September 09, 2011

The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Larry Bafia & Webster Colcord

I found this great article on AWN by Ken A. Priebe - About the careers of Larry Bafia and Webster Colcord and how they worked together as animation partners at Will Vinton Studios in the late 1980s, when the Claymation technique had peaked in popularity. Since that time, they have both branched into other aspects of stop-motion, CG animation, visual effects, and education.

Here's some Behind the scenes footage of Webster's more recent works:

Here are their thoughts in this article as they talk about their respective careers and views on animation.

Larry Bafia and Webster Colcord

How did each of your animation careers get started?
LARRY: The first studio I worked at straight out of school in Chicago was Crocus Productions in Evanston, Illinois, where we did some clay animation industrial videos. One was for dental hygiene, and another was about spaying your pets for the ASPCA. I also worked at Excelsior Studios, run by Gene Warren, which involved some time on Land of the Lost. I built some props and repaired any set damage that occurred during a shot. We also did a lot of practical effects, and that's where I learned a lot of in-camera processes. The vortex for the opening sequence of Land of the Lost, for example, was shot in a fish tank with a high-speed Mitchell camera whirring away like crazy, and we injected milk into swirling water to create the cloudiness. Also, at Colossal Pictures, I assisted Gary Gutierrez with commercials for San Francisco radio stations, scenes for the Grateful Dead movie, and things like that. For the most part, I was just assisting rather than animating at Colossal, but overall I had several seconds of stop-motion experience under my belt before starting at Will Vinton Studios.
[Figure 10.3] Larry Bafia (left) with writer Ralph Liddle on A Claymation Christmas Celebration. (Courtesy of Larry Bafia/Will Vinton Productions.)

I was interested in animation at an early age and had done some quasi-professional work on a science-fiction film that was being shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, with a USC film school graduate. I started at Will Vinton’s right after high school, so that was like college for me. I like to joke that I moved straight from Super 8 to 35mm, which I really didn’t because we shot on 16mm at Vinton’s. They had a little Bolex mounted on these huge classic Hollywood cranes that could have held a tank! The first shot that Larry and I worked on together at Vinton’s was the opening wrap-around scene for A Claymation Christmas Celebration in 1987.

[Figure 10.4] Larry Bafia working on A Claymation Christmas Celebration. (Courtesy of Larry Bafia/Will Vinton Productions.)

I had built a good portion of the main set, which was the Christmas Square (Figure 10.4). A few others and I had come in as apprentices on the show because Vinton had just received the contract from CBS to do three half-hour specials. Since we had been involved in building the set, we got involved in the wrap-around scenes with Herb and Rex, the dinosaur hosts. In the first shot, I got to animate Herb and Rex welcoming the audience, which was a pretty wide shot before it cut to a close-up. The only other characters on the stage at the time were a little frog band on the corner, who were supposed to be playing the opening theme music.
[Figure 10.5] Webster Colcord working on A Claymation Christmas Celebration. (Courtesy of Webster Colcord/Will Vinton Productions.)

I ended up doing armatures and sculpting the actual instruments for the frogs, along with model sculptor Kyle Bell, and then actually animating them for the shot (Figure 10.5). The way the studio operated was that everybody was a generalist, so some of us had worked on sets, we all did some of the lighting, and we loaded our own cameras most of the time. If you had the skills to do something, you ended up doing it. It was a great place to learn because we all did a little bit of everything, but Larry was a lead animator because he was one of the few who actually had lots of clay animation experience before coming to Vinton’s. Claymation was a really big deal at that time since it was pre-CG, and if you wanted to do character effects that weren’t cel animation, you really couldn’t go any route other than stop-motion or clay animation.

[Figure 10.6] Larry Bafia shoots a scene from Meet the Raisins. (Courtesy of Larry Bafia/Will Vinton Productions.)

[Figure 10.7] Webster Colcord animating on a Tang commercial. (Courtesy of Webster Colcord/Will Vinton Productions.)

LARRY: Then somehow, as a bunch of apprentices, we ended up winning an Emmy for the first show we worked on! We were all part of a hiring wave at that time because the studio had just finished The Adventures of Mark Twain, commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, and the first few California Raisin commercials, which quickly became very popular. That’s when they were playing with the notion of starting a short-film division, and these half-hour specials were supposed to be a breeding ground for that. After the Christmas special, we continued working together on Meet the Raisins, and lots of commercials for Tang and other clients (Figures 10.6 and 10.7).

