Master of Puppets (and Monsters): Interview with Visual Effects Artist Webster Colcord
The name Webster Colcord may not be as familiar to you as Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Will Vinton or Ray Harryhausen, but it should be. Since the late 80s, he’s helped bring to life classic stop motion magic in films like A Claymation Christmas and Meet the Raisins! while edgier projects like Mad Doctors of Borneo and The Host allowed the artist to unleash his darker side. It’s his work on these films – and so many more – that’s earned him status as a respected figure in the world of visual effects.
This week sees one of his latest film project, the CGI buddy comedy, Ted, make its premiere in theaters all across the US. Colcord, who provided previsualization and mocap oversight on the film, was awesome enough to spare some time to join us here at the clubhouse.
Let’s start at the beginning… when did you become interested in animation and special fx?
I was interested in animation for as long as I can remember. I think I got interested in special effects when I saw King Kong and Son of Kong on consecutive nights on television when I was about 9 years old. Then, when I saw the Cyclops in 7th Voyage of Sinbad, my eyeballs exploded. Funny enough, Star Wars didn’t have quite as big an impact on me as did Close Encounters and particularly Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings.
You started working for Vinton Studios almost right out of high school as one of the youngest animators in the studio’s history. How did that opportunity come about?
Through a fellow named John Logue who I had interned with while in High School, doing grip and camera assistant work on a short film. He became an art director at the studio, which at the time was expanding to do five holiday specials for CBS, this was in 1987. I did an audition sculpture for them, which they required of all potential hires, and they liked it.
The studio had steadily grown since the very early days and had reached that magic number of about 9 uber-talented animators with a number of others assisting. This is when they did their finest work, including the rock animation in Return to Oz. When I came in it was part of a major expansion into a new building with double or triple the crew. It was very disorganized and if you worked hard you could make your niche. I got a lucky break and went from fabricating puppets and sets to animating on A Claymation Christmas.
What was your experience there like, did they mentor you at all or was it more trial-by-fire?
There was a tremendous amount of inspiration with the fantastic work that the founders of the studio had previously done. It was also a collective process of discovery amongst the new wave of artists brought into the studio, and we were doing new things with the medium. Along the way I was mentored by Larry Bafia, Doug Aberle, and Will Vinton himself. Mark Gustafson and Barry Bruce had concise, valuable tips on occasion. [I remember] Mark said, “Try to use the biggest sculpting tool you can get away with.” Craig Bartlett taught me how to load a Mitchell camera and sculpt a cartoony sneaker, I’ll always be indebted to him for those lessons.
It was while you were there that you began working on your own series of short films like Bladder Trouble and Mad Doctors of Borneo. What inspired you to break into an edgier genre of animation?
At that time – 1987-1994 – there wasn’t much “Adult Animation” out there, or at least there wasn’t an easy way to access it. Ralph Bakshi’s last feature was Fire and Ice in ’83 and he was transitioning into television (Mighty Mouse) and I think a lot of animators with that kind of punk attitude wanted to see animation continue to evolve in the direction that Bakshi had pointed. For my part, I mostly just liked making monsters.
I’m not sure exactly why, but I developed a bad attitude at work and tried to go the opposite direction from what the task at hand was. The more I found myself at work making cutesy, banal characters, the darker and weirder I wanted to go with my personal work and I took inspiration from some of the more interesting stuff out there. I started getting deeper into underground comic art and animation with an anarchic sensibility. I found things like Wesley Archer’s Jac Mac & Rad Boy and Akira (before it was released in the states), not to mention David Daniels’ work.
And where did this direction lead you?
Then, in around 1990 there was a big layoff at the Vinton studio and I found myself doing some freelance work in L.A. and elsewhere, and I came back to do freelance work at Vinton’s. It was then that I started doing my own films. The first Mad Doctors of Borneo was shot over a couple of nights on a set that I had just finished shooting a “Frosted Flakes” commercial on. Bladder Trouble was animated on my couch in cel animation over a period of two weeks. Luckily, there was an audience out there who wanted to see these things, as Mike and Spike’s “Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation” demonstrated.
Did those films help the direction your career took after leaving Vinton Studios?
Absolutely. A couple of guys from the ad agency for Converse attended Spike and Mike’s “Sick and Twisted” show in Boston and contacted several of the animators. So that was the impetus for starting my own company, though I had done a little bit of commercial work on my own previously.
You also developed a technique for what you coined as “liquid animation” while working on these shorts. Can you explain what that means?
You might be thinking of the Converse “Touch EFX” commercials that I did that were shown on Nickelodeon. In each spot, a blue “Glob” attacks kids and infuses their shoes with colored liquid. I studied two bits of previously done “liquidy” stop-motion animation (a Cap’n Crunch spot by Mark Gustafson and the melting man from Nightmare Before Christmas) and came up with a couple of clay animation techniques to achieve this fluid, amorphous, continuously-dripping character.
