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Pierre De Celles on Animating Sonic the Hedgehog and Other Tales

Pierre De Celles has been working in animation production since the early 1970s. An accomplished jack of all trades, he’s done everything from layouts to storyboarding to animating to voice acting to directing. Among the many well known properties he has worked on are Smurfs, The Care Bears Movie, Spiral Zone, Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sabrina.

In animation sweatshops Big Brother is always watching.

These days when De Celles isn’t animating he teaches university animation classes in China, where he now resides. Taking our cue from the recent DVD release of The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, we asked him via email about his experiences working on this and other projects.

TOON ZONE NEWS: You worked as an animation supervisor on The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. Can you tell us a little about what your duties were? That seems to be one of those critical behind the scenes positions in animation that doesn’t get enough credit.

PIERRE DE CELLES: Yes, it is quite a strange job to be an animation supervisor. No one really knows or appreciates what we do. First off we check the storyboard for hook-up or continuity mistakes, then check the model packs and report on any mistakes or new changes. Exposure sheets must be checked and understood. Then we supervise the layout stage making sure the storyboard is understood with acting and action explanations made to the layout staff. Good key character poses can become a problem depending on the talent level or the experience of the studio, so I often have to train the people and in all the different studios there are different difficult situations. When layouts get completed then we instruct the background department on everything they should know about the style and the story concept.

Any resemblance to Mel Blanc characters living or dead is probably intentional.

Then we hand out sequences to the animator. I usually read and act out the storyboard section to the fellow as we listen to the voice track and animate any difficult actions just to make sure they get done right. We watch and correct animation through pencil testing, and check inked and painted scenes for any color or camera mistakes. Often different studios do the animation and that can become a pain in the neck schedule- and quality-wise.

And so it goes on and on with millions of other little details of which I can’t remember all. You get buried with shows that are overlapping in the production schedule and end up working 6 or 7 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. You almost go insane sometimes with all that crazy pressure.

One Sonic episode I am really proud of is “Big Daddy,” even though the editing is poor. In the opening, Sonic is chased by that monkey robot on an Eggomatic bicycle or something. It took us 4 times longer than usual because the animator was deaf and mute. All communication was done by writing and luckily my translator was just great. She was so patient with him. I would animate small in what I used to call the Magic Corner (top right position) all the action of the characters and the moving backgrounds, etc. It was a slow process but the animator was happy I did it and what he delivered was just great.

TZN: A few months ago the other Saturday morning ABC Sonic cartoon was also released on DVD, and our reviewers were quick to point out the differences with your series. Did you feel like you were in competition at the time?

Mr. McFeely never minded the rain or snow much, but sleet gave him a nervous rash.

DE CELLES: Ours was more fun and humorous while the other was serious and heavy, and we never discovered why there were such different approaches to the two series. We never felt we were in competition because we had no contact with the other team and we were too busy anyway.

TZN: This show was produced by DiC Entertainment. I’ve heard they had a reputation for being notoriously cheap in those days. Did that cause production issues?

DE CELLES:
DiC was always cheap and that was why they loved to send shows overseas. We heard of payment problems of some sort but they didn’t really affect us. What saved our bacon a bit was my recommendation that the producers send 15 shows to Akom in Korea. I had supervised there for 3 months on My Little Pony: The Movie and I trusted them. I stressed about the quality and schedule risks we would be taking in having all 65 shows done by one place. As it turns out I was right and Akom’s quality was highly consistent.

TZN: Moving on to your work as animation supervisor on Spiral Zone, one of my favorite shows, you said on the DVD that you had to turn out 65 episodes in 11 months, which sounds absolutely insane. Was that a normal schedule in the 80s, and how does it compare with today’s conditions?

DE CELLES: Well, normally no animation industry schedule is sane, and foreign studios would keep promising to produce on shorter schedules just to get the contracts. However for Spiral Zone it was a little more insane than usual. Why? I never understood!

Later in life McGruff lost his hair and his will to diet, but, unfortunately for crime, not his incisors.

And how about 5 and a half months to complete the feature film Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw?! Maybe I was insane to accept the job, but it got done and I’m proud of it because I only had the time and luxury to pencil test around 12 scenes of dancing at the pound. All the rest was checking exposure sheets, flipping drawings and even cells, and making wild guesses. I suppose that explains the quality all right, but who decided on that schedule?! A committee of blue suits??

As for today, the last job I got involved with was the French feature film U and the production schedule was about 4 months. How long they prepared for pre-production, I don’t know. I have heard of worse schedules still going on. C’est la guerre.

TZN: You stated that you wanted to take Spiral Zone in a more fantasy-oriented direction, but were told by the producers and investors to keep the show more realistic. Did you have any other notable disputes over creative direction?

DE CELLES: Well, as for disputes with producers, in the end they ignore you and you end up realizing that you are just an artist for hire. The toy line dictates the designs, and in that case Tonka was the boss.

TZN: You also mentioned that despite detailed preparation, the finished animation for Spiral Zone was often disappointing. Was this because of the time constraints or communication issues with the studios?

“On today’s show Martha takes a look at caring for your garden in the Zone.”

DE CELLES: I would honestly say that perhaps the schedule did affect the quality of the animation in Japan, but most of the time it was just unprofessional habits and lack of talent. The Japanese staff I dealt with tended to have a bad ego problem and they would cut corners all the time to follow the schedule without caring much about producing quality results. Naturally they would put the blame on the supervisor or bad communication.

