Great Animated Performances: Zazu as Supervised by Ellen Woodbury
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(c) Disney Enterprises
Do you thumbnail?
Oh, yes! I love it! First I go through the thumbnails, and then I go through them again to make sure they’re right, then from there I throw it down, and within an hour it’s all there in a throw down. Then I shoot it, and then I add and develop it. This is something Hendel (Butoy) taught me. I worked with him at the end of OLIVER & Co. and he taught me so much. He’s an avid thumbnailer as well. I had to do this shot of Oliver stuck in the middle of the street and there’s cars going by all over the place. So I had to choreograph with the cars to make it look dangerous. I had to like map out all the cars and know what frame they were coming into and what Oliver was doing, how he got across the street. And I mean it was thumbnailed right down to the last move. The thumbnails were about this long (stretching her arms as wide as possible) and it was like a wallpaper of thumbnails. Not every drawing was in there - but just about every one. And Hendel went through it with me and he was suggesting ‘you should drop this drawing and replace this one’ and he was right in there with me. I never worked with anyone who could get into your plan the way he could. I saved those thumbnails because it was like a monument to planning!
So from that experience I learned how important it is, for me. And the other thing that it taught me was that when you take those thumbnails and pin them up over your board and sit down and start drawing - animating - what happens is that as you refer to them something happens along the way. You have your ideas there but then your ideas start bouncing up a level. It doesn’t change what you planned, it just makes them better. There’s my thinking (gesturing as if pointing to thumbnails overhead) I don’t have to think anymore - I can just feel! When I throw it down I’m just feeling it. And.. and.. and sometimes it’s the only thing - it’s always along the same track. You never veer from where you’re going to go - it’s just that in the getting there you’re adding a whole lot of spice to it.
Her tempo has picked up, as has her volume. The excitement has started to carry her away. The closest thing to this conversation that I’ve had is when talking to stage actors about their rehearsal process. But of course this is the animator’s rehearsal process she is talking about. The very personal, very individual way of researching and refining and discovering character on route to the performance.
She pauses for a breath and then continues:
I guess that’s the one thing I miss about changing mediums, is that once you’ve got it planned you just go into feel mode an d it comes out as fast as you can draw. And the thing about computers is they’re not fast, so that you have to take that process - that feel process - and slow it way down. Waaaaay way down. And people think that at the end of the day - say you’ve got one and a half seconds - and they’re like ‘you spent eight hours on one and a half seconds?!’ This is like a non-animator person. They don’t understand. You adjust to that, because where the stuff flows out onto paper, with the computer you can’t. You can only go so fast because it takes so darn long. It can take one second from the time you hit a key to step until the next frame comes up. Sometimes more. You can roll ( - flip drawings by hand) - at almost 24 frames a second, but on the computer, you can’t do that.
Comments that sound vaguely similar to what many actors will describe as the differences between working in theatre and working in film.
We do have a tool that’s something of a mental life-saver, that let’s us animate our thumbnails and flip through them in the computer. It’s more for action scenes, fast stuff. You animate your drawing - using a stylus, and it’s quick and dirty but it works fine. And that’s been my life saver, at least for action. There’s not a lot you can do with it in slower, more thoughtful scenes, except to do really, really good thumbnails. You can get some of the timing, but not the relationships when you’re animating with a stylus. But for action scenes it’s a life-save, for me, because what you do is take what you had on the scribbles and fiddle with the timing and then you take what you did in those scribbles and transfer it onto the rig. It’s not an easy task, but the energy is there. You get the relationship between you and your work - which is really important to me. I like to get that something back that happens when you finish the scene and flip through it.
That’s something else Hendel taught me. Never shoot anything that’s half done. Get to the end and then shoot it. Some people will do something and stop if there’s a couple of phrases that they want to refine and they shoot it before they get all the way through to the end. They see it and they start thinking ‘oh, God!’ and get caught up working that phrase rather than following the entire thought through to the logical end.