Friday, March 09, 2007

Al Dempster Interviewed -- Part II

And now Part Deux of background artist (and book illustrator) Al Dempster's 1972 talk with Christopher French and Linda Rosenkrantz. (Part the first is here.)

CF: You worked on Dumbo and Fantasia?

AD: Yes. I worked on Pinocchio too, and on a lot of shorts. They were fun to do. You'd do them and you didn't have to labor them forever. And consequently a lot of them turned out a lot more fresh. But the shorts ran about 6 minutes and they didn't have to hold your interest except to say it clearly and interestingly. That was it.

CF: Who did the backgrounds for the late Donald Duck shorts? There's a very distinctive style we picked up.

AD: Several people did. It was just a style that was established by the layout artist, I suppose. Sometimes the layout man gives it a direction but it's usually up to the one who paints it to make it or break it.

For instance, if you give a type of drawing to five different people, you’re going to get five different approaches. In the case of the short pictures, the background man usually had his own interpretation of it. Unless it was way off the beam… then normally he wouldn't be given the job anyhow. But each person will work his own way from the same set of drawings. A lot of it, especially in the shorts, is variable. You can alter a little bit where it's not too critical, if you feel that you can enhance the scene and that's what we try to do here. Everybody tries to plus the product.

CF: How did you come to get into background rather than animation?

AD: I’ve always liked to paint. They wanted me to go into animation originally. I came here with a portfolio of paintings and drawings. I had been a commercial artist and I was strong on drawings, strong on painting, but I didn't like the idea of working with a light board. I thought, boy, I’ll be blind in a year with that.

I liked the idea of moving characters, that was fun. I liked to draw all kinds of things and figures. Painting was more a complete thing because you had to draw and paint. Some think background painting is simple, because it is all drawn for you. All you have to do was fill in between the lines. It's not that easy: it's a highly specialized field and there are probably a handful of people in the world that can do it right.

The whole problem I guess is the backgrounds not becoming too obtrusive, but still make them so that they are a believable setting for the action to take place in. We have to set the mood, we have to light the characters, make them legible, whether they're in silhouette or lit against a darker background.

And we have to make them believable: we have to help the story get across, set the mood. A good example is right here from Jungle Book. Quite often in a sequence I’ll start out with a few sketches: Woolie [Reitherman] will want to see something like what we will do about this old dejected place where Mowgli has gone. Turned down, he isn't allowed to stay in the jungle and he runs off to this place, a God-forsaken place, and Woolie thought it ought to have a black waterhole. So, I made (though they're all very close) several sketches with slight variations to pick up that type of mood that he thought it should be. From those ten sketches, I ended up by using for the sequence a combination of two of them.

CF: These sketches were made before any layout of this thing, were they?

AD: There were some rough layouts made that the animators were working with. The reason for this is the background artist rarely contributes to the proposed treatment until there's some story work done. Quite often when there's some story work done, there also are some rough layouts that are beginning to develop.

In other words, if we can see things that the director has already bought, even though in rough storyboard form, this gives the background artist a clue. Of course, if the background man has a real hot idea, he'll paint it for consideration of all interested parties.

I’ve done several sketches like this at the beginning of Robin Hood. If he can sell the preliminary background, it's a time saver for resolving the final background result. But normally it saves a lot of headache to take what has been done before and work around that.

CF: How does the mechanics of working with the animators, as far as say color is concerned…? You're saying that sometimes you'll be dealing with a character that's basically in silhouette, in some cases they'll be light against a darker background… How do you arrive at that decision?

AD: It's a matter of what the mood is supposed to be. For instance, if there's a character working in the shadows, maybe it would be good to have a darker character. You know it's the same one because the silhouette will tell you what it is and the colors, though subdued, will still identify the character.

And then in order to make it read, of course, you have to have the background a little bit lighter behind him. In a reverse situation, where we have a light value character, it will have to work against a darker background. A character is not always one value or one color, you might use three values on him, or even more, but they're either generally a silhouette or generally lighter than the background they're working on. And it depends upon what kind of mood you want, how you paint it.

CF: I see. The animators themselves aren't concerned with the color values, I presume.

AD: They are, quite often. Before we set any models, what we usually do is… the color model girl will work from character drawings that were taken directly off of story sketches, which were done with felt color ink. Rather crude, you know. And the color model girls will try to interpret that.