WEBSTER: There was also the “Speed Demon” sequence for Michael Jackson’s feature film Moonwalker, plus the “Michael Raisin” commercial.

KEN: How were animators assigned to shots on a detailed commercial like “Michael Raisin,” with all of the crowd shots and multiple characters?

WEBSTER: There were at least eight animators on the crew for that commercial, including three key animators. Jeff Mulcaster and Tony Merrithew did most of the dancing shots, and Mark Gustafson did the final shot of Michael Jackson waking up.

LARRY: I worked on one of the shots where the characters were holding their lighters up. Usually, they were carefully crafted compositions that made it feel like there were lots of characters on screen, but you may have only 15 characters to deal with at once. Most of the crowd shots didn’t take more than one or two people.

WEBSTER: One exception was on the ending shot of Claymation Christmas Celebration, where we had four animators at once: Kyle Bell, Tom Gurney, Larry, and me. That was kind of a nightmare, actually! (Laughs.) We almost had some fights break out on set there.
LARRY: (Laughs.) Not me.

WEBSTER: No, but we found out somebody had leaned against the camera crane halfway through the shot.

LARRY: Right—that was on the second day of a shot that was supposed to take about 4 days.

KEN: Did they start using CG at Vinton’s while you were still there?

LARRY: Yes. How that happened was David Daniels came into the studio and started directing, and he had a set-up for a motion-control rig that he had used on a Pop-Tarts commercial. He started training some of us on it, and when he saw that I didn’t mind stepping onto the computer, he brought in the video toaster with Lightwave on it, and I started trying it out. Then, when David was in New York showing tests to an agency, they showed him storyboards for a Chips Ahoy! commercial, and he began brainstorming with them on it. Upon walking out of the agency with the boards, his producer Paul Deiner told him he had just pitched a CG spot that couldn’t be done in stop-motion. They called me at the studio, and I told them I had been trying to create models with the video toaster. They told me to start modeling an exclamation point for a CG test, and that’s when we started combining CG with miniature sets. Then, on a sales trip to Chicago, Mark Gustafson and I gave a studio presentation of our stop-motion work along with the Chips Ahoy! commercial and another one we had done for Fanta. That’s when we got asked to do a Raid commercial, which was the first one done entirely in CG, and that led to the M&M’s campaign. It got to the point that there was such an influx of artists and techniques coming into the studio that if we looked at a storyboard, we had to decide which methods would suit it best.

KEN: How did you each part ways from Vinton’s into the next stage of your careers?

LARRY: I had received an offer from Warner Bros. to work with Barry Purves on doing tests with foam latex puppets for Mars Attacks! When I arrived there, they only had one puppet built because the entire crew had come over from Manchester, England, and needed to build an entire stop-motion studio from scratch, including sets for the film. We also worked with a miniature company in L.A. called Brazil that built the flying saucers. I did spin tests on the saucers, designed a rig that would hold them up for motion-control shots, and continued doing tests with the Martian puppets. We actually spent lots of time developing personalities for some of the Martians, rather than just “shoot-’em-up” characters. At one point, Barry had the idea of having them use hand gestures while they made the “ack ack” sound that had been designed, as if they were pulling the sounds out of their mouths. One of my favorite tests that Barry and I animated together was of one Martian suiting up another Martian for battle. It was entirely improvised, so each of us had to keep an eye on what the other puppet was doing—it was a lot of fun. We had the advantage of being involved early enough in pre-production that we could experiment with how the characters would interact. I was also responsible for breaking down the script to determine how many stop-motion shots would be needed and how many animators we would need to build up a crew. Then, some producers from ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) came in. Since their effects for films like Jurassic Park and Jumanji had finally come of age, Mars Attacks!Antz. shifted there and became a CG project. I had talked with ILM about moving onto the project as well, but decided to take up another offer from PDI/DreamWorks directing CG commercials and animating on their feature film

[Figure 10.8] Webster Colcord working on a spot for Converse. (Courtesy of Webster Colcord.)

After my initial 3 years on staff at Vinton’s, I continued to work for them as a freelancer, but I also travelled around and did some freelance work for David Daniels and a CBC Christmas show in Canada, as well as my own commercials. Then, I got a contract to do some work for Converse Shoes (Figure 10.8), based on some short films I made for Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. I had my own operation going on in Portland for a while, doing stints for clients like CBS, Warner Bros. Televison, and Nickelodeon, and working on projects with animator Chel White. I also went down to San Francisco for a while and animated on James and the Giant Peach, along with animator Chuck Duke, but I left that production early to resume some commercial work in Portland. In 1997, I got called down to PDI/DreamWorks, and started working there with Larry again. I also took a short break from PDI to work with Henry Selick again on Monkeybone, which was a fun but tumultuous production.

