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Special-Effects Animation
Joe Hale shows us the magic in the animator's pencil as he describes his work for Disney's "The Black Hole."
David Hutchison
It comes as no surprise that science-fiction films depend upon special effects for their existence. SF cinema voraciously consumes every kind of special-effects talent; it gobbles up model makers, matte painters, effects cameramen, makeup artists and so on — an entire menu of artists and engineers whose talents are required to make the fantasy live. Over on the a la carte side of the menu, however, is one of the most specialized of the SFX men — the effects animator. This is the artist who sits down after the live action has been shot and draws or paints on eels, cartoon-fashion, everything from laser blasts to enormous clouds of electrical energy to that special sparkle in the hero's smile. The effects animator works in both full-animation and live-action films. Look, for example, at Josh Meador's work in Peter Pan (the pirate ship reflected in the rippling water of Mermaid Lagoon) or the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet. Disney's The Black Hole has about 380 scenes that required effects animation. These effects were directed by Disney veteran Joe Hale and his team of effects animators and assistants. Hale describes for us some of the effects his unit had worked on: "Of course there are the laser-beam effects, but there are also all the engine exhaust shots which should look like hot gas blasting out and the smaller booster engines on the sides of the craft. Then there are electrical effects, such as when a crewman is killed and thrown onto the reactor. Or little animation effects, such as the ESP effect in the robot's eyes when he communicates with Kate McCrae. Or subtle effects, such as the effect of the reactor engine working, which we animated as a gentle, glowing red." Hale's Animation system The system Hale uses for creating his animation effects is one that he has worked out over the years. "I get the reel after it has been cut and pretty well established to make note of the key numbers — the numbers along the edge of the film. Then we have photostats made of each frame that requires animation. Because The Black Hole is in CinemaScope format, we have to use two sheets of paper for each frame." The black-and-white photostats are punched to fit the artist's registration pegs on the animator's drawing table. A sheet of blank paper is placed over the photostat in register on the animation pegs . Then the artist draws each frame of the effect in pencil on the white paper. A light behind the animator's table makes the photostat of the live-action scene visible through the paper in the same way that a character animator is able to trace the successive stages of movement of any character. "All of the effects are done with black pencil on white paper," says Hale. "There is no inking or coloring of cels involved. It's very difficult to get inked and painted cels to look real." The pencil drawings are then photographed on high-contrast black-and-white stock in order to create mattes. These mattes are combined with the live-action film in the optical printer. The printer adds whatever color is necessary or, by changing the focus, the correct degree of softness or sharpness can be printed. Take the matte out of focus and add the appropriate colored filter and you have a very soft-edged effect in color, or you can sharpen it to a slicing edge. [img]These frame blow-ups from The Black Hole show the same shot before and after Joe Hale's animation team has worked its magic. The top frame is just as it was shot on the live-action set. The bottom frame includes the laser beams with their white-hot core and soft diffusion on the edges and the blue-white electrical effect coming from the antenna over the humanoid's face. [/img] "The hardest thing was getting the rocket engines to look like there was really hot gasses pouring out of the thrusters — and not looking animated," Hale admits. "It's all done with pencil, but it shouldn't look like it." Even though Joe Hale worked on the animation effects for over a year, there was not a great deal of time for testing and discussion with the director, Gary Nelson, who was devoting most of his energy to the live-action sets. "For instance, there's a gunfight sequence with laser, the first part of which involves maybe nine or 10 scenes. I worked it out on my own in a black-and-white pencil test. Then I had the sound cut in so the director could get a pretty good idea of how it was going to work. In fact, we did several different styles of lasers with different colors and different designs. We finally picked one that everyone liked, which had a real hot core and soft white diffusion on both sides of it — it looked really hot and deadly. "I showed the director the first sequence the way you would see it on the screen, except that it was just in black-and-white pencil test over