Meet Isle Of Dogs animator Tim Allen who brings stop motion puppets to life
My motivation for approaching animator Tim Allen for an interview was flippant. I was amused one of the people responsible for breathing life into the puppets starring in Wes Anderson’s stop motion movie
Isle Of Dogs lived in east London, relatively close to the real island.
But while its genesis may have been silly, the hour we spent chatting about his career proved fascinating.
The 41-year-old has brought movement to Shaun The Sheep, Fantastic Mr Fox (also with Anderson), Fireman Sam, Bob The Builder and Tim Burton pictures
Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, among many others.
As I can only share a small fraction of the things we talked about here due to the restrictions of these pages, it’s worth mentioning that he runs workshops and corporate team-building sessions for those who’d like to know more. But more of that later. Let’s start at the beginning.
“We all have a different path in getting into animation,” said London City Island resident Tim.
“There are plenty of degree courses around the country now, it’s not hard to find one. I did a BTEC National Diploma, which then got extended to be a degree.
“The tricky bit is when you graduate and you’re trying to get your first gig. It’s comparable to an actor trying to land their first part.
“So you’ll be doing short films for free and unpaid work experience and just trying to get out there and network. I just toured the whole of the UK, finding any company that did stop motion animation and getting rejected by all of them, in a very polite way.”
Work experience on the first series of Bob The Builder, where he encountered professional puppets for the first time, was followed by low-budget work for the BBC animating mathematical Mexican kids character El Nombre for its
Numbertime programme. “Stop motion has got a lot of television time historically,” said Tim. “The big reason I think it endures as opposed to computer generated (CG) animation, especially for children’s programmes, is a childhood desire to see our toys come to life.
“I think that’s an innate thing. The little toy or doll you can hold and it coming to life – it’s a dream we’ve all had at some stage. For me, it’s that tactile element.
“I look at Fantastic Mr Fox and the number of people that get excited about the way the fur moves because they can see it’s a real object that’s been touched by human hands.
“I think people have a fascination in seeing a real object they know has been touched.
“I drew a lot as a child but I watched things like The Wind in The Willows and Tim Burton’s The
Nightmare Before Christmas really captivated me. When I discovered I could do animation, there was really no other option. I had the
Nightmare making of book and you could see people climbing over the set and drilling holes in the floor and holding the puppets.
“The idea of holding these very expensive, hand-crafted toys and of being surrounded by a genuine miniature world enchanted me. I didn’t want to do 2D or CG.”
The turning point in Tim’s career came in 2004 when he was offered a job on Burton’s Corpse Bride.
Taking the role also began his association with east London as the production was based at Three Mills Studios, near Bromley-By-Bow.
“It was huge,” said Tim. “Before that, the only real work in the UK was kids’ series – I’d been travelling around, doing Fireman Sam,
Postman Pat and all sorts of other ones you wouldn’t have heard of.
“But there wasn’t much opportunity to work on high level projects. Corpse Bride really elevated me in my career.
“I was very eager to take on the project but knowing nothing about east London, I moved just north of Poplar near Langdon Park DLR station – a nice easy 20-minute walk to Three Mills Studios. That was the beginning of my relationship with the Docklands.
“I did move away for other projects but I came back for
Fantastic Mr Fox, also at Three Mills. “I moved to London City Island in December 2016, very much drawn by the fact I was offered the job of key animator on Isle Of Dogs – the recent Wes Anderson film.
“I was looking for an excuse to come back to London. I had been doing a Disney project in Manchester and another feature film in South Wales. But the Isle Of
Dogs contract came up and, luckily enough, I was able to grab that opportunity and buy a property.”
With feature film days running from 8am to 7pm, living close to work is of great benefit. “It becomes a bit of a relationship because you are consumed by the project,” said Tim. “Productions start with small teams that grow and grow and grow. The full scale is something like 25 animators. The entire team might be 100 to 150 people.
“Animators normally specialise in several characters – I tend to do bad guys. On Corpse Bride, for example, I was doing Barkis, the lead villain, and some of the other morally corrupt characters who would often appear together. You’d then animate a good chunk of what they do.
