“Life would be more exciting with talking animals, zombies and wizzards”
Benjamin Arthur is a young California based animator and illustrator, who brought attention to his works by his short film Once Upon a Time in the Woods (2007), in which he rotoscoped his brother, and later by two animations he did for National Public Radio – 3D animated The Billion-Bug Highway (2010) and roto Why Can’t We Walk Straight (2010). Spectators over the world could have seen both his roto animations at many festivals. Both Benjamin‘s roto films were screened in a program called Rotoscopy in Shorts at the 10th Festival of Film Animation. Also of an interest is Benjamin‘s tutorial, in which he described how to rotoscope with Wacom tablet. In the interview we were talking about his recent work, inspiration by comic books, creative freedom and, of course, rotoscoping.
Let’s start with your recent work and future projects – what are you working on now and what are your plans?
I’ve been working for NPR for about two years. I did two animations, Why Can’t We Walk Straight and The Billion-Bug Highway, for them, but I have also illustrated about twelve articles for their website, which is a lot of fun. I’ve been working on becoming more of an illustrator, as well as an animator, and I think they complement each other. I am also working on Robert Krulwich’s show, who writes the articles I illustrate. He did voices for both animations I have mentioned. Robert has a live show Radiolab, which is his another program, and they are travelling around country and I’m doing animation that they’re going to show on stage.
I am working on and off on a graphic novel about Japanese samurai who gets turned to a baby, and I want to do a rotoscoped short film about street musicians. I have been looking for some funding for this one for about a year now.
You like animals, weapons, zombies and time travel – where did this come from?
It’s kind of from all over the place. I always loved stories and TV shows, books and comics… They were things that started out normal and then something gets introduced and it changes everything and makes it more interesting. I have been always wishing that talking animals, zombies, fancy weapons, time travel, spaceships, ghosts, wizzards, robots existed, so life could be more exciting. So I am trying to incorporate that kind of stuff to my stories, when I am having fun.
In Timid Rabbit, for example, the rabbit acts surprisingly and against expectations, and also other animals that you draw do not behave standard way…
I did that one long time ago, it was one of the first animations I ever did. I like animals, because people identify with animals very quickly. So when someone looks at that cute rabbit, they’re gonna go “Oooh” and then it totally turns around and suddenly the rabbit is not cute and you don’t really identify with it as much anymore. That’s funny to me.
Which comic books inspired you?
I love all comics. I probably read more comics than normal books. When I was a kid, my favourite comic books were Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. I really liked them and Tintin, because they were going on these fantastic epic journeys to strange lands and they’d meet zombies and they’d go on spaceships and (laugh) they did exactly what I’d like to see. Now I like Calvin and Hobbes and I am reading now comics Fables series, which is great. I’ve just read a great graphic novel called Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, which is really well drawn and well told story. I like the Bone series, which is a big epic series of its own, reminded me Uncle Scrooge a bit, and there is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki, it’s probably one of the best graphic novels ever written. It’s really fantastic. I also like Tekkonkinkreet, which they made into animated movie recently.
Your animation of The Influencing Machine looks amazing – how did you do it?
That was really fun, because they gave me two pages of the graphic novel, before it was released, and they just said: “Can you make this into an animation? And it has to look exactly like the illustrator Josh Neufeld drew it,” which actually made it easier for me, because I had a storyboard and I knew exactly what I am supposed to see on the screen. And I just draw like Josh Neufeld, which is similar to my own style.
Most times I animate I use After Effects and Photoshop almost exclusively, so when it came to The Influencing Machine, I took the two pages to Photoshop and I brought down the different pannels and then I figured out what movement I wanted to do. And some of it I was able to do through “puppetry”, I redraw each character and see if they are moving their arms, I would create different pieces, so their arms would move around. And then for other parts I had to do traditional animation, like when the woman [the author Brooke Gladstone] puts her face in her hands and different places like that… I would just draw each frame. They had me to do some pretty interesting things, like when her face all elongates and explodes, it’s a lot of fun. So I had to figure out how to do it. I am happy how it came out. It did not actually get that much view, I was surprised. I remember Brooke Gladstone, when she was on a big TV show The Colbert Report and she didn’t even mention it. I was like: „Come on, you should tell people to look at it!“
What about Poko? It seems some people did not get it was fun.
I am actually happy some people did not get it, because that way the people who get, it is more special for them. That was a lot of fun, doing that. There was this whole period of time after I left college, I think four years ago, because I basically ran out of money, I could not afford college anymore. I had to move back to my parent’s garage. (laugh) And it was a humbling time, when I felt like I did not know what I was going to do. And it was before I started getting jobs as an animator. And I started doing The Artist, which was like a parody of me, living in a garage, a sad existence, but still thinking of me as an animator and illustrator.
People still e-mail me and ask me for more Poko and I want to do it. I have been storyboarding a TV show pilot for Poko. It’s about war between wizzards and robots and Poko gets caught in the middle of it. I hope to get that done in a next couple of years, that would be great.
