Tony White on "Animation from Pencils to Pixels"
Tony White’s 30+ year animation career began in studying graphic design, typography, and illustration at East Ham Technical College in London. After graduation, he began with Britain’s Halas and Bachelor, directing two award-winning short films (Quartet and A Short Tall Story) and as Head of Design of the Jackson Five TV series. From there, White apprenticed with famed animation director Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler), where White worked on the Academy Award winning A Christmas Carol (1971), as well as the memorable animated titles for The Pink Panther Strikes Again. His time with Williams’ studio (where he also worked with famed Warner Brothers and Disney animators Ken Harris and Art Babbit) led to his first short film Hokusai – An Animated Sketchbook, which won him a British Academy Award.
The success of Hokusai led to the founding of Animus Productions, which produced numerous TV commercials and two animated films based on Richard Macaulay’s famous construction books: Cathedral and Pyramid, and experimented with the mixed-medium TV series The Ink Thief. White’s 1988 book The Animator’s Workbook is still required reading in animation classrooms worldwide. White moved to the United States in 1998, and is currently teaching animation at the DigiPen Institute of Technology. White has also recently established the Animaticus Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, education and evolution of traditional 2D animation in a digital world.
In 2002, White began work on his latest film, a heartfelt homage to animation entitled Endangered Species, and the sequel to The Animator’s Workbook with the ambitious title Animation from Pencils to Pixels. Toon Zone News caught up with Mr. White via e-mail on the eve of his book’s release to talk about the new book and the current state of animation.
TOON ZONE NEWS: What triggered you to write the new book?
TONY WHITE: When I began Animation from Pencils to Pixels back in 2003, the animation industry – and by “the animation industry” I mean the hand-drawn, 2D animation industry – was in a more than sorry state. I had foreseen that the writing was on the wall for not only the Disney studio, but also the entire industry too. The advent of serious 3D animation software plus the closure of the 2D department at Disney by Michael Eisner was just the culmination of an expectation as far as I was concerned. Eisner’s Disney – “Corporate Disney’ as I preferred to call it – had nothing to do with animated artistry, profound storytelling or accomplished filmmaking as it had been a long time before under Walt’s inspiration. Instead it was more a shameless exercise in “selling-off the family jewels,” “maximizing assets,” and “downsizing quality whilst maximizing profits.” This of course was in total contradiction to what Walt originally stood for but many people had to accept at the time that Michael Eisner’s way was the only way. He was after all the head of a great legacy. How could he possibly be wrong?
Roy E. Disney (the nephew of the great founder) could see the truth however and decided to stand up and fight. Roy, like every creative person, recognized that the world of corporate rationalization has very little to do with creative originality or artistic innovation. Creative freedom and the time to allow the creative magic to happen was the very thing that Walt Disney had fought for throughout his lifetime. Sadly the Eisner corporate regime didn’t agree with this. “Corporate Disney’s” formula had a philosophy of course, but its safe, short-term philosophy led to productions which, sadly, made its products unimaginative, creatively politically correct, and invariably predictable. They financially failed in all but the very short-term, which is what the Eisner years were effectively all about. In closing the 2D animation division, Michael Eisner proclaimed that 2D animation was “dead.” He was entirely wrong in that ludicrous statement of course. 2D animation was neither dead nor in trouble, at least not in the imaginative, expressive world outside of Hollywood, where great films were made by such filmmakers as Sylvan Chomet, Hayao Miyazaki and a whole new, exciting breed of Japanese filmmakers, to list but a few. In terms of “Corporate Disney 2D animation,” he was correct. It was dead – the gray vision of the time had assured that. The really cruel irony in all this was the fact that the 2D animators at the studio were made to be the public scapegoats of the management’s failure to make any impact in the box-office. Corporate Disney had actually become exceedingly competent at distributing other people’s animation – specifically the great Miyazaki’s – but they had become totally incapable of producing anything significant themselves.
Sadly, the failure of corporate Disney equated with the failure of the 2D industry to flourish in the face of the 3D revolution. Not that I feel they need to compete anyway. 2D is 2D, 3D is 3D and rarely the twain need ever meet. What was most worrying was that 2D did not move with the tastes and moods of the time, the way 3D did. This hurt me very much. I had spent over three decades attempting to push boundaries of 2D filmmaking, seeking to effect a change in my own particular corner of the industry. But this was swimming upstream, and the closure of the Disney studio only increased the flow that we were now all swimming against.
Only those who have experienced the kind of genuine apprenticeship system that studios like Disney offered till this time will truly understand what was lost when it closed. Traditions die when a new generation of emergent artists is lost through neglect and missed opportunity. If nothing was done, then the great knowledge of countless accumulated decades of 2D practice and accomplishment would be lost for all time. Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) were the great teachers of the past generation, but who could follow them in the future if the priceless tradition was lost to the digital world of today?
I decided I HAD to do something that would in some small way to bridge the classical world of the past with the exciting and innovative digital world of the present. I also needed to remind the world of the tremendous legacy that was in danger of being lost. The making of my film Endangered Species, and the parallel writing of my book Animation from Pencils to Pixels, was a way of hopefully doing this. If I could give everyone out there everything I’d learned over a thirty year period in my life, then perhaps someone, somewhere, would have the weapons to reverse the trend. 2D animation needed ‘the One’ (or even ‘the Ones’?) to save it and just maybe my efforts would encourage the process. Once the notion grabbed me, it became an obsession. The obsession took hold of over thre years of my life. Now the obsession has been exorcised, perhaps I can claim back my life. But, in riding the storm, I especially hope the book will, in some small way, redress the damage that corporate thinking has had on the industry. Let’s pray that the filmmakers of tomorrow will take what is good about 2D animation’s past and leap off into the abyss and explore its future.
TZN: Is the new book related to the cancelled Animation Masterclass text that’s mentioned on your website?
WHITE: I am smiling at that question as it seems that my recent life has all been about tying up loose ends and moving forward even more positively. The failure of Animation Masterclass was very much to do with skewered objectives and broad misunderstandings. It was in many ways an attempt to write a preview to the book I have now written. As it turns out, I ended up with nothing at all published when the dust had finally settled! In all fairness, I’m afraid I have a problem settling for mediocrity and in the final analysis that was unfortunately the way that that book was heading. I was very proud of my first book for the publisher, The Animator’s Workbook, and proud to be associated with some fantastic people at Watson-Guptill at the time. However, I could see that the material in this 1980’s book desperately needed to be updated, since the entire industry had moved on since its inception. Although the book still sells well, even today, it really did need to address the digital age. Consequently, almost seventeen years later, I proposed to Watson-Guptill that I write a sequel to the Workbook and call it Animation Masterclass.
Sadly, the whole affair started with high hopes but ended in tears. My first delivered manuscript draft contained over 600 pages of intensive material. When I was asked to write more and give even more information about modern technology, I was happy to do so. I ended up delivering a manuscript that was well over 730 pages long, accompanied by over 300 illustrations, many of which were original artwork especially drawn up for the book. However, when it came to the point of editing for publication, I found that the majority of my words had been cut extraordinarily. I suggested that I was not happy with the way this was going and was told that the book was always meant to have the same number of pages that the Workbook had (precisely 160) and therefore much needed to go. I asked why it was suddenly to be such a short book, when I had delivered over 600 pages of original manuscript, plus so many illustrations and was asked to write another 100 pages. There was no clear answer, other than it had always meant to be that number of pages, which was the prelude to a long and painful series of expressed emotion that ultimately ended up with nothing being published at all. The bottom line was that here was over two years of my life down the drain and still I could not express what I wanted to express about animation and how it was done. Anyway, after many months of frustration and a licking my wounds, I again felt the powerful need to share my knowledge, my experience and my love for animation with like-minded others. Consequently, I began to animate Endangered Species and from that, began writing the book that would explain all I knew and all I did to bring the film to life. Animation from Pencils to Pixels was born.
TZN: So what accounts for the much-enlarged size of Animation from Pencils to Pixels compared to The Animator’s Workbook?
WHITE: I state in Animation from Pencils to Pixels that The Animator’s Workbook is a valuable primer and it should be referred to if basic material is required. I am still very proud of what that book has achieved, and still achieves, in the educational field. However, I don’t see that there is any comparison between this new book and my old one. It is very much an advanced companion to the Workbook dealing with the here and now of the animation reality. I wrote the Workbook back in the mid 1980’s, when I had been in the industry just over a decade and now I write this one with a further two decades of experience and accomplishment to add. Clearly a lot of animation has flowed under the bridge between the two ventures.
