While at Cal Arts, before blogs and websites freely shared content, as animation students we would watch short films in a dark cage like room called the Palace. Projected onto the wall we screened “rare” short films, on bulky ¾ inch video cassettes or on mystical DVDs that a teacher had brought in. (remember this was back when we would make our own mixed CD’s) Of all the shorts we watched in the dingy palace there was one that was etched in my brain as both brilliant and completely insane. It was called “The Big Story,” and it stared three stop motion versions of Kirk Douglas one as the young up and coming hero, another as the star in his prime and the third the wise but curmudgie old man. The insane thing was there was also a copy of a hand drawn version of the film- not an animatic or story reel but a fully fleshed out animated version of the film. The staging, timing and acting were virtually identical. It was as if there were an alternate parallel universe where a 2d hand drawn version of the film had been made. This short film had a huge impact on me, the animation, design and writing were brilliant yet no one at CalARTS at the time knew who made the film.
Jump ten years into the future. I’ve long since left CalARTS and have been working at DreamWorks for the better part of the decade. I sit down for lunch with some people I know and one I don’t know his name is Tim. The typical blah blah conversation ensues…why don’t they trust the artists blah blah why don’t they ever get the story right blah blah blah. Then someone says “Kirk Douglas.” The conversation takes a U turn. Tim leads a conversation bout about Spartacus and how Kirk’s movements defied animation principles. “He moves without anticipation,” Said Tim, “He’s so Macho he doesn’t need to anticipate.” At this Sandro (an extremely talented animator you may have heard of) says something about the short film Tim made years ago back in England. Yeah I know, the animation student inside me went berserk and I blurted out “You made The Big Story?” I think I might have sprayed everyone at the table with food with my spit take. And the short answer back was yes. I was having lunch with Tim Watts who along with David Stoten made the Big Story and now I was going to get the story behind The Big Story.
But first if you haven’t seen the film- watch it below- along with the pencil test version. Directed by both Tim Watts and David Stoten.
Interview with Tim Watts (My questions in Italics).
From the work I’ve seen you do It looks like you’ve mastered nearly every facet of the art of animation. You animate in 2d, 3d and stop motion, you sculpt, design and caricature. Did I leave any skills out? How did you pick up such a broad skill set?
You should see me juggle. Actually I haven’t mastered any of these disciplines, the truth is I had to take them on for the sake of keeping in work. In the UK where I worked for many years there is generally less steady employment in feature animation – there is nowhere like Dreamworks for example and so it pays to be versatile. I actually enjoy doing multiple things. From my experience one strengthens another. Sculpting has helped my drawing and design and vice versa and storyboarding has benefited my animation. I’ve also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on varied and interesting projects over the years – Corpse Bride was very rewarding.
It’s my understanding that you worked as a designer caricaturing puppets for a popular British variety show called Spitting Image. Can you talk a bit about the show and your role in it as an artist?
Spitting Image was my first job. At school I did weekly caricatures/cartoons for a local paper. I greatly admired the work of Roger Law and Peter Fluck who produced three dimensional caricatures for print illustration. The models would be painted and photographed and then dismantled. Spitting Image came out of that. I sent examples of my work to them and was taken on as a tea boy/ gofer but before long I was given the chance to design puppets and then model them alongside my mentors. Those were great times, I learned a lot and owe a great deal to Roger and Peter. I also met David Stoten there, with whom I later made The Big Story, who was doing the same as me, there were just the two of us initially doing caricature as well as Roger and Peter.
Did working on Spitting Image help segue into the making of The Big Story?
When David and I came up with the basic idea for Big Story, we presented it to Roger Law. Spitting Image was branching out into other areas by then making corporate and pop videos as well as creating puppets for other country’s versions of Spitting Image – Portugal, Italy, Japan etc and so Roger was intrigued and agreed to finance it. The deal was that we would come of it to make puppets when that necessitated. As a result it took around 18 months to make.
Artistically it certainly paved the way as without it we wouldn’t have had the experience in modelling. We wanted a simple design but one capable of a certain amount of nuance.
Where did it begin and how did it develop into a film?
Spitting Image proved to be very good for slapstick – Ronald Reagan’s brain flying out of his head or Barry Manilow playing the piano with his nose but when it came to giving performances that were as attuned to the individual as the designs then they sometimes disappointed . This is no sleight on the puppeteers. There were some good performances but TV can be crude and often the puppets would be made from initial drawing to being put in front of the cameras in a matter of days leaving little time for study of nuance .