You are mostly known for Once Upon a Time in the Woods and Why Can’t We Walk Straight (for NPR)? What impact on your life and career had these two works?
Once Upon a Time in the Woods was really important in my career. I did Once Upon a Time in the Woods at school. It was a piece of footage I shot long time ago and I had always known that I want to do something with it, because it was funny. My brother ran around the woods, he was such a cute kid, he would talk about such weird things, I filmed him and he loved it. And then I saw Waking Life, which was really fantastic, and then I came out of that, really wanting to see if I could do something like that.
So when I was at school, I was taking a class called Experimental animation and I asked the teacher “Instead of these stand animation things, can I just work on this one project and do this short film?” And she said “Yes”. So then I just sat at home and I figured out how to draw it and make it work. Then I finished it, I have put it on YouTube and, just suddenly, a year and half later, when I was not even at school anymore, it got featured and got like 800 000 views and then I started getting phonecalls and e-mails, offers for commercials (laugh) and I was still living in a basement. It was pretty great.
Why Can’t We Walk Straight was special to me, because I perfected my rotoscoping technique that I kind of invented when I did Once Upon a Time in the Woods. Robert [Krulwich] came to me and said: “These are the things I’ve been asking people and these are the answers they’ve been giving me. Can you do something?“ So I looked at the story and I saw this old timey video of this guy asking a guy who walks blindfold. It seems kind of absurd and I thought normal animation looks absurd by itself and I wanted something that did not look absurd, so the absurdity seemed more silly. So I thought rotoscope would work great like that and it was an opportunity to use rotoscope, since I had not done it in a while. It did really well, too, people really responded to rotoscope. It ended up in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, as part of the exhibition Life: A User’s Manual. Recently it was on QI (Quite intesting) show with Stephen Fry, where they talked about it, which was great.
The other work for NPR was The Billion-Bug Highway. What program did you use for this one?
It was just me learning how to use After Effects, because I wanted the 3D feeling, but I have no experience with 3D programs at all. But After Effects has 3D capabilities, so I pushed it really hard to make the bugs fly around and basically to make animated illustration come to live. That’s what I wanted. I was really happy how it came out.
How much of an artistic freedom did you have while creating these animations for NPR?
They know I animate, they know I illustrate, so they just say: “This is what we have, what can you do? What would you like to do?” They really leave it up to me. I look at the story and just think of what hits me about it and what I see in my head. Then I e-mail them series of sketches or a storyboard, that says: “This is what I’m thinking, is this OK with you, guys?” And almost always they say “Yes” and then I just go ahead with my idea. It’s been a really good experience, because I did a lot of jobs, where I worked for people who were not artists, but they had all these ideas, and they’d say: „I know how it’s supposed to go.“ And I would say: „That’s not going to be very good.” But they would say: “That’s gonna be great and you’re gonna animate it…“ (laugh) So I ended up having couple of animations that I was not very happy with, because I had no control over it. So having control is really great.
Do you have some kind of experience with the negative look on the rotoscoping?
Not too much. I kind of understand where they are coming from. They don’t really understand how time-consuming and how much work goes into it. But I think like anything, there is good rotoscoping and bad rotoscoping. Rotoscoping in itself is almost completely different than normal animation Disney does. Because with traditional animation, you are making up how the characters move and everything, but even when you are doing that, you’ll probably want a video or reference of yourself of something jumping etc. So you draw from what you are seeing. With rotoscope – because you don’t have to worry about how characters are moving – you’re free to focus on trying to build something that people can connect with. So when I rotoscope, I really focus a lot on the face and the eyes. And I find – surprisingly – when I rotoscope, one of the most important things is the hair. Because people really connect with hair. If hair is badly done, people can’t get into it. So I spend a long time on the hair, the eyes and the face itself.
A lof of rotoscope I’ve seen, especially amateur rotoscope, the face looks very simple and you can’t connect with it. So you are just going: OK, somebody drew over some video. But when you take video and push it more, you have this chance to draw over something, you can develop a very interesting style of animation, where you can take footage of somebody and take it into a program and twist it up and change it. And if somebody look at that footage, it would look very cheesy, but then you draw over it and invest your own style into a drawing. Then the cheesy effect suddenly becomes incredible. You can add cheap 3D effect and then if you draw after that, it looks a lot better. People spend a lot of time doing greenscreens, with rotoscope you don’t have to do that. You can just film anybody anywhere and then just draw them and can add other things. I have tests that I did when I was younger, with my little brother, picking him up and having him flight around the room. Then I would just draw him and wouldn’t draw me, carrying him around the room. (laugh) And then put clouds behind him and all that. That’s a really simple example, but I think there are tons of possibilities if you use your imagination with the idea of rotoscope and you are willing to put in the time it takes to draw each frame, which can be considerable.