What makes this new book so much more progressive is the fact that a) it is based entirely on the new film I made especially for this purpose, b) it has a 400 page interactive disk explaining the scene-by-scene making of the film, c) it contains an extensive, almost 500 page, explanation of the principles of animation, but also production, distribution, filmmaking and other aspects of the “modern media” world related to animation, and d) an extensive, 100 page explanation of the kinds of repetitive stress injuries that long-haul desktop and computer animators are subject to and methods that can allow these conditions to be avoided. As I suggest in the introduction, it is the kind of book I always wanted to find during my career but was never available. Until now, of course.
TZN: You mentioned sections for production, distribution, and other similar concerns in an otherwise technical is an interesting choice. What drove the inclusion of those sections in the book?
WHITE: I guess what I’ve written is in response to my long-suffering frustrations in learning how the mainstream film world works in general. I learned that it’s not easy to break into an industry without any influential contacts or lucky breaks here and there to ease the way. I just wanted to give an overview on everything I discovered in my (ultimately abortive) journey into trying to get new and innovative full-length movies off the ground. Although all I’ve written is reflective of the system as I now know and understand it, my personal position has changed somewhat in that I now recognize that the auteur route and not the mainstream route is the only one for me. Auteur production is where the filmmaker is effectively the writer, the director, the producer and the film’s business manager all rolled into one. My problem with the mainstream is that it rarely breaks new ground or takes creative risks the way that the independent cinema can.
This was why I turned down Disney once, when they wanted me to direct Duck Tales: The Movie in London many years ago. I asked them why they had approached me. They told me that it was because my body of work was unlike anyone’s they had seen. I then naturally asked if I could change the script and re-work the designs of the project. They said no, the script, the storyboard and the designs were already approved in Burbank. I then asked them what I could actually bring to the project, as there were probably many people in Hollywood who could direct Donald Duck style films better than I. They didn’t have a clear answer on this one, although I had already made my mind up to decline the offer anyway. The whole experience totally confirms my suspicions about working in the mainstream and so I have never really been at all interested in traveling the already well-trodden path of predictable Hollywood productions. You see, I inherently need to always strive for new things, new approaches and new creative directions. It could well be that I will never direct a movie of my own choosing, in the way I want to. But, at the same time, I will never cease attempting to break new ground with my work in some way or another, because I believe that’s the only way quality, significant 2D animation can survive in the digital future. Anyway, this section in the book may assist other filmmakers to make the breakthrough that I have never been able to make myself. That is my hope and that is the reason why I chose to include it.
TZN: The RSI section is possibly the most unusual addition to a “how-to” book. Did this come from personal understanding and “hands-on” experience, or did you consult with the medical community for this section of the book?
WHITE: Yes, this section was totally born of my own painful experiences as a long-haul animator. Along that painful, sedentary way I encountered many conventional medical opinions that led nowhere but to the inevitable bottle of painkillers or irreversible surgical intervention. I thought that there had to be a better way, so I went to the complimentary/preventative medicine route to explore and test out alternative possibilities. I learned that, ultimately, the best cure is in prevention and so I thought that if I provided this information to similar animation-obsessive individuals as myself, they wouldn’t need to travel the same battle-scarred journey that I did. The exercises work and they are harmless if approached as I advise.
However, not being a medical authority, I have to add the obligatory warning that they should all be done in consultation with the reader’s own medical advisor and treated with care and sensitivity to the limits of the individual’s own body. As a work of caution and a program of prevention, the material I offer here is priceless in my opinion. For many animators there may never be the need to even be concerned with this matter. However many others (a great number of which have already made themselves known to me since I announced that I was adding this section) will benefit for the concerted time and effort that they devote to this material. I wish no-one needed to know these things and that they find their careers pain-free. However, experience and statistics show me that this will be far from the truth and as it is an issue that has never been dealt with before I thought it imperative to include it in my book this time around.
TZN: Computer graphics have had a tremendous impact on animation lately. What do you think is the best thing that computers bring to the art of animation? Conversely, what do you think is the biggest drawback of computer animation?
