Articles on Animation &Guest writer &Independent Animation 11 Sep 2010 07:56 am

Paul & Sandra & Tulip

MY DOG TULIP opened at New York’s Film Forum and will be followed by a limited national release. The NY reviews were excellent. The film did so well in its opening week that it’s been extended to Sept. 28th. You have even more of an opportunity to see it.

This interview/article was written by Karl Cohen for ASIFA-SF and he has given me his permission to post it.

One of the impressive animated features coming out this fall is My Dog Tulip based on the book of the same name by J.R. Ackerley (1956). It’s a delightful comedy that I fell in love with at the SF Film Festival. Its directors, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, have created over a hundred award winning films including Still Life With Animated Dog (2001) that won a Peabody Award and a Special Jury Award from Zagreb. A Room Nearby (2003) also won a Peabody and their Drawn From Life series (2000) has won a grand prize at the Ottawa

International Animation Festival. In 1980 Paul received an Oscar nomination for It’s So Nice To Have A Wolf Around The House.

Although the couple may not be well known by the public, they are highly respected among their peers, so when asked how Tulip came about as a project Paul explained that the film’s producers Norman Twain and Howard Kaminsky, “Just called us out of the blue. One of those calls you think never happens.” They asked right off if the Fierlingers wanted to make a feature film. They didn’t know the couple and their main concern was that the film had to be based on a famous book.

After some discussion about possible books to adapt they decided upon My Dog Tulip. It turned out Howard Kaminsky knew the book and controversy over it when the book was published, as he was president of Random House, the book-publishing firm, for twenty-five years and prior to that was president of Warner Books for seven years. The book and film have scatological references that were quite shocking to polite society in 1956. A contract was eventually agreed upon and it took about three years for Paul and Sandra to complete the project.

Paul says, “It was wonderful work. I could wake up every morning and know exactly what I was going to do and I loved the work. The whole process was very pleasant. There are no horror stories to tell. Nothing bad happened.” The Fierlingers had total artistic control and the budget was $1.3 million, enough for the couple to complete the production with famous voice actors (Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini) and to be able to provide film festivals with 35mm prints with Dolby sound.

Adapting the book did present problems, as it is basically a series of humorous tales about incidents in the life of J.R. Ackerley as he raises the dog, an Alsatian (German Shepherd) and they become great friends. To flush out the film’s script Fierlinger added true elements not mentioned in the book, including having the author’s sister live with him for about a year. During that period she tried but failed to win over the dog’s affection.

To flush out the story Fierlinger’s producer hired Peter Parker, an excellent British writer who had written a biography of J.R. Ackerley. Paul says, “His prose is equal to Ackerley’s.” If you see the film I think you will assume, as I did, that every word came from the book.

An unusual element in Paul’s long format work (he has also done hundreds of TV commercials, short pieces for Sesame Street, etc.) is his use of different styles and techniques that separate segments of the story. He wasn’t sure what I was referring to when I brought up the subject so I pointed out that in his film And Then I’ll Stop (1989) he had five or six people talking about their lives and each person had a different style of art representing them and their world. Paul then explained that he feels long animated films using the same art styles and rendering techniques throughout the film get boring no matter how well they are done.

He remembers that the first animated feature he saw that he really liked to the very end was Yellow Submarine (1968) because it was done in so many different styles. In his work you know the same artist drew each style, but the variety keeps the work visually interesting.

When working on a story Paul says he gets into a special frame of mind. “In my mind I live the story,” so he draws what he imagines. “If it is a sloppy character then you draw a sloppy line. I did that in And Then I’ll Stop. And if it is the story of a very pristine accountant of a big company I draw him in almost Saul Steinberg type lines.”

Paul has been around long enough to see sound recording technology change drastically. With new microphones and digital recorders he no longer needs to use a big studio with sound booths. Some of Tulip was recorded around a kitchen table, but to record Christopher Plummer the producers rented studio time.

Paul pointed out why it is important to record most soundtracks before animating characters. The character Plummer created in his reading of the script wasn’t the man that Paul had envisioned so he ended up drawing the main character somewhat differently than he had originally planned.

The film’s composer/sound engineer is John Avarese who has worked with Paul for many years. Paul says, “You can tell him the kind of music you want and he can just pull it out of his hat.” Most of John’s work has been for corporate and industrial clients.

