At the start of 1980 Pearce Studios Ltd occupied half the ground floor of an office
building in Hanwell (or "West Ealing" if you're posh, posing, or
socially climbing !). The BBC rented several cutting rooms in the other half
of the ground floor, and Athos Films, whose premises it was, occupied the
The directors of Athos Films were in the habit of strolling into the studio
while showing clients around and frequently overheard saying casually "...and
this is the graphics department". This was not in the least bit true.
We were a completely seperate outfit with no connection beyond the payment
of rent. It usually triggered a chorus of barely heard weary sighs rather
than indignant expletives. There was, after all, just a slim chance that one
of these wandering potential clients might actually want some animated graphics.
One morning young Kevin (an avid sci-fi and Dr Who database, recently employed
because he seemed capable of Letraseting in a straight line and competent
at retouching lith film) was loitering when sounds of R2D2 wafted to him from
down the corridor. Stealthily he crept in search of the source of these enticing
noises, to discover Alan Bell in one of the cutting rooms involved in putting
together an item for "Jim'll Fix it".
Alan's ear was then seriously bent. That's another thing that Kevin was very
good at...bending ears. Kevin managed somehow to extract from the bemused
Alan that he was beginning to consider his new project (something called "Hitch-Hiker's
Guide to the Galaxy") and how it would pose some interesting production
problems. The only way Alan was ever going to escape now was by agreeing to
be led into the studio and then agreeing to return at some future date. We
said our farewells as Alan rushed off to another appointment with apparent
relief. Turn back to the light box quite sure that it was the first and final
encounter with Alan Bell.
But miracles do happen. About ten days later (a wednesday ?) Alan turned up
in the studio again - with the first script treatment of episode one. There
was much talk. Alan suffered in silence through a projection of the 16mm showreel.
We went to the Red Lion on the corner for liquid lunch. There was more talk.
Apparently BBC Graphics had at some time looked into the possibility of setting
up a unit to produce THE WHOLE THING as a completely animated programme. This
was rejected as impractical for several reasons, not least of which was cost.
They had also studied the possibility of creating the book graphics and those
other sequences that obviously couldn't (or shouldn't) be live using computer
animation, still very much in its infancy. This had also been rejected as
impractical for many reasons...not least of which was cost.
"To get any further with this" says Alan, "Graphics will have
to be convinced it's not impossible. You'll have to give me a costing and
schedule breakdown for the graphics in episode one, and then I'll have to
try and get them to agree to you doing a test piece".
Three days later a very detailed letter with estimated costings wings it's
way to Alan Bell. Some time later a sceptical Douglas Burd from BBC Graphics
turns up at the studio to try and evaluate this bunch no-one's ever heard
Eventually Douglas Burd delivers the verdict of BBC Graphics. "Still
don't think it can be done, but just to prove it please do a test consisting
of half of this section of the script talking about something called a Babel
Fish". Rod sharpens the pencils, and back to the light box. There is
some brainstorm chatter about maybe using filtered and treated live footage
in some places in the graphics. This is rejected as being costly, and in any
case not generally applicable throughout to establish an overall style. Doug
Burd looks at the first pencil roughs and storyboard and decides that the
fish looks rather too rounded. Computers it seems like straight lines - hate
curves. Rod argues that if there are enough straight lines and they're short
enough they can make quite nice curves. So a compromise is arrived at and
the layouts are ammended.
Things roll on. There's now a pile of punched white paper with pencil key drawings.
Some keys have red crayon sketching in-betweens that can be generated directly
during tracing. Some have calibrations when movement can be achieved under
camera. Tracing begins of the key drawings in black ink onto cells. Kevin
is Letrasetting great wadges of text, line upon line in black onto cells.
The voice-over arrives on 16mm magnetic film. Rod rumbles and wows through
it on a 16mm pic sync, marking key phrases with chinagraph crayon on the film
and noting down the frame numbers on a dope sheet. The black on clear tracings
and the lines of letraset are taken into the darkroom and contact printed
onto photographic lith film, reversing them out to produce clear lines and
text in an opaque black surround. Miles of gash 35mm film stock is punched
with 2 oblong holes and a central round hole. This is cut into mounds of strips,
and rolls of cellotape are used to stick each one to a sheet of lith film,
registering it to the positive it was generated from. Each one is numbered
as it is registered, corresponding to the numbers now filling the columns
on the dope sheets.
