Look at Him Working: Paul McCartney Animation Director Geoff Dunbar
by Jeff Rosado
Mention the name Paul McCartney and several different images come to mind: consumate singer-songwriter, master showman, devoted dad, shrewd businessman, innovative bassist, and animal rights activist easily emerge. But what you may not know is that the former Beatle is a huge fan of animation, and lists vintage Disney and Looney Tunes amongst his favorites. Over the last 20 years, McCartney has made quite a name for himself across the pond as an executive producer of animated shorts, in collaboration with award-winning director Geoff Dunbar.
Recently, the McCartney confidante talked with dOc from his office in Soho about Miramax's just-released Paul McCartney: The Music and Animation Collection. Sharing the same relentlessy chipper, 'thumbs-up' zeal of the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Dunbar recalls his early influences, the critically acclaimed shorts Lautrec and Ubu, and how the latter film led McCartney to instigate their fruitful partnership.
dOc: What motivated you as a kid in terms of animation to make you decide, "Hey, this is what I want to do with my life"?
Geoff Dunbar: I became interested at [about] 9 to 10 years old; I was just mesmerized by the great pictures we were having over here, the Disney pictures, and I got hooked. Then, one day in my school library, I discovered a small book called How They Make Animated Films and I became mesmerized along with the projection of the image. That fascinated me. And its as exciting today as it was then.
dOc: What were some of your earliest projects in your salad days that led to your first features?
GD: I started with a company called the Film Producer's Film Guild, here in England. We used to make films for the Central Office of Information; pretty self-explanatory like "safety in the workplace" and that sort of thing. Then after my initial love affair with the great American animators, I kind of got more adventurous and started reading more classical works, and I made a film called Lautrec. I got the inspiration from seeing a sketch book of [Toulouse-Lautrec's], and I thought, if I can make these move, it could be something. I did and was lucky enough to win some very prestigious awards.
dOc: And that success led to Ubu, your second major animated short.
GD: Yes, based on the great French playwright Alfred Jarry, who wrote this extraordinary play, Ubu Roi, in the 1890s, which was met with outrage from the theater-going public because it was so wildly mad. I thought it would make a great animated piece. Again, I was very lucky, even winning the Golden Bear award [at the Berlin Film Festival], and this is eventually what caught Paul's attention because he was a big fan of Jarry's as well.
dOc: How did your first collaboration with Paul McCartney begin?
GD: He called me one afternoon and proposed the idea of Rupert [and the Frog Song]; he'd consulted with other animators, but I had a feeling they wanted to change [the character]. I think what impressed Paul was that I managed in the best way that I could to retain the original ideas of the artists [Mary Toutel and Alfred Bestall], because he was very keen on doing that.
dOc: Was it intimidating working with Paul? Were you a fan? I mean, who wasn't a Beatles fan during their heyday?
GD: He's a great guy; he puts you at your ease and doesn't "big time" you, which is tremendous, a mark of a true professional. Over the years, we've developed a great working relationship; I enjoy his company enormously and look forward to his visits.
dOc: You know, judging from the making-of documentaries on the DVD, he seems to be very laid back.
GD: Yes. This comes from confidence in one's own work and abilities, and also just being of that very nature. People think, "it's Paul." Not like, "Hey, it's a Beatle, a movie star, or a pop star" which is helpful, otherwise it'd be very difficult to work.
dOc: How long does it take to complete a film like Rupert and the Frog Song?
GD: In concept time, there's a good four to six months to ease into it; scripting, storyboarding, designing, and getting the look of it. So, you're looking really at 18 months. Six months to develop, a year to make and then, say, another six months for post production and a little bit of tweaking here and there.
dOc: During his interview on the disc, Paul tells an interesting story about voice casting. Could you elaborate on this funny and fascinating tidbit?
GD: We had an audition period at my studio and the children would come in. Some of them were great, And it went on and on and on. But Paul was saying, "Listen, I've kind of got an idea of what [Rupert] sounds like." And then I said, "Come on, Paul, let's put your voice with the picture and see what happens."
dOc: Did you have to do any speed up, slow down or equalizing, like, say, Mel Blanc's voice tracks for Looney Tunes?
