A Little Unexpected Animation History

Sitting here at 5am on a Sunday morning trying to get an overdue interview finished for a very patient book blogger (I’m sorry! It’s on its way!) I went onto youtube looking for a video of a lecture I did back in 2010 and I rediscovered this wee thing! Now, it probably won’t mean anything to anyone who’s not in the animation business but this is what us dinosaurs used to call a ‘line test’. It’s a video of the animator’s ‘key drawings’ (in other words the main action of an animated scene) The reason it’s so grainy is because each character (the girl, the cat, the dog) were drawn on separate sheets of paper. In order to shoot the line test you had to lay these sheets – one atop the other – over a very strong light so that the lines would all show up for the camera. This test represents the animation before it’s passed on to the assistant who (under the animator’s supervision) did the drawings that fill in the blanks.

There were three of these assistants in my day: the ‘assistant animator’, the ‘breakdown artist’, and the ‘inbetweener’. Working your way up these ranks was a great way to actually learn animation, and, in my day, it was how most people broke into the business and got their training. (Now folks seem to come straight in from college and start off in a studio as animators, which is another system entirely and just as valid)***

I have many of these linetests hanging about on CDs and videos in my attic, but the above scene is the only one I have online. It is from one of my all time favorite projects,  The Kliene Icebear ( the Little Polar Bear) which my husband and I worked on with Cartoonfilm, Berlin. We had such fun there, Cartoonfilm were a lovely company to work for and the project itself was so lovely. (It’s actually funny this should come up this morning as only last week a fan spotted my name on the movie Anastasia and tweeted to ask was it me 🙂 Anyone who is interested can find my film history here on my imbd profile.)

I’m working in animation again and I have to say it’s stunning how things have changed. I know there are some studios where this old process is still in practice, but for the most part these days the huge building of men and women it took to get a piece of animation finished and up on the screen (the animation assistants, the cleanup artists, the special effects animators, the inkers, the cell painters, the camera people, the editors, the sound editors, the film cutters) have all been replaced by software. These days I find myself working on scenes that are screen ready as soon as they’re done. Animated, inbetweened, inked, coloured, dubbed and ready to drop into the pre-edited sequence, they hop straight from the animator’s desk to the screen all in one smooth slide. It’s exciting in one way, but I confess I also find it quite sad. I suppose that sounds dumb to anyone who wasn’t involved in that old collaborative, hands on, wasteful, beautiful, extraordinarily fulfilling system. But I miss drawing, I miss working with an assistant and an inbetweener knowing that I’m passing on the decades of experience which was passed down to me the same way. I miss the real visceral satisfaction of carving a series of drawings from a series of blank pages.

But you can’t go back, and this line test has just been a walk down memory lane, nothing more. For me, it, and the time it represents, are over.

***It’s an interesting piece of movie history trivia to note that the wages back then were on something called ‘scale’ which is difficult to explain but basically means that if the directors didn’t credit you as an animator you didn’t get paid as an animator. So the credits on these older movies are often at least one movie behind the artist’s actual career.  You’ll see credits like ‘additional animator’ or ‘breakdown artist’ on movies where people were actually animating but hadn’t yet begun to be credited for it. (for example, my first inbetween job was on Land Before Time, but I wasn’t credited for it. My first additional animation scenes were actually on All Dogs Go to Heaven (LOVED THAT PROJECT) and my very first full animation position was on Thumblina.) back to reading

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6 Responses to A Little Unexpected Animation History

  1. maureen says:

    so pretttty! 🙂

  2. SJ O'Hart says:

    You worked on so many of my favourite movies… wow! This was great. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. WOW! I didn’t know you worked on those projects. That’s amazing! This is neat to see and learn about.

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