Boxes full of bottles of black plastic paint are emptied in the process of cleaning
up and "spotting" all the liths, ensuring no light comes through
where its not wanted. Clear areas that are not quite as clear as they should
be are cleaned out. Where practical intricate shapes are cut out of coloured
lighting gels and stuck to the backs of the lith films. Where interlocking
and overlapping shapes are awkward seperate mattes are painted to allow the
use of multiple exposure runs under camera. Great stacks of artwork begin
to pile up.
Finally the camera magazine is loaded. Film is laced through the double register pin
gate of the single frame Newman-Sinclair camera and 200 frames of Kodak colour
scale click through at the rate of 2 frames per second. A few frames of start
board. The counter is reset to 00000. The top lights are faded down and the
back lights are faded up. They are so hot that a fan cuts in under the glass
in the camera table. The camera table is rotated through 90 degrees so that
the 4 panning bars run vertically. Each turn of their handles moves them a
twentieth of an inch. The first lith containing lines of text is fixed to
one of the panning peg bars so that the first line will appear at the correct
place in the frame. A coloured lighting gel is slid beneath the lith film.
This has a small square cut out of the bottom edge, and it is taped to a piece
of thin black card.This is moved till the clear square sits under the first
letter. There is now a bright white "T" gleaming out against black.
All the rest of the text is now masked by the black card. The top platten
glass is lowered to hold everything flat. The single frame button is pressed.
Click - click. The counter reads 00002.
Lift the platten glass. Slide the card and gel a few letters to the right. There is
now "THE BA" glowing with colour with a bright white "B"
leading on the right. Press the button. Click - click. The counter reads 00004.
Lift the platten. Slide the card and gel. "THE BABEL FI" in colour
is lead by a white "S". Platten down. Click - click. 00006. And
again. And so on. When the last line of text that will fit in the bottom of
frame is complete wind the handle of the panning bar to take everything one
line space vertically. Mask off the top line of text so it disappears. Move
the card and gel to start the bottom line. Platten down. Click - click. Ad
infinitum. Become an automaton. Just don't go so much on auto pilot that the
platten is left up, or that a reflection shows on the glass, or a glow creeps
out under the masking where it shouldn't be...etc.
When the very last line is complete straighten the locked and creaking back. Set the
counter for 200 frames. Press the "HOLD" button and go and put the
kettle on. Close the camera shutter. Set the counter to count down to zero.
Select "BACK" and press the "HOLD" button. Clickety-clickety-clickety...the
film winds back through the camera at 2 frames per second. Rotate the table
back to horizontal. Take all the artwork off. Reset-up with a piece of heading
text in the correct position for top left of frame. The camera stops at zero.
Open the shutter. Platten down. Select "FORWARD". Same process until
the text reads "THE BABEL FISH" with "(GOD - THE NON-EXISTENCE
OF)" still masked out. Set the counter to stop at the end of the already
exposed film. Press the "HOLD" button. Clickety-clickety-clickety...the
camera plods its way through till the preset number. Close the shutter. Select
"BACK". Set the counter to stop at zero. Press the "HOLD"
button. Clickety-clickety-clickety...while the camera rewinds the film take
off all the artwork. Replace it with a fish shining in black. The camera stops.
Select "FORWARD". Open the shutter. Check how many frames from the
dope sheet and set the preset counter. Press the "HOLD" button.
When the camera stops lift the platten and put on the first cell of an animated
mask that will progressively cover the image top to bottom. Platten down.
Take 2 frames. Lift the platten. Take off the mask cel and replace it with
the next. Platten down...and so on. When that series of cells is finished
close the shutter and wind back to the first frame of the "wipe".
Replace the yellow fish with an outline fish and white skeleton. Put on the
first cell of the incoming mask animation that will reveal the image from
top to bottom.
At some time in the early hours of the morning after a couple of days of camera work
the final frame is complete. Hurriedly wind on 200 frames, open the camera,
cut the film and release the magazine. Down the corridor to the darkroom.
Pitch black. Fumble the magazine open and take out the take-up roll. Into
a black plastic bag and a film can. Lights on. Into the studio. Start filling
out a camera sheet and label. It's 3.30am and the processing labs will stop
accepting film soon. Phone the lab and ask for the night manager. Please...PLEASE...will
you hold the bath till I get there. Ok, but only till 4am. Grab sealed can,
dash around switching everything off and locking up. Out to the car. Head
for the motorway. Careful. Luckily no speed cameras in those far-off ancient
days but still the occasional cop around. Worry about wether there might be
a hair (sliver of emulsion) in the camera gate, or a light fog in the magazine,
or the film not seating on the register pins...etc, etc
To be continued soon...