the photostats. We had the paper drawings Xeroxed onto acetate cels with white Xerox toner, so instead of black lines we got white lines. These cels were photographed over the black-and-white photostats so that everyone knew exactly what the live action was going to look like with the animated bursts and all that. So, after Gary Nelson knew that I was going in the right direction, I was left pretty much on my own. "We had to make very few changes. Most of the scenes were animated in the first takes .... Though there are always those scenes which you think are going to be a snap and you wind up doing the thing three or four times before you get it right. Of course, we're really fortunate to have the best effects animators anywhere on staff here — Disney is one of the few places in the world that has a full-time, animation-effects unit." [img]The rocket exhaust of the Cygnus, before and after the animation effect has been added. Hale says. "The hardest thing was getting the rocket engines to look like there was really hot gasses pouring out of the thrusters — and not looking animated ."[/img] Humble Beginnings Interestingly, Joe Hale's background is not in effects animation but in character animation. "I started here in 1951 after I got out of art school. After a time with the traffic department delivering mail around the studio, I went into character animation, and then into cartoon layout, designing backgrounds. I'm really still classified as a layout man, but I've been directing on this picture and also on Pete's Dragon. I got into the live-action animation combination back in 1953 and '54. Remember how Walt used to do the lead-ins on the TV show? Well, I worked on the show that had Walt talking with a cartoon owl — it was the show that featured Toot, Whistle Plunk and Boom. I did a couple of those and then Mary Poppins came along and then Bedknobs and Broomsticks and all sorts of live-action and cartoon combination films. Between times, I worked on all the animation features, such as 101 Dalmations, Sleeping Beauty, etc. The last four years I've been pretty much involved with the live action/animation combination projects." In addition to the usual work of explosion enhancement, rocket thrusters and laser beams, Joe Hale and his team of effects animators have been able to save the studio money. Occasionally, mistakes show up in the live-action filming, but instead of the director having to reassemble the crew for an expensive retake, Hale has been able to save the footage. The robot wires were a big headache. Says Hale, "There's the scene near the beginning of the film when the Palomino crew boards the Cygnus — three actors and a robot. Lasers shoot out from the wall and destroy their weapons. Just as this happens, a light comes on. When it does, you can see the robot's wires. Nobody noticed it for quite a while, when the dailies were being screened. But after the crew had moved to another set, one person finally noticed the wires; then other people began to spot them. . .after a while all you could see were the wires. The solution: Animation "I had to come up with an animated light that would hide those wires. I made thin little mattes to hide the wires and then airbrushed a cel to look like a blinding light — the cel takes care of the little black lines. It looks great and you couldn't have lit the set with same light because it would have just burned out every-thing—it would have been too bright. We had to devise ways of covering up mistakes, but that's part of the job. "Good effects animation," maintains Hale, "is like good background music — you really shouldn't be aware of it. Of course, that's our problem in all of these pictures, especially The Black Hole; people can't be corning out of the theater saying, 'That's great effects animation,' or somewhere along the line we've goofed. They should look like real laser guns shooting real laser beams and not something that somebody drew with a pencil and a straight edge. The effects animation work on The Black Hole was finished in the late fall of 1979. Since then Joe Hale has begun work on another film incorporating live action and animation effects: Watcher in the Woods, which stars Bette Davis. The film will be released late this summer and, while not on the cosmic scale of The Black Hole, it is SF — the story involves an alien saucer landing in a forest... and it promises to contain some very interesting animation effects. Above: Storyboarding is a Disney tradition. Hale looks over a small section of The Black Hole storyboards which indicate where effects animation is required. Left: Disney veteran Joe Hale with one of the sentry robots, whose lasers came from his animator's pencil, in the background. Below: Pencil in hand, Hale works at his animator's drawing table adding laser effects to a battle scene.



Source type Magazine
Volume 33
Language en
Document type Interview
Media type text
Page count 4
Pages pp. 66-69


Id 3148
Availability Free
Inserted 2017-03-28