How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 16, 1990

Back To Contents
Back To Books Page

Phil Phillipson has been a fixture in background painting for over a decade. His background of working in almost all aspects of the business gives him a unique feel for the business. He's done editorial work (PENELOPE PITSTOP, SCOOBY DOO, GARFIELD AND FRIENDS), assistant animation (METAMORPHOSES, THE BLACK CAULDRON), layouts (FANG FACE, THE SMURFS, OLIVER AND COMPANY), backgrounds (SUPERFRIENDS, HEAVY METAL, HEIDI'S SONG, FAMILY DOG, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) and color styling (MUPPET BABIES, Bakshi's HARLEM SHUFFLE video, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS). He's worked at about every studio from Hanna-Barbera to Bakshi to Disney. His current efforts include the 1989 smash hit THE LITTLE MERMAID and more recently THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER. We caught Phil at a private residence where he discussed just about every aspect of the painter's life.

Q: Please give a brief description of your career, studios you've worked for and productions you've worked on.
PP: Originally I wanted to draw comic books. I've loved comic books ever since I was nine years old. My dad gave me a George Bridgeman anatomy book, and that's what got the whole thing started as far as art goes. From that George Bridgeman book I knew I wanted to be an artist more than anything else in the world, well, maybe a baseball player (laughs).
With that Bridgeman book I immediately discovered that when you draw a hand, instead of a circle with five little points coming off it, there's all these angles and intricate interlocking wedges and blocks. From that point comics were a natural progression where Bridgeman's principles were being utilized. Some of my favorite artists as a kid were Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Mike Sekowsky. I was in High School when I discovered Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson and Jeff Jones and decided that's what I wanted to do professionally when I graduated.
I went to junior college and took some art courses there. At that time I was working in a hospital, washing dishes, and a friend says, "hey, you know if you're interested in artwork why don't you go to Hanna-Barbera?" I had no idea who they were or what animation was, but they were only 20 miles away and that was a lot closer than New York! I went down to Hanna-Barbera and applied. I didn't know what the job functions were and I said I just wanted to be an artist and they sort of laughed. They said, "What kind of artist?" I had no idea that there was Layout, Background, Animation, Xerox and film editing. I just wanted to draw.
The lady at the reception desk was very nice. She said, "Well, why don't you start in the mail room. That way you'll get exposure to all the other departments." They immediately hired me for the summer. I figured once you get a job you just keep working forever. I didn't realize what a layoff was (due to the fact a series does not go on forever). Of course, I was lucky in the mail room. They didn't get layoffs because it was the cheapest paying job. I only made two dollars an hour at that time in 1968.
I was in the mail room for about six months when I got my first break doing editorial work for Larry Cowan. My first promotion was to track reader. That's where you break down the mouth assignments for the animator on the exposure sheets. After that I was constantly bugging Iwao Takamoto [major stylist for Hanna- Barbera] for a job in layout. That was the closest thing that I could do as far as comic books go. My goals took a turn when I met an older gentlemen by the name of Paul Julian. It was Paul's brilliant backgrounds that opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of color that totally changed my career goals from comics to painting.
So from editorial, which I was working full time at that time, from 1968 to 1972 I was always bugging Iwao for a job in layout and finally I got my first chance in 1973 on INCH HIGH PRIVATE EYE. From that, because it was a busy season, I got a chance to go into background. From that point I worked at Hanna-Barbera off and on because of the various layoffs.
Starting in 1976 I began moving out of Hanna-Barbera into various other studios. The first non-H.B. Studios, was Sanrio where I was an assistant animator. That was my first theatrical film. Other studios I worked at were Ralph Bakshi's, dePatie-Freleng, Ruby-Spear, Columbia, Filmation, back to Hanna-Barbera and all around town.
I came to Disney in 1983 on THE BLACK CAULDRON as an assistant animator. Again, trying to break in as a painter. Through these various careers I was taking night classes at Art Center from 1971 through 1978. In 1985 I got a chance to work at Disney as a background painter exclusively.

Q: What tools do you work with?
PP: The brushes that I personally like and use are Brumbacher number 6142, Aqua-rel. I use the half-inch, three quarter-inch and one-inch chisel brush. My round head brushes are Isabee special series Colinski, 6227Z and I use the number fours, sixes and eights. Most of my work is done with those brushes. Very rarely will I deviate from those unless there's a special project or a special technique that's employed and I have to follow. But basically those brushes will carry me through anything.