The animation was done using TVPaint, one of the oldest 2-D animation systems available. It was started in 1991 and was developed by an independent producer as a work of love. Paul became a beta tester in 1992 or ‘93 and helped develop the system’s capabilities.

His wife Sandra is the film’s co-director. Her background is in painting. She studied at the Boston Museum’s school and graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. They work together quite well as Paul is a skilled draftsman, but he says, “I never learned to paint or work with color. Most of my films have had very little color in them.” She started working with him in 1989 as a painter when animation was hand painted on cels. She enjoyed the work and together they learned the TVPaint system. She also was involved in beta testing the software. As they learned the system they would ask the software developers to make certain adjustments. Thus the system became tailored to their needs. Eventually other accomplished 2D animators from all over the world joined the beta team to create a unique application specifically meeting the needs of independent artists.

One important part of Paul and Sandra’s good working relationship is her helping him to resolve drawing problems whenever he feels stuck trying to make a decision. He says that often happens, that he can “paint myself into a corner and nothing seems to work, so she looks at it with fresh eyes. We figure it out together. We do that all the time, even when I start writing a script, before I start drawing.” Paul feels all their films should simply say “A film by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.”

We closed our discussion with Paul’s advice for couples that want to work together on animated films. Based on having lived and worked with Sandra for almost 20 years he says, “The trick is not to have children. If you have children, that gets in the way. You have conflicts. If you don’t have children, you only have your work.” I’m not sure how popular his advice is with parents, but judging from their films that I’ve enjoyed over the years, the advice certainly works for this animating couple.

Before I spoke with Paul I asked Norman Twain, one of the film’s producers, about their distribution plans for the film. He said, “The film will open at the prestigious art house, Film Forum, in New York City on September 1 and concurrently in similar calendar art houses in San Francisco,* Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto, as well as in other New York theaters. Hopefully, as the traction grows we will expand to other major calendar houses in the larger markets in the United States. We will promote the film in the best possible manner, directing promotion toward an Academy Award nomination. Pending the reception of the film in America, we will exploit the foreign market to the best extent we can. Cinemavault, a film sales group based in Toronto will handle foreign sales. After the US distribution has run its course, we will look for a VOD (video on demand) release, concurrently with a DVD release and after that, will try our best to get it on television (hopefully PBS or cable TV network – as it is much too nasty for a broadcast network to show).” *Tulip opens in SF and Berkeley Oct. 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero and Shattuck cinemas.

I also asked if it was difficult financing the project. He replied, “Fortunately, most of the fund-raising took place prior to the crash, or should I say prior to the sudden scarcity of funds. It’s not an expensive film, under $1.3 million. I think, as all entertainment investments go, it’s risky, but will prove profitable. I am happy to have produced it and will be happy to see it in release.”

I end this discussion with a disclosure. Both Paul and I are extremely fond of dogs. My wonderful yellow Labrador Retriever recently died after being my close friend for 14 years and Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have two rescue dogs at present, a Jack Russell, “probably from a puppy mill,” and a mutt that he says is a cross between a German Shepherd and a Corgi. It had been abandoned. It has a large Shepherd head and a strange body so a friend of Paul’s once remarked, “Oh, a Photoshop dog.” Paul tells me that he sometimes used her as a model when he was drawing Tulip.

14 Responses to “Paul & Sandra & Tulip”

  1. on 11 Sep 2010 at 3:51 pm 1.Neal said …

    I love dogs. I love some of the drawings in this film.

    But the film itself is a long, unimaginative bore. I stuck it out, but 7 people left the screening I was at about halfway through.

  2. on 13 Sep 2010 at 4:42 am 2.Elodie said …

    Great article about Paul and Sandra’s work ! Thanks for writing it =)

  3. on 13 Sep 2010 at 6:11 pm 3.David Nethery said …

    Yes, thanks for posting this article by Karl Cohen.

    “My Dog Tulip” along with Plympton’s independent features, and Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” are hopefully the vanguard of a new wave of independent animated features made by very small crews on diverse subject matters that fall outside the usual big-budget Hollywood animated films.

    I’ve been using the TVP Animation software for several years now and really love it. Nice to see TVP getting some props in the various articles that mention how Tulip is a “hand-drawn film, made on a computer”. It truly is hand-drawn animation on a computer … what I like most about TVP is it doesn’t feel like I’m giving up anything to draw on the Wacom tablet directly into TVP. Is it exactly like drawing on paper ? — No. But close enough. (and some added benefits like no more eraser crumbs and graphite all over my desk and hands, easy to erase/fix drawings without messing up the rest of the layer, no time wasted in scanning, etc.) I’m not quite ready to totally give up drawing on paper like Paul Fierlinger , but TVP makes it pretty easy for a traditionally trained animator like me to feel at home drawing on a Wacom tablet.