WHITE: I think the core response is that computer software will enable artists to be better animators with the advanced toolsets they offer. But, conversely, if you take the animator out of the software, you merely have technicians who can make things move but are not “animators” in the truest sense of the word. I think actually that the world is beginning to tire of the evolving “sameness” of what 3D animation can do, just as it tired of the 2D sameness before. Certainly the last few mainstream movies from Hollywood – with the sole exception of the remarkable Pixar movies – are so similar in style and content that it verges on the ludicrous. Consequently, if traditional animators can but use software to compliment the capabilities they have with their drawing skills, and can advance their work stylistically with the best that digital design can offer, then 2D filmmaking will truly go to places that were unexplored before.
You know, it’s strange, but in recent months I’ve met so many people who are regretting the demise of 2D. These are not even necessarily animators or committed enthusiasts. They’re just “general public” folk who like to see the hand-drawn, sometimes-flawed interpretation of what movement and storytelling can be. The feel I have is that they believe that there is something almost soulful about the way a hand-crafted film is put together, unlike the more perfect, technical feel of a computer generated one. Computer-driven 3D animation can be miraculous, and it has a huge advantage in that it can stylistically rediscover itself on each occasion it is used. However, the almost plastic perfection of the image that 3D animation offers can become so repetitive if it is not constantly pushed to new horizons. 3D animators: learn the lessons that the 2D world succumbed to!
I somehow feel that it is often better to see the flaws of a great artist struggling to bring life to inanimate drawings than it is to have a photo-realistic-looking character transitioning evenly and perfectly, the way that much computer software animation does. Just as traditional painting/drawing is so different to photography, then so too is 2D different to 3D. They both need to have their respective virtues exploited and explored to the maximum if animation is to grow or evolve. After all, arguably the best animated film over the past couple of years was Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which is essentially nothing more than lumps of clay being pushed in all directions and with the fingerprints of the animators still visible in many of the shots to prove it! I therefore believe that the challenge of the modern, digital 2D animator is not to get as close to 3D perfection as possible but to instead pursue the illustrative, caricature aspect of the artform, as the “Golden Age” Disney animators often did. I ask you in all seriousness, has any computer animation ever rivaled the surreal magnificence of the great Max Fleischer animated films for example? It IS capable of doing so, of course, but has it?
To achieve animated greatness requires great knowledge, artistry and advanced design skills to move the artform forward in ways that are new, refreshing and even surprising to modern audiences. I still believe that 2D animation, at its very best, is capable of comparison to Leonardo, Rembrandt or more recently, Louis Comfort Tiffany. I am therefore extremely excited by the capability of Flash, ToonBoom or Mirage – applications that enable the traditional animator to express themselves with more capability and versatility. Throughout both Endangered Species and Animation from Pencils to Pixels, I hope the message that comes across to contemporary, digital animators is that they should never neglect the “humble pencil” in favor of technology for technology’s sake. The pencil is still the greatest technology we have at our fingertips (no pun intended!). Indeed, as I have said many times, from the tip of a pencil, great universes can emerge. In truth, we have barely scratched the surface of what 2D animation can do!
TZN: There have been many articles and books on adapting traditional hand-drawn animation techniques to computer animation (John Lasseter wrote a famous one for an earlier SIGGRAPH). Does this knowledge transfer go the other way? Is there anything that CGI animators can teach the hand-drawn animation crowd?
WHITE: Yes, of course! Being an animator requires that we learn from all that life has to offer us. To close our eyes to any of it is to shut ourselves down as both artists and creators. John Lasseter is the master of animation’s transformation: taking the best of the classical past and merging it with the best of the digital present. I have high hopes that he will weave his magic back into the old hand-crafted tradition by moving Disney artists firmly back to the lightbox. Only good things can come from that. Doing so would surely offer renaissance to the entire industry. (Although I hope that no one believes I equate “2D animation” solely with “Disney animation.” Far from it!) 2D animation is a law unto itself. Walt Disney just took an aspect of that artform and guided it skillfully along a path of magnificent accomplishment. There are still other and infinite realms of horizons for the accomplished 2D animator to explore. We have barely seen the tip of the iceberg of what 2D animation can do, believe me! New technology allows us to travel to those new horizons with greater tools and a greater capability. The traditionalist ignores this at their peril. If only I had the technology of today over thirty years ago when I first began my career! What wonders I could have performed with my pencil-powered imagination! I only hope that these aging eyes and creaking limbs of mine, together with a ceaseless passion for the art form, give me sufficient resource still to explore where I really wanted to explore all that time ago.
