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„I dismiss rotoscopy if it is not well done“

INTERVIEW with animator and programmer Bob Sabiston – VERONIKA ZÝKOVÁ –

Animator, director, programmer and creator of Rotoshop, plus principal employee of Flat Black Films, that is Bob Sabiston, who was PAF Cult at the 10th Festival of Film Animation Olomouc, where he presented his various works.You may know his short movies like Grasshopper (2003), The Even More Funtrip (2007) or animation for Jørgen Leth‚s Five Obstructions (2003). Or – you probably saw Richard Linklater‚s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), which both hold strong visual style thanks to the animation Bob Sabiston and his co-workers created using Rotoshop…

In Olomouc and later via internet we talked about rotoscoping, realism, Bob‚s recent projects and his future plans.

Česká verze rozhovoru je zde. / Czech version of the interview is here.

Photo: Barbora Slezáková

Do you think the more and more realistic look of rotoscoped films is really a progress?
Yes, I feel it is definitely progress, but only in one particular direction. I guess that direction you could call stylized realism. But that style entirely leaves out a world of other possibilities, so in that sense it’s extremely limiting. And the average person does not really think about that. They think we were trying from the beginning to be as real as possible, and now that we are pretty close, it’s over. But I don’t believe that at all. There is much cooler stuff to be done with it. Whether or not it will be done, I don’t know.

Did you like the look of Renaissance?
It still comes to if the movie is good, entertaining, or not. I thought that the film had really strong style, which I liked a lot. That’s what I expected the movie Sin City to look like. Sin City was worse, it was really just black and white filter. Like it hardly looked animated at all. I wish they did it like Renaissance. However, neither one of those movies was a favorite of mine.

Which are your favorites?
With regard to rotoscoping, I’d probably have to pick something far from our own work, since I feel like we kind of started our own brand of that particular look. So, it may be a smart-assed answer but I would say the rotoscoping Jordan Mechner used in his first videogames Karateka and Prince of Persia. As far as movies, I like Miyazaki‚s Spirited Away, Pixar’s The Incredibles, and the 1951’s Disney version of Alice in Wonderland.

Opposite to the realistic look, there is for example the work of Matěj Smetana, who used marker to re-draw film adverts of horror movies of 70s and 80s, using the original music etc. It is quite interesting.
Back a long time ago, in 80s, there was a show on MTV called Liquid Television and one of the segments they used in this show is called Stick Figure Theatre. They would take classic clips from old movies, like Casablanca. And they used the same audio and shots, but they were sticky versions and it was really effective to do that. It was so simple that it was fun to see it.

I really like the diversity look of rotoscoped films…
Yeah. I like that about rotoscoping. One of the reasons I got into rotoscoping was that you can just choose one thing about the video, that is necessary to convey, what’s going on, and the rest doesn’t have to be there, if you don’t want to spend the time. That’s cool about it.

Which aspects of rotoscoping do you like?
Well, after doing it almost constantly for ten years, it is almost just the challenge of taking any kind of video at all and finding some way of doing it that satisfies me. It’s very time-consuming work, and you have to balance your desire for detail with the knowledge of how much time you want to spend on the scene. Finding a look for a scene that is visually appealing, yet is done quickly, is the most satisfying thing for me.

What criteria do the projects of people who ask you to use Rotoshop have to meet?
It’s very practical situation. We would like to be involved, because there is no manual. We are not large group of people. There are 5 or 6 of us. And usually it doesn’t come very often, people asking. Sometimes I get further in decisions but it has never worked out. Usually people have their own ideas how they expect it to work. They just want to say: „Can we buy it or rent it to use without animators?“ I am not really interested in that, because it seems to be such a complicated nightmare. I would have to support it if it was not working. I am more interested in creative side, if there’s a creative role for us in a film.

The other thing is – nobody ever has as much money. The ones who make these films, they never say: „Oh, we’ll pay you 4 millions dollars.“ It’s: „Oh, we have few thousand dollars.“ (laugh) So, it’s very easy to say No. It’s not really much of an upside for us. But if someone with big budget came in, it would be a different situation.

