrue, but certainly it was a golden opportunity for me to animate on a daily basis. It had been 1 and a half years since graduation and the job lasted about 8 months.
Can one really make a living doing stop-motion films nowadays? Seems like everybody wants to do 3D.
I've been hearing that since the mid 90's when Toy Story came out. Since then there has been a substantial increase in the number of stop motion feature films (3 released in 2012 and all were Oscar nominated in 2013) and stop motion hasn't disappeared at all.
The trends of work do come and go though, and I think that's how I'd describe the stop motion business. It's like the tide coming in and out, it can be very busy for a couple of years, then go all quite again. This inconsistency of work has been, well, consistent! But with experience you can normally see it coming and plan accordingly.
I've travelled the UK and European industry a lot and everywhere I go I bump into friendly faces I've worked with before. Plus there's always plenty of new faces to meet.
There's loads of us who've made a career of this for years. If anything there's more people doing it now, which eliminates any benefit from there being more work around. You do need to take a step back every so often, look at where the work is and isn't coming from and make some informed decisions about your next steps.
But this would apply to so many industries now, change moves faster than ever and you need to keep ahead of it. In the last 20 years 2D and CG have seen so much change.
In fact CG animation, by its very technological nature will continue evolving at an increasingly fast pace. Just one example is the increased amount of work that's motion captured. That's a game changer for the CG animators and the CG industry will never stay still for long with advances in technology.
I don't think those that want a smooth easy career should be looking to get involved in animation. However if you're creative and looking for ongoing challenges, come on in - the tide keeps changing but that's why it's interesting!
How did you find work in stop motion industry? It seems there wasn’t much demand for it compared to 3D animated films?
After my first professional animation project ended, effectively so did my job. It's like being an actor, you work on a series or film until it's complete and then you have to look for more work. However this time round, I'd had 8 months of fulltime practice and thus more show-reel footage (always get copies of your work!).
Animators are always sharing info on what projects are on the horizon and who to contact, so word of mouth is normally my first source on where to look for work.
In the early days, even if I did just a couple of weeks of holiday cover on a project, it progressed the variety in my show-reel and of course opened up the possibility of more work with these new contacts. As my range of experience slowly grew, so did my contacts and it got easier to prove myself.
It's true that in the CG industry there are more projects, especially feature films. It can be up to 10-15 features a year in CG and only 1 or 2 in stop motion (2012 had 3 which was a record).
Accordingly, the sheer number of people trying to get into CG completely dwarfs stop motion. Count the number of CG animation students at any university, then count the number of stop motion students! I have many friends working in CG and in London at least, I do see people feeling very burnt out, with lots hungry young animators ready to take their place. More work is a good thing and will indeed attract more people, but that in turn can make it a more competitive industry to work within.
So indeed stop motion isn't quite the big business that CG is, but from an animators point of view, the smaller the company, the bigger my creative role is. I've learnt over the years that I find it more satisfying working for smaller, more intimate companies than on big corporation/factory size productions where statistics can tend to overshadow creativity.
Did you have a natural talent or was it a skill you had to push yourself to learn in order to acquire?
I'm not a big user of the word 'talent' because that's only the beginning part of getting good at something. For sure, some people are naturally suited to certain things rather than others. Next you need to apply yourself and practice, practice, practice.
It would be fair to say I've got a natural attention to detail but I only got better at animating by researching, observing and then actually trying it myself - again and again and again. Some people learn faster than others, but there's no substitute for regular practice over many years. It's worth saying that 'talent' doesn't usually get triggered, unless you are naturally interested in doing something and do it automatically, often out of sheer enjoyment.
A child who loves drawing will normally get better at it than a child with no interest in drawing. When someone says "I can't draw", what that usually means is "I haven't tried to draw in years and I've not had training in how to draw". I can't play the piano, but then I've never really tried to. So I would describe talent as a natural interest in applying yourself to something, then finding that, as luck would have it, you're well suited to doing it. The rest comes from years of development through repeatedly applying your craft.