TZN: A lot of The Animator’s Workbook seems to assume that all animation would be done in-house, but a lot of modern animation is “outsourced” overseas. How do you feel about this trend? Does the new book talk about managing animation that needs to be outsourced?
WHITE: I can only start by offering a generalized, political answer to this. As far as I am concerned, outsourcing of all kinds is a dangerously notion and, in my humblest of opinions, entirely against the national interests of the country from which the outsourcing originates. When work is sent abroad it does nothing whatsoever for the economy or the employment interests of the country of origin, and (apart from making a few individuals at the very top far richer) it actually enables the other country (sometimes the originating country’s political opposition) to flourish and better expand their nationalist capabilities to the detriment of the first. Of course, if the outsourcing is done with humanitarian interests at heart it can be a good thing (i.e., to give pride of purpose to a struggling or emergent nation). However, such things are rarely done with these kinds of motives. It is usually more to do with exploiting cheap labor so that self-seeking profiteers can make more gain for themselves. I am totally in favor of free enterprise and the rights for anyone, anywhere to be earn an honest buck, but I do draw the line when the process involves harming, exploiting or oppressing others to do so.
In animation terms, I believe the process of finding somewhere cheaper to produce a product for economic reasons only is such a short-sighted policy. If it is for artistic/aesthetic reasons however, I am in favor of it. I have never been in the “volume” marketplace – i.e., producing animation in quantities of a number of programs – so I cannot speak from experience here. However, I do mourn the fact that the industry in the West has been in perpetual decline since outsourcing began. True this has allowed poor economies to get better and I applaud that for I support the rights of all people to improve and evolve, as long as it doesn’t allow for coercion or compulsion or the exploitation of the weak or innocent by the strong or greedy. However, with cheapness comes mediocrity and once audiences are accustomed to mediocrity, the aesthetic standards become lowered and this removes any chance of artistic or aesthetic evolution. We, the industry, have suffered in the main for adopting a “cheaper at all costs” policy. People like Walt Disney, John Lasseter at Pixar, or even places like Britain’s Aardman Studios, are the only ones to contradict this trend, and just look at what they have achieved. Isn’t there a significant model here that everyone can learn by? Can you imagine Walt condoning the outsourcing of labor for Pinocchio, Fantasia or Bambi? I’m sure that the Pixar catalogue of films could have been animated cheaper abroad, pleasing accountants and the gray Corporatus Executus amongst us, but would they now be the magical “classics” that they undoubtedly have become? Surely it’s better for each country to support and encourage its own indigenous industry on the basis of style and culture, rather than sell out cheap to any exploitative influences. (And here speaks an artistic “prostitute” who made over 200 commercials, simply to obtain the funds, skills and equipment to do better things!) I have no doubt that the world and the animation culture will be a more fulfilling and inspirational experience for the differences it will invoke if each country’s animation industry was supported from within.
In terms of my book, I have essentially created a reference work that can be adopted in any part of the work, by anyone, of any culture, creed or religion. With right knowledge and a physical ability to produce animation, I hope to liberate the source of animated films from the media-centric locations and open them up to a truly worldwide capability. So if you see the book as offering teaching to outsourced artists in China and India and wherever else, then yes I have dealt with this issue and hope it becomes a reality. If, however, you see the book as enabling anyone from living rooms to extended studios to better understand how to animate and how to make animated films too, then yes I have addressed that issue too.
TZN: DVD has changed the way a lot of work is presented today, and you even include one in the book. How would say the rise of DVD and the home video market has changed the way animation is made?
WHITE: Firstly, let me correct you. The disk in the book is actually a CD, not a DVD. I had originally intended to make it an authored DVD, so the publisher therefore added that intention to the promotional material they distributed before the book was completed. However, in later investigating the best and most efficient way I could go with the disk material, I found that an interactive PDF file was actually much better for my needs. There are around 400 pages of interactive text and animation to deal with in this part of the book and this would not have been handled well by established authoring technology. So, I played around with the new Acrobat software and came up with the infinitely better material that’s in the book now. Unfortunately this changeover never hit the publisher until almost the last moment; hence the DVD mention is still perpetuated in some quarters of the media. I think all the latest publicity clearly mentions that it’s a CD in the book, not a DVD.