You used your programs Rotoshop and Line Research to create music video for the band Black Angels. And before that, if I am correct, in your short film Yard. Do you see a possibility to create a full lenght film combining these two techniques?
Sure, it is definitely possible. The two pieces of software are already intertwined. I would love to combine the two looks in a longer film.

At your presentation, you’ve mentioned plans to make another full lenght film, something between Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, more like comedy with cartoony look. How far are you with this project, would you direct it and would it have single style?
Yeah, I would like to do that, but there are no plans as such. The experience with Scanner [note of the author: A Scanner Darkly – read more about the experience in the footnote1 ], and then several other less than pleasant experiences in the animation industry, kind of left me feeling disenchanted. And neither of our previous movies did well financially, so people in the industry aren’t eager to put money into our types of projects. You never know, though. We might do something very independent and inexpensive ourselves, or someone who likes our work might come along and want to make a cool feature film.

Waking Life (2001)

What about the project called Fuzzy Town on which you worked with Zellner bros. I found this interesting demo reel
I am friends with the Zellner brothers and this is a project we would like to make together. We have pitched it to Cartoon Network a couple of times, but they don’t think it will be funny enough. We are hoping someone else might want to help us make it sometime.

When I look at your videogame Retroid, I see you are a fan of arcade games. Which videogames do you like and/or which ones you find inspiring?
I am a longtime fan of The Legend of Zelda series. I liked Portal a lot. The Sword and Sworcery game on iOS was super cool last year. I loved Borderlands for the Xbox. My favorite of all time has to be the early Ultima games by Richard Garriott for Apple II. Ultima 2, 3, & 4.

And do you plan to do something else in videogames field?
I am definitely still working in iOS, whether for games or just creative applications. I’m writing a new one now that is more art-oriented. I also would like to update my other apps Headspace and Voxel soon, if I can find the time! And my Nintendo 3DS/DSi animation program Inchworm Animation should soon be released for the European market.

As rotoscoping is very often visually close to comic books, I have to ask: Are you a comic books fan?
I was a fan when I was a kid, and I was into it for a while after college. I loved Frank Miller‚s The Dark Knight, and Electra. I liked Eightball by Dan Clowes a lot, and the work of Chester Brown. But I have not really kept up with the comics world. I do like the aesthetic a lot, I just for some reason don’t buy and read a lot of comics.

Photo: Barbora Slezáková

You are doing rotoscoped movies since 1996. Do you see a change of view on rotoscopy – is it now more accepted as an artistic form / technique of animation? I am asking because there were always voices that dismissed rotoscoping as something less talented guys do etc.
I don’t know — there will always be people who dismiss it. I myself dismiss it if it is not well done. It all depends, for me, on the overall aesthetic. You can tell if rotoscopy is used just as a cheap time-saving mechanism. On the other hand, if something is beautiful to look at, then people generally are not too critical of how it is done.

Are Flat Black Films open to working with new people? I mean, if some artist came and wanted to be part of FBF, would it be possible?
Well, I don’t really have a company as such. There are no full-time employees besides myself. When we get projects, there are a handful of regular artists here in Austin who work with me, and as the projects get larger we hire more people. But each project is pretty much self-contained. I don’t think I could sustain a business that had to rely on doing animation all the time to pay people. It would be nice, maybe.

When I checked the internet for info about Flat Black Films and your work, I had the feeling you do not promote yourself very much. It seems to me that you let your work speak for itself…
I guess — it is hard to say. I don’t feel entirely in control of it. But you are correct, I am terrible at promotion and have little interest in marketing our work. If I can just make work that I actually like, that is hard enough for me. To try to convince other people it’s good would be horrible, I think.

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  1. Bob Sabiston and his co-workers stepped out from the project after months of work, because of absurd time and financial limitation from Warner Bros. The film was finished by other animators, who used Rotoshop without Sabiston‚s permission. Of course, in the result it took much more time and money than Warner Bros. wanted or naively expected. Check here for more info. []


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