David Sproxton
"Jurassic Park I think has proved the need for those computer animators to actually use the skills of a real animator, to put that emotion into the characters."
Emru Townsend: You do everything with stop-motion, puppets, and so on. But there's not as much drawn animation. Or for that matter, computer [animation], which is a lot closer to stop-motion and puppet because of the 3-D aspect. Obviously, I haven't seen most of your commercials, but I've seen the Sledgehammer video, of course--you couldn't get away from that a few years ago. But do you see yourself doing more drawn work in the future?

David Sproxton: I don't think we'll do drawn work. We will do computer work. We do hire in some 2-D guys when we do it, but it is so well covered in the studios in London, it's really just not worth us trying to get into it. And in a way it's a saturated market. We haven't done it in so long... Jeff is actually quite a good 2-D animator. He works with a guy called Neville Astley, who is an excellent 2-D animator, and he is a highly-demanded freelancer, and works at all the big studios. And they're great mates, and they've done lots of stuff together. And it's very funny, they're quite interesting in that Jeff and he are working together on a film script, and Neville Astley, who is the 2-D guy, has no interest in the production at all... He has absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. He'll write it with Jeff, who'll go away with it. And Jeff really loves all that stuff, and will actually get very bored slaving over a hot light box for hours.

But on the computer side, yes. Mainly because what we see ourselves doing is putting character into films. Models, human forms, milk bottles, whatever. And in a way Jurassic Park I think has proved the need for those computer animators to actually use the skills of a real animator, to put that emotion into the characters.

There are a couple of outfits in London that we work with, have a close liaison with, a kind of a symbiosis. They want to work with us because they see us as being able to put into their work all the character which they want, but actually also they can operate the machinery and... They're more than technicians, they're pretty good animators. But in a way they're not animation directors, and that's the difference. I would think in the next couple of years it's going to come of age. And we're looking quite seriously at [developing] a fairly close liaison with one of two big companies in London. One is run by a guy called Dave Throssel, who does a lot of work for commercials, and the other is a guy called Christian Hogue, who actually worked at ILM for a year or so on Terminator 2. He's a pretty good computer animator. There's also an outfit in Bristol that we are doing some experiments with. And it's an area that we know that in five years' time, they'll be in use at the studio, [so] of course we'll bring it on board. And also because of the kind of multimedia stuff. You know there'll be more kind of combining live-action, 2-D, 3-D...

Have you done anything like Jurassic Park, combining live-action and computer animation?

We've done a number of commercials which combine live-action with animation--both model and computer. In fact, there's one which we've just finished for Britain. It's a pretty wacky commercial, it's quite silly. It features a manic Scotsman in his baronial hall, and everything comes to life. There's a huge moose's head, there's bagpipes... they're all real models. But I know that whenever we think about doing feature films, [we'll have to use them] one way or another, just to get you around the problems you're going to have. You're going to have to have kind of a multimedia approach to it. You know you're going to have to have some computer work in there, even if it's just taking out rigs or it's enhancing scenes or it's flying a guy through space or something like that. We know we will, as long as we've got access to it. And it's horses for courses, you know, it's using whatever tools are appropriate.

In a way it's quite exciting, I just wish that on the computer side that... the software is getting there, but it's still not answering all the questions the animator wants. It's getting there. And it's still quite slow. We'd had a long chat with Dave Throssel quite recently, and he said "Actually guys, you're better off doing what you do in your way. We still cannot do what you do."

Do you know those Pillsbury Doughboy spots? We had been offered a script a couple of years ago, to do in clay, and we were bidding against, I don't know, Will Vinton and a couple of other studios. And this last spot was done at PDI [Pacific Data Images] as a straight computer spot. And this is very interesting, because obviously they'd convinced the client that they could get the dough to look like dough, they'd convinced them that they could retain its character. And it was pretty good, but I thought we could have done it in exactly the same way, but if Peter had directed it, it would have just had so much more character. They hadn't given him any weight, hadn't given him any gravity. And it's little things like that, when you talk to Peter about a shot, or Nick, he's always talking about shifting centres of gravity, and weight--it's what makes it more credible. I know that if [you're a] human being and standing a certain way, you're going to fall over. So if you see a model that's standing a certain way, you don't believe it, it's ridiculous. If you're doing something for comic effect, it's all about that whole shifting weight thing.

Of course with a model, you really do have to shift its weight.

Absolutely, yes. And you can tie things down, use magnets.

But in using computers, in a way it's not so obvious. You literally don't feel it, and you're not as aware of that centre of gravity problem. So you need somebody who is trained in spotting and understanding what makes it read as a credible model, really.

That's probably why Pixar does so well, because John Lasseter was out of Disney and classically trained.

