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Interview

Teresa Drilling

by Laura DiTrapani, Fall 2002

Teresa & Friends
Image collage: Demian

ASIFA member Teresa Drilling has been animating for over 20 years. She started out in New York, then moved to the northwest to join Will Vinton Studios in 1987. Over her fourteen years at Vinton’s, she steadily evolved into a Master Animator and Director. Teresa spent seven months in Bristol, England, during 1999-2000, working on the feature animation “Chicken Run” as a key animator for Aardman Features.

  • How did they hear about you here in the US?

    I first met Peter Lord at the Portland Creative Conference, the year he came as one of the speakers (1994). I had been an admirer of his work for a long time, and in fact the main reason I went to the conference that year was to hear him speak. By pure chance he was roaming about by himself in the lobby the first day of the conference. It took me a few minutes to work up the courage, but I finally went up to him and introduced myself. I offered to introduce him to some of the other clay animators at the conference, and we all ended up hanging out at various microbreweries, and even managed a mini road trip.

    Before leaving, Pete invited me to stop by Aardman Studios if I was ever in England, and a few years later when I was, I did. I met Nick Park and Lloyd Price (supervising animator on “Chicken Run”) during that visit. At the point when they needed more clay animators, Pete very kindly remembered me. I feel very honored as well as lucky about it all.

  • That is quite an honor.

    Yes, I really do feel that. After getting a good look at the work permit process, I have a better understanding of why it may be a rare one as well. Britain has some of the strictest foreign worker permit requirements in the world. First a British company, like Aardman, has to want you fairly badly. They have to prove not only that no other eligible British citizen is available for the job being offered, but that no other eligible European Economic Community citizen is available as well. They have to invest quite a bit in advertising and interviewing throughout the EEC for people who are legally entitled to being hired first.

    Second, a foreign candidate, like myself, has to prove that they’re an artist of international stature and provide documented proof of it for the past two years. I couldn’t just submit a resume or credit list, it had to be a recognized third party endorsement, like a major international award, or a mention of your name and work in a major paper or magazine. They were quite stringent. Even the Emmy didn’t qualify me because I had received it more than two years earlier. (Teresa received an “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation” award for her animation on the Will Vinton’s “Claymation Comedy of Horrors” TV special in 1991.)

  • Once you got over there you went through some sort of training process didn’t you, so all the animators would have a consistent styles?

    My first three weeks were a contracted training period, followed by a probationary period in which they evaluated my technical progress and overall fit within the Aardman world.

    I picked up enough in the first week to start contributing acceptable shots by the second. That doesn’t mean of course that I got it all in the first week. I had to continue to learn and improve throughout. I very much wanted to embrace their style. I wasn’t fighting it, and I suppose that was the key. I was comfortable with being a neophyte again, and was prepared to relearn everything if necessary.

    For the less experienced animators, there was a hands-on apprentice style training system in place that I thought was quite good. Promising and talented people started out doing lower level work, working on the basic, tangible stuff over and over until they could expertly handle the characters and clay in their sleep. Eventually the clean up artists started to assist animators on shots, then moved on to their own simple shots, and so on. People who had talent had an opportunity to display their potential, and they were given chances to develop that potential within the parameters and needs of the project. Reference film was used, which also helped keep the work consistent. This was a fairly new tool for Aardman so they were pretty excited about it. The way they regarded reference film was a bit different from what I was used to. Rather than being used primarily as a photographically accurate depiction of movement for the animator to copy, it was used more as a way of conveying how the emotion and timing of a shot should progress. It was done mostly to capture the mood, which was quite interesting and helpful.

    Because the reference film was always done with the directors and animators working together, whatever was happening in the directors’ minds could be consistently communicated, which made for a consistent style. As well as some amusing moments. The reference session for the mud fight was pretty funny. We piled up all the lounge sofa pillows on the floor, then just went bonkers. It was great to see Nick, who is normally this very quiet and modest person just fearlessly go right over the top to act out an idea.

  • How many people were there on the production?

    Around 275 people worked on production. Of these 11 were key animators, five were additional key animators. Key animators had the most responsibility. They acted as custodians of whatever segment they were working on. They generally kept an eye on the performance continuity and character attitude, anticipated upcoming needs, mentored the assistants, brought animators new to a segment up to speed, etc. In addition to the keys, there were 12 more animators, nine assistant animators, and three training assistant animators, 40 animators in all. People rotated in and out of production over two years, so they were never on all at once. Even so, by the end of production, about 32 sets were running simultaneously, which is a lot.

