How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 27, 1990

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Bill Lorencz is one of the most accessible of background artists. Not only can his work be seen in dozens of features and TV shows, he has done extensive work in books and other publications. We talked with Bill in his office at the Disney TV animation building which is located in North Hollywood, several miles from the Disney Studio lot.

Q: Could you please give a brief description of your career, including studios you've worked for and specific productions you've worked on?
BL: Okay, I started out in high school. I worked for Western Publishing Company doing children's books and games, puzzles, things like that with animation characters. I went from that to Hanna-Barbera doing TV animation backgrounds and subsequently, other studios, all in animation. Filmation, briefly, Ruby- Spears, advertising animation, Film Fair and some of those places that do commercial TV advertisements. Then, Don Bluth's, Bagdasarian Productions, Chipmunk Productions and Disney, working for TV animation, basically painting backgrounds and initially starting out painting production backgrounds for the animation studios. Gradually, as you gain experience, you go into keying which is basically what I'm doing now, background keying. I don't actually paint animation backgrounds now. I'm painting keys that other painters will be using to paint the production backgrounds.

Q: What are some of the actual productions you worked on?
BL: Going back into Hanna-Barbera days, HERCULOIDS and JONNY QUEST and any number of those. I just worked from one production to another. Then there were theatricals, THE SECRET OF NIMH and AMERICAN TAIL, THE CHIPMUNKS' ADVENTURE. At Disney, I've worked on CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS and DUCK TALES, a brief encounter with DUCK TALES, but mostly RESCUE RANGERS and TAIL SPIN. Hopefully more.

Q: What schooling did you have?
BL: None, basically. I was in junior high school and I went to an art class and there was a fellow that was teaching the art class who worked for Western Publishing Company. He thought I had talent and said I could apprentice with him. So I started during my senior year, I went four-four, part day school and part day at his studio, and before I graduated high school, I was getting books and games published. So when I graduated high school, I was already working and it was just a flow from there.

Q: How did you get into the animation field?
BL: The fellow that I had worked with and I had come up with a puppet of Huckleberry Hound. That was in the beginning when Joe Barbera had just started. We took it over to Joe Barbera and he said that he couldn't do anything with it because he had licensed the character out; we'd have to see Knickerbocker Toys. Knickerbocker Toys looked and said it's too expensive to put out. Joe said, "Well, forget the puppet, I want you to work for me." So, I started working with Hanna-Barbera. Then, once I'd worked there, wherever I went I had a reference in the business.

Q: What does a background key artist do?
BL: A background key artist gets a layout and he has to establish the mood and the atmosphere of the stage that the characters are going to play on. So, he takes a line drawing that a layout man has done or maybe he's done himself and talks with the director to establish what kind of a mood they want to get involved with. Is it a night shot? Is it a dark, sinister shot? Is it a happy, day shot? Then you have to go through reference material or just out of your head. When you've done it long enough, you can just fabricate the coloring and lighting you want, to establish and create the stage that the characters are going to play on.

Q: What are the tools you generally work with?
BL: Basically, I try to use Liquitex brushes. The red sable brushes seem to be the most efficient for the keys that we're using. We use round series brushes with the sharp point. I use flat, chiseled brushes for broad areas. I use Badger brushes for smoothing areas out, blending areas. Airbrush is an important tool basically for keeping the board wet and for tinting areas, more so than working with friskets and things like that. Paints: I use Cel Vinyl which is an industry product. Well, it can be purchased now outside in some art stores. Cartoon Color is selling them. Gouache, acrylic, or any one of those mediums may be applicable to this job.

Q: How do you personally go about converting a layout into a background?
BL: First of all, you have to trace it down onto a board, which I happen to use Strathmore, series 500, regular surface, cold press. That's not an advertisement. It's a very nice surface to work on. It's almost like a nice watercolor paper, only it's got this firm board texture. I trace it down with graphite paper and then proceed by starting with a wash underpainting and then building up to a more opaque surface. I try to control surfaces with textures and things like that to make it interesting so it isn't all one, even look. Basically, that's how it's done. Sometimes, if you don't have a picture in your mind of what you want to do, you get magazines or go to a reference library. If your doing an interior of a castle or something and you just can't really visualize what that would look like, look for reference on castles and get a visual picture. As opposed to directly translating that picture that you're looking at onto what your doing, you just get the flavor of it, the colors, and the values and then you apply it to what you're doing.

