Lordy! Lordy!
“Rod Lord Describes the Painstaking Process for Creating the Original Hitch-Hiker's Guide to The Galaxy 'Computer' Graphics”

Given that I’ve been comparing Richard’s developing graphical style to that of Rod Lord [of original “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” graphics fame] and that Rich has posted a couple of Rod Lord animations himself, I thought I’d share with you this excerpt from the great man’s website, wherein Rod tells the tale of how they put together a demo sequence of the H2G2TG [as the nerds call it!] “Babel Fish” sequence to win the ‘gig’ from the suits at the BBC.

The original animations were painstakingly hand-made, back in the days before we could drop a graphic and a line of text into After Effects or Flash and let software key-framing take care of the rest. Something to read and bear in mind the next time you find the phrase “if I had had more time…” springing to your lips!

[Rod Lord website ]

At the start of 1980 Pearce Studios Ltd occupied half the ground floor of an office building in Hanwell (or “West Ealing” if you’re posh, posing, or socially climbing !). The BBC rented several cutting rooms in the other half of the ground floor, and Athos Films, whose premises it was, occupied the top floor.

The directors of Athos Films were in the habit of strolling into the studio while showing clients around and frequently overheard saying casually “…and this is the graphics department”. This was not in the least bit true. We were a completely seperate outfit with no connection beyond the payment of rent. It usually triggered a chorus of barely heard weary sighs rather than indignant expletives. There was, after all, just a slim chance that one of these wandering potential clients might actually want some animated graphics.

One morning young Kevin (an avid sci-fi and Dr Who database, recently employed because he seemed capable of Letraseting in a straight line and competent at retouching lith film) was loitering when sounds of R2D2 wafted to him from down the corridor. Stealthily he crept in search of the source of these enticing noises, to discover Alan Bell in one of the cutting rooms involved in putting together an item for “Jim’ll Fix it”.

Alan’s ear was then seriously bent. That’s another thing that Kevin was very good at…bending ears. Kevin managed somehow to extract from the bemused Alan that he was beginning to consider his new project (something called “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and how it would pose some interesting production problems. The only way Alan was ever going to escape now was by agreeing to be led into the studio and then agreeing to return at some future date. We said our farewells as Alan rushed off to another appointment with apparent relief. Turn back to the light box quite sure that it was the first and final encounter with Alan Bell.

But miracles do happen. About ten days later (a wednesday ?) Alan turned up in the studio again - with the first script treatment of episode one. There was much talk. Alan suffered in silence through a projection of the 16mm showreel. We went to the Red Lion on the corner for liquid lunch. There was more talk. Apparently BBC Graphics had at some time looked into the possibility of setting up a unit to produce THE WHOLE THING as a completely animated programme. This was rejected as impractical for several reasons, not least of which was cost. They had also studied the possibility of creating the book graphics and those other sequences that obviously couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be live using computer animation, still very much in its infancy. This had also been rejected as impractical for many reasons…not least of which was cost.

“To get any further with this” says Alan, “Graphics will have to be convinced it’s not impossible. You’ll have to give me a costing and schedule breakdown for the graphics in episode one, and then I’ll have to try and get them to agree to you doing a test piece”.

Three days later a very detailed letter with estimated costings wings it’s way to Alan Bell. Some time later a sceptical Douglas Burd from BBC Graphics turns up at the studio to try and evaluate this bunch no-one’s ever heard of.

Eventually Douglas Burd delivers the verdict of BBC Graphics. “Still don’t think it can be done, but just to prove it please do a test consisting of half of this section of the script talking about something called a Babel Fish”. Rod sharpens the pencils, and back to the light box. There is some brainstorm chatter about maybe using filtered and treated live footage in some places in the graphics. This is rejected as being costly, and in any case not generally applicable throughout to establish an overall style. Doug Burd looks at the first pencil roughs and storyboard and decides that the fish looks rather too rounded. Computers it seems like straight lines - hate curves. Rod argues that if there are enough straight lines and they’re short enough they can make quite nice curves. So a compromise is arrived at and the layouts are ammended. 

