Jacques Muller - Animator - An Interview - Behind the Scenes
This month I’m delighted to have the super fantastic animator, Jacques Muller share information on a world I know other about other than enjoyment…animation. Jacques has worked for such notables as Disney, Warner Brothers and Steven Spielberg. I hope you find his interview as informative as I have. Plus, he’s shared some of his work with us!
Jacques, please share some things about your background. Did you grow up in France?
Yes I did. I was born 57 years ago, when Lady & the Tramp came out in France, in 1956. My Mum & I lived in the Town of Cognac with my grandparents. I bare my grandfather's family name and given name, on my mother side. When she got married in 1968, we moved to the next town to live with my stepfather. The name of that town was Jarnac, where French President Francois Mitterrand was born.
During all my childhood my only interest was in Animation and comics. I loved Disney films above all, and would never miss the latest one playing in town during the Christmas season.
Every month I would wait anxiously for the "Walt Disney presents" broadcast in black & white on television. But even though I made some timid attempts at animation around age 15/16, I got my first big break in comics at age 17, in 1974. A local newspaper published my comic strip daily for one month.
After that I went to the army for a little over one year. That's how I made my first overseas trip....to Dakar Senegal in Africa. The Travel bug never left me after that. And so, I spent half of my life abroad.
What was your first animation job?
I started as storyboard artist on a French TV series called "Once upon a Time Man". It was animated in Japan when it was still cheap to do so. I got that job after showing my drawings to Producer Albert Barille at the Annecy Animation Film Festival in 1977. After that my real animator job came from French TV 1st channel TF1. With a friend we did make shorts for them around 1979/1980.
We understand you worked on Star Wars I. Did you have to audition, or were you asked to work on the movie based on your other work?
In this business we don't "audition" like singers or comedians; we show our Demo Reel (a compilation of our best and most prominent works and scenes). We also present our portfolio of illustrations, character designs, sketches and all that sort of things. So your second part of the question is the correct answer. When I went to the job interview with ILM at Siggraph 1997 in LA, they hired me based only on my 2D animations done for Disney, Warner Bros. and Spielberg.
Who or what was your inspiration for Jessica Rabbit?
Actually I was not the lead animator on Jessica; it was the most excellent British animator Russell Hall; a long time Richard Williams’s collaborator, who did the most extraordinary animations of Jessica's first appearance on stage. Notably this amazing scene when singing, she steps down the stage and successively rubs a real handkerchief on a real flesh comedian's forehead, before shoving Eddy Valliant's hat in the face of the private detective. Russell made a mix combination of Lauren Bacall, Gene Harlow, Rita Hayworth, and Cyd Charisse. It was a kind of a composite rendition...and it worked beautifully!
Computer animation was fairly new when Roger Rabbit released. How did you make the characters so realistic?
True! There were two artistic decisions that made Roger Rabbit unique in terms of realism: Richard Williams told Bob Zemeckis not to lock the camera while filming the Live Action part prior to the animation. Before Roger Rabbit all directors always made sure that the camera was static in every shot, or at worst, it would only do lateral panoramic moves. This was to help animators register their work in relation to the live action. In other words it is much easier to aim at a static target than it is to have to register drawing after drawing your animation to a moving environment. Richard Williams said: “The Hell with this restriction! Let's give the Live Action Director complete freedom as if he was shooting a movie entirely composed of live action shots. Let the animators figure out how to match that afterwards.” And we did. We were given tons of photos (one per frame) that we had to put under our animation sheets, on the light box, to match edges, points of contacts between the comedians and the drawn characters, props, elements of background etc. So instead of delivering just a performance as animators, we had, for the first time in History, to also work on changing scales, proportions & volumes, frame after frame after frame. This made our work extremely complex, but quite challenging as well. The end result was a total integration of the Cartoon characters and their live action environment, like if they had been there for real from the beginning.
The second element that made Roger Rabbit so special was the adding of tone values. There is a tremendous element involving how the light lands on the characters. In this case each character had also its set of animated light and shadow. There were about 40 people who spent months painstakingly painting black spots on cells all day long, 6 days per week, for over a year. These cells were then exposed on different strips of professional 35m/m film: one for the highlights and one for the shadows, frame by frame. Then all these elements were shipped from London to George Lucas' ILM SFX facility in San Rafael California. There, technicians mixed the various bits of film together to not only integrate the animations into the live action shots, but also to make the light and shadows merge nicely over the drawings. Black spots were turned into semi-transparent areas on the characters for the shadows, while the ones for the highlights were exposed 80 to 100% to give that white light that diffuses over the light parts. Using special lenses on a cinematographic reproduction bench, they added blurring effects as well as some extra colors to soften the edges of each spot. The entire technic took weeks of testing to come up with the right blending formula (percentages of exposures etc...). In the end the characters looked fully rounded and three dimensional. The combination of these two elements made Roger Rabbit a unique piece of animation in the History of this medium.