Q: Who do you generally work with, besides background artists, on a production?
BL: Well, basically, you work with your director, number one, because he's telling you what he wants to see on the screen. But on more of a craftsman level, you work with the color key artist, who's going to do the color keying for the characters, because it's important that the background and their characters meld together so the characters read well on screen. And then you work, quite often with the layout artists themselves, determining what the important areas are and then defining some of their line work in how they want it to be interpreted. So, it's a cooperative effort. The more cooperative you are, the more successful you are in an overall product.

Q: Could you give me an example of a film that you would consider to be a film with good backgrounds and a film with bad backgrounds? How would someone discern that by looking?
BL: Well, obviously, THE SECRET OF NIMH was a beautiful film. Any of the early Disney films were beautiful films: BAMBI's softness, the ethereal feelings that were in FANTASIA, beautiful background work. The early Disney films almost to the film were excellent and have not been attainable since. But in the current films being done, THE SECRET OF NIMH was beautiful background- wise. AMERICAN TAIL had scenes that were really beautifully done. As far as failure goes, in backgrounds, Filmation's PINOCCHIO AND THE EMPEROR OF THE NIGHT might be considered an appropriate example. I don't know whether it's a matter of time, or whether it's lack of people understanding the feature look, they're just not very nicely painted.

Q: Are there more specific reasons other than they're just not well painted?
BL: Just the control of surfaces, the colors, the attention to detail, the atmosphere or lack thereof that's created. If you don't have a specific ambience about a room, you end up with flat walls with hard shadows on them, that, to me, is unattractive unless you're doing Daffy Duck or something of that genre. Then that is handsome for that type of cartoon. But as far as feature animation, even OLIVER had some very poor painting, but it also had some very rich painting. In feature productions, the painting quality varies with the individual. There were some absolutely beautiful paintings in MERMAID but there were some places that just made me grit my teeth.
With the time schedule, one person or one particular person who is maybe better than another person can't do the whole show. So you have this imbalance in backgrounds. Almost every film has it, even the old Disney films. You can see if you really are looking for it and you know what to look for. The overall look of Disney's SNOW WHITE was beautiful, but there were some sequences that had some pretty sloppy painting in it. It just depended who had their hand to it.

Q: What is an average daily routine in this job?
BL: It's pretty much just come in in the morning and getting your supplies out and laying your palette out, get your water and your brushes together, and start painting. Paint until the end of the day.

Q: Do you have a specific number you're trying to do every day?
BL: If you're doing keys for production work where you're going to be actually in control of the people who are going to be interpreting your keys, they [the keys] can be loose and basically, color studies that you can hand to an artist. And as they develop their painting, you can direct it. In our particular case, here at TV Disney Animation, we're sending it overseas. So I don't have that luxury of being able to control what they're going to do with my keys, so we have to be pretty explicit with what we put down on paper, and so therefore, it takes longer to do the keys.
Usually a key takes a day and a half to two days because, generally, the keys that we're dealing with are the most elaborate scenes in the movie. You're not going to key a simple wall card. It's not necessary. You'll key the entire room that that wall is included in. So you end up with furniture and curtains and just miles and miles of rendering that establishes the room and everything in it. Then, the production people, they'll do things that maybe have just one chair in it and they can do those quicker. So, on production backgrounds, you may be able to do three, four, five a day, depending on the subject that you're dealing. But in keys, it's usually a day and a half to two days. There are exceptions when you get larger ones that have whole cities in them. Sometimes they run to three days.

Q: How much freedom are you given on an average production?
BL: Basically, after talking with the director and getting a general idea, unless he has a very specific thing in mind color- wise like, "I want this to be blue," it's pretty much up to me what I want to paint, as long as it's attractive and states the moment that's trying to be achieved. There's quite of bit of freedom from that aspect.