I have always been excited by the potential of any disk authoring method. Having suffered at the hands of short-sighted and unimaginative movie distributors and TV executives (i.e. they just cannot visualize the content or elegance of the kind of animated material I like to produce), I find the “direct-to-market” potential that DVDs offer the independent producer of any film material irresistible. Anything that eliminates the middle man in the film business can only enhance the possibilities of innovation and evolution in animation, as most of them are sadly only conditioned to think in terms of the (invariably predictable) “cartoon” norm. I think too that when the Internet can deliver full-screen, real-time exhibition, the marketplace will be even more accessible to independent filmmakers and/or animators. With this facility, filmmakers, like independent musicians before them, will be able to reach out to their own audiences and sell, or rent, their products direct to the customer. This will potentially open the floodgates to true free expression in the medium. The drawback, of course, is that it will also give opportunity to bad filmmakers to make and distribute bad films, bringing down the reputation of animation even further if there are too many of them! However, I am a great believer in a truly “free market” system, where the buying public will vote with their credit cards on what they want, or what they like. Sadly, with mainstream TV, there is very little choice as you flip through the channels with great futility. The cinema, in the main, pushes similar such stereotypes to audiences starved of alternative choice. With the sell-through DVD opportunity and a much more appetizing Internet revolution hopefully on the way, animators should then be in total control of their films and their marketing opportunities.
TZN: Kids are growing up with the technology and are making their own little films and such at a young age today. Do you think that kids growing up with more access to the tools to make animation will result in sort of a boom of animators in the upcoming decade?
WHITE: I see this as a period very similar to the period when Walt Disney was when he made Snow White. New technology is racing ahead at a speed of knots and individuals and small studios everywhere are making short films, competing in a very small marketplace. Walt succeeded in raising the bar by not only mastering and manipulating the technology better than everyone else but also by pushing the boundaries of what people say can and can’t be done. I am reminded of that great quote by John Andrew Holmes: “Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” I think that this sums up the potential that new technology offers everyone. Animation is in a bit of a matrix loop right now. Everything that is being produced is very much like everything else. Nothing is challenging any more; nothing is breaking through existing perceptions. There is every reason why there might be ‘the One’ out there who will change it all and move it on. Certainly, the technical capability is available on the average desktop computer these days, now that the digital revolution has removed the need for the big studio. I hope that Animation from Pencils to Pixels will give everyone the tools and information to try.
Creatively it is tempting to say that anyone with a computer and animation software can easily make a film. In reality, that is far from the truth. In the book, I have a brief chapter that discusses the “paperless animation” studio. I do believe it feasible and I do believe that some creative people are capable of doing this now. However, the fundamental point through the entire book is that, regardless of the form of animation you are attempting, whatever way you approach the subject, there is absolutely no progress to be made without two important capabilities: the ability to draw and a knowledge of the key principles of movement. Everything in animation requires both of these skills at the artist’s fingertips – literally and figuratively – and suggests that without either of them no significant progress can be made. If you don’t believe me on this one, consider John Lasseter and the Pixar team. They have always based animation excellence on traditional principles and a respect for a drawing capability!
Everything we do in the creative world begins with pencil and paper… the more defined and accomplished our thoughts are on the paper, using that pencil, the better will we be able to achieve our stated objective. Look at the websites of some of the best 3D animators, let alone the 2D ones, and you will see a great propensity and capability for drawing, and even a few have 2D animation to show as well. The folly of our technological age is the belief that with just a computer, loaded with the appropriate software, any animation is possible. It is not so. Someone skilled in computer software is still a “technician.” Someone with knowledge of drawing and movement is an “artist.”
On this understanding I wrote Animation from Pencils to Pixels. I do firmly believe that it contains just about anything, any animator will need to know to move the craft of animation forward… just add software! I have tried to bridge the gap between the great knowledge of the past and the wonderful technology of the present and the future. The two absolutely have to go hand in hand if the great tradition of 2D animation is to evolve, or survive. What it can’t do of course, is give you the hours, days and years of experience in drawing and execution. That has to be down to the reader and the reader alone. Nevertheless, I hope it will be deemed the best source material any aspiring animator of the future will ever need.