From there you moved on to feature films like James and the Giant Peach, Antz and Monkeybone. Was it a drastic shift in terms of the way you worked?
Yes! I had never worked in such a structured production as they had on James and I definitely fumbled my way through the organization. I didn’t understand the job titles and boundaries of the departments. Antz was a huge transition because it was hardcore early CGI and I had to learn a tremendous amount about computers in a very short amount of time. It was a very stressful (PDI’s/Dreamworks first full-length feature) and rushed production, so that added to the pressure. Monkeybone was back to the old ways after going through the CGI transition, and I found that the analytical CGI animation process made me a better stop-motion animator. So that was refreshing, but it was a rather troubled production as the management at Fox changed midway through our show.
So how did the emergence of CGI change the direction that films took in the late 90s?
Gosh, that’s a big subject. The biggest impact was Photoshop, replacing optical compositing with a digital process that was by-and-large superior was the game changer. So when you started seeing perfect composites that would have otherwise been really difficult or flawed, that was a big deal. When true “invisible effects” like wire removal and sky replacements became commonplace it started to free up filmmakers to do more and not sweat that their movie would be ruined by an obvious VFX gaffe. 3D CGI has taken much longer to develop and integration was “iffy” for a long time. You can see on some of the early, big CGI shows that the elements are sliding around on the plate, that didn’t change until “matchmove” software got really good. I think “Boujou” software was the first to really get 3D tracking right.
But I think at some point the work got good enough using the new tools, that some big filmmakers said to themselves, “Hey, I couldn’t have necessarily made a convincing [insert effect here] using the old techniques, but now I can! I think I’ll take out that old script I wrote when I was 14 and make it into a movie, by golly!”
Obviously stop motion hasn’t gone away, but because of CGI do you think that it has lost any relevancy to today’s audiences?
Not at all, audiences used to complain about stop-motion looking jerky but now that they have seen the alternative (CGI), they realize how much they like the look and feel of the “old ways.” And stop-motion in 3D is probably the ultimate best use of that exhibition format. It will still take some convincing before a producer will give the greenlight to use stop-motion instead of CGI for a creature effect, but it could be done.
Personally, I’m excited to see it being used on films like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. Are there any films coming out that you’re excited about as an animator?
As a matter of fact, I was very graciously offered the opportunity to work on Frankenweenie but I just couldn’t wrangle the logistics of going to London and being away from the wife and kids. Ted came up and I did that instead. I’m extremely excited to see both films, but particularly Frankenweenie because Trey Thomas is Animation Director on it. I worked with Trey on both James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone; when his shots would come up in dailies your jaw just dropped to the floor in amazement.
One of your last shorts, Extreme Man & Insane Boy, was probably the most ambitious to date. What made that production different for you?
Up until that film I had taken a lot of short cuts in my cel animation – doing it all on paper without backgrounds for the most part. I got ambitious and decided that I wanted to recreate the look of the kind of television animation I grew up with – Filmation’s Star Trek, Scooby Doo, Super Friends, etc… I didn’t realize what a big a challenge it was going to be, painting those cels – even in limited animation. It took forever to finish! It looks great, but it never really went anywhere, and the writing could have been better.
Have you considered working on any more shorts or episodes?
Definitely. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Extreme Man & Insane Boy but I’ve started a few bits of animation of them and I have a script for a second episode. In 2008 I made a cel-animated music video for The Dandy Warhols and I learned a lot about digital ink-and-paint that I’ll be applying to the next cel production. I’m more eager to get back to the stop-motion Mad Doctors of Borneo which I have planned out as a series of shorts that all connect together into a bigger story. I have a lot of storyboards, props, and set pieces ready to go on that, it’s just a matter of getting the time and space to do it.
Let’s go back to your latest film project, Ted. How much involvement did you have on the film?
I was on set in Boston, doing previsualization for principal photography, and stayed on through post-production to do temp version of VFX shots (postvis). In post, I was handed off the operation of the mocap system (a suit) and I integrated the motion files for the VFX team, and did more previs for reshoots. I wore many hats and had a lot of interaction with Seth, including putting him in the mocap suit, but my main role was the go-to guy for quick animation/visualization of the bear. I worked terribly hard and had terrific fun.
Ted is sort of an security blanket… sorta like a beer-swilling, profanity-spewing Teddy Ruxpin. Did you have a special toy or imaginary friends as a kid?
Teddy Ruxpin, eh? Them’s fightin’ words! [laughs] I had a Snoopy that was similar to Ted in that he got ripped in half by a dog at one point, a babysitter sewed him back up for me. He was almost equally as scruffy as the older Ted. BTW, if you look closely in the movie you can see that grown-up Ted’s head is asymmetrical but young Ted is not.
On that note, what’s one of the strangest things you can remember doing as a kid?
My dad took me to see David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within at the drive-in when I was 10 [and] it permanently re-wired my brain. Thanks Dad!