David and I sat at the modelling bench dreaming of a project that would allow caricature to inform the whole package, the design both head and body, the performance and the voice. I left Spitting Image eventually and went to art college and then to work for Richard Williams on ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. It allowed me to see that animation might be a way to realize such a project. I had made a short film at college that had a three dimensional animated Winston Churchill that, whilst fairly crude gave me faith that it could be done. David meanwhile had created a stop frame segment to Spitting Image, only short but that gave him experience of the medium. We met up in evenings and concocted the idea. Initially we imagined something simple like a character walking on auditioning for a part – just a sound bite really but the more we discussed it the more ambitious it became.
Other than you and David Stoten how many people worked on the film?
Frank Gorshin did a fantastic job doing the voices. Tristan Oliver was lighting cameraman. We had Toni Kinman and Robin Jackson-Moore building the sets and Jane Whittaker made the costumes. Andrew Robey did the eyes for the puppets and David’s brother Graeme did the sound engineering and we had a producer Sara Mullock. I think that’s it.
Why, or how was Kirk Douglas chosen as the subject matter for the film?
We wanted to keep away from politicians and Royals as Spitting Image had done them so well already there’s also a long tradition of this in Britain and we thought it would be fresher to choose a film star, besides this opened up more the possibility for acting. Spartacus had just been restored and I think that had something to do with selecting Kirk. He was a natural choice as everything was so ripe for caricature, his physical appearance, screen persona, the way he moved, the voice, dimple, even the kind of dialogue in the films of the particular era that interested us.
The other possibility thrown up by selecting a movie star was that it allowed us to present something cinematic. We could create an atmosphere and mise en scene typical of the era. Kirk didn’t really make any films that could be called outright Film Noir except ‘Build My Gallows High’ but we decided to venture further in that direction as it looked more interesting.
a series of development sketches by Tim Watts
Why did you animate the whole thing in 2d?
Well neither David or I felt confident to do it straight off in stop frame. We planed to re-sculpt the head every frame and that seemed daunting without some kind of blueprint. Also we wanted the animation to be bang on in terms of its Kirkness and this required working out beforehand. We desired for the stop frame animation to have a feel that was more akin to classic 2D animation. At that time I hadn’t seen too much that possessed this snappier timing although you see it all the time now. The other advantage was that when we came to do the stop frame we could improve on bits that we didn’t like so much in the 2D.
Did you do the stop motion animation as well?
Yes we did the stop frame by following the pencil test as best we could. We divided our roles. The head would come off the body and David would re-sculpt the face, meanwhile I would animate the body, then we’d put the head back on and the puppet would fall over. It was frustrating.
The voice talent is spot on. Who did the voice of Kirk Douglas?
Frank Gorshin did all the voices. He is very well known for the many voices he does in his cabaret act as well as for playing the Riddler in the TV Batman. He recorded them together rather than doing each Kirk individually. Initially we approched other voice artists unaware of Frank but they just said they aped Frank’s version. Then we read that Peter Dougals, Kirk’s son, had said that Frank Gorshin did a better Kirk Douglas than his father so we had to get him. When we met him it was a relief to discover someone else who was as obsessed with Kirk as we had become – he knew all the films. He was a lovely chap.
Would you mind briefly recounting Quentin Tarantino’s appraisal of the film?
Our film was shown at a Film Noir festival in England called ‘Shots in the Dark’. Quentin Tarantino was the honourary patron at that time and was in the audience when it was screened. He seemed to like it and knew most of Kirk’s films, even ones that we didn’t like ‘The Hook’, and was gracious enough to arrange with Miramax to have it play in front of Pulp Fiction in the UK when it went out on general release. That was very decent of him and it helped a lot with presenting our little film to a wide audience.
It’s my understanding that the film won a Bafta(belated congratulations). How was that experience?
We won a BAFTA and were nominated for an Academy Award. The whole thing was unexpected and great fun. I got to meet Clint Eastwood.
Have you done any other personal short films? Do you ever have the desire to make another?
I am working on another short film right now. Hope to get it made.
End of interview
True to form Tim is extremely modest and humble and has emphasized that The Big Story was not a solo project and that David Stoten be equally praised for his contributions to the film. I thank both of them for creating an amazing film that influenced me and I’m grateful that Tim took the time to do this interview.