Furthermore they were not great animators. They could move drawings, but only in a limited fashion. The way the pinheaded Duchess Dire runs in one sequence is as stiff and as bad as can be. Even weapons effects and explosion effects were so badly done that sometimes by the end of the day I wanted to kill the animators or Zone them. You can have Japanese animation. In my opinion it’s a great myth.

Dirk and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

TZN: Did you have any cultural issues dealing with Japanese staff? Was it common for animation supervisors of other Japanese animated American programs like Transformers to be based in Japan as you were?

DE CELLES: Well, there is always a small cultural problem to face. I used to hand out the required layouts to the different heads of around 12 freelance studios. I would describe the storyboard action and identify the models to be used, etc. One day I had these 2 Japanese guys telling me they could not do an A to F pan with an action layout. They kept arguing until I got so angry I hit the desk with my fist, then drew the whole layout in front of their eyes with all the key poses in just a few minutes! Oops! I made them lose face, and after that I had to hand out to an assistant director and he would deal with the other studios.

Once I wrote a menacing letter to a studio about an incredibly bad show they had done, warning them they would be out if their stuff didn’t improve. The next show they did was great, and I then congratulated them and thanked them. The problem in Japan in general is that they don’t like to be told they failed at a job, even if they know they did. The whole business of losing face is such a pain in the tail there. In the U.S. or Canada, if one really screws up one says “I’m so stupid,” fixes the problem, apologizes, and the matter is resolved. I am polite with everyone but please don’t lie to my face.

The many faces of Overlord: vexed, enraged, homicidal, constipated.

Overall I was happy in Tokyo and I had some good experiences, but it was frustrating to see so much crap animation and sabotage of action panorama scenes by cutting them into two scenes, etc., etc. Also yes it used to be customary to send one or two supervisors overseas for a long series, and it was necessary.

TZN: Do you have any memories that stand out about storyboarding on Smurfs and Tiny Toons? I imagine the latter was especially challenging as the animation is so fast-paced and elastic.

DE CELLES: Storyboarding for Smurfs and Tiny Toons was fun but a big challenge because I always had a short schedule, and it’s not always easy to work full blast nonstop. I would usually put a lot of care into preparing my model packs, cutting and pasting all the poses of each character on one sheet, and the same with props and locations. That way I knew where everything was and I could concentrate on drawing, etc. Tiny Toons required a lot more key expression and attitude poses, so instead of 3 to 4 panels a scene, I would end up doing 6 or 8 panels a scene. It was all about the characters.

TZN: What is the most frustrating professional experience you’ve had as an animator?

DE CELLES: I actually just discovered that I didn’t get a credit on U. I decided to leave the project because the Shanghai studio never did the retakes I asked seven times for. Then the director sent me a retake list exactly the same as mine.

Venkman’s LSD montage, one of the many Ghostbusters deleted scenes.

I had to listen to the track in French, do the layout key poses and write the dialogue accordingly, direct the exposure sheets and explain it all to the animators. I asked the producer why the exposure sheets were blank with no direction, and he told me ”It is to give you more freedom….” So I asked him if I could change the timing but he said instead just add 6 frames for security at the beginning and at the end. Oh, I see.

I believe I supervised the animation and retakes for more than 80% of the film, without receiving credit. So there is another example of the difficult life of an animation supervisor.

TZN: Compared to when you first started, do you feel the industry has changed for the better or worse for animators? Do you miss working with cel animation, or is animating with computers superior?

DE CELLES: For animators the industry around the world has gotten worse indeed, and it’s harder and harder to find a decent job. Often there are cliques of people who stick together and when there is a film project they get involved and only their friends get a job. The new kid often doesn’t get a chance no matter how talented he is.

Ah, 80s standards and practices. No bullets allowed, but intestine-incinerating lasers were A-OK.

Computers are just stupid tools but since they are so user friendly, the so-called new generation of animators is full of people that don’t know anything about drawing. In fact many are not artists or creators and I feel what they do is crap.

I do miss cel animation. If like me you saw some of the original Sleeping Beauty cels, your mouth would drop to the floor. That’s pure art. No computer-animated films can compete with the greatest of the Disney features from 1937 to 1957.

TZN: Recently you’ve been teaching animation classes in China. Do you think China is poised to dominate animation production in the near future? Are American and Japanese animators going to be out of a job?

DE CELLES: I have been teaching animation to 14 students for the last 6 months in Chang Chun where I am a guest professor, and all we do is draw, draw, and draw some more. I want them to improve the software in their head, their real computer. But China faces big problems because everyone leans towards 3D animation. So there’s no need to draw and consequently their 2D animation training program is poor. I don’t know what my students learned in the previous 3 years but it sure ain’t animation. A lot of money is poured into animation industrial parks but in reality that is only real estate investment.

They are going about things the wrong way and it’s not surprising. These government heads are ignorant about film animation production. Even the heads of animation schools know little besides how to collect fees. The things they really need to develop are their imagination and creative talent because they do not have experience in creating, selling and distributing TV series. So no, they are not going to dominate animation production, only a few talented producers will continue to do well and for all the animators around the world it will still be a matter of survival. Do the best you can and be lucky, that is the nature of the animation industry.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Pierre De Celles for taking the time to share with us.

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