Saturday, July 20, 2013

Producer Carolyn Bates Talks Shop

Carolyn: "Here's a pic of me and BG painter, Cathy Patrick, 1973. on Emergency+4.
 Don Jurwich had taped a xerox of 'The Yellow Kid' over my desk - typical 70's un-PC.
The extreme right side pencil sharpener and phone are Walt Peregoy's."
FLIP: How did you get your start in animation?

Carolyn: Walt Peregoy hired me as an apprentice BG painter At Fred Calvert Productions on Emergency +4 the day I graduated high school. He regaled the BG team with expletive laced stories of his days at Disney and Hanna-Barbera. He admired creative passion and spoke ardently of the beauty in nature. I learned a ton and made friends with a number of folk, many of whom I'd get to work with later: Corny Cole, Libby Simon, Paul Shively, Freddie Hellmich and Amby Paliwoda.

Opening titles to Fred Calvert's Emergency +4, Carolyn's first gig.  
You can almost hear Walt Peregoy bitching.

FLIP: You've worked in commercial houses as well as major studios. How do production styles compare and do you have a preference?

Carolyn: Commercials follow the directives of an advertising account agenda, with a bit less priority given to a story agenda. Schedules are tight. Budgets might be higher per second than a series but there are generally more changes. Coolness counts. And always remember, it's a service industry.

The best projects are when agency creatives know what they want; they consider the spot director's approach, are realistic about schedule, and both teams are passionate and work together to make the best spot possible. The worst projects are when the agency creatives have a shaky concept or have no clue what they're looking for. "They'll know it when they see it." Those are the times when the production house reworks the boards as the creatives fish around for ideas.

On the production side, you get to meet all types of terrific artists: flash, 2D, stop mo, cg - and you quickly learn about many styles of production. The downside on commercials is how quickly they can become a blur in your life and, due to the ephemeral nature of most ads, it's hard to delve deeply. You might feel empty even though your productions have been beautifully animated and are successful campaigns.

On features and long format productions it’s exciting to be a part of a big team, working with wunderkind story artists, writers, designers, vis dev artists, editors, and music composer. If you are working towards creative milestone approvals for the reels and picture locks, the same creative bugaboos apply. It's easiest when the story has been fully greenlit ahead of time, before serious production gets underway. It's not fun endlessly boarding changes. Each change sends ripple down problems as you pull out or add shots and then try to patch up the holes. Add in all the exec notes and you've got more fun in store. It's normal to have some story issues, but the ripple down problems as you constantly change the story, add characters or make location changes while updating the reel can make a production feel mighty stressful and break your budget. The plus side of working on a feature is being able to create a lasting legacy. My baby grand-daughter just watched The Little Mermaid. I didn't work on it, but that movie gave great pleasure to my daughters and continues to delight our grand-daughter. That's pretty special.

I'm thankful I've been able to work for so long and on so many types of productions. My personal preference is to alternate between types, styles and lengths of production. There's never a dull moment working in production, but if you work on a variety of projects, save your money for the lean times in order to work on your own projects - you won't be bored. There's no dictum that says one platform is better than another. It's all up to interpretation and your point of view since all productions will have inherent problems.

FLIP: What is Buttercup Pictures?

Carolyn: Buttercup Pictures is the production studio of my husband, Nick Bates, and I. We're a small boutique and we've been fortunate to be able to work with our artist friends on good projects. We've lost a lot of loved ones over the past few years: my mother, Nick's father, and Nick's former partner at Pepper Films, Jean-Maxim Perramon. We've come to the conclusion that life's too short - we are continuing to work on projects we like but we also plan to develop some of our own ideas.

Carolyn Bates, far right, works on Brainstorm effects with Alison Yerxa.  Photos from Cinefex #14.
Carolyn: What has been your fondest work experience?

Carolyn: My favorite experience was working on Doug Trumbull's Brainstorm - Natalie Wood's last film.   I worked at Entertainment Effects Group (EEG) with Michael Gibson, Alison Yerxa, Bob Seeley, and John Wash on some of the heaven and hell vfx shots.  In addition to lots of rotoscoping, I worked on a huge slit scan of an airport runway and assisted with art prep and some motion control shoots under Virgil Mirano.  I met Richard Hollander and Peggy Weil there - we've been great friends ever since.