What details do you feel makes a character come to life?
On the top of what I just mentioned was the acting part of the characters. We made sure that we would have perfect eye contact between the comedians and the cartoon characters. And this was not always so easy. The production had made a Latex Dummy of the rabbit for size reference. They would shoot 5-12 takes for each shot with the actors, and then they shot an extra one with the dummy in the scene, for size reference again. But the photos we used didn't have the dummy in them. They were from the selected take without it. At that point the actor had to find the right spot in space to act out like if he (she) is looking at the rabbit (to be drawn later). It was always a hit & miss kind of thing. In some cases they were unable (may be a long tiring day of shooting?) to hit the bull's eye. So it happened that we didn't have the proper eye contact level to start our animation: Eddie Valiant was looking to high or something. In that case the animator had to be creative. The solution was to have Roger stand on the toes of his feet to meet the point in space where Bob Hoskin had been looking months before. Such things done well contribute to make the characters look like there are really there with the actors at the same time on the stage.
Are you working on any current movie animations?
Yes and no. I’ll explain: As a Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic SIDM school of Singapore, I have a bidding contract not to do outside work for anyone. Exceptions only occur for very short term things after approval from the head of the Poly. So in this particular context I have been working on very short animations with my students.
I am still finishing a short film titled "A Horse's Dream". I have been on it for the past 2 years. I want top Disney quality, nothing less. In the end it will be more like a commercial spot with a twist. Then I have still a dozen of personal projects ranging from shorts, featurettes and features. I keep adding stuff on them constantly. There is also a book in the making.
You did the cover art for Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? How did that come about?
It took Gary K. Wolf & me 25 years to come into contact. This happened through Facebook.
We have a common friend, Tom Sito and Gary had seen some of my postings on his page. He decided to send me a friend request and I accepted. Then he mentioned about a Roger & Jessica animation cell that had been given to him by Disney; autographed by Dick Williams, Zemeckis, Spielberg etc...He had it proudly displayed on his living room wall for 25 years. I asked Gary to send me a picture of it. Funny enough it was one my scenes. I told that to Gary and offered to draw a new Roger for him. He replied: - “I have a better idea! Do the cover for my new Roger Rabbit novel, Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?!” The rest is history.
There are new characters in Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? Do you read a book or screen play when you take on a project to get ideas for creating the characters?
In the case of Roger Rabbit, Gary had kindly sent me a work in progress draft of his novel with the approval from Musa Publishing. Usually when I step in a production as an animator all the character designs have already been figured out at this stage. In the case of personal projects that have been financed, like a 26 half hour TV series of Quasimodo (not the Disney version), I had to create loads of original characters myself. Eventually, after a few weeks, my producer could take on board an extra artist to help me out in this task, during pre-production. The initial scripts came from a group of writers especially hired for this job. The initial idea came from me and another associate. But sometimes yes, I have to read books or scripts to get the feel for the cast of characters.
What advice do you have for aspiring animators?
First you have to have a certain degree of appreciation for what is Animation. If you love it, or are passionate about it, even better! Then you must be able to differentiate between great animation, okay animation and lousy animation. You must have an eye for things. If you practice 2D, then it is essential that you can draw properly and three dimensionally (it's called solid Drawing), unless all you want to do is South Park type of animation. Only the script is important in this case. If you are looking for High Level Character animation, you will need to acquire a fully rounded artistic understanding of things. You will need to learn to appreciate beauty in art in general. You will have to discover Art History: Durer, Botticelli, Veronese, Fragonard, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc....You will need to watch an awful lot of great animations from the past and from today. You will need to dissect it patiently frame by frame; learn the 12 basic principles of animation etc...
Then only can you start doing your own animation and try and try and try until it comes out right.
Columnist Lizzie T. Leaf: Award winning author, Lizzie T. Leaf enjoys writing Paranormal/Fantasy with a twist of humor and heat. Her Magical Love series is available in print and eBook at Passion in Print and other sellers. Beyond Magic, the first book in the series won the 2012 AOE Best Paranormal/Fantasy/Sci-Fi. The DEAD series is available through Musa Publishing where she also has two Christmas novellas, the Contemporary Fantasy, Forget the Mistletoe and Making Christmas, the LRC Best Historical winner and the 2012 Aspen Gold Best Novella winner. Re-releasing June 2013, two expanded Erotic Contemporaries, Barely Legal and Educating Amber.