I've had many people comment over the years that I'm talented. I politely thank them for the compliment that they intended to make and quietly think to myself "Don't underestimate how much practice it took to get to this stage!".
What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it and what company was that for?Luckily enough it was at Aardman on a Rice Krispies commercial. I'd arranged to go in to show my graduate portfolio and they needed an extra pair of hands on that particular day.
I was asked to press mould mouths (push plasticine into a mould to get the mouth shapes), then put a red tongue in and paint the teeth white! It was hardly a big break - it lasted 4 days and I didn't work for Aardman again for 8 years! But the experience helped me get one of my first impressions of how a studio operates. I was very nervous, and I only put my foot in my mouth a few times!I then did some free work experience for Elm Road. That led to a couple of short stints as a trainee model maker there.
Which project(s) did you work on while working there?My first was a 'Wind-eze' commercial. I had to paint plastic clothes pegs to look wooden for a clothes line and general prop making. Also they dropped the plasticine Wind-eze packet on the floor and I had to clean all the bits of dirt out of it!
My second job with Elm Road was a commercial for Alton Towers who were reinventing their corkscrew rollercoaster ride into the new 'Ugland'. It was a Flintstones style area with food venues and caveman type attractions. We had access to all the blueprints and had to make a small scale model to be animated.
I made lots of repetitive sections of the rollercoaster track but also got a couple of decent model buildings to make. I was pretty intimidated, trying to strike the balance between seeking advice on how best to make these models, without asking too many questions and letting on that I felt out of my depth!
What is a typical day looks like for you? When do you wake up and what do you on average every day at the studio?Every project is different so there's no single answer to this. Work normally starts between 8 and 9:30. On big projects my only responsibility is normally to animate.
On very small projects I will be much more hands on with prepping the puppet, the set and rigging - anything that aids my animation. Whatever the production though, one thing stays the same - my job is to aim to give the director the shot he or she wants and to do it on schedule!
What part of your job do you like best and why?
I think the interaction in planning and prepping a shot. It's the time where you share ideas and it can be dynamic and fun. Once the animation starts I'm on my own really, normally under pressure to get it done whilst everyone waits for me! I do enjoy the animation or else I wouldn't be doing this, but I think I enjoy creatively engaging with people even more.
How animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also bond after work?Oh stop motion animators hang out together a lot! At the studio in between shots we catch up and often compare notes on the puppets, shots, schedule and other prominent factors of the job.
I find most are very giving in sharing advise on the 'do's and don'ts' of animating specific characters. Freelance animators also share a lot of information (and rumors!) about projects on the horizon anywhere and everywhere.
Some projects involve more socializing than others, depending on the logistics of how far people live from each other. When many stop motion crew travel abroad for a project, you tend to all live near each other and it can lead to many parties and weekends getting to know each other.
How do you synchronize work and family? Workings on stop motion films are pretty much tedious, aren’t they?
Well most of the time in my career I've been single and try to see my family whenever I can. It can be tricky to fit the ever-changing busy periods and quiet periods of work around things that require routine (e.g. having children). The work often requires you to be flexible so that can be quite a juggling act.
I've never had anyone describe working in stop motion as tedious before. Most people unfamiliar with it find it at least very interesting or even very cool! Some jobs are more interesting than others but most people are making creative decisions all day. The work can be slow paced but the results can be so rewarding.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Oh so many! And not just the obvious well known ones. A lot of my pride in certain projects comes from working with wonderful people and producing great work despite huge limitations. I'd rather draw your attention to some of my lesser known projects:
I'm very proud of our bullfight sequence in Bunny and the Bull, and the huge challenges of being animation supervisor on The Magic Piano. Short films Goutte D'orby Christophe Peledan and Marilyn Myllerby Mikey Please were wonderful experiences by immensely talented people and I wish I could have been available for longer on those films.
What’s your stop motion animation workflow looks like while animating?
