Fraser MacLean

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What is your name and your current occupation?
Fraser MacLean, At-Home Carer (but, when time permits: Lecturer/Writer/General Animation Mongrel)

 

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I once spent an entire week working as an Assistant Film Editor on a 5-minute local news item (shot on 16mm co-mag) about a company that made heated dog baskets. On another occasion I had to drive across Glasgow with half a human brain in a perspex display case on the passenger seat, praying all along that nobody would rear-end the props truck since the safety belt wouldn’t fit around the case that the half-brain was floating in.

 

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Space Jam”, “Tarzan”, “Little Dorrit” and the Animo animation software package.

 

How did you become interested in animation?
When I was a kid growing up in Scotland there was a regular early evening double-bill of “Tom & Jerry” on BBC 1 every week. The old Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” ran on STV over the weekends as part of a kids’ programme called “Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade”. TV shows like “Top Cat” and “The Flintstones” were broadcast on weekday afternoons and my brothers and I would watch those after school, plus we had a lot of terrific stop-frame children’s shows like “Camberwick Green”, “The Clangers” and “The Wombles”, made by companies and animators down in England; but the only way you could see Disney animation was either by going to the cinema or by watching the excerpts they showed on the “Disneytime” holiday specials that were broadcast on the BBC at Christmas and Easter.

 

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in London but grew up in Edinburgh, here in Scotland. Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, of course, there was no VHS, there were no DVDs and no internet, so it simply wasn’t possible to “take home” a copy of an animated cartoon, short or long, to study it or to try and work out how it was put together – nor were there many books that you could buy to learn about the history or the techniques of the medium. When “Jungle Book” was released here in the UK I was 7 or 8 years old and the local cinema (The Dominion in Edinburgh) accidentally sold a few more tickets than they had seats for – so I remember, as the smallest of 3 brothers, having to sit on my mother’s lap for the entire film, up in the front row of the balcony. But however fascinated and inspired I might have been by the movie (or by animation of any kind) it was absolutely clear that this was not something people in Scotland did for a living – certainly not to the standard of Disney, Warner Bros. or Hanna-Barbera (or of Bura & Hardwick or Oliver Postgate). The idea that I might be able to work in the animation “industry” when I grew up was as crazy as the notion that I might have written off to NASA, asking to be an astronaut, so….. It really didn’t seem like any kind of a career option. Eventually when I went to the Glasgow School of Art (where I majored in Graphic Design) I made some really wobbly attempts at plasticene animation, using (if you can believe this…) a 1 inch reel-to-reel video set-up that was adapted to shoot one frame at a time. But the whole rig, including the camera, had been a bank security system in a previous incarnation, back in the days when there were no servo-motors on CCTV, so the interior image of the bank had “burned” into the retina of the stationary camera, leaving a ghost image over everything I shot. The resulting tape was of such poor quality we couldn’t even get a transfer of it (for people to laugh at – for all the wrong reasons…). Lesley Keen, the very patient and talented independent Scottish animator who had helped me to try and piece together this hilariously inept bit of stop-frame animation kindly advised me, when I graduated, to apply for a Trainee place with what was then the Scottish Film Training Trust (the forerunner of Skillset here in the UK). The problem was that they only had the resources back then to train 3 people every year and you had to choose either sound, camera or editing – all for live action work. You couldn’t train to be an Art Director or a Production Designer, much less an Animator, so I had to put all my Art School figure drawing and artwork away in a large folio under my bed, assuming that it might be a very long time before anybody might want to see it (let alone put those skills to good use in any area of movie design or production). Thankfully I had also done quite a lot of (equally hilarious and inept) video work at Art School, trying my hand at directing very lo-tech music videos, and I’d repeatedly annoyed the long-suffering off-line edit technician by turning up with arms-full of U-Matic tapes but absolutely no supporting paperwork and no clear idea of which tapes contained the (rare) good “takes” where my friends didn’t either break the props or crash into the scenery. So – I’d worked out pretty early on what the percentage balance was between “creativity” and the kind of disciplined planning that actually gives you a watch-able end result. So – I understood very early on that the cutting room was the “boiler room” of the whole movie-making process and I was fortunate enough, having worked that out, to land a place as a Trainee Film Editor with the Scottish Film Training Trust. For a couple of years I continued working in Glasgow, riding the “wave” of TV and film investment that Channel 4 had brought in with it (yes, folks – up until 1982 we only had 3 broadcast TV channels here in the UK, no cable, no satellite…) doing cutting room work on low budget drama, current affairs and news programmes, then I got the chance to work for Director, Christine Edzard on her ground-breaking 6-hour screen adaptation of “Little Dorrit” at Sands Films down in London. Sadly there was very little money left in the UK film industry kitty when that job finished so nobody else wanted to hire me (aww….). Then Disney put an advert in “Screen International”, looking for people to work on “Roger Rabbit” – so I wrote in, asking for work in their cutting room. Nobdoy replied, so I called and got put through to Don Hahn who kindly dug out my application letter. He thought for a moment then said, “We don’t really need cutting room people – but it says here that you went to Art School – can you draw…?” So – at long last I was able to drag the dust-covered folio out from under my bed, blow the dust off it and drag it up to The Forum in Camden. 2 hours later – once Don Hahn and Chris Knott had taken a good look at all my traditional observational drawing work, I’d landed a job as a trainee inbetweener in the Special Effects Department, helping add all the complex layers of hand-drawn shading and lighting effects that made the flat cel characters in “Roger Rabbit” look solid.