Every afternoon, I stopped in to watch the great matte painter, Matt Yuricich's painting progress. He would play Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream extra loud so the whole studio could hear. EEG had cameraman magicians on set and incredible artist prop makers. The studio had a cool water tank for ink drop efx. There was a hell shot where loads of meat carcasses were brought in - not a pretty sight or smell under the hot studio lights. I felt like I was working at the circus.  It wasn't a long gig but I really enjoyed meeting the diverse artists, cameramen and technical crew who helped create the visual effects.

More Brainstorm Effects.  From left, Michael Gibson, Rawbert (Bob) Seeley, and Carolyn Bates.
Doug Trumbull was concurrently experimenting on a live-action 60 frame per second widescreen projection project. Seeley was glad not to have to produce any animation at that frame rate and I was glad not to have to ink it.

FLIP: Who has been your greatest mentor?

Carolyn :I've had a lot of great mentors at key points in my life but Beth Epstein was special. While working at Duck Soup (now called DUCK) in the early ‘90's, I'd asked to train as an assistant director. By that time I'd already worked years in animation but I had no foundation structure in the basics. Beth taught me about animation charting, how to shoot pencil tests, how to sync up the track on the terrible video deck, how to prepare X sheets, what to look for in pencil tests, how to prep for camera and composite. She taught me by example to honor the crew and respect the craft. She hammered in the importance of thoroughly checking the animation before moving the shot forward into production. I'll always remember how she handled production on some of the 7Up Spot commercials. People today often think those were cg characters but the animation, cleanup, tones, ink and paint had to be carefully managed. The beauty and seamlessness of those commercials lay in the tiny details. I'm grateful that Beth was so patient. I learned so much about planning, and communication from Beth - fundamentals that are so important for me as a producer today.

Duck Soup Produckions' 7 Up Spots Christmas Ad from 1990, directed by Bob Seeley. 
Hey, there's some Steve Moore animation in there!

FLIP: Have you experienced bias as a woman in animation? How is the work environment changed in this regard from when you started out?

Carolyn: I've been pretty lucky.  When I started, there were few women in high positions at the big studios. Animation was mostly a boy's club at H & B, and guys could be sexist jerks, especially while standing around the water cooler with their coffee and donuts.  The smaller commercial and motion graphics studios were great.  I remember working at Robert Abel's, Triplane, Bo Gehring, and Duck Soup in the ‘70's.   Lee Bowers, Linda Stokes, Arlene Klasky, Nina Saxon, Marta Russell, Libby Simon, Barbara Eddy, Jane Simpson, Sari Gennis, Peggy Okeya, Pam Cooke, Kunimi Terada and Peggy Murakami were some of the amazing women I met at the small studios. By the time I got to Disney and other big studios, there were many more women producers and animators coming on to the scene. Viewing the animation industry today, inroads have been made but there aren't enough women feature directors. I really wish Brenda Chapman had been able to complete her vision of Brave.

FLIP: Can you name one animation person living and one deceased who you would like to work with for the first time? And why?

Carolyn: Living - Uli Meyer. I was floored when I received my copy of Cuthbert was Bored in the mail. Uli's drawings are gorgeous. You could feel the thought and intent in the pen quiver and the ink drag. I hope Uli can get his St. Trinians Kickstarter going. He'd be able to bring so much to the Searle project. We'll be happy to lend a hand if we can help.

Deceased - Winsor McCay. Barring the cultural stereotypes I might encounter as an Asian-American woman, I would have loved to have worked with Winsor McCay on his vaudeville and animated productions. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips are both faves of mine. I would love to have seen the audience reactions to Gertie the Dinosaur performing for Winsor McCay.

FLIP: If you could do your dream project, what would it be?
We'd like to develop an animation project and an illustrated book for the benefit of children, especially our grand daughter. We're obsessed with her baby sweetness and we remember our own amazing daughters when they were tiny.

Read more FLIP articles featuring Carolyn Bates:
On Aging Parents: Mary Lim - Carolyn writes of her mother's Alzheimer's disease.

Cartoon Brat - Carolyn's daughter Sarah writes about growing up in animation studios.

1 comment:

  1. "The worst projects are when the agency creatives have a shaky concept or have no clue what they're looking for. "They'll know it when they see it."."
    That is so true!