Well each project is different. On a commercial for instance with PES or Mike Mort, you talk through the storyboard with the director and then just go for it. On some occasions, you can film yourself as reference to explore performance ideas.
Aardman often do this and on Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson would be filmed acting out the shot himself and we then had to imitate it very closely. Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie used the method of doing a basic test run called a 'block', and time allowing, a more detailed rehearsal, before actually shooting. Once you start animating a lot of learnt instinct is required. However, one of the key factors to good stop motion actually comes before all that...!
Predictably, your quality and speed is greatly affected by what you have to work with. A good workflow comes down to the preparation - making sure things are fit for purpose.
A lot of my prep time is spent working with a rigger or puppet maker to make the animation as easily controllable as possible. I'll also be involved with the lighting crew to make the best use of the lighting.
We explore avoiding 'hotspots' (bleached out bright areas) or unsightly shadows. Once you start animating you'll always discover some of these things as you go, but more prep helps you get it right on your first take, quickly.
Fast, high quality stop motion is usually maximized in the early developmental testing period. Making puppets, rigs and sets as efficient to work with as possible can make or break a production.
I compare a production to running an obstacle race. The more that things aren't prepared for efficient animation, the more obstacles you'll hit throughout the shoot - thus the slower your production will go. If you get crew highly trained in stop motion to remove as many obstacles as they can in advance, you have a good clear run to sprint to the finish line.
Do you find yourself watching a film you’ve been a part of at home or friends?Not usually! It's great to go to a premiere to see the finished film and catch up with all the crew, but I prefer to see films I haven't seen before. Also I found when I watched Corpse Bride at the premiere that I still had so many memories associated with each shot and it was hard for me to step back. I watched it some 6 years later and really enjoyed it again.
I was recently at a friend's house when Shaun the Sheep was put on for the kids. It was nice to catch some of my shots and see them fit in with the episode as a whole. In fact it's very informative and fun for me to watch people, especially children, whilst they watch animation to see what they react to.
Do you look for imperfections in your work or just enjoy the film while watching?
I like to do both. It's often impossible not the think with hindsight how I might improve my work. However I'm realistic enough to know that it's just one shot of many and how it fits into the bigger picture of the film as a whole that counts.
Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what’s your preferences?
I have a wide variety of specific tools built up from different productions over the years. Some are made bespoke for certain puppets or situations. Most barely get used again. My plasticine tools are normally only used at Aardman for instance. Tools that get the most use are often the simplest - cocktail sticks, pins, Alan keys, blue or blacktack and aluminum wire.
What is your favorite Stop-Motion, 2D or 3D animated film(s), and why?
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” perhaps just from personal nostalgic reasons as it inspired me to get into this. I love Second Songa music video by Mikey Please, as the style, music and magical world are utterly enchanting. I can watch it again and again!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?
Getting the balance right between career ambition and having a more sustainable lifestyle. I love the sheer variety my career has granted me but I should try harder to not move as much. I reevaluate my direction and goals quite often.
Have you ever had a character or scene that was too difficult to animate?
Not really, as these things can be figured out even if initially it looks daunting. I've been put in situations where I knew that no matter what my approach to the situation, it wasn't possible in the time given.
Also I've been given puppets and rigs simply not up to the task required of them and guaranteed to break long before the shot was finished. If you are doing a running shot with 2 broken legs then it is possible, but expect it to go much slower....
Which project was that on? And how did you tackle that problem?
I won't name and shame, but my trusty cocktail sticks and metal spikes (like metal cocktail sticks) were used each frame to force the knees to bend and hold the legs in place for the running shot.
I've also animated mid-air puppets where the 'supporting' rigs were built completely differently to our blueprints and couldn't even hold the weight of the puppet! I was told to "just make it work" - can I somehow wave my magic wand, get it done and save a big delay in the schedule. I loosened screws on much of the rig to give the extra axis of movement that the original blueprints had allowed for (and were essential for the shot).
It was a big puppet and I often used a hammer to force it into position and a tripod or even a mop to hold and wedge it into extreme poses. We also put together an (admittedly precarious) counter balance system to make up for the rigs inability to hold the puppets weight.