  • What scenes did you work on?

    I spent most of my time working for Nick [Park]. He started me out working with Bunty. She’s the large, pushy, stubborn chicken. He wanted me to further define her belligerence, so he put me on (key animator) Seamus Malone’s segment, the one in which Ginger tries to convince the chickens that “There’s a better world out there.”

    The lion’s share of the work I did was for the Mud Fight segment. In the movie this is just after Rocky has flown the coop. The rest of the chickens are feeling let down and in their misery start a squabble that turns into a mud slinging free for all. That segment was set-up by Dave Osmond and he eventually handed it off to me. Nick very much knew exactly what it was he wanted. Every once in a while you’d do something that would made him really laugh. That was always great because you knew he had such a clear picture in his head about what the shot would look like, and was so precise in his directions, that he was not going to be easily surprised.

    I got to work with Pete during the push at the end. Pete’s directing style was looser than Nick’s. He was more inclined to start with the broad strokes, and then observe and build on what a rehearsal revealed before getting into the smaller details. Pete directed most of the rat sequences and I think his approach really helped in developing their characters very quickly. They originally had much smaller roles, but were given more of the limelight as their winning personalities emerged.

    For Pete I animated shots of the rats heckling the chickens during Rocky’s flying lessons, and the Mac shots in the escape segment, the ones of her down in the engine room cracking all those Star Trek jokes. Those were done on a tiny closet-like set filled with massive, metal gears and heavy pieces that were supposed to jiggle up and down as well as spin. My first thought was “What kind of motion control system are they going to fit in this tiny space to move this thing? It must weigh half a ton!” Then the rigging guys showed up to present me with a plain old car jack. Which as well as being ingenious was just plain funny. It was a good example of the kind of thinking that energized the production, the kind that focuses on finding the best and simplest approach rather than getting seduced by complex technology. I was certainly called on my own assumptions in this case, which I think is good. The car jack worked great, by the way.

    In all, I believe a little over two and a half minutes of my work ended up on the screen in the end.

  • How did you find the English way of animation to be different from the American way?

    Comparing the two is a little like comparing Wagnerian opera and Japanese Kabuki. They’re in the same presentation format, but the focus and energy are different.

    I’ve had a lot of experience in the Vinton style, which is typical of American stop-motion styles in that it often strives for very realistic and complex action, very smooth and flawless. The physicality of it can be quite intricate, with realistic dance moves, anatomically correct expression changes, twisting and tumbling through the air — that sort of thing, quite showy.

    The style Aardman used on “Chicken Run,” which is the best known British stop-motion style, doesn’t look so much to physical realism as its model. It tends to be more stylized, even abstracted in its design and action. It’s more accent-oriented, lending a snappier edge to the motion design overall. The lip action is also more distinctly clipped and centered in the front of the mouth, which I’m convinced is because British English is physically spoken that way.

    Overall there’s more emphasis on conveying subtle emotion and interaction, which the physicality is meant to support. It’s hard to put a finger on it sometimes. It seems to be more about empathetic connection than a dazzling impression.

    I’m sure that part of that comes from the fact that the materials are different. The clay is different. Vinton’s for example uses a soft oil-based clay that is very sculptable, very malleable. The slightest touch will make a difference to its shape. British clay is different. It’s chalkier. It breaks in ways that American clay doesn’t especially when you repeatedly bend a joint.

    So you learn not to move it that way. The surface isn’t as fussy as American clay. You can more readily grab the puppet and spontaneously take chances, because you know that you won’t have to do as much clean up along the way.

    I suppose that because more intricate details and movements could be sculpted relatively quickly into American clay, that’s exactly what was done and how the Vinton style evolved. Conversely, because that kind of sculpting couldn’t be done as easily with British clay, it wasn’t, and a different, more suitable animation style for that material was pursued.

  • But the Aardman puppets weren’t clay, were they?

    The heads and the wings, the most expressive parts of the chickens, were indeed made out of clay. The other parts were usually silicone over a hard plastic shell, with a mostly ball and socket armature underneath it all. The rats and the Tweedies also had clay hands and heads, but had more flexible foam bodies instead of the silicon/hard shell combination. There was a series of replacement mouths for each of the characters that were made out of clay. They had to be really, because you had to continually modify and tweak them, they weren’t just plug and play.

    The puppets really did look like they were entirely the same material on screen, even in person it wasn’t apparent at first what was what, which I discovered during my first test.

