A cartoon by any other name

Former Pixar animator Tim Crawfurd, a guest speaker at the Animix festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, says it’s all about having a good story to work on.

my dog tulip311 (photo credit: courtesy)
my dog tulip311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Shakespeare has Juliet exclaiming plaintively, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” On the other hand, had Bill Shakes lived in an epoch in which advertising is the holy cow, he might have thought otherwise about putting out anything without a catchy handle.
After 10 years in the business, the organizers of the Animation Comics Caricature International Festival, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, have evidently arrived at the same conclusion. From now on, the annual event is to be known by the short and highly appealing moniker of Animix. This year, it will run from August 17 to August 21.
Over the five days the public will be able to get some insight into what’s going down in the animation market around the world, as well as getting a glimpse of our endeavor in the field. There will be screenings of some classic works, and the chance to benefit firsthand from the rich experience of some of the industry’s top professionals.
The guest speaker roster includes the likes of 77-yearold celebrated Argentinean cartoonist and animator Guillermo Mordillo, aka Mordillo, top Hollywood animation producer Ron Diamond and former Pixar animator Tim Crawfurd.
Just in case you are among the minuscule percentage of inhabitants on this planet that may not instantly recognize the output of the Pixar studios, the names Toy Story and its sequels, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up may jolt your memory a mite.
As a member of Pixar’s animation department in California for 12 years, the Dutch-born Crawfurd worked on all the above, and then some. Next Tuesday (at 3 p.m.) he will talk to the Cinematheque audience about his work and attempt to fathom the reasons for the secret of Pixar’s meteoric rise to the stratospheric realms of the animation industry hierarchy.
Crawfurd, who traces his intriguingly-spelled surname back to his Scottish great-grandfather, will have a far shorter journey to make to the festival than Mordillo and Diamond. He moved to Israel with his Israeli-born wife and three children last September, and recently relocated from Galilee to Jerusalem.
In fact, he was living in London when his and Pixar’s paths crossed.
“I was working for a 2D animation company there, in 1996, and the work dried up, so I started looking around for something else,” he explains. “There happened to be a digital festival at Wembley at that time and all the big companies – Disney, Pixar and all the rest – were there.
“I took some of my work and showed it so someone from Pixar. They liked it, and the rest is history.”
Crawfurd’s geographical transition to the West Coast also entailed a significant technological shift. “At school we did puppet animation, and used other techniques like plasticine, cutouts etc. but I didn’t really want to do computer animation.” All that changed when he moved Stateside.
“Back then, London was the center of the cereal commercial sector, and the animation business there was based on that. It was great fun, but it sort of died out and, unfortunately, the whole sector became computerized.”
Crawfurd may prefer a more organic work medium but, at the end of the day, he says it’s not so much the vehicle you use to get your work across as the quality of the raw material.
“You have to have a good story to work on. At Pixar, it is always first and foremost about the story, and they will give you time to make a good shot.
“Things are also pretty democratic there. They just want to make a good film, and you can propose ideas, and suggest changes, and they’ll listen to you.”
NOT ALL computerized animation is to Crawfurd’s liking.
“There are animated films that look like they have been duplicated over and over again. Even the Disney movies of the early 2000s were always geared toward teenagers.
They always had the same expressions with, say, one corner of the mouth pulled up, or a cheek pushed up.
Real people don’t react to situations like that. You have to make the character real.” Crawfurd attributes some of Pixar’s impressive track record to date to the personnel higher up the company ladder, singling out the likes of the director and chief creative officer at Pixar, John Lasserter, and directoranimator- screenwriter Brad Bird.
“John Lasserter is very good at picking out good ideas. A lot of the success of an animated film depends on that. I also really like Brad Bird. He’s amazing. All the stories around, about how good he is, are absolutely true.”
EVEN SO, Crawfurd says that Lasserter and Bird follow their own individual paths to achieving the best end product possible.
“John picks out the best ideas, but Brad will spend a month or two in his own room, sometimes away from Pixar, and he’ll get a story out.
You have the freedom to do that at Pixar.”
Pixar sets so much store by the storyline that the creative/production process is sometimes held in abeyance if the need for tweaking, or even radical modification, arises.
“If they feel the need to change the story, even if the animation work has already started, they’ll stop everything and try to hammer it out and then pass it on to the story department,” explains Crawfurd. “That happened with A Bug’s Life, Monsters and Finding Nemo.”
Meanwhile, now based in the Holy Land, Crawfurd is looking to further his craft within the Israeli animation industry while maintaining his global village contacts.
“I teach students from all over the world online, through the Animation Mentor Web site,” he says, “but I am of course looking to get things going in Israel, too.”
Next school year will see Crawfurd join the staff of the Visual Communication Department of the Hebrew University’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design – with whom he will no doubt share some of the wisdom and professional expertise accrued during his 12-year stint at Pixar.
He has also dabbled in TV animation which, he says, is challenging due to the shorter turnaround time frameworks and the more stringent timing demands involved. He also says our animation sector is more developed than the corresponding industry in his home country.
“There is much more, and better, animation here than in Holland. I have seen some student films at Bezalel. There was some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff. I think there is a lot of potential there.”
Time will tell whether Crawfurd manages to instill some of his Pixar-earned skills in his academic charges. Crawfurd’s lecture at the animation festival will be delivered in English.
Elsewhere on the Animix program there will be animation screenings accompanied by live music performed by veteran pop-rock guitarist singer Miki Gabrielov, and a children’s choir fronted by Lee Ron. Composer-pianist-conductor Gil Shohat will offer his own pianistic interpretations of some classic musical animated films.
While that may conjure up images of silent movies accompanied by live piano or organ-playing, TV journalist David Witztum’s talk about Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic classic film Metropolis will look at some of the innovative techniques used in the movie, and how they acted as the bedrock of later animation techniques.