TZN: Do you think animation has gained more mainstream acceptance of late?
WHITE: I think it depends where you are. In the USA animation is part of everyone’s lifeblood. It goes with the territory. I find most Americans are proud of their heritage and they never look down upon you if you tell them you draw “cartoon films” for a living. In the UK, or in Europe in general, I have found in my personal experience that there is some respect in pockets of society for the more innovative and inventive/artistic expression of animation but most people tend to feel you should have a “real job” rather than attempt animation! I suffered from this attitude for over 20 years when I had my Animus studio in London. I won many international awards, as well as a British Academy Award, I directed over 200 TV commercials and I invested a huge amount of my time and money in trying to make breakthrough movies. But no matter how original, how much liked, or how innovative my projects were, I just couldn’t get past the prejudice that most investors, financial institutions and distribution companies expressed. They always seemed to look down their noses at me and saw me as some alien life-force that was hell bent stealing their money from them for trying to do something new. Not one of them ever saw what I wanted to do as an opportunity. Even though the Walt Disney Company is one of the major cash cows in the world, they somehow couldn’t believe that similar success could come from some entrepreneurial outfit in the UK, even when the statistics for animated films were so much better than most of the regular live action films that they were investing in! I guess Aardman ultimately proved that great things are possible, and I applaud them for their wonderful films. But it remains little comfort for someone who spends a whole lifetime struggling to break down barriers and was never given the chance to show what I could do.
As is common knowledge now, I eventually moved to the US to see if I could attempt a fresh start there. As it turned out, totally outside of the plan, I found myself teaching animation in fulltime education instead. However, even then, I refreshingly found respect and even respectability in being an animator and in teaching what I knew about the subject. In the USA it is something to be admired, not looked down upon. Ironically, other aspects of the industry are opening up to me too, so who knows anymore where this strange, meandering journey that is my career will eventually lead me.
TZN: What surprised you the most during the process of getting the new book out?
WHITE: I think the thing that most surprised me was the very enormity of the project. I have a vast experience of animation and 2D production, which is perhaps the most painstaking and exacting of all professions in many ways. But to get everything I knew down on paper – to make it definitive and not to leave anything important out – and then to illustrate it with over 1,000 images… that was a challenge and a half! At times I thought I couldn’t finish it and was more than once tempted to give up! However the desire to get it all out there kept me going and I knew I just couldn’t exorcise this demon until I had done so. So, I kept on going. But it was hard and it seemed an eternal process. I think I can say that in three years I never took a significant vacation and that pretty much every night, often into to the small hours of the morning, was devoted to the project. Worse still, for the last year of the book’s production I was teaching two fulltime jobs too, in the daytime and the evening, and I still needed to devote every spare moment to the book material, as well as the film that is included within it! Perhaps if I knew then what I know now I would never have started. But now it’s done, and it’s out there for all to see, I am glad that I hung in there and proud of what I’ve accomplished. Others may have differences with what I say but at least it’s my truth as far as I know it. I do however know that what is written does work, as I’ve spent a lifetime honing it to perfection.
TZN: What was the last animated work you saw that you really liked?
WHITE: I really hate this kind of question as the answers tend to pigeonhole whoever answers it into on particular camp or other. In actual fact, I have a very wide and eclectic taste when it comes to animation. However, what I like HAS to be original and it HAS to have a high quality factor attached to it. Sadly, I can’t say that I have liked most of the Hollywood-bases movies that have emerged from there over the past decade or two, especially the main Disney movies. The only exception to this has been all the Pixar movies, and I mean ALL the Pixar movies, because they have elevated themselves onto a level that is way above anything done by any competitor. I am a HUGE fan of Hayao Miyazaki and especially his masterpiece, Spirited Away, which has to be one of the greatest and innovative films ever animated (as strange as its storyline is to Western minds in many sections). Another wonderfully innovative and ground-breaking movie was The Triplets of Bellville by Sylvan Chomet. AT LAST someone took the full length animated movie form and did something totally refreshing with it. I hope to see many more, equally visionary films from Mr. Chomet in time. Another ground-breaking movie I loved (to cry to!) was Grave of the Fireflies. Thank you Japan for enabling this and some of the other marvelous breakthrough films you are daring to attempt to find a marketplace. The design, vision and imaginative expression of the best of Japanese animation are far beyond anything being attempted elsewhere. Now if only the quality of their animated movement could be better in the main!