    They gave me a fully detailed and finished Bunty to work with. Now, the American clay tradition that I was familiar with would have placed a point at the back of her head, unseen to camera, where I could insert a tool that would allow me to turn the head without touching the clay. Touching the clay would leave a mark that would have to be cleaned up, and you want to avoid that whenever possible.

    So there I was, ready to start and I couldn’t find a safe grab point or hole anywhere. I finally asked one of the animators, “How do you move her head?” I got a strange look, and the animator very slowly and deliberately reached out, grasped the head and simply turned it, undoubtedly wondering what the big deal was. I thought “Oh my God!” touched it, and realized that the clay was really stiff. I was actually free to handle it without leaving fingerprints all over the place.

    You know, when you come into any new situation you can’t help bringing certain assumptions with you that you don’t even know you have. That was one of them.

  • Speaking of assumptions, were there tea and crumpets?

    Twice daily without fail the tea trolley would rattle around from set to set bringing it to the animators. Sometimes when the trolley runner popped onto my set to ask if I wanted tea, I would just about jump out of my skin. I’m susceptible to being startled when I animate because I often focus intensely. For most of the other animators however the tea interruption was perfectly normal, and they thrived, even depended, on the daily tea schedule. For a long time I just thought it was an odd perk.

    English tea is about as strong and caffeine-charged as American coffee, so “tea” isn’t just a foreign stereotype or quaint throwback. It’s as important a daily ritual there as morning coffee is here.

  • How long were your days?

    Production actually took place outside of Bristol in an industrial park in the country, about 45 minutes from the center of the city. I didn’t have a car, and the public bus system wasn’t very good. A chartered bus picked us up in Bristol at 7:30 in the morning. Animator dailies were at 8:30am.

    There was an hour break for lunch, less for dinner if you stayed past 6:30pm, and I usually stayed ’til about 9pm. We got home either by company van or taxi if it was late. So for me, days were on average about twelve hours long, not counting the commute. It took about two years total to shoot “Chicken Run.” When I came in for the last seven months, they were just starting to add in every other Saturday as well as weekdays. By the end we were working two out of three Saturdays.

  • How did it work between the two directors, Peter Lord and Nick Park, and the animators? How did they manage to oversee and coordinate so many sets and so many people running at the same time?

    Well, first of all, Pete & Nick work well together. They worked on getting the movie up to the point where it was ready to be shot, through the conceptual development and so on, and they’ve worked together before that for years and years, so there was a harmony there to begin with.

    Basically they broke the movie down into the different scenes and segments. Pete generally took on the segments that had the Tweedies and the rats in them. Nick took the segments that had more of the chickens in them. Eventually as things had to be wrapped up at the end, there was more cross over.

    We also had Loyd Price, the supervising animator. He made sure there was consistency in the performances and that everybody was on the same page production-wise as well. He was a “go-to” person for us. It also helped that he had personally trained many of the animators himself through the years. His animator meetings had a classroom/group critique feel about them that was comfortable and natural. One felt at ease about soliciting and offering suggestions in them.

    The animators really were treated like actors. They were given that kind of professional respect and support. And responsibility. There was the expectation that, well, yes you’re very good at your craft so we know you can do this. We will count on you to do this. That was a great motivation for delivering as genuine a performance as possible.

    As for coordinating the production, generally what would happen was that upstairs the production office staff were continually juggling a massive job that was continually shifting. They would look at what scenes had to be shot next, what sets were ready and available, what motion control was needed, etc. They would logistically figure out what shots needed to be done in the coming week, as well as track progress on shots being done in the current week.

    The 2nd assistant directors quietly kept track of animator strengths and experiences, speed, specialties, etc., which they would take into consideration when they put the weekly schedule together over the weekend. So first thing on Monday morning, you would get this list of shots that they thought that you were capable of finishing for the week. You had a couple of hours to determine whether or not it was realistic. If you said yes, then you were responsible for doing your darned best to get those shots done by the end of that week. Of course you said yes as much as possible, because the best shots weren’t the easiest shots, and you wanted to keep getting assigned the best shots you could get.

    Each day started with projecting the dailies. Once editorial cut the dailies into the work in progress, you’d look at your shot on the flatbed with the director. Each shot was put on film at least three times. First we’d shoot a “block,” mainly to evaluate the lighting, figure out rigging and get the basic staging down. A block would be done very quickly, in just a few hours. You’d have a meeting with the director and maybe do some reference film beforehand. The next day we’d shoot a “rehearsal.” In the rehearsal the staging and lighting would be refined and you’d actually animate the shot; gestures, expression, lip sync, walks — everything except the clean up. This would generally take about half the time the final shoot would take, which would usually start the next day.

