with Tom Jordan
Leading Digital Software Graphics expert for The Iron Giant
In this interview, Will talks about his early days and training as an animator, and gives us an insight into his recent work on The Iron Giant at the Warner Bros. Feature Animation Studios
Artist: When did you first become interested in cartoons?
He explained how the illusion of animation can be achieved by shooting drawings under a camera loaded with film, one frame at a time. He said it could even be possible for me to do this, if I could get hold of a home cine super 8 camera that could shoot a single frame at a time. He explained I would not have to continue using small pieces of paper (the size of my flick book), but instead could try using comfortable A4 sized paper that would be easier to work with. At this point, my eyes were wide with excitement, as I was beginning to grasp the concept of making cartoons.
From that day on , I spent weeks creating drawing after drawing, aligning each piece of paper with pieces of tape on my writing desk and hoping that eventually my drawings would make it onto film.
Animation Artist: Did this ever happen?
Will Bilton: It did indeed. I was ready to shoot my first film test about a year later. I borrowed a Super 8 camera from the same teacher I had spoken to originally, and a tripod from the science lab at the school where my dad worked. During the year, I spent time reading one of the few books I had found about animation, by Bob Godfrey, named How to Animate. This also helped me with my drawing by showing how one could capture key facial expressions. Fortunately, the paper I was using was cheap, so you could see through it quite easily. This saved me from needing a light box, although I did end up making one further down the road.
Using three desk lights, I set up the camera and started shooting one frame at a time in my bedroom. After six hours, all the drawings had been photographed. I remember being so excited by this process that I had a fever that night. I put all of my heart into the filming of my drawings that had taken almost a year of my free time, and now I was imagining how the final result would appear on film. I remember being worried that there would be a problem with the development of the film, as I did not think I could possibly go through such a concentrated six hours of filming again. If the film came back blank, or out of focus, or simply did not come back through the post at all, I feared that the number of frames I had calculated in my head for each frame exposure (3780 frame clicks for a three minute 8mm film cartridge), would never be remembered! This was what was bothering me the most.
About three weeks later, on a day I least expected it, the Super 8mm film had arrived when I got back from school. I remember vividly how much of a thrill it was to take out my dad's holiday cine Super 8 projector, load my film into it and project its light onto the wall. Seeing my own cartoon, in focus, with a life of its own, was the most rewarding thrill I could imagine. From these magical moments, I was ready to begin, from scratch, with some new ideas for a second film.
Animation Artist: Did you explore different animation techniques?
Will Bilton: Yes. I had spent many hours at home, drawing and painting, when I started to use what I could see as a time cutting concept, cut-out animation. This was a very much more graphical method and enabled me to animate under the camera. All I had to do, was create different characters using various pieces of colored paper, cut out the shape and paint on the black outlines. It made the process a lot more fun, because it meant I could much more quickly animate a whole story with paper cut outs, under the camera.
Animation Artist: How many films did you make? Will Bilton: I made 15 minutes of animation before my interests turned to live action silent films. I then had to spend time on my school exams, which gradually became more important. Animation Artist: Did your teachers at school notice what you were doing at a young age?
Will Bilton: I pretty much kept the work at home. They did notice some of my work when it was shown as part of a competition on TV. I sent a film to a BBC programme called Screen Test. The programme invited two teams of 12 to 15 year olds to be quizzed about live action movie clips that were shown on the programme. Then, half way through, there was a section inviting young viewers at home to send in films they had made, which if selected, would win a Certificate Of Merit in a Young Film Makers competition. This was a great highlight in my animation youth, as I was able to get all of my friends to watch my clip that day. I still remember the day, November 4th 1984, and being filled with excitement in the hours leading to the moment it was shown. And I've still got that certificate of merit on my bedroom wall!
Animation Artist: When you left school, what training did you undertake?
Will Bilton: I first did a two year diploma in Graphic Arts and then, at the University of Humberside in the UK, I took a three year degree course in traditional 2D animation and 3D claymation. This is a technique similar to that employed by Nick Park in his famous Oscar winning animations. In fact, my final year major project was a four minute animated film, entitled Nick'd. For this I recorded an interview with Nick Park and then animated it, using clay models and the same lip-synch technique that he had pioneered. When I recorded the interview with him, he didn't know that I intended to use it to make a film, but when much later all was revealed I think he was quite amused.
During my time at university, access to computers for students was very limited. The only computers we had to use were early PCs with frame stores such as Spaceward Graphics Matisse, early Macs for desktop publishing and for the timing of animation, one BBC 64K micro computer that would print out the numbers to set camera movements. As a result most of the training we received was of a traditional kind. Although this was frustrating at the time, I now feel that the experience of having worked through manual ways of achieving effects is actually very helpful to the digital work I am currently doing. Towards the end of my final year, I remember that the university bought an Amega pencil tester system and we all thought that we had arrived in the new high-tech era!
It was when I left university and started playing in a band that my interest in the potential of digital effects took off, initially as a way of enhancing the music we were composing and playing.
Animation Artist: How did you come to be involved with The Iron Giant and what is your job title?