    I posted the making-of-My Dog Tulip clips here:

    Take a look.

  4. on 13 Sep 2010 at 11:41 pm 4.Michael said …

    David, I’m impressed with the graphic style that Paul and Sandra have developed using TVPaint. However, I see that it’s an even looser style than the one he used when working with paper. Inbetweens have particularly shaky lines. This is the style, and it works for Paul.

    I’d like to see a tighter style done on the program and wonder how much more difficult it is to achieve.

  5. on 14 Sep 2010 at 4:32 am 5.Paul Fierlinger said …

    That shaky style evolved while I was learning to draw and animate in more realistic dimensions. This type of character animation is far more time consuming than when one animates simplified cartoons so to get my work done within a reasonable time frame I settled for the animated sketch look.

    If you look at the way I animated the Mutts spots(Animal Shelter Stories) you should see a much tighter line because Patrick McDonnell’s style dictates that. Therefore I don’t believe that Tulip was drawn in loose lines because I use the Wacom tablet, or that I draw in TVPaint, but because the nature of the character and story itself brings out that kind of line.

    Since Tulip got done I’ve been drawing a tighter line on the film I am working on currently(Slocum):

  6. on 14 Sep 2010 at 7:36 am 6.Michael said …

    Paul, I didn’t intend for the “shaky line” comment to be a criticism of your work. I am also stunned by the beauty of some of your SLOCUM film. The clips are magnificent. What a lot of work doing all that water! How do you have the patience?

    I do see that you are working in a tighter style than was TULIP. What I was referring to, in my coment, was the more Disney-like hard lines. This is more David Nethery’s domain, and I wondered how he did it on TVPaint. I get a better indication from your SLOCUM reel. There are, indeed, tight inbetweens in there: the slowly, slowly rising water for example. It’s a piece you have to be proud of, certainly.

  7. on 14 Sep 2010 at 11:43 am 7.David Nethery said …

    Hi, Michael,

    Paul pretty much answered your question about “looser” vs. “tighter” line styles in TVP , but it’s really dependent on who is doing the drawing and the intended style of the film . It all depends on the level of skill of the person wielding the stylus.

    And of course sometimes the looser style is nicer anyway. I’ve always had a preference for the somewhat looser drawings used n the later era Disney films like 101 Dalmatians or Sword in the Stone (setting aside the deficiencies in the stories of the later Disney films; I’m just talking about the drawing style)

    If you look at some of the other examples of films made with TVP that I posted on my site you can see the range of line styles , from very loose to very tight “Disney-style” clean up lines.

    Although I spent years doing the tight Disney style I have com to prefer a looser, sketchier line style (more reminiscent of a “101 Dalmatians/Sword in the Stone” era Disney look) .

    Many of the recent films coming out of the Gobelin’s school in Paris use TVP.
    Some are drawn on paper and scanned into TVP for finishing , but some are drawn and colored entirely in TVP.

    Here’s one that was drawn and colored in TVP:

    “Le Royaume”

  8. on 14 Sep 2010 at 11:48 am 8.David Nethery said …

    “Since Tulip got done I’ve been drawing a tighter line on the film I am working on currently(Slocum):

    Wow, Paul ! Those Slocum sequences look great ! I’ve seen a few of the line-tests you’ve posted from time to time on the TVP forum , but this is probably the first extended sequence I’ve seen of the finished color version. Beautiful work.

  9. on 14 Sep 2010 at 7:38 pm 9.Paul Fierlinger said …

    Well guys, you do make me feel good, and sure I do feel sort of proud of those water scenes, now that I hear your praise. But it’s not so much having patience as settling into a frame of mind; more akin to an altered, meditative state that sets in.

    Not having all those exterior tasks to fuss over anymore, such as punching and stacking papers and reshuffling them from side to side and leaning over to write tiny numbers into cue sheets to make things organized… so many small disruptions, so much to think about that has nothing to do with drawing.

    Working paperlessly means pure drawing bliss. It’s a frame of mind which can set in for hours. So I don’t look at myself as a particularly patient person. I’m too old to be patient. I’ve just lived out several of those 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his Outsiders book.

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