    Throughout this process you continued to work out details and the director continued to evaluate and give direction. You did all your prep and set-up while you were waiting for feedback from the director, so every minute was pretty much spent keeping one step ahead of the process. There were few opportunities for reshoots happening by the time I came in. Luckily there wasn’t a great need for them as the tone and style of the film were well established by then.

  • How much CG was there?

    Very little that I’m aware of. I know that they did some effects work on the rain, but even there the splashes themselves were placed practically by the stop-motion animators. Farrington Lewis, the set design company that worked with Aardman, did use some CGI tools to pre-visualize the mechanics of “the crate.” I don’t think there was much more than beyond that, other than the usual postproduction rig removal and compositing. Things were generally worked out in production rather than fixed in post, which made a lot of sense in the end. Nearly all the work was shot practically, which as an animator certainly made it faster and easier to animate a convincing performance.

  • What was the arrangement between Dreamworks and Aardman?

    My basic understanding of how it works is that to get funding for a feature film, one has to sell one’s idea to a studio with the money to make the film. That studio then subcontracts the work out to a production house, which makes the film. At the end of the day, the studio owns and controls the film, not the person who came up with the idea, or the production house.

    My understanding about the “Chicken Run” deal is that Nick and Pete came up with the original concept/story. They worked together developing it for several years, then went about finding a way to get it produced. Dreamworks studio became interested in the project and negotiated for rights to it, and then contracted Aardman Features to produce the film. Dreamworks also brought in a writer to work the script into a feature format that they, Aardman, Pete and Nick were comfortable with.

    This collaborative approach among a Hollywood studio, a production house, and the concept authors is very unusual, and I think a good indication of how much Dreamworks really wanted this movie.

  • Dreamworks could have gone somewhere else with it?

    Dreamworks really wanted that Aardman magic. They obviously recognized that the Aardman golden goose knew best how to go about laying its golden eggs, and were very sensitive in helping rather than hindering that process. They wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted out of another production house, and they knew it.

    A feature is quite a different animal from a short film. The pacing is different; the way the characters have to believably evolve is different, especially since animation requires such a suspension of disbelief from an audience. So Jeffrey Katzenberg (head of Dreamworks and executive producer of “Chicken Run”) took a personal interest in advising Aardman in what they had to do to make this transition. “Chicken Run” was the first movie in a five-picture production deal with Dreamworks. They won’t all be Aardman stories. The next one, The Tortoise and the Hare for instance is a Dreamworks story.

  • What is your background and education?

    I received a BFA in painting from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. They offered a few classes in animation. These classes focused on more experimental forms and less on traditional animation. I made a few films with Robin Crist, another woman in the class who was a photo major. We did two stop-motion films that were quite successful. They got lots of student awards and even some non-student awards. One of them was picked up by HBO as an interstitial short. I think it’s still in distribution.

    After graduating, I hung around Rochester another three years working in the multi-image field. That’s where I first learned about special effects, and also about the need to be extremely precise — always helpful when you’re doing post production work.

    Eventually the short films led to my first professional break into the business. Steve Oakes gave me that break at Broadcast Arts in NYC. A short time after that I was hired by Will Vinton Studios and moved to Portland.

    I had the good fortune and privilege of working closely with Barry Bruce, the creative force behind Vinton’s for many years. He was a great role model in expanding boundaries, exploring alternatives, and engaging the heart of creativity. He had very high expectations that one had to work hard to satisfy, and one got better in the process. He gave me opportunities to be challenged and to experiment, and was generous and supportive of my efforts, which of course made a huge impact. The time I spent at Aardman also made a great impact on me, by challenging my assumptions and exposing me to another very well developed and intricate animation system. It’s really true, you can’t know what working on a feature is truly like until you’ve done it.

  • How did your job at Vinton come about?

    I had joined ASIFA-East a few years before coming to Vinton’s. In one of the newsletters there was a Vinton ad advertising for staff on all levels. I was familiar with Vinton’s work, intrigued with clay animation, and thought, “My God, there’s not a lot of places where I can do his sort of work. What a great opportunity!”