Will Bilton: I originally worked for Cambridge Animation Systems which is a company in the UK that writes animation software. I was involved in the development of a system called Animo, versions of which have been used in animation studios worldwide including Warner Bros. Because new software is always full of teething problems, there has to be good liaison between the makers and the users of it. I came to Warner Bros. for what was to be a three week stay in 1996 to support the making of Quest for Camelot and ended up staying for the whole film. When the studio's next film, The Iron Giant, got the green light, I was taken onto the production team - as a Warner Bros.' employee.
My job title is ACME Digital Specialist, which is funny as the ACME logo appeared frequently in my own early cartoons even though I didn't know what it meant at the time. I also used to sign all my cartoons with my initials, WB, so coming to work for Warner Bros. was like coming home!
Animation Artist: What does ACME mean?
Will Bilton: Well, it's a very famous logo that most people have seen without really knowing where it came from. It used to appear in all the old Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoons and the story, I have heard, is that way back in the 50's, when the cartoons were first made, the company that created the hole punchers, for punching holes in the cells before the days of 2D digital paint, had the word ACME written on them. The animators borrowed the name to use it on the various gadgets employed by Wile. E. Coyote in his hopeless attempts to catch the Road Runner in Chuck Jones's famous cartoon.
Animation Artist: What exactly is an ACME Digital Specialist?
Will Bilton: The ACME name was given to a large group of digital artists and software operators in order to provide this group with an identity within the Warners corporation. My job's prime responsibility is to support this group by making sure that the software in use in the studio can fulfil all the ACME production requirements. My job title, therefore, is ACME Digital Specialist. Supporting production's requirement may sound simple, but in reality it is complicated by the fact that production often asks more of the software than it was designed to deliver. Designing new features takes time, and time is the one resource that production never has enough of. If production ever comes to a halt because the operators cannot get the software to do what they want, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars later down the line to implement a change. For example, if a feature is missing, or if some early software program is floored by not being integrated early enough into existing software, this can make production very difficult, especially under the high pressure of delivering footage to meet deadlines. The ACME digital specialist is employed to make sure that this does not happen, or if it does, that the situation can be assessed quickly and remedied, to ensure the production's quota is not affected.
On The Iron Giant, production needed to combine traditional 2D digital animation methods to create backgrounds, with 3D computer generated images (CGI). The machine that holds these vastly different sources of material together is called Animo. Its software enables traditional layout artists to work on a scene with traditional scene planners, taking the work through the entire 2D digital Ink and Paint process, but it also allows for an input from artists working in a completely 3D computer generated world, using packages such Maya, Softimage, Renderman, Studio Max and Brice 3D. If anyone wants to know more about these products, all of these names I have mentioned have their own web site.
During the early stages of a production, many technical issues have to be discussed and software tested, before procedures can be put in place. The tests we carry out at Warner Bros. involve both the software itself, and the artists who will be using the software. For some animators, it may be the first time they have come across a certain type of new software. Since new software is nearly always still in development, it is important that all users are comfortable with the suggestions and procedures that are proposed for its use. An aspect of my job, therefore, is to provide advance training to the artists, using exclusive new program ideas, some of which I invent. With over 100 digital users working in a range of different disciplines, good teamwork and bonding needs to take place within the studio if all the digital users and traditional artists are to work together successfully. When this takes place in the early stages of the production process, it is like adding the magic ingredient into a cake mix to ensure a scrumptious feast later on! Achieving the perfect set of balances between the traditional art of animation and digital technology as we know it today can result in the creation of a giant animated feature film to entertain audiences around the world, all in the space of under two years. Compared to the old days of the classic Disney movies in the 40's and 50's this is an incredibly short number of months.
Animation Artist: Given your early experience in animation, how do you now feel about working on projects such as The Iron Giant at Warner Bros.?
Will Bilton: Working on The Iron Giant, at Warner Bros., was the ultimate realization of all my childhood dreams. The environment was magical, there was a tremendous story at the heart of the movie and the atmosphere created from the beginning by the director, Brad Bird and wonderful artists such as Richard Bazley, Tony Fucile and Mark Whiting, released everyone's creative potential. I think every individual associated with the production first hoped and then knew that the film would be an outstanding success and that, if there were any justice, it would be showered with awards - which it was.
Animation Artist: Now that The Iron Giant is finished, what are your current plans?
Will Bilton: I am continuing to work at Warner Bros. on their next feature animation which is in the early stages of production. Without giving too much away, I can say that the new film, entitled Osmosis Jones, is a very exciting and original venture. It is as different from The Iron Giant as The Iron Giant was from its predecessor Quest For Camelot.
Once again we will be integrating 2D and 3D effects, but this time most of the action takes place inside a human body and involves live action as well as animation. If you want to know more, don't miss it. Osmosis Jones is coming to a cinema near you sometime in 2001!
Animation Artist magazine is grateful for the time Will Bilton took to share his excellent insight with Animation Artist readers.
All images on this page are ęcopyright 1999 by Warner Bros and used with permission