I was very pleased with the animation I got out of a rig so badly made, but it had taken twice as long as it would of done had the original designs been followed. The quality of the animation also suffers when you are literally trying to force a puppet to stay in position. Truth is, it's not uncommon to find yourself in a situation making a complex shot with 'animatable' objects that are falling apart!
Which character till these days you would animate in a heartbeat? What was so special about animating that character?
I loved doing Barkis on Corpse Bride and was lucky enough to develop the character for some of his very first shots. He had wonderful undertones of a suppressed psychopath building up towards blowing his lid!
My next major project after that was Peter and the Wolf where Suzie Templeton wanted me to animate the Wolf herself. The schedule kept changing and I think I only did one shot with her in the end (yes the Wolf was female!). The realistic 4 legged movement could have been pretty tough though.
Saying that I also loved animating Sparky in Frankenweenie. His realistic movement was intended to be the spontaneous mannerisms of a dog, whilst utterly lovable and devoted to his companion Victor. It was fun, charming and challenging to do.
As for character's that I've never animated, it'd be something nostalgic from my childhood I'd love to do. Something like Morph, or Wind in the Willows would be amazing. I felt that way on my first day animating Postman Patand Fireman Sam!
Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during the early stages?
Oh wow, that's actually a tough question as I've worked for so many companies and learnt something new most everywhere I went.
As a student I was very much influenced by Nick Park and Peter Peake (Pib and Pog) for their storytelling and character interaction. Professionally I can honestly say I've learnt new tricks everywhere I've worked, so it's an ever growing craft for me.
What do you think about animation nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?
I think we've been affected in a way that most industries have - everyone wants more product, much quicker, for less money. Adding to this I've noticed the complexity of work has increased. So in theory you should need more time for more complex animation, but in fact less time is the trend.
It can make for a stressful environment, when things are slipping behind due to an overly ambitious schedule, and when there's no time for anything to go wrong, the production (or bottom line) is vulnerable to any hiccup. I tend to find I need the benefit of hindsight to know the best way to avoid all problems and get everything right first time. I'm still working on developing this superpower!
The reasons for this change in workload is a discussion in itself, but tax breaks, more channels, less advertising revenue and less financial certainty for employers all would get a mention. I just try to understand the situation from my floor manager's perspective and deliver the best job I can and try not to let my good nature mean I give too much for free to get the work done.
I was lucky enough to be at the home of special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, chatting about this and he said lack of money and issues negotiating schedules with producers was a problem in the 50's, 60's and 70's, so certain things have indeed not changed.
However I do have many animator friends who started in the 80's and they've noticed a huge shift from the animator being considered an artist, given the time they required, as opposed to now where it's more of a factory feel with speed being of the essence.
Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your own title(s)?
I'm mostly aware of all the upfront work involved so I have avoided this! However as I become more creatively satisfied as an animator, I'm pulled back towards what first interested me about this profession - entertaining an audience through storytelling.
I'd like to move back towards that more. I'm now signed with Reflective Films as their stop motion director and we're making a short film together to promote ourselves. It's the first time in 12 years I've made my own film, and although intensively time consuming it's been great fun. First and foremost we need to earn a living bringing projects in, but will continue to plan what else we could create of our own.
It's great for me to have the backup from my producer Steve Whittle, with all the areas of production I'm less knowledgeable on. In return, I can guide them through everything stopmo specific. So it's going to be an exciting new direction. I'm also staying freelance so hope to continue working on as many other productions as I can.
2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
I caught up with a friend from university this week who's been working in computer games for 15 years. We had so much in common! He has spent his time travelling from one contract to another getting lots of experience but finding that an ongoing job simply isn't a reality.
We can all see how much technology has changed in 15 years, as has the way companies run in the computer industry since the boom of the late 90s. So from a working perspective there's as many similarities as differences.
