When Harry met William
Animation as an art-form covers a vast spectrum, and if you have the skills to enhance footage with effects and 3D models then there’s scope to enter a thriving commercial industry. William Bartlett represents Framestore CFC, one of Soho’s foremost post-production houses.
Split into four divisions, the company handles effects for blockbusters such as X-Men, Harry Potter and Superman; feature-length animation, with upcoming mouse-flick The Tales of Despero in production; and long-form effects for TV series, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Finally, there’s the commercial division – for which William heads up the 2D effects and compositing departments.
“Directors come to us with an idea of what they want to see at the end, and we discuss what we can shoot, where we should use models, and what could be computer-generated,” he explains. “In other words, we tell them how to get the best from their money.” Clearly from this angle animation is less a creative hobby than a service industry, with rigid budgets, targets and timeframes.
Part of his job is to think outside the box for maximum effect, such as pouring weed-killer on plants, speeding up the footage and running it backwards to replicate super-fast growth in Guinness’ acclaimed devolution ad, noitulovE. Another quick-fix trick in the same ad involved shooting rising dough on a hot-plate, treated to resemble a rock formation – freeing up the 3D animation team to focus on dinosaurs and flying squirrels.
“I wanted to be an animator really, but didn’t realise that until rather too late,” laments William who, despite an interest in art at school, found himself studying Pure Maths. Experimenting with photography as a creative outlet, he took a Super-8 camera and some blobs of Plasticine and started animating dinosaurs: “I thought I’d become the next Ray Harryhousen.” It’s tempting to wonder whether Harryhousen, creator of wobbly stop-motion monster-flicks One Million Years BC and Sinbad the Sailor, would be correspondingly impressed by Walking with Dinosaurs.
Maintaining this interest in film and photography, after graduating he got a job as a runner in a motion control studio. Gradually, he began to drift down to the post-production department – fascinated by an enigmatic new editing machine called Harry. “It was this huge computer like a load of fridges,” he reminisces. “When I saw what it was doing, that mixture of technical and artistic, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
“I could create things without having to be especially creative myself; help people solve problems,” enthuses William – and here his mathematical background was perhaps influential. “My wife did the same job as me but studied Fine Art, and she always moaned about how restrictive it was using these things. I thought it was great.”
One of Framestore’s most memorable ads is Adidas’ Impossible Field, where a handful of international football legends – including Beckham, Ballack and Raúl – take on contenders along the lines of a pitch, suspended in mid-air on metal bars.
“We were filming fast action on a number of cameras at once, cutting from one angle to another,” explains William. “That’s a problem for two reasons – you’re suspended in the air, which is complicated, and footballers didn’t have much time. There were also lots of problems with insurance, so we couldn’t do anything too dangerous.”
All of the actions were predetermined in a number of self-contained sequences – Beckham receives ball, flicks it over one contender, who falls off; kicks it into the chest of someone else, who also falls off; then jumps in the air and passes it.
These sequences were roughly animated first to determine the camera angles required. “The editor took these renders and edited a final sequence together, which was hugely helpful for planning the live-action blue-screen shoot. Time spent with real footballers was minimal.”
Back at Framestore, the overall geography of the match was pieced together – 3D pitch, ball and all.
Essentially a public safety campaign, Esuvee was funded by the Ford Motor Company in the wake of a successful law suit against them by a woman who’d been seriously injured in an SUV accident. “Their advert said she could drive it like a sports car, she did, and it turned over,” is William’s summation. Ford’s advertising was deemed negligent, and part of their penance was to spend thousands of dollars encouraging safer driving.
The ads depict SUVs as powerful and dangerous creatures – part-car, part-beast – at a rodeo. “The idea was that if you’re good enough you can handle the power. It was an odd job,” he smiles. “Our clients were lawyers with very specific things to communicate.”
The first challenge at Framestore’s end was building the creature; a cross between a prehistoric mammoth and a modern day car, with headlight eyes and brake-lights in its ankles. The second was getting a rider to sit convincingly on top. “We did lots of tests with different strides – walking, running, trotting – and sat the person on a horse, a bull and a buffalo. We used a mechanical bull in the end; it was easier to control.”
William took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007
© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine