mak­ing movies

Meet Isle Of Dogs an­i­ma­tor Tim Allen who brings stop mo­tion pup­pets to life

The Wharf - - Front Page - Jon Massey

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 timal­lenan­i­ma­ 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

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