From an aesthetic point of view I think you should do what feels right for the story. Budget issues will always be a factor, but some projects suit CG and some stopmo. I respect and enjoy both mediums when done well.
One last thought on this 'endless battle' idea: Since Toy Story came out in 1995 the "stop motion is dead, CG is the future" comment was thrown around like all good playground debates. There's now more stopmo work than there was in the 90's and CG certainly isn't an easy industry to work in.
Why declare this a battle anyway? We make animation for those who enjoy it! How's it's done and how it evolves is the interesting discussion.
What freedom does a Stop-Motion animation film bring to you that you wouldn’t find in a 3D or 2D animated film?
Well I think stop motion forces the director to take more of a 'leap of faith' in the animator than the other two mediums. With CG and 2D you can go back and tweak the animation at any point (schedule allowing!). Stop motion animators have their brief, maybe do a test and then we go for it - the director never completely knows how it will come out. It's akin to casting a live action actor - you can't specify every small facial movement they'll do in advance, just brief them and hope they perform it well.
Of course a live action actor can quickly do many takes, which we don't have time for in stop motion - rarely do we get a second go!
So a stop motion animator has to have a certain freedom to express themselves for the part as micromanaging a performance usually hinders it. The results can be fairly unpredictable and sometimes, this doesn't quite give the director what they imagined, but other times the results surprise and delight them!
Why do you think Stop-Motion animation is always a ‘hidden’ art? Why no one takes Stop-Motion films seriously as we all should?
It used to be much harder to learn stop motion as equipment was expensive, plus opportunities were so rare. Few had the chance to get good at it and thus few understood much about this mysterious art form (especially before the mid 90s).
Now we can have a go very cheaply with the right webcam. I'm increasingly busy running animation workshops for anyone to turn up and have go. Ages range from 5 year olds to 75 year olds. It's a chance to just play and people go home smiling :) What was once a dark hidden art is now accessible and fun!
If it is your first time, it does help to talk to someone with previous experience, if only to avoid many of the technical issues that will hold you back, e.g. Camera specifications and how to stop that puppet falling over. I enjoy talking through affordable techniques for those that want to try for themselves.
As for taking stopmo films seriously, well I think for those that understand the basic principle of stop motion (around 25 individually positioned images per second), the normal reaction I get is of huge respect for the craft needed to achieve it.
Distribution companies are often hesitant to fund such films because the schedules and budgets are hard to predict, regulate and for some reason stop motion films rarely take the same profit as a CG film. Whether I like it or not that is the general trend.
Do you find yourself embedding your own personalities in a character(s) that you animate?
It's unavoidable to put a bit of yourself into the characters - live action actors bring their own touches to playing the same roles. However the specific traits of an individual character should inform me of the character's behavior rather than my own personality projecting through.
On bigger productions many animators portray the same character. Therefore we need to try and all make it look like this is one personality, not half a dozen different interpretations of the same character.
Have you ever designed and modeled a character for a movie you animated? If so, which one is it? And how did it make you feel to animate your own character?
Only for my own films.
It was really interesting actually, making a puppet specifically tailored to how I'd like it to move. Often puppets are made with not enough interaction from the people who'll actually use the puppet. I really enjoyed testing and tweaking the puppet to be able to move it just the way I wanted.
The film I recently made for Reflective Films involved bringing toys to life. I rigged and prepared all the 'puppets' from toys that I adapted for animation. It was interesting as their movement was limited, but I could tweak the puppets to get as much out of them as I could. It's nice to be involved in stop motion in ways other than my usual animator role.
What is the hardest area in Stop-Motion character that you have to deal with? Is it the constant change of a character’s facial impressions? Is it the time consuming it takes to move a single or multiple parts of a character?
Some things take longer than others, but I really enjoy the challenge in trying to get the right performance out of whatever I'm given. So I rarely find things hard, just a challenge in its own right!
If I were to be pushed, if a puppet is made so badly that it's falling apart in my hands then it's infuriatingly hard to get anything good out of it. This tends to be accompanied by an equally unachievable deadline so I would indeed find that hard!