Q: Which do you prefer keying for: Saturday morning TV or features?
BL: Well, I prefer keying for features. Fortunately, at this point in time, the keying that I'm doing for this Saturday morning, they want quality in their keys, hopefully to stimulate the foreign production people to bring their quality up. The idea being that if you give them something with more quality, then they're going to have to espouse more interest in themselves to try and reach that plateau. If you give them something that's just simply done, they have nothing to reach for and they'll give you about half of what you give them. So if you give them a weak key, then you're going to get half of it back. If you give them a strong key, many times, they'll give you over half. If they're challenged by something, they try to achieve it just to maintain their own dignity and their own self-esteem.
I've been overseas several times and there are some good painters over there and they're generally not challenged. But when they were challenged, they did come up to the challenge. Consequently, the keys that I'm doing for the shows that I've been on, they're like feature keys, atmospheric painting, so I've been comfortable with that. So that's one reason why I have remained here and not in features.

Q: What production have you worked on that gave you the most personal satisfaction?
BL: It's hard to say. Probably AMERICAN TAIL. It was an interesting project. There was a lot of experimentation we did with effects and key background work in that, that was interesting. We were trying to do something different. THE SECRET OF NIMH was interesting also. But I came in on the background end of THE SECRET OF NIMH later on. Initially, I was doing production things like designing box wraps and things like that. I was also doing storyboards, coloring storyboards for the Leica reel. As we finished the animation, the board pieces were replaced on the reel. Then I did some of the backgrounds towards the end. But that was enjoyable just being part of that process.

Q: What would you say was a product that you worked on that you don't think lived up to what you were hoping for?
BL: It's hard to say. I guess you kind of bury those things (laughs). It's like pain, do you remember how you felt the last time you had pain? Your mind kind of blocks out the painful experiences. Basically, there's nothing that I've really worked on that I could say was a failure, other than some jobs required excruciating hours that I would've liked not to have put in. But I really don't feel I've done anything that I could attribute to being a failure anyway. All the jobs have been interesting in some way. And that's partially, probably attributable to attitude, too.
If you go in and try to make the best of everything you do. And if you paint for yourself, the project works itself out somehow. You gain some knowledge and experience out of the project no matter whether it was a failure, or the group that you were working with was a failure or not, you've gained something. So it's important that you bring your own attitude into the situation and make the best of whatever you're doing.

Q: If you were beginning today in the business with background or key painting, how would you prepare yourself?
BL: Beginning today, it would be very difficult, mainly because most everything is done overseas. So there's no real apprentice program nowadays. In past, back in the Sixties and Seventies, almost all the TV animation productions were done here. They had larger crews and quicker production, so you could start there as an apprentice. They were more forgiving in taking you in because you weren't going to be doing keying. You were going to be doing production backgrounds. You're not going to mess up a wall card too badly. And they needed those hands to do wall cards so their better artists could do the more complicated paintings.
Consequently, by being there and just doing the simple paintings, you were learning by observing. But now, they don't have that because it's all sent overseas. Where do you apprentice in this business? It takes years to become a key person. They're skipping a whole sequence of learning.
We have interns that come here from colleges in the East and they say, "We want to do animation so badly. How do we get in?" I say, "I can't tell you," because most everyone working here in our division are all experienced people. They have to have the knowledge behind what they're doing so that it can be interpreted over seas and not misinterpreted. That takes a lot of experience to know what to put down and how much to put down.
Schooling-wise, you should get a really good art education. Perhaps Cal-Arts, they do animation there. You might have a better chance if you've been to Cal-Arts because of the fact that they do have a very specific animation school there. We pick up some artists out of [Pasadena] Art Center that have strong portfolios.
Disney still does their feature work here for the most part. They hire people as apprentices in background painting, but it's not like an ongoing thing where every week they hire somebody. When they have a feature going and they get an overload of work and need someone, they will hire apprentices to come in and help out. There are also some smaller studios that you could go to that do production work that you might have a chance of getting in.

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