GD: Just a teeny bit; we took a little bit of the bass out of it. And I said, "Paul, we're not gonna get much better than that" so that's how that came about.
dOc: It really doesn't surprise me. He tends to have quite the knack for dialects and impersonations.
GD: [Laughing] He does. It is great fun. We have these meetings and he comes up with an incredible range of stuff. He even does [the character of] Frogger on Tropic Island Hum.
dOc: Speaking of which, how did that short come to be?
GD: Well, it came up after I'd made a film with Paul called Daumier's Law [based on the artwork of Honor? Daumier]. He'd come up with the title song about animals and sanctuaries and said, "Hey listen, why don't we create our own characters?" Linda got involved and it was just great; when Chief Bison came on the scene, that's when it got really interesting, for these were characters that we truly believed in, a circle of friends. It wasn't a hard project to develop; a meeting one day in this beautiful garden on a summer's afternoon. We were just talking, a lot of sketching, and that's how it kept going.
dOc: What really fascinated me about Tropic Island were these little nuances you threw in, like when Wirral spills the gunpowder beside that wacky monkey who was pestering Wilhemina. After he gets his comeuppance, you see what appears to be the MPL logo [McCartney's publishing company] swirling around his head.
GD: [laughs] That's great!
dOc: You mentioned Linda's participation. What was it like working with her?
GD: Oh, the wonderful Linda. We had such a good time; those were very happy days and we all miss her terribly. She was a great lady, a great mediator, I have to say. She'd calm us down when we got a little bit excited, and a great contributor to what we were doing. When I'd go down to visit with her and Paul, she'd make the tea, make the cakes, then we'd sit and have a meeting in the kitchen. She loved animation; all the things that you and I have been talking about, she loved.
dOc: Now, your most recent teaming with Paul is an animated film called Tuesday, which marks your first feature to utilize computer technology. Can you take us through the transitional period from your viewpoint?
GD: I remember saying to Paul, "We ought to work with computers now; they are getting good." He said, "I don't want it to look like 'computer' stuff; I don't want it to look flat" but I told him I think we can [accomplish] it. So we did what we call a "point sequence" and ran some tests with two computer systems. In the early days of this [procedure], the hand-drawn technique was pulling ahead, and we thought Uh-oh, we're gonna go the old way again. But one day, a member of my team came to me and said, "I think we've done it; come and have a look." It was a sequence of one of the frogs flying over the swamp area. It was by no means perfect, but we were getting there. From that point, it was goodbye cameras and so on.
dOc: Taking nothing away from Rupert and Hum, the clarity on Tuesday is simply breathtaking.
GD: It's great, isn't it? We were very delighted to keep the illustrated look [of David Weisner's book] to give the characters texture and volume while keeping the look of hand-drawn animation. Because that's what we like.
dOc: What are your plans for the future? I hear that you guys are trying to pitch the characters of Tropic Island for a feature-length film.
GD: Yes, it's an idea; I think it would be very worthwhile doing that. Paul has some great songs in the pipeline and we have a plotline that we've been working on for some time. I can't say too much, of course but I believe that may be in the cards.
dOc: What are your thoughts about how today's animated fare compare to the classics you looked up to in your youth?
GD: I have to say I adore them. Looking at the work of Toy Story, Shrek and Ice Age?I thought the latter was so funny?it's like looking at digital marionettes; I'm excited by these developments. But I'm not that keen to work in it, you know. I admire [the work], but I'm very happy drawing. In addition, I have a young family and I notice what they watch; they go through all the new ones and they love them, but they always go back to the time-tested?Snow White, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, and particularly Bambi, which I'm pleased about because I thought that was the greatest all-around picture: great story, great characters, and fabulous art. You can see the great qualities that were achieved.
dOc: There's a brief bit in Tropic Island where Bison points out these two deer, and it looks like Bambi and his mother are making a cameo. Was that kind of a tribute to your choice of cinematic entertainment?
GD: Yes! Absolutely. I just wanted to put that in. It isn't Bambi but I just wanted to create a sense of it; Tropic Island is an homage to that period in our humble way; we wanted to achieve that feeling. We were talking about animals who were threatened and deer are definitely threatened, if not more. So we just popped it in there and it was a delight; we went for it.