LARRY: I always remember you talking about how tricky the shoulder rig was on that show since the stop-motion monkey was usually on Brendan Fraser’s shoulder and you had to mimic the live-action along with the character animation.

WEBSTER: The pre-composited shots on Monkeybone were really interesting. They actually built a Brendan Fraser motion-control robot, and match-moved the live-action movement of his body. On top of that, we animated the monkey, which was at a 1:1 scale. It was pretty awesome to see the monkey moving on this clunky robot that was rotoscoped to the live action. It was a unique technical challenge, and I don’t think anyone else has done it since.

KEN: Were there any challenges in adjusting from the animation style of television work to working on Henry Selick’s feature films?

WEBSTER: When I was doing my own commercials, I would wear several different hats and try to do the best animation I could in the end. That was a challenge, when I had my own company. Working for Henry, it was a challenge being a smaller fish in a big pond and having to learn the protocol of that kind of production. On my first day there, I was scolded in the hallway by Bonita DeCarlo in the puppet department for bringing one of the puppets up for repair. She thought I was too young to be on the animation team! (Laughs.) Later, she apologized, of course, but it was against the rules for anyone other than a fabricator or an animator to hold a puppet. It was very different from working on smaller projects, where you handled every aspect of production.
In terms of animation style, I had initially learned to animate in a rather intuitive way. There is a famous quote from a Good Morning America interview with Chuck Duke, when he was working on Vinton’s Chips Ahoy! commercial. He was being asked about animating a chunk of chocolate and said, “You just keep a rhythm in your head, and that should get you there.” There have been similar statements made by Ray Harryhausen and even by Richard Williams to the effect of finding a rhythm and thinking about where you’re going as you animate straight ahead, and Tom St. Amand would always say, “A good armature should sort of animate itself.” With stop-motion, whether you plan it or not, you just get your hands on the puppet and work it out as you go along. But there were animators on James and the Giant Peach who planned their movements more like cel animation, so that was something I had to adapt to. Even at PDI, with their early CG software, we used a spreadsheet and had to type in numbers to plan out our animation. It was the only way to do it, but it was counterintuitive to have to analyze what you were going to animate before you even started. But I think I became a better animator between James and Monkeybone because my experience animating CG at PDI forced me to be more disciplined.

LARRY: Even if you look back at some of our old exposure sheets from Vinton’s, sometimes on a commercial I would only have one track that maybe had some notes about the beats and accents in the soundtrack. But on other projects, sometimes the director would want the live-action reference analyzed on the sheet to the point where you would even plan out where you needed to animate a blink. So, it varied based on style, but also on the animator. In the beginning, we wanted to have all those notes because we had to be so precise on every frame, but after a while you learn how to get into a rhythm, especially if you have a feel for the character.

WEBSTER: Yeah, it depends on the shot, the animator, and the director. Henry Selick would block out the whole shot in editorial sessions with the animator, so you often end up doing what Henry would do if he was the one animating it. But at the same time, I had been talking recently with Richard Zimmerman and Justin Kohn about the animation from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they said the animation on certain things, like Sally’s hair as it blew through the wind (in the opening sequence), would typically be done straight ahead, with no surface gauges at all. Sometimes, when you’re in the moment on an organic follow-through motion like that, you can just do it very quickly and you get a better result. It’s just you, the puppet, and the rhythm.

LARRY: I think that’s one of the hardest things if you were trying to teach someone stop-motion—to be able to see where something is going to be three or four frames ahead of that particular pose.

KEN: It’s neat to hear you both mention how the different methods of working complement each other. Much has been said by animators about how their stop-motion experience helped them transition into CG, but it’s also interesting to note how CG helps to create better stop-motion.

LARRY: Even when we started in CG, we were arm wrestling with the tools. We didn’t know to set key frames and then look at the interpolation between them since we only knew how to animate straight ahead.