Then a variety of them are done and they're pinned up, and everybody has their say on them: the layout people, the story men, the animators, the director. I do also. I don't say too much about that at one point, because I know I’m going to change things around anyhow to make it work. Because what looks good on a white piece of paper is not necessarily going to look good on a background. White will make anything stand out. Just like anything will look good on black.

So, it's started out that way, and everybody has their say and the reason the animators would like to know is they have to draw these separations for… in the case of a shirt, or say a toga, or a cloak that's going to have a belt around it, and if there's going to be a buckle on that belt, or if it should be a bright belt or a belt that’s very quiet and sort of painted so it looks like the jacket, like in the case of Robin Hood and Little John.

On the sheriff, who instead of having a belt, like he has on the wall there (that was just tentative, later changes were made for simplification). I make changes in value that have to be made for legibility against the backgrounds. But at least they have a starting point.

The animator knows what he has to draw for the color separations, like the collar on the sheriff. Then we’ll run a couple of color tests to see if they work out all right on the screen. Sometimes we’ll find surprising things, like values will pull apart on the character and the thing that looks real good under our lights, when it gets on film and on the screen… gad, it flies apart!

The transition from painted color to projected color through the film is sometimes very startling in value changes. Like things that look white on the screen are unbelievably dull and dark to look at here. Some colors that are too light give very little emulsion on the film and the projection light washes the color out. It becomes so thin, and then drops off. We have to know all this from past experience, apply it and try to avoid remaking the same mistakes. Retakes are costly.

CF: Are you really working closely with the art director all the time?

AD: There isn't any one person called the art director per se. Woolie has called me the art director many times. It's a misnomer actually, because it's a corporate effort, always has been. Woolie has ideas, he has the last word on everything and Don [Griffith], the layout man has ideas, and I do too. And sometimes the animator gets his licks in as he might think something in the costume's a little bit too bright or not bright enough, or should be more simply drawn.

The animators say nothing about the painting, they don't make any waves that way, same as I wouldn't tell them how to do the animating. But between the three of us, we get a meeting of minds, we know how each one of us would like to have it come out and if there's any argument, of course Woolie always wins. I’ve had arguments with him, and I, of course, give in, because when you’re in the driver's seat, what else! But I’ll speak my mind and he knows it and he respects that. He likes people to say what they think.

CF: Is Ken Anderson involved at this point?

AD: He is involved, yes. He starts out with the original story. He is the one that starts the whole thing going. He does the characterization, the stimulating beautiful little drawings that suggest idiosyncrasies that could be utilized for each character. His situation drawings and sequence drawings contribute to the whole picture.

From there, he also helps out very greatly with the story. In fact, he does an awful lot of situation drawings and he knows layout. They used to have what they called an art director. In fact Ken was an art director. Definitely he would have a lot to say about layouts and quite a bit to say about the color. But in the last analysis, you cannot hold the background painter's hand. You can talk a good background, but the background painter has to paint it to work properly.

CF: Does this present a problem then when you have four or five different background artists working on one movie?

AD: Sometimes it's difficult. We've had as many as 12, 14 people, and this can become very top heavy. But luckily the last three or four pictures, we’ve been fortunate in being able to keep fewer people to do the picture and actually better qualified people, I think. And people that have worked together. So we try to wear one another's hat and work back and forth and try to pull together what we have done. For instance, I’ll start out a sequence and then after I’ve gotten into it enough and too many layouts are available, then I’ll get one other painter to help.

In a case like Bill Layne… he’s been a background artist for a number of years and he knows the way we work, and the way Woolie likes it to be worked. It's only occasionally that I'll ask him to make a few little changes. Or Don will see some things that might be helpful.

Occasionally I'll make some changes on my backgrounds because I’ve seen something in his that looks good. This way we work back and forth. And then as we get a little busier, we get another painter in. Now we have four people and we're going to get one more starting tomorrow, and that should be it.


Anonymous said...

Great interview. Funny how his description of working on Robin Hood is a perfect example of what was bad at Disney at the time: the animators were in charge instead of the director. What a shame, and it certainly shows with the awful film that is Robin Hood. It's ugly, too! But I'm not blaming Dempster. Mostly the lazy directors and animators.

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