“For Isle Of Dogs, for example, I started off doing Mayor Kobayashi, the central villain, and Domo. But then a lot of the shots started involving Atari – our hero, the young boy. So having got the hang of the two villains, I’d have to talk to animators doing his character and copy their style.
“The basics of animation are timing and spacing – if you move something a very small amount, then it will move slowly. If you move something dynamically – a big movement – it will move faster.
“On a Tim Burton film, we’d get about 40 to 50 frames a day, which is two seconds or less. On a Wes Anderson film, we’d do three or four seconds a day. Fundamentally, you’re playing with their weight – how fast or slow to move them.
“But then we come into the acting part of it. Just because an actor can move, it doesn’t mean you believe their performance.
“That’s very much where an animator’s ability to make the audience believe a puppet is thinking and breathing and has emotion is very much the craft.
“It’s one thing to move something fast or slow. It’s another to make you think something is alive and, in addition, the character is in the moment in the film emotionally.
“They’re in a room, they’re suddenly trapped. Their heart rate goes up and they want to escape.
“I need to convince you this compelling emotion within them is building up and make it appropriate to the story.
“There are different ways of doing that. For example, sometimes Wes Anderson would film himself and we could use that for reference. Fox was very much like that. With a Tim Burton film, you have to feel that emotion yourself.
“More complicated feature film work is incredibly emotive in terms of the depths of the acting. I did a shot on Oscar-nominated My Life As
A Courgette, for example. “A young girl is asked why she’s so good at using a gun at the fairground to pop balloons. She suddenly caves in on herself. She doesn’t say anything so I have to interpret this through acting. She remembers the reason she’s good with a gun is because her father trained her when she was very small and then she witnessed her father accidentally shooting her mother.
“Just through body language and movement in her eyes, I have to communicate her drawing deep into the memory and building up the courage to put this into words.
“I have to feel that emotion on behalf of the puppet – that’s a skill and a craft that takes years and years to hone.”
With teaching and speaking engagements internationally as well as running workshops locally, Tim also helps others develop their skills through teaching, mentoring and workshops for kids.
“This year I’ve been asked to go to so many countries – I’m going to Poland, followed by Greece, Ireland and Hong Kong, to give animation workshops,” said Tim.
“I’ll watch someone’s work and go through it, frame by frame, looking at the performance and finding little adjustments to improve it.
“When you’re animating on a big production, you’re in a dark room for a long, long day with a puppet and occasional interaction with another human being. Teaching is a nice contrast.
“As an animator, you’re making little decisions all day. It can be as small as deciding how much to move a particular finger or how much I lean a puppet back.
“Then there are bigger things like what pose you’re going to go for. How do I get the action I require into the time I’ve got?”
Those skills and 19 years of experience have led Tim to also develop sessions for corporate clients. “It might be teambuilding, a networking day or a rewards day,” said Tim.
“I design them so they’re for people who have never animated before. We use different methods like getting people to film themselves and using their footage as reference.
“The emphasis is very much on interaction and communication, and being clear on what you’re trying to say.
“Participants see the ins and outs of production and then get straight into having a go themselves.
“Working in groups of two or three, it will be about having
a set goal where they have to communicate a performance between a couple of characters.
“Then it becomes a problemsolving discussion. It’s a way of getting people to think outside of the box in terms of communication, something they can apply elsewhere in their professional lives.”
As for a final tip – Tim said the work he was most proud of was on a Polish production, The Magic
Piano, created to commemorate the birth of Chopin.
“It was so difficult, there were so many hair-pulling, how do we do this? moments, yet my team and I did some stunning work in the face of incredible challenge.
“For that reason, it was one of the most overwhelming times in my life but the results were some of the most satisfying and the thing I’m really proudest of. For £2 on iTunes, it’s well worth a quick look.” Go to timallenanimation.co.uk for more information
It’s one thing to move something fast or slow. It’s another to make you think something is alive Tim Allen
MBNA Thames Clippers CEO Sean Collins talks ferries and growth for east London
Tim at work, animating in Three Mills Studios on Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs painstakingly creating movement
Left, Tim adjusts a character on the set of Isle Of Dogs and, above, moves a puppet he uses in his corporate workshops