For those who aren’t familiar with Stop-Motion animation production process, how much time do you spend on a single film? How generally it work nowadays?
Well the animation part of a feature film can be up to a year or a bit more. Compare that to live action where the whole shooting period can be 2-3 months! More specifically, the studio shooting period for stopmo usually starts with just 2-3 animators then slowly builds up to 15-25 animators over the next 6 months.
Sometimes you can all finish the shoot around the same week, but it's normal to slowly need less animators towards the end as some sequences finish before others.
Which tricks or tools of trades do you use to ‘cut short’ time off when animating a character?
I'll often animate the legs and body on '2s' (12 frames per second) and save '1s' (24-25 frames per second) for more dynamic moves with the head and arms which are more noticeable. It's about being aware what the audience is paying most attention to and making that part look nice.
Background characters or less noticeable things can be made simpler or left untouched to save time. As a general rule, we subconsciously are always aware of a characters faces and hands as the most important 'tools' of expression. So it's much more important to focus on detail here than what the knees are up to!
How Stop-Motion animation progressed and evolved throughout the years? Is it the detail of the characters? The complexity of the shots? The amazing backgrounds?
It could be a great debate: the question of what has most influenced the evolution of stop motion! I think I'll focus on making the case for the development of video assist!
Before the 1990s everything was shot on film with the animator unable to play their work back until the film was developed a day or more later. They developed techniques and learnt an incredible instinct for 'feeling' the puppets motion, despite basically shooting 'blind'. Video assist techniques slowly developed over the years, like an evolving eye, firstly seeing just a bit and eventually now we can see everything clearly and instantly.
Now that we can generally see in detail what we are doing, more quality is expected, and I've noticed this also lead to more complex sequences in the desire to push boundaries forward. Also animators are learning faster as they can instantly see the results of their work.
It's worth pointing out that like all 'lost' crafts, a fundamental skill is being forgotten here. I think that the 'instinct' that early 'blind' animators developed for 'feeling' the puppet in 3 dimensional space has been replaced by relying on a 2 dimensional TV screen. That early instinct gives an older generation of animators something that the new generation don't get the chance to develop.
Sadly I started out as video assist was developing and didn't develop this instinct myself - I'd love to work on doing so.
Which do your prefer most, working with Plasticine characters or 3D generated models?
I honestly enjoy the variety of doing both on different jobs. Obviously plasticine has more flexibility compared to silicone puppets but you make the most of what you've got to work with.
I did 6 months concentrated lip sync animation on Creature Comforts USA and it was a fascinating education on the flexibility of mouth movements. I enjoy the opportunity to test myself in different ways, so the pros and cons of different methods are a highlight in themselves.
Do you love directing or animating? Which do you find more intuitive for you?
Well, I've really broadened my skill base as an animator so at this point in my career, other challenges are very interesting. I've enjoyed doing more work that involves directing or consulting on an animation supervisor basis.
I've always naturally tried to look at the bigger picture of a production or business anyway. It's about finding new goals so taking on more responsibility is a natural step. Bring it on!
Do you consider yourself as someone to look up to, for beginners, friends, family, animators, and artists?
Ha Ha! Well if I answer that one, I think I'd deserve a healthy reality check from my peers! I do get very satisfying feedback if I teach or run a workshop, and I certainly enjoy teaching.
Put it this way, when I was an art student I was full of hero worship for anyone who worked on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (and still am!). If up and coming animators aren't interested in people who've worked on similar productions, then I question how interested in animation they really are.
When did you start your teaching career? How many years are you teaching and what exactly do you teach to your students?
Well it kind of evolved slightly after my animation career started. I'd been animating professionally for 2 and half years when I was asked back to Glamorgan (where I graduated) to talk about making my first steps into the industry.
I was terribly nervous and struggled to justify to myself what I could offer the students other than my personal experience. A year later I was asked to run the Glamorgan stop motion department part time and found it a very interesting and rewarding challenge. I was 25 and again questioning my qualification to do this but it went well. I was then offered an unmissable chance to animate 18 months on Fireman Sam and decided to return to develop myself in the industry.
