Monday, August 6, 2007

The Monkey Speaks (Part One)

Hi everyone. I used to work at StarToons too... at least I thought I did until I started reading these blogs ; )

So I'm here to set the record straight... well okay, maybe just a bit crooked, because my memory ain't what it used to be, but then again what is?

I first met Jon, our fearless leader, when I was working as the Technical Director at Kinetics (1983-1990), a small but prolific animation house located in downtown Chicago. I shot and assembled the very first pencil test of "Dudley the Dinosaur" for Jon and he seemed to be impressed with my creative way of putting it all together. Kinetics was seeing its last days as most of the motion graphic stuff that we were doing was now all going to computers being rendered on a new toy called a "Paintbox". I knew that my days at Kinetics were numbered and so I tagged along with Jon and company to LA (my 1st trip there) to try to sell myself and find some work. I was in that infamous elevator ride where we coincidentally ran into Tom Ruegger which certainly changed our destiny. Some things are just meant to be I guess. Anyway, as you already know, Jon got a contract to animate some Tiny Toons bumpers and I guess that I did such a good job trying to sell myself to the LA crowd that it impressed Jon enough to hire me himself.

Hired as a Technical Director, my 1st duties were to shoot the new Tiny Toons bumpers (all shot on film under a motion-controlled Cinetron Oxberry). I also did checking, track reading, and eventually devised a creative way to shoot pencil tests on hi-con film, exposing each level one pass at a time (as opposed to backlighting multiple paper levels which resulted in distracting grain movement and blurry lower layers). I also edited one of the 1st StarToons demo reels which consisted almost entirely of Jon's previous work. In the early days we all worked out of the McClenahan's basement but our sudden growth forced a move to our Ridge Road basement headquarters (still couldn't get up above ground level, perhaps to prevent window-leaping suicides).

Ruegger was so happy with Jon's work on the Tiny Toons bumpers that he gave us an entire episode to work on, "Henny Youngman Day". I remember Jon laid out on the floor (more roomy than the minimal office furniture that we had) timing out the board for this show while I looked on, feeding him hot cups of coffee about every half hour. I've never seen anyone do anything like this before (the board slugging, not the coffee ingestion) and he seemed eager to share the process with me, which I eventually caught on to. I believe that all of the animation was sent off to LUK Films in Korea (yeah... good LUK getting it right) which was headed by a fellow named Tae Kim (later nicknamed Tae Kim out and Shoot Him!). Everything was "no problem" with these guys yet all we had were just that... problems! It was so exciting, and terrifying, getting the 1st dailies back from them which I edited together with the slugged dialogue tracks (another one of my duties along with track reading) on our newly purchased 8-plate 35mm Kem. Almost every shot needed to be redone, not because of the animation but mostly painting problems. All of the shading on the characters was wrong and almost all of the teeth were painted red (inside mouth color) making it seem like the characters had bloody mouths when they were speaking. Our rule of thumb for them became, "If you don't see a tongue, then paint the damn opening as TEETH!" Needless to say we were a bit disappointed that all of the cels were "top painted" in order to be corrected, but as the Koreans' say, "No problem." Tom and WB loved our episode and decided to give us some "special" scripts to work on, ones with a lot of cultural and comic references that would undoubtedly be lost in translation. "Thirteen Something" (a parody of the then-popular "40 Something" TV show) was one and it was actually quite funny. Our staff was growing rapidly and we finally moved above ground level to occupy the 1st floor of the building.

The next show on our agenda was the brand new "Taz-Mania" series starring you-know-who, his family, and a cast of regulars. The 1st thing I did was shoot the kitchen-sink opening title sequence which was no small feat... definitely one of the big camera challenges of my career and I recall Jon passing me cels on one of our 1st attempts at it. This was all done as one long shot with no edits. In fact, one of my responsibilities was to shoot all of the complicated shots the overseas studios couldn't handle or just kept screwing up like the split screen shots in "Thirteen Something", bi-pack and optical shots for Taz-Mania, and so on.