Q: What sort of paints do you generally use?
PP: Saturday morning studios were basically using vinyl acrylic paints. That's acrylic with vinyl, which has a plastic base to it. It's very permanent. It doesn't fade, doesn't bleed or anything, it's just forever.
Disney had their own special paint department that blended their own pigment. It was like gauche or tempera. It was not permanent so that if you spilled your coffee or your water on it, it would disturb the surface, whereas vinyl acrylic you could spill coffee on it and it wouldn't do anything to it. You just wipe it up like a vinyl floor.

Q: On Saturday morning and feature films, the first step in doing backgrounds is establishing what they call a color key.
PP: Yes. Color keys use color to design and style a particular locale. The studio or project will determine how abbreviated or fully rendered each key will be. Depending on the amount of freedom each studio allows its BG department determines if a supervisor or each painter gets to do his or her own keys. From the keys each painter than prepares his background as camera ready artwork. Each process has its own individual challenge. Features are generally more muted using very subtle hues and values. Saturday morning on the other hand has to pump up the chroma, hue, and values across the board to compensate for all the generations that will take place before broadcast. The steps being film to tape to broadcast and the final kicker *your* TV set. Everyone's TV seems to be adjusted slightly different from everyone else's.
Theatrically, the key word is control. Theater screens don't have scan lines and all are basically the same, except for size. Therefore you can get those muted grays, you get those subtle values and harmonies of color that you can appreciate. The TV just doesn't pick it up. Or if it does pick it up it just doesn't do it justice

Q: Can you give examples of films with good backgrounds?
PP: Yes, BAMBI, LADY AND THE TRAMP, PINOCCHIO, all those old Disney classics. Those were some of the most gorgeous backgrounds ever painted. And it's very interesting about those backgrounds. I've had a chance to go to the Disney morgue and see them up close and they don't look at all like they do on film. They're still very beautiful backgrounds and very well painted. The surprise from seeing them up close is that you realize immediately that they were painted for film, not as illustrations.
There's two schools of thought concerning background painting, and that is painting versus rendering. The rendering school wants to achieve ultimate realism which does not heighten the sense of bigger than life or fantasy of a particular scene. The painting school is more impressionistic and deals a little more with values of lights and darks placed next to each other. That's the key thing you'll see in the old Disney backgrounds when you finally get a chance to see them up close. The painting ability of those painters was incredible and second to none. They were paintings as opposed to renderings.

Q: What's the difference between a painting and a rendering?
PP: To simplify it, let's say you have an example of a house, with a wood shingle roof. The rendering of the roof will have each shingle delineated, light, medium and dark. A painting will have one light brush stroke placed next to a dark brush stroke so that when the pattern is repeated it will create an impression of realism using a painterly system.
A rendering when held in front of you, will look very similar to a book illustration. It will look beautiful. The craftsmanship will be exemplary. On the other hand, a painting in front of you might not look so good because it's being held out of context. You also have to consider screen time, the preceding scene and the succeeding scene.
When a director's notes call for a particular scene to be two feet long, a little over a second and a half, which is a blink of an eye. A painting holds up during screen time, or a director's timing, better than a rendering. A painting will have the immediacy of the light and the dark, as opposed to a rendering where you have subtle nuances that no one will ever see except for the person holding it in front of him.

Q: How do you go about converting a layout into a final background or a production background?
PP: I transfer it with graphite paper. It's similar to carbon paper, but rather than carbon, its coating is just like your graphite pencil. You put that underneath the layout and then you transfer the image with a stylus, which looks like a fine-point needle, onto your background board.
The background board is usually Strathmore, cold press, hundred pound weight. Sometimes they'll go three hundred pound weight. The only difference is it's a little bit thicker backing. But as far as the surface that we paint on, it's equal. There's no difference there. The Strathmore board is a little bit nicer as far as preservation goes, an archival-type quality. Now, at Hanna-Barbera where I started we didn't have that. It was like a Strathmore two-ply. It's what a comic book artist would use, like bristle board. It was thinner. When it got wet, it was like a potato chip. You had to mount it onto a board as opposed to being on a board from the beginning.