 

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My job, at the present time, is to look after my Dad – who is 87 and in rather poor health. So – I’m not sure there really is a “typical” day when you’re doing that kind of thing. But I’ve also been enjoying going along to Animation Festivals in recent months to talk about “Setting The Scene: The Art & Evolution of Animation Layout” the book I worked on from 2007 to 2011, back when my Dad was in slightly better shape and I was able to devote time, 9 to 5, to the interview, research and writing process. Thankfully we do have some very good home support which means that I’ve also been able, from time to time, to continue teaching at various different colleges and universities. So – in that context – “typical”, for me, is usually meeting young animation students and talking with them about their own work and how that fits in to the wider historical (or industry) picture – neither of which is always readily visible from a seated position in front of a computer monitor on a college campus….

 

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The best part of the teaching work is getting to see students’ work, being inspired by their ideas, questions, techniques and approaches. The best part of the Festival and book-promotion work is getting to meet and talk with people from so many different parts of the international animation industry. Having contact with them through the internet is also very rewarding and inspiring. The best part of being a carer is getting to spend time with my Dad – a very kind, multi-talented man who’s led a fascinating life.

 

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The one part of teaching that I never enjoy is marking the students’ work. For me I reckon “hands-on” work is very difficult to “reward” with marks out of 10 – it either works (and meets the conditions of the brief) or it doesn’t. Plus – no prospective employer is ever going to hire them on the basis of the mark they’ve been awarded – by me or by any other teacher or assessor.

 

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I’d love to say that I work every day with pencil and paper – but present circumstances make that impossible. So – like a lot of the students I meet (but for rather different reasons) I’m trapped in front of a computer most of the time.

 

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
For me this question is kind of the wrong way round – the most difficult thing for me, at the present time, is NOT being in the business.

 

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Oh, Lord – yes…! If you skim through to the rear pages of “Setting The Scene” and run your finger down the list of amazing artists, technicians, archivists and historians who were kind and generous enough to agree to be interviewed (or to help and advise me on the project), you’ll get some idea of how star-struck I was for most of the 4 years I was working on the book. For the record, though – I’d say the one guy who really changed things around for me and who, over the years, has had only a tiny percentage of the recognition he truly deserves is Chris Knott, the head of the Special Effects Department in London and my boss on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. The ambitious, pioneering, labour-intensive effects techniques Chris designed and developed for that movie really are mind-boggling, particularly if you bear in mind that the movie was made back when all the original hand-drawn animation elements, for both characters and effects, still had to be xeroxed onto cel, hand-painted and then photographed on a traditional rostrum camera. Chris is retired now – but following “Roger Rabbit” he helped set up an equally innovative CG production pipeline at Passion Pictures in London and he has continued to mentor and advise students and young animators, technicians and effects people. In a just world he’d be in line for one of those “Lifetime Achievement” awards.

 

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Whatever it was – nowhere near as tough as the situations that nursing staff in any hospital the world over encounter every day of the year.I’ve had a fantasically comfortable and privileged time of it by comparison. How many people, as a percentage of the global human population, get to work at something they really love doing? How many people even have clean drinking water, proper shelter and enough food?

 

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Not at the present time. Back when I was working at Disney in LA I was in a band called The Chilly Dogs, along with Tim Allen (bass), Dave Burgess (drums) and Chris Jenkins (guitar). I miss that very much. As the old saying goes – “music is the art form to which all other art forms aspire” (although Dave’s neighbours might not always have agreed, since we practiced pretty loud out in his garage…).

 

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Neither of the above, sadly.

 

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Whatever you do – do it well. And don’t stamp your feet and scream (or be discouraged) if, to begin with, you don’t get to do the job you want most. If you get offered work of any kind, related to the job that DOES interest you, seize it with both hands, find out all you can about it and do it as well as you can until the next opportunity presents itself. Also – be dependable – and be nice to work with.  And try not to be resentful of the fact that it IS a business. If it weren’t a business – you wouldn’t get paid for doing the things you love doing (etc etc).

 

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