Poetry in (Stop) Motion: An Interview with Tim Allen

It was a pleasure to interview Tim Allen, an acclaimed British stop-motion animator whose filmography spans far and wide. His character animation and performance skill can be found in well loved films and programmes such as ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Isle of Dogs’, ‘Postman Pat’, ‘Chuck Steel’ and ‘My Life as a Courgette’.  Read on to find out why he enjoys moving small fiddly puppets millimetres at a time!

What led you to become an animator?
Well I’d always loved programmes like ‘Morph’, ‘Chorlton & the Wheelies’ and ‘Wind in the Willows’ as I grew up. As an art student I loved ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ but never realised that was even a career option. Once I discovered there were university courses available that taught animation, I was completely in love with the idea that I could chase this new found dream!

After uni, I spent one and a half years approaching every stop motion company I could find in the UK. I phoned and posted them my showreel, then arranged a visit to show my portfolio of model making work also. I did unpaid work experience at a few places, before getting occasional assistant model making work. I was speaking to as many friends as possible to find out where and when opportunities may be, and who to contact.  My first animation job was offered to me basically because they were happy with the quality of my animation, plus I was super hard working and cheap!

Tim painting a set piece he’d made in his early career.

You’ve worked on so many projects.  What’s been the most enjoyable or challenging?
There are so many! I was of course proud to have been able to work on ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Frankenweenie’, and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. ‘Creature Comforts USA’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’ were a real privilege, as was being Supervising Animator for ‘Magic Piano’ and for Disney on ‘Club Penguin’. The child in me was very proud to do things like ‘Postman Pat’ and ‘Fireman Sam’. I always try to earn and appreciate the chances I’m given. I also love intimate short projects like ‘Bunny and the Bull’ where we had an insane two week schedule and little budget but had a wonderful time working day and night with a small crew, bonding on a unique creative project.

Fox miniture puppets“Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2009 miniature puppets.

What are the key ingredients for successful animated performance?
For me the key ingredient is creating the moment within the film that is required. This is a combination of elements. First and most obviously we must believe the character, that they are engaged with the emotion and thoughts of that moment. Secondly we are also creating a sense of atmosphere as appropriate for the moment in the movie. Is there a sense of urgency, panic, peace, romance, rage at boiling point, etc? The camera angle, lighting, composition, timing to music and more all come into play to enhance this. The shot also has to be timed correctly. You have a limited number of frames to convey what you need to so you keep certain moments efficient to linger on other aspects. It is a refined decision making process. Lastly, and in keeping with the last point, you are directing the audience’s attention to watch and feel what you want them to see, and equally what you want them to not notice. They will be drawn to different parts of your puppet’s body as you highlight eyes, hands and other key details in the same way that a painter designs their composition.

My Life as a Courgette
Photo from the “My Life as a Courgette” 2016 production.

You’re currently teaching workshops on character animation. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I started doing bits of teaching and guest speaking early in my animation career, so I’m almost as experienced at communicating about animation as I am actually doing it. As I found myself being asked to teach character animation more and more, I came across recurring issues that students stumbled into, so my classes kept evolving to best help them reach their end goal of believable stop motion character performance. I’ve found that firstly people normally need a period of time to understand how to control a puppet and focus on balance and human movement, before going deeper into acting and emotions.

This is complicated by the fact that animation takes years and thousands of hours of practice to get to a higher level of proficiency. My problem is I’m normally given just days to enhance a group of student’s work. I’m constantly improving the techniques I use to help the students absorb as much understanding as possible in a short time. It’s a version of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repetition and gradual increases in complexity. Repetition and simplicity is the key to help retain understanding, but I avoid boredom by adding layers of ongoing progression. I love the art of seeing how different people absorb and respond to new information. It is a fresh challenge for me to tailor how I present ideas to each individual.

Isle of Dogs - Poison Sushi 2

“Isle of Dogs” 2018. The animating of the sushi sequence.

Interview with Amy Baker

To find out more about Tim, his work and workshops, visit his website: https://timallenanimation.co.uk/ or join him on Twitter and Vimeo.

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