Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pencil Test of a Lifetime

I just discovered a blog about Glen Keane's art tonight.  I was at Pres Romanillos' tribute at the Disney Lot tonight, which was wonderful and heartfelt, and it got me thinking of his mentor, Glen, and what a master he is.

I remember that when I was working on Pocahontas, doing a lot of overtime as a Production Assistant, Glen asked me to stay extra late one night.  I had plenty of animation scenes to shoot tests of, which back in the day were a way for the animators to see how their animation was coming along.  These were called rough pencil tests.  We would shoot the rough animation onto flat light board using a down-facing video camera,  and then we would record the appropriate section of dialogue and or music onto the test.  This would give the animators a real-time sense of how their animation scene was working in rough form.

I had finished a whole stack of scenes that night for various animators due the next morning, when Glen threw down a stack of drawings rubber-banded in extra long cardboard onto my shooting table.  He said, "Fred, take care with these; I drew them all in charcoal, so you have to be careful not to smudge them.  And just let me know when you're finished."  He then went back to his animation room to do some other work while I shot the test.  I wondered what he had meant by "charcoal," but had felt too stupid to ask.

After all of these years, I still remember that it was the rough pencil test for Sequence 14, Scene 108.  I undid the rubber bands and cardboard that were holding the scene together, and in front of me were fifty or sixty charcoal drawings on extra wide paper.  "Oh, I see," I said to myself.  "He really did draw everything in charcoal instead of pencil."  I had never seen animation done like this in my short time in the industry.  Glen had drawn the close up of Pocahontas during a song called, "Colors of the Wind," in which the camera starts close on her face and then pulls back to reveal her full body as the wind is blowing her hair and she dances slowly as she turns her body.  Glen had drawn this camera move into his animation; something only the likes of Glen and a few others such as Eric Goldberg really knew how to do well.

As I shot the scene there on the black framed test table with four bright lights illuminating the animation paper surrounded by the darkness that permeated pencil test area, I watched Pocahontas' face and hair come to life like an ocean as the charcoal drawings boiled and flowed in front of me.  I was flabbergasted.  In that moment, I truly learned what the magic of animation was; the art of making two simple mediums, charcoal and paper, erupt into emotional life like a visual song. 

When I finished and had watched the animation three or four times completely stunned, I went and got Glen from his office, who walked with me back to the pencil test area, and I showed him the tape of his animation.   He said, "Well, it doesn't look too bad."  Hyeah, right!  It was perfection; a mind-altering genesis that I had been the first to witness, and yet he was probably seeing a thing or two he could fix in it.  This was a night and an experience I was never to forget.  The funny thing too was that since I was pretty new in the division, I had been aware that Glen was supposed to be a "good animator," but I really didn't have any concept until that night when, right then and there, I experienced his mastery and his humbleness firsthand.

If you click on the blog link below, you will see in the right margin a list of characters.  Click on Pocahontas and you will find a few of these drawings that I shot that night in 1994; one towards the top, and two or three way towards the bottom.  They are the ones of Pocahontas that look like charcoal is almost bleeding sideways from right to left.  Click on the thumbnails to expand the pics.  Just take a look.