Q: How do you actually paint a production or key background.
PP: Use the comparison between Saturday morning and theatrical. Both processes are approximately the same. The only difference is that in Saturday morning you'll probably have a little bit more liberty and freedom to do what you want. You can probably assert yourself artistically more than you can in a theatrical where you have to more or less follow closely the people you're working with. But you make up for it by having enough time to do the absolute best job you can.
Theatrically if you've got four people or twenty people painting backgrounds, they're all supposed to look like one person painted the product. Now, on Saturday morning that still holds true. Although along with following the general style like on SCOOBY DOO you could always experiment. And that was more or less encouraged because you're compensating for lack of animation. When something looked striking value-wise or color-wise it was encouraged to go with it. In a theatrical you're trying to use subtle hues and values because you'll be able to see the subtlety. Theatrically the animation is dominant so you don't have to compensate with harsh values and hues. Each has its own discipline and each is fun to paint in its own way

Q: After you've transferred the layout onto the background board, how do you actually get down to physically starting it?
PP: Always start like the namesake. You start in the background first and then come forward to the foreground. So you go background, middle ground, foreground. You do the things furthest away from the foreground, like the sky or clouds, then you come forward from the mountain. The furthest mountain range up to the closest mountain range, then to the foreground where your main characters stand.

Q: Who, on an average day in production, do you generally work with?
PP: Theatrically, where I'm at right now at Disney, we have a background department and the work is disbursed from our supervisor. They will take portions of a sequence and divide it up amongst the department and they would then give either one layout or several layouts, depending on how fast the work needs to be done.
I'll take that layout and go back to my desk, usually in the morning, and set my station up. To accommodate that particular layout I'll go to the file drawer and find other backgrounds in that particular section that have been painted. If there are none then the supervisor will probably give me a small color key to follow. At that point I will interpret those colors either color for color or I will have to extrapolate the mood of that particular scene and then proceed to paint it. After I've acquired all my research material from the file cabinet, I will then go back to my desk and start to paint it.

Q: Are you checked on by anybody as you progress?
PP: Yes. Usually at the very beginning of a movie there'll be a lot of experimentation. You can try different styles. The art director or the directors will decide if it's hitting the mark or not. That's usually the most fun because you get to experiment. Then as the production progresses it gets finely tuned and finally there is no more experimentation. Depending at what period in the production I'm in, will determine how much research I require. Towards the end of the production there is lots to choose from. Therefore, the research acquiring portion of the day is very minimal, if any at all.

Q: What projects have you worked on that you've really enjoyed and why?
PP: ROGER RABBIT. It's a real toss up between ROGER and LITTLE MERMAID. The reason why ROGER gets the nod is purely from a creative standpoint. ROGER's the only Disney production where I was called in on the very beginning of a project and asked to design in color. But because I was already assigned to another feature, I had to do Toon Town at night, after hours. That caused the time schedule to become strained. Because of the crunch, they needed someone else, so they called in my brother, Andy Phillipson. It was great working with Andy as co-designers on ROGER. Unfortunately, two people doing work at night still wasn't enough. (Andy was also involved with another project during the day.) They were lucky enough to get Ron Dias full time and rest, as they say, is history. Andy and I didn't receive any film credit, but we had the satisfaction of being in at the beginning of one of the greatest movies of all time.
Conversely, MERMAID, my other favorite, was second only because the work I did do on it was of a following nature; implement and execute other designers' work. This carries a different type of satisfaction, though.
The biggest conflict I have with myself is how powerful my contribution is measured against how good the project materializes. It's like being on a team. You may have a great game with terrific stats but the team loses. That's not good. Or your on an all-star team and they blow out the league, but you didn't contribute very much. That's not satisfying either. The ideal is to do great work on a great project. That's the combination I'm always striving for.

Q: How would you tell someone to prepare for getting into the animation industry?
PP: If I knew what I know now back then I would've gone to art school right out of high school. That's the best training. Art Center School of Design in Pasadena or Cal Arts are the two best schools for art in this area.
Unfortunately, all Saturday morning production is now done overseas, leaving a huge void for gaining experience. The way I started you wouldn't be able to duplicate; being an apprentice and learning from a master.

Back To Contents
Back To Books Page
Back To Main Page