Absolutely. I mean, he just does brilliant stuff, really. I think his feature is going to be exciting.

Yeah, Toy Story. Speaking of features, this year Disney is releasing Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, they're claiming that this is going to be the first stop-motion feature film, although I don't know how accurate that is...

I should think it's pretty close to it. There was a Scandinavian film, a feature about a bicycle racer, which I've never seen.

I tend to be skeptical of Disney's "firsts," because so far just about every time they've been wrong. "First American" is what they really mean. Anyway, I'm wondering if you've got plans for a feature. The Wrong Trousers was a half an hour, so you're halfway there, practically.

Yes, yes. Funnily enough, actually, we are currently talking to Disney. They're very interested in doing something with us. It's a matter of getting the right project and coming up with the right idea. And that's been kind of on and off for about a year, I guess. The biggest problem that we see, and in a way we saw it when we visited the studio in San Francisco where they were shooting Nightmare Before Christmas... it was controlling it, keeping them motivated. And it's a long haul, because it was two years' work. Say, for example Nick was directing it. He would try to animate some of it, but he would only end up animating about 2% of it because physically, he wouldn't have the time because of all the other directorial input he'd have to get down. The Wrong Trousers, it was 15 months' shooting, and the last two or three months were really hard work, because we were aiming to get the film finished for Annecy.

It was a really long haul, and if you talk to Nick, he'd say, "I really don't want to do that again for a little while." And the idea of doing that kind of thing three times over is actually a little daunting. There's all this psychological stuff, it's like, Oh my God, we're embarking on this project, it's going to be three years we're going to be working on the same script, same sets, the same characters... three years? It's a mountain. Regardless of how good the idea is, you're setting your sights a long way off. A lot of things change over that time, and you've got to keep the team motivated. And that really is the biggest practical problem. You know you can do it, you know physically that you can make your sets, and build the models, and do all that sort of stuff, and you know at the end of the day you're going to wind up with a very interesting script. But then, oh my God, you're going to need 150 people, and they're going to get tired, they're going to get anxious, they're going to get bored. And how do you keep everybody moving on? If you're doing a live-action feature, what is it, you're going to shoot it in twelve weeks. The whole thing turns around. Whoever you are, unless you're the director, you're in and out of there in twelve weeks, pretty much.

Well, it's a basic tenet of animation. I mean, a minute's worth of film is something like 1400 frames. You can at least theoretically shoot a minute's worth of film in a minute, in live-action.

When you're shooting commercials, it's like thirty seconds, so it's like, okay, it's only a month, we can get through that. And strangely, there's something quite satisfying about the way that you can turn them around every couple of months.

So yes, we're looking towards a feature film, especially after we cut our teeth on The Wrong Trousers. It's a little way off, I doubt if we'll get started for another couple of years really, and in the meantime we'll be doing another half-hour special which Nick is co-writing and will be directing. I think we'll probably make perhaps a couple of short films, like ten-minute films, which may or may not be based on Wallace and Gromit.

Well, it's obvious from their characters even in A Grand Day Out that they could be fun characters to work with.

Yes, and he's a got a lot of little stories where you just put them in ridiculous situations. I think some of his ideas would work really well as short films, say ten minutes with those two characters, make them very, very funny, and do maybe two or three of them.

There's Rex the Runt. We're working that up as a ten-minute series.

Where is that airing now?

It doesn't. We made those two as pilots, basically, with the idea of slotting them into a compilation show, a bit like a Liquid TV kind of thing. They run about two minutes, and they're quite difficult to slot in as two minutes, so we thought, well, let's up it to ten minutes, which makes it a little bit easier to schedule and in a way they can then stand alone, but they can go into a brief programming slot, or a late night show, or something like that. So that's the plan, to get those off the ground, as probably thirteen ten-minute episodes.

[One idea we're considering is] a kind of compilation film, a half-hour film. [It's a matter of] finding a format of showing an eclectic range of films. Because there's so many short animated films, and they're very difficult to schedule individually on TV, so rack them into a half-hour slot and suddenly you've got a program.

Sort of like Four-Mations.

Yeah, exactly.

Is Four-Mations back now?

Oh yes, it's a regularly-occurring thing. That sort of works, but doesn't work perhaps as well as it could be. And also, it's a bit of a scrapbook, it's a bit of a hodge-podge. And what the commissioner is trying to do is actually make it into a program, maybe the wraparound is as interesting as the films, or more interesting than some of the films, so you watch it as an entity.

Liquid Television could stand a little bit of that [laughs]

Yeah. It's quite a difficult thing to make work. The more we thought about it, the more we thought, right, we're going to actually have to commission these short films, presumably, so it does gel and it is kind of seamless.

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