WEBSTER: Plus, sometimes the only way to animate something in CG is to just animate every frame without any interpolation. That’s something I learned from Harry Walton at Sony Imageworks, who animated some shots in CG that way, and Ryan Roberts at PDI told me the same thing. We were wrestling with some CG spiders for Minority Report, and he figured out the only way to animate it properly was on single frames—and this was coming from someone with a completely CG background. With the spiders, it was mostly because of their curvy legs. Curvy shapes are the hardest thing to animate in any medium. The snake character in Monkeybone, which was mostly done by Justin Kohn, had lots of labor involved to keep those curves because everything down the chain is affected. The worm in James was also very difficult for the same reason. I recently did some work on a commercial for Genndy Tartakovsky, and he had a CG character with snake-like rubber-hose arms. He wanted it to stretch out and snap back like cel animation, so once again the only way to do it was single frame with no interpolation, just like stop-motion but using the computer to do it.
In the end, it’s all animation, but I guess the main advantage stop-motion has over CG is something that Henry Selick had said—that in stop-motion, you have everything in one place. You get your lighting interacting with the puppet when you look through the camera lens, so you know right away what the shot will look like. In CG, you don’t know what the emotional resonance of that glint in the puppet’s eye will be until it’s lit and rendered, which is sometimes months later.
KEN: Webster, I understand you have a strong interest in the work of stop-motion artist Wah Chang. What is your inspiration behind that?
[Figure 10.9] Two stop-motion masters: Wah Chang (left) and Peter Kleinow (right). (Courtesy of Webster Colcord.)

I always knew who he was, mostly through little hints in magazine articles by people like Jim Danforth over the years. Finally, around 2000 or 2001, it was Peter Kleinow who had called me up one day asking if I’d like to help him with a short-film project he was doing with Wah Chang (Figure 10.9). So, we went down together to meet him, and I helped out by getting them equipped with a frame-grabber system. Later, the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco had an exhibit of work by Wah and Tyrus Wong, who had both worked at Disney together on Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. I helped to curate the exhibit, but unfortunately Wah never made it up to see it—he had passed away around that time. For his memorial service, I wrote up a mini-biography documentary about him, and since then I’ve been trying between projects to get his short films together in a proper format for release. Wah’s sister gave me a collection of his still photographs, so I’ve been passing them along to people doing articles on his work, including Jim Danforth, who is writing a memoir of his own career and had worked with Wah on a few projects. What was amazing about Wah is the range of work he did over so many years. He had worked with nearly every major figure in stop-motion, including Ray Harryhausen, George Pal, Willis O’Brien, Marcel Delgado, Gene Warren, and Gene Warren, Jr. His personal story is also amazing. He had polio in his 20s and had to wear leg braces most of his life, but despite his physical limitations he was able to produce an incredible body of work. Not enough people know about that, so I’m hoping to get more of his story out there.

KEN: Do either of you have any other ideas for future stop-motion projects?

LARRY: I’ve been knocking around an idea for a short film for quite a while and hoping to do some animation tests when I can find the time. It’s also a matter of funding, if it turns out I need some extra support.

WEBSTER: For me, too, it’s a matter of finding the time, money, and space. Stop-motion takes up much more physical space than just a computer station. In addition to my regular job at ImageMovers, I’ve been doing cel animation. I just recently animated a music video for a Portland band—the Dandy Warhols. Stop-motion is my first joy, and I’d really like to do clay animation again. Very few people do clay the way we used to. I think it’s the most pure animation medium; it doesn’t get any more tactile or versatile than just pure clay.

LARRY: I really used to love doing morph shots because once you started moving the clay, it took on a life of its own. It wasn’t just replacement pieces used to morph into something else.

WEBSTER: I got really into liquid animation in clay when I was doing work for Converse, and I got a system down for achieving the effect. I’d like to do another short film with that technique; I still have many of the models, sets and equipment I would need. I also have some fans online who want me to create more of my Mad Doctors of Borneo shorts. I have a whole storyline for that posted on my website, so someday I’d like to find the time to do that.

KEN: What do you both think about the current and future potential of stop-motion in the animation world these days?

LARRY: Well, to Webster’s point about the purity of the clay medium, I think a lot of people are starting to see in all genres of animation that sometimes simplifying and going back to roots can really feel much more personal. Sometimes when you get more sophisticated, things can get really antiseptic. Even in CG—for example, the film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs went for that Muppet-type character design, and that helped push the animation, to make it feel very unique. Another example of unique cel animation technique is to color in the drawings with colored pencils or makers, like Bill Plympton or even Webster’s 2D films. Now, it’s more common to just use a program like Toon Boom to paint digitally. Things are constantly changing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but as long as you can be expressive with it, that’s more important than where the tools are headed. You could still animate a character like Gumby and have it be more expressive than a photorealistic image. We’ve been through just about every style of animation out there, and at a certain point it’s more about taking on a challenge rather than which medium you’re working in.

Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander. 

Larry’s website:
Webster’s website:

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