“Now, see, with that one, what you do is go out and get yourself a copy of Playboy,” said the great Tee Collins as he pointed to my storyboard, no doubt noticing my glazed expression as I registered the odd truth that a college professor had just advocated my purchase of soft pornography. It was a strange feeling, one perhaps akin to the straight arrow who has just been prescribed medicinal marijuana. Well, gee…if I have to…
“For the cartoons,” he clarified, and I understood at once. My animation instructor could tell with a glance at my preparatory material that I was not a naturally gifted artist. My primitive drawing style had not evolved much since fifth grade. Tee was patiently explaining some easy techniques with which a doodler like me could pass himself off as a pro. “Find what you need, blow it up on a photocopier, and make that the basis for your drawing. Get some typeface books for the lettering here. Encyclopedias are a great source for illustrations.”
Tee was wonderfully resourceful and receptive. When I proposed my oddball idea for fulfilling my required 30 seconds of independently produced film animation, he never blinked nor suggested that I try something conventional. Instead, he seemed to enjoy the challenge of helping me overcome my limitations to produce a product that would be even better than I had imagined.
My super-short film project was called What’s Behind It All, and it consisted of nine static panels shown in succession, the only actual animation being the transitions between panels. For example, I wanted the title card to break apart into four pieces that would recede into the corners, revealing an image underneath. The revealed image would then split in half and recede, uncovering another hidden picture behind it, and so on. Each image was to be a stark depiction of some social ill, such as drug abuse or capital punishment, with the final panel showing what I considered to be “behind it all.” I won’t reveal the punchline just yet, but it will suffice for now to say that I knew my audience (fellow Ohio State students) and was not above taking a cheap shot.
I initially congratulated myself on cleverly avoiding the slave labor to which my classmates had subscribed. They would be toiling away, creating a minimum of twelve inked and painted cels for every second of our half-minute of animation, a staggering total of 360 cels, not including backgrounds. Whereas I would dash off my nine panels in a fraction of the time and head for the studio. As I soon learned, I wasn’t as clever as I thought.
First came the research. In that pre-internet era, I had to go to libraries and locate clear line drawings of a skull, a pistol, a hypodermic needle, a guillotine, a swastika…oh, and a naked lady. The only image I thought I could pull off without tracing a reference illustration was a pair of allegedly carcinogenic red M&Ms, and even then, I had to make sure I got the “m” right. And speaking of typefaces, I had to manually assemble each letter of my title card and end panel.
Once my research was done, I enlarged all of the images and letters I found to the desired size with a copier, whereupon I reproduced it again with modifications by hand onto tracing paper. The drawings were tedious work, and it seemed to take ages to lay out the text in proper alignment. Only then was I ready to move on to the transparent cels that would be photographed on the animation stand.
I inked each cel by placing it over my drawings and carefully tracing each line. When the ink was dry, I flipped the cell over and painted in the colors, a technique that kept the ink lines sharp and well-defined while hiding the accumulated texture of dried paint. As you can imagine, I had quite a few hours invested in the project by the time I had completed my nine cels. But I wasn’t even close to using the animation camera.
Tee realized that every panel that I wanted to split into two or four pieces would require me to precisely cut the cel. But if I cut the cel, the split line would show on camera even before the image was pulled apart. There were only two choices. I could cut as I filmed, a risky, one-shot proposition. Or I could create duplicates of each cel I intended to split, one to be kept whole and the other to be cut. With a weary sigh, I chose the safer, more labor-intense alternative, and literally went back to the drawing board.
And still I was not finished. In order to achieve the smooth graphic transition between panels that I had envisioned, I needed to carefully measure and plot out an overlay guide that would show me the exact location of each cut cel piece at every twelfth of a second. What’s more, Tee knew that the effect would look best if the pieces appeared to accelerate toward the frame, so I had to make each increment of my guide a little larger than the previous one. My overlay guide for splitting a panel into fourths and flying it out of frame took an insane amount of time to create.
At last, however, it was time to pull an all-nighter at the animation stand, the wee hours being the only available slot for our department’s sole traditional animation studio. Armed with a dozen Archway cookies and a carton of Pepsi, I worked through the night, shooting frame-by-frame and painstakingly moving cut cels according to my overlay guides. I emerged, bleary-eyed, into daylight and the regular hubbub of campus life. Minutes later, as my head hit the pillow, I thought for just a moment about how great my project was going to look, and then I fell into a deep sleep.
The official explanation that I would hear a few days later was that a graduate student responsible for loading film into the animation camera had neglected a crucial step, a mishap not discovered until the developed reel was screened. My work, and that of several other students, was ruined by a thick, white band that obscured a good portion of the frame. Or so I was told. I never had the heart to ask to see it, and Tee never had the heart to make us endure reshoots.
For years afterward, I would occasionally recall my aborted animation project with a melancholy sigh. But around the same time I was laboring through Tee Collins’ class, software giant Microsoft purchased a little program called PowerPoint, which would eventually be incorporated into the massively popular Office suite. And one day a couple decades later, as I tossed around clipart elements and chose interesting slide transitions in preparation for teaching my class, I realized that any kid with a computer and a PowerPoint license could slap together my once-ambitious project in under an hour. Which irked me. But then I remembered something: somewhere among my old college artifacts was a large envelope containing my original animation cels.
Once I scanned the cels into jpeg files, it took just 10 or 15 minutes to animate them as I had originally envisioned. As for the cels themselves, all of my labor to produce them seemed laughable now. It would require perhaps half an hour using today’s technology to whip up comparable images. Not that I’m bitter. Because at long last, I can actually see my concept fully realized.
Now you can, too. The original film was silent, but for this momentous occasion, I’ve created an appropriate soundtrack. Wanna know a college boy’s smart answer to an inquiry about the source of all evil? Just click the clip below and enjoy, for the first time in 30 years (and not even then!) What’s Behind It All.