    I was the first person to apply. They said they needed an audition piece. I thought that meant they wanted me to build and animate a clay character, so it took me awhile to make progress on it. I finally got the character designed, correctly armatured and built when I called to apologize for taking so long. I hadn’t had time to actually animate it yet since I was very busy working at Broadcast Arts. Once they heard that I was working there, they pretty much wanted to hire me on the spot. I said, “Don’t you need to see my audition piece first?” Well it turns out I had misunderstood, they only needed to see a sculpture. So I sent them pictures of it, and they hired me two days later.

    I ended up staying with Vinton’s for over fourteen years, during which I eventually became a master animator and director. I received an Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation” during that time. I discovered that I have a knack for animation education as well, and spent many years as a teacher and mentor there.

    The first job I worked on at Vinton’s was the TV special, “A Claymation Christmas Celebration.” I worked with Bob Terrell on the walrus segment. I worked on the first California Raisin special, and re-designed their armature system several times over the years. Up to that point they, and most other Vinton characters, shuffled to get around. I think I can say that I was the first to actually animate a raisin picking it’s foot up off the ground.

    Let’s see, “Cecille the Ball” for Sesame Street. was originally my concept. I animated the opening used for all six of the shorts, as well as directed and animated one of them.

    I got the Emmy for the work I did on another TV special, “Will Vinton’s Comedy of Horrors,” which was a great Halloween special, shown only once and on Mothers’ Day, supposedly because the CBS programmer at the time hated animation.

    I directed a special animated holiday segment for the TV sitcom “Home Improvement” in ’96.

    Over the years, I’ve worked on over 50 commercials as well.

    During my time at Vinton’s I got to do a wide variety of things, from directing talent to loading cameras. I’ve designed characters, armatures, sets — I’ve built, fabricated, lit, animated, edited, and art, animation, and project directed/produced.

    Being employed steadily for a long period of time in one place in this sort of craft is a great way of learning the whole range. It really gives you the opportunity to become a master of the process.

    And because stop-motion is such an unforgiving, intricate and strictly straight-ahead process, it really does take some time to get to the point where you can walk onto the set without some level of stage fright or first-frame-itis (when you fiddle around with all kinds of details until you finally work up your nerve to finally shoot that first frame).

    But at some point you finally see enough of the big picture to realize that, while you don’t know exactly how it’s going to come together, you can trust your intuition enough and have confidence knowing that when it comes to the crucial moment, you’ll be able to figure things out.

    I’ve directed some CGI work as well as stop-motion, but I don’t actually animate CGI. I had to make a choice. I couldn’t be a stop-motion animator, a CGI animator who’s on top of the continual program changes and system updates, and a director. I don’t know anybody who can do all of that, know the material to the depths that I like to know my material, and still have some form of a personal life. CGI tools continue to become more and more accessible however, so I may reconsider this decision at some point.

    Oh gosh, I’ve done lots of things in lots of different materials. I know clay very well. I’m one of the few people who still practice the classic Vinton Claymation® style. Frankly, I’d feel better if there were more of us to ensure it doesn’t become a lost art.

  • Have you ever thought about what a bizarre profession this animation business is?

    Are you suggesting that playing with dolls for a living is bizarre?

    As an art form, stop-motion animation has so much potential but takes so much time and requires so many resources, that unless one is independently wealthy, one has to wade into the commercial, at least from time to time. Making a commercial is certainly not contributing to finding a cure for cancer, and one could arguably say that by contributing to some forms of advertising, you contribute to a societal ill. You have to make your own peace with that. It’s something that enters my mind whenever a job comes up. Would I ever do a commercial for cigarettes? For hard liquor? No, I wouldn’t. And I do hope that there are some things I can work on that have some long-term greater benefit in some way.

    I’m so thankful that I’ve had the chance to work on “Chicken Run” because I think it’s something that is just a delight to the heart and soul. There’s nothing harmful in it. It’s classic material and it’s something that genuinely touches people. I’ve had a chance to be a part of that. That can’t help but have a bit more personal meaning to me than a dog food commercial.

    But you will have to do the dog food commercials, and if you’re going to do your job well, you have to find some element in that dog food commercial you feel at least partially passionate about. On the other hand, you don’t want to get into a position where you’re fooling yourself with silliness either. I mean, after all, when it comes down to it, it’s just dog food.

    As for the future — it feels a little false to describe future plans because that implies you have control over your destiny in this business! I know that I do dearly love this strange little universe, and wish to continue in it. As to what form that will take now, that’s just part of exploring the great unknown. I certainly hope to work on more projects that touch people genuinely. But then again, who doesn’t?