A few years later I'd finished 10 months of animating on Corpse Bride and was invited back to talk about it. In fact several universities asked me to do the same.
This started a pattern of me dipping into guest lecturing in-between projects. I've become quite broad in what I can teach now but it's mostly demonstrating a variety of techniques for stop motion - what works well, what doesn't and why.
I've collected a wide range of examples, so that I can visually illustrate each point. I like to make it fun and am happy to show my mistakes as I feel that breaks down the barriers for learning and developing.
What can people expect to learn from your teachings? What should they mostly take with them after each class of yours?
Much of it is practical problem solving to make people's lives easier when animating stopmo. Inexperience leads to time consuming frustrations such as a puppet that won't stand up (I see students do this all the time)!
I aim to give a bit of technical guidance so that you can focus on the fun of creating your vision with as few of these issues as possible. Then we can look at frame by frame details for improving your animation performance...!
I also like to study the concept of being flexible with your work. As the years pass and the industry and technology evolve I've noticed a trend - how I started out is increasingly less relevant in today's digital social media world.
In fact by the time your children start their careers, most parents will reflect "It's not like it was in my day". Many of the rules keep changing and we should look for what's coming on the horizon and adapt accordingly. A 40+ year career is going to see a LOT of change. My main advice is accept, even embrace this fact and look to work it in your favor.
What do you prefer most, teaching, or animating? Which comes more natural for you?
The guest lecturing has developed my communication skills which helps planning and discussing animation and it certainly helps directing and supervising. Plus my continued animation career makes me an increasingly useful guest lecturer! Lecturing and workshops keep me interacting with those who'd love to do animation which reminds me how lucky I am to do it myself! I still love animating and production, so a healthy balance of the two suits me well.
What makes a good stop-motion animator? Is it the time it takes to do the animation? Is it being a good actor? Maybe tolerance towards this hand craft process?Well animators are good at different things, so it would depend on the project if, for instance, emotional acting, comic timing or speed are important. Generally the most important thing is the art of performance. Animators need to make the character perform, normally to tell a story to the audience.
I think the best animators can do a good job in a wide variety of working conditions and be flexible to deliver on a wide variety of different job types. As I stated, we are always better at some things rather than others, but being a very versatile animator makes for a great animator.
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2014?
Well I've had 2 major projects recently fall through, so I'm most working on getting commercial work and workshops near to where I live in London ideally. I recently finished a load of Easter promos and idents at Woodsfilm for Boomerang TV. Was great fun animating eggs painted like Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo etc. and getting the eggs to act like the characters! I done a lot of workshops and have had a few directing and supervising offers lately so it's unpredictable but interesting times.
I'm also developing more of a longer term strategy getting projects in with Reflective Films as an animation director. It's a nice time to stop moving around from one project to the other and instead focus on what I want to do!
If you could choose to work with any artist from the animation or stop-motion business, who would it be and why?I'd love to work with Mikey Please and Dan Ojari again. I briefly animated with them on Marilyn Myllerand it was utterly fun and creatively inspiring. I'm very excited to see lots more from them in the years to come!
Others on my wish list would be to finally work with Nick Park, Henry Selick and use my time machine to work with Ray Harryhausen!
Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring stop-motion animation student or artist trying to get into the business?
I've learnt the best long term advice is related to how quickly the world is changing and being ready for it. The average 21 year old graduate is looking ahead to a 40 year plus career. Think how much technology and employment has changed in the last 40 years!
So I'd advise any young graduate to see change as natural and inevitable. Resist and you'll get left behind - eventually it's forced upon you. But keeping looking to create new opportunities for yourself and you can see change as the exciting way forward. If you can be creative with your career path, you can keep finding fresh ways to make it a rewarding journey. It's a long career, and unlikely to be what you expect.
Seek out opportunities, adapt and enjoy it!