In TV terms my tastes are not so demanding. I hate the animation quality of TV products such as The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Family Guy, etc. but I still nevertheless love their humor and for taking me into their worlds without the need for challenge or criticism. Sponge Bob is another I have loved from the first day I saw it, although I have to speedily admit to not watching them obsessively for much of the time. Most network television is pathetic these days. Like the Hollywood movie approach, it is far too “PC,” formulaic, and predictable. If it wasn’t for the alternative challenge of BBC America in the USA, I probably would have thrown my TV set out through the window many years ago!
Beyond the mainstream entertainment media I have to freely admit that I haven’t really kept up with much on the independent, short film front. However, I had absolutely no second thoughts when forking out around $100 to the National Film Board of Canada, to obtain my own copy of Ryan by Chris Landreth. This to me was the most imaginative and outright special film of the past decade and thank goodness the Oscar voters saw it that way too. It was totally deserved. Ryan raised the bar (and the consciousness) of 3D animation to a whole new dimension with this film and I applaud Mr. Landreth for have the insight and the courage to make it. I do feel that poor Ryan Larkin became a little bit of victim in all the maelstrom of publicity and attention that the film invoked, but hopefully it also brought to him new and supportive friends who have aided him along his life path ever since. However, there is no question in my mind that this film is a masterwork of animation and I often show it to all my new students with great reverence and a great deal of respect.
TZN: When can we see more of your own work on DVD?
WHITE: When all the dust of my book and film has settled I would like to release an archive collection of my life’s work on DVD. Currently my abridged showreel stands at about 40 minutes in running time… including Hokusai – An Animated Sketchbook, which is still my favorite film. With Endangered Species and the new film, Fire Gods, that I and my students are making for the Tacoma Museum of Glass right now, it should bring the whole thing up to the hour mark in screen time. That I think should be good value for anyone’s money, especially as I will probably record a lecture or two to throw into that mix as well. I’ll probably announce my final intentions on the new www.animaticus.com website, when I have resolved all the copyright and other issues that will be involved in trying to put this kind of compilation together.
TZN: Now that the book is nearly finished, what are you going to be working on next?
WHITE: Apart from the museum film I am now becoming extremely active in attempting to ensure that the great art of traditional 2D animation survives in this rapidly encroaching digital age. Endangered Species demonstrates how it is possible, in theory, to recreate what has gone before and although my skills as an animator do not match those of the great masters I was attempting to emulate, I do think I did achieve some of the “spirit” in their work. Now it is time for 2D animation to look forward and not back on its accomplishments. Consequently, I have formed the Animaticus Foundation, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving, teaching and evolving the art of traditional animation in this day and age. To satisfy the first category the Foundation will be hosting the “2D OR NOT 2D Animation Festival” at the Historic Everett Theater in Washington State on November 17th thru 19th this year. (Read the Animaticus Foundation press release here.)
TZN: As a long-time teacher of animation techniques, what would you say is the most common misconception about animation that you’d want to correct in all your incoming students and/or in the general public?
WHITE: That 2D animation is not “dead” as Michael Eisner so foolishly asserted; that drawing is extremely important (even if you are a 3D or other animator); and that the great animation of the past still demands that we view it and learn from it, even now. Although many of the great Disney classics from the “Golden Age” are pretty commonplace to us, we should look at them again and again – with animator’s eyes – to see the mastery of the medium that perhaps only Pixar animators are close to approaching right now. I often look at Fantasia, for example and realize that to make it they actually had no technology beyond pencils, paper, cels, paint, airbrushes, and rostrum cameras. They nevertheless produced amazing results that we cannot, in any way, reproduce with the same sense of applied artistry and sensitivity today. I often wish that Disney or Warner Brothers would release the pencil test versions of their great classics. I think it would blow any of us animation enthusiasts away to see their sublime animation in its bare bones form. I think we would realize that what we are doing today – even our very best efforts – are barely scratching the surface of what they achieved then.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Tony White for taking the time to talk with us. All pictures in this article are from Endangered Species or Fire Gods. Animation from Pencils to Pixels is out now at bookstores and Amazon.com.