We were under a terrific crunch to finish 2 Taz-Mania episodes and farmed them off to LUK films (Korea) and Philcartoons (Manilla... run by Jon's Aussie buddy Wayne Dearing) in order to get both into production at the same time. Rodney Whitham (another... cough, cough... early StarToons supervisor) was sent to Korea while I was sent to Manilla to supervise production. On the day I arrived so did Bill Hanna who brought the studio the great news that they would have work for a long time because Mr. Jane Fonda had just purchased Hannah Barberra. Bill was a terrific man who cried at the drop of a hat. The emotional crowd really set him off. For the next few days we got to know each other and I think I eventually wore him out talking about timing direction (he taught Jon his technique of using a metronome) and his history with HB. An extremely nice guy that you couldn't help but like. Besides working on Taz-Mania, the studio was also working on the original "Ren and Stimpy" episodes and I made friends with John K's overseas supervisor Howard Baker, who was also gearing up for "Rugrats". Howard invited me to work on an episode with him and we cut and called retakes on the "Untamed Wilderness" episode. Howard also gave me a couple of original cels as a thank you for my help... pretty cool stuff! Manilla was a surreal experience. Guards with automatic weapons were everywhere including fast food joints like Burger King (they also cleaned the windows) but they seemed very friendly despite the fire power. Everyone, and I mean everyone, loved the Bulls and Michael Jordan and coming from Chicago held a lot of weight. The studio itself was like a sweatshop but the kids that worked there all enjoyed what they did. The most surreal thing occurred each day when the entire studio stopped working and laid their heads down on the desks for a half hour of nap time. Wandering around the studio during this period reminded me of the surreal sci-fi film "Dark City" where all of the inhabitants fall asleep each day at midnight. On the trip home I stopped in Japan to wait for my fight connection and had the giddy notion of running through the airport screaming "Godzirra!!" at the top of my lungs. The next stop was LA where I handed off the workprint to someone from WB and then finally home to Chicago.

Jon soon entrusted me to time/slug boards for Taz-Mania as WB was sending us many boards for shows that we weren't even working on. I think I ended up doing at least a dozen shows and started earning a reputation for being a timing director as I was soon freelancing and slugging these shows for WB in my spare time.

Since I never did any of the drawings or animation I saw myself as the nuts-n-bolts (but mostly nuts) of the operation. I would time all the dialogue, slug the boards (some of the time), edit and read the track, timing direct the x-sheets (or transpose director's notes), basically feeding the hungry animators who were waiting to get started. I'd then edit together all of the dailies, synch it all up to my slugged track, ship it to LA and coordinate the retakes.

Then "Animaniacs" hit the studio and things changed once again....

(to be continued...)


Jon said...

Just a couple of things:

Yes, Bill Hanna cried a lot. It was weird. But he would visit us about once a year at the Sydney Australia studio, and generally, once during his visit he would call the staff together to give what amounted to a "State of Hanna-Barbera Address" ... and inevitably, he would start tearing up in the middle of his speech. Everybody would start looking at the floor or scratching their heads or whatever, feeling very uncomfortable and a little confused. We all loved him but couldn't figure out why he was getting so emotional about whatever he was talking about.

Bill really was a wonderful guy, and he was always happy to share his knowledge or connections to help somebody. There are a handful of people who helped me a LOT along the way, and he's one of them.

The Taz-Mania Opening Titles ... my gosh, I had forgotten that was 45 feet without a cut! And in those days, shooting on cels, there were quite a few technical considerations. I think we ran with 7-8 levels throughout the whole thing ... if I remember correctly, there was a point when Bull and Axl were running over the hill (an animated hill) that we had to incorporate a short (8 frames?) dissolve to cover up the hill's color pop. When the characters got over the hill the hill went from level 7 to level 5, which we couldn't avoid so we had to soften it (the trick worked).

I do remember assisting Ron (at Kinetics) on this shoot and feeling very happy that we had someone with his expertise to get this shit done and make us look good!

Thanks Ron!

RonToon said...

... and then when we finally nailed it the LA editors had a problem because we didn't shoot with the Academy Aperature in the plate! You'd never see that stuff when it was transferred to video anyway!!!!

Dave Pryor said...

Thanks Ron - A great read. I love to see the different stories being posted that help define the contributions that made Startoons the studio it was.

Goldskeleton said...

Did you shoot it on that old Cinetron in the basement at Erie street?
What a monster. But at least it was computerized, such as it was.
I remember back at Encyclopedia Britannica we used to have to turn hand cranks and read our EW/NS numbers out loud like a roll-call every exposure. God help you if you lost your place on the X-sheet.
It's hard to believe that animation cameras are extinct. Every animator should have the experience of shooting their own work under camera.
Maybe that's why Bill Hanna cried so much.