By Hannah Borenstein
Photo courtesy of Ace & Son Moving Picture Company, LLC.
Richard O’Connor’s post-college graduation situation was similar to most students today. After earning a degree in the humanities, he found himself in loads of debt and unsure how to apply his major to a job. He browsed through The New York Times and, trying his best to market his theater and history major, ended up landing an interview at a film studio on 47th street. He was hired for an office job, coincidentally, with the father of a fellow student, and eventually worked his way into an animation production position.
Now O’Connor is the director at Ace & Son Moving Picture Company, LLC, a full-service animation production facility that produces various projects, ranging from animated children’s series to documentaries and graphic anime. He agreed to sit down with BTR to shine some light on what it’s like to work in the industry.
BreakThru Radio: How did you get into Animation production?
Richard O’Connor: I was working at a film studio for a while doing office stuff and it drove me crazy. After about six months, I said, ‘I really like what we’re doing here but I don’t like what I’m doing, so I have to leave.’ He convinced me to stay and three months later, he put me to work producing a children’s television workshop.
I didn’t really know anything about animation and I was just sort of thrown in but fortunately, it was the second season so everyone else knew what they were doing. So my role was essentially to perform glorified bookkeeping, and through that, in ’96 or ’97, I learned the whole process of animation.
BTR: In what way, if any, did your theater degree and studies have to do with your initial push into animation?
RO: Through the process, I realized what had attracted me to theater production was more suited and more evident in the process and product of animation.
I don’t know if this is the typical way of thinking about it, but a theatrical performer, different than a film performer, conveys through gesture and large-scale things and they work best in conjunction with other art forms. Film does not do that in such an obvious sense. But in animation, all of these things become obvious — the design element, the alienated performance element, gestures, the music — all of these things are segmented in groups to form a cohesive project.
BTR: At Ace & Son, what kind of animation do you guys focus on?
RO: All sorts of stuff. We do a lot of stuff for documentaries. One is about a jazz composer. We do short films – we’re working on an independent short film now. We’re animating the Book of Joshua in a Japanese Anime style because it’s all about killing people, so we figured it was a good way of animating it. Some commercial things, but yeah, a lot of different stuff.
BTR: Can you walk me through the development process of animation?
RO: Your ultimate goal is to make sure whoever is paying you is content with what they have and that you exceed their expectations. It’s a little different with what we do; often people come to us because we do a certain weird thing and they accept that strangeness in us.
But in a typical commercial project, a client, say an advertising agency, will call up and say, ‘We want to do a commercial for water.’ And the ad agency will generally have a script in the very least and a storyboard sometimes. It’s usually rudimentary, which is great. From there, we’ll develop their storyboard so we at least get the look down. And the most important thing after that is the soundtrack. There’s an axiom that if you have a good soundtrack, it doesn’t matter what your film looks like. With animation, that’s especially true because everything is based off of the soundtrack, the audio tracks. It’s really the great innovation that Walt Disney pioneered was recording audio first.
BTR: So he was the first person to do that?
RO: To really popularize it. Most of his contemporaries were opposed to scoring stuff and syncing stuff. All the way into the ’30s and ’40s, if you look at Popeye and Superman, they’re beautiful and terrific and the animation is great, but they recorded the audio afterwards. That’s sort of why Popeye always mumbles, because they’re trying to guess what the shapes are going to be. That [Disney’s] innovation leads to the animator to create the performance. It’s all timing based and based on expression of voice.
BTR: So how many drawings do you end up drawing?
RO: Generally, you have the voice track and the music track, and then you have the artwork that everyone likes, then it’s just a lot of drawing. We’re in a time when video standards are changing from standard definition to high definition and there are a lot of technical subtleties about that. We have some things that make it easier. Standard definition runs at 30 frames-per-second, high definition usually runs at 24, which is what film was, and if you’re doing drawn animation, you’ll work at 24 frames. Generally, you’ll do 12 unique frames per second, so for about a 30 second commercial, it’s three or four hundred frames, but within those frames you may have several drawings — different characters, settings, etcetera. For a three-minute film, you’re going to have a few thousand.
BTR: With this many drawings does it take longer to make an animated film than live-action?
RO: It can take longer if you’re talking about something like a Disney film or Pixar or DreamWorks. Those films, like live-action films, have a long production time. But if you’re an independent person — I am producing an independent film right now, and my friend has animated most of it himself — it will take about a year. But you also have to be crazy and extraordinarily dedicated to do it all yourself. If you have a team it takes less time. But Disney films have anthropomorphic style, with multi-levels of shadows its really intensive process. But if you look at films like Persepolis, those films had 18-week production schedules.
BTR: Are the production budgets significantly different, too?
RO: Those Disney films are a hundred million dollars easily before you get into market, but a lot of the independent and European films [are] two to three million dollars. So it’s a really big difference. It’s really similar to Mission Impossible and a film that goes to Sundance.
BTR: Is there anything else you would like people to know?
RO: Every product and process is different. Whether it’s a commercial or independent film, the difficulty and the trick is to determine the best way to get the results you want on screen. We usually have three or four projects at a time; right now we have four, including a documentary that has several sequences. They usually have multiple parts and every single piece is unique.
One of Ace & Son Moving Picture Company’s Production Stills.
Photo courtesy of Ace & Son Moving Picture Company LLC.