Things roll on. There’s now a pile of punched white paper with pencil key drawings. Some keys have red crayon sketching in-betweens that can be generated directly during tracing. Some have calibrations when movement can be achieved under camera. Tracing begins of the key drawings in black ink onto cells. Kevin is Letrasetting great wadges of text, line upon line in black onto cells. The voice-over arrives on 16mm magnetic film. Rod rumbles and wows through it on a 16mm pic sync, marking key phrases with chinagraph crayon on the film and noting down the frame numbers on a dope sheet. The black on clear tracings and the lines of letraset are taken into the darkroom and contact printed onto photographic lith film, reversing them out to produce clear lines and text in an opaque black surround. Miles of gash 35mm film stock is punched with 2 oblong holes and a central round hole. This is cut into mounds of strips, and rolls of cellotape are used to stick each one to a sheet of lith film, registering it to the positive it was generated from. Each one is numbered as it is registered, corresponding to the numbers now filling the columns on the dope sheets. 

Boxes full of bottles of black plastic paint are emptied in the process of cleaning up and “spotting” all the liths, ensuring no light comes through where its not wanted. Clear areas that are not quite as clear as they should be are cleaned out. Where practical intricate shapes are cut out of coloured lighting gels and stuck to the backs of the lith films. Where interlocking and overlapping shapes are awkward seperate mattes are painted to allow the use of multiple exposure runs under camera. Great stacks of artwork begin to pile up. 

Finally the camera magazine is loaded. Film is laced through the double register pin gate of the single frame Newman-Sinclair camera and 200 frames of Kodak colour scale click through at the rate of 2 frames per second. A few frames of start board. The counter is reset to 00000. The top lights are faded down and the back lights are faded up. They are so hot that a fan cuts in under the glass in the camera table. The camera table is rotated through 90 degrees so that the 4 panning bars run vertically. Each turn of their handles moves them a twentieth of an inch. The first lith containing lines of text is fixed to one of the panning peg bars so that the first line will appear at the correct place in the frame. A coloured lighting gel is slid beneath the lith film. This has a small square cut out of the bottom edge, and it is taped to a piece of thin black card.This is moved till the clear square sits under the first letter. There is now a bright white “T” gleaming out against black. All the rest of the text is now masked by the black card. The top platten glass is lowered to hold everything flat. The single frame button is pressed. Click - click. The counter reads 00002. 

Lift the platten glass. Slide the card and gel a few letters to the right. There is now “THE BA” glowing with colour with a bright white “B” leading on the right. Press the button. Click - click. The counter reads 00004. Lift the platten. Slide the card and gel. “THE BABEL FI” in colour is lead by a white “S”. Platten down. Click - click. 00006. And again. And so on. When the last line of text that will fit in the bottom of frame is complete wind the handle of the panning bar to take everything one line space vertically. Mask off the top line of text so it disappears. Move the card and gel to start the bottom line. Platten down. Click - click. Ad infinitum. Become an automaton. Just don’t go so much on auto pilot that the platten is left up, or that a reflection shows on the glass, or a glow creeps out under the masking where it shouldn’t be…etc. 

When the very last line is complete straighten the locked and creaking back. Set the counter for 200 frames. Press the “HOLD” button and go and put the kettle on. Close the camera shutter. Set the counter to count down to zero. Select “BACK” and press the “HOLD” button. Clickety-clickety-clickety…the film winds back through the camera at 2 frames per second. Rotate the table back to horizontal. Take all the artwork off. Reset-up with a piece of heading text in the correct position for top left of frame. The camera stops at zero. Open the shutter. Platten down. Select “FORWARD”. Same process until the text reads “THE BABEL FISH” with “(GOD - THE NON-EXISTENCE OF)” still masked out. Set the counter to stop at the end of the already exposed film. Press the “HOLD” button. Clickety-clickety-clickety…the camera plods its way through till the preset number. Close the shutter. Select “BACK”. Set the counter to stop at zero. Press the “HOLD” button. Clickety-clickety-clickety…while the camera rewinds the film take off all the artwork. Replace it with a fish shining in black. The camera stops. Select “FORWARD”. Open the shutter. Check how many frames from the dope sheet and set the preset counter. Press the “HOLD” button. When the camera stops lift the platten and put on the first cell of an animated mask that will progressively cover the image top to bottom. Platten down. Take 2 frames. Lift the platten. Take off the mask cel and replace it with the next. Platten down…and so on. When that series of cells is finished close the shutter and wind back to the first frame of the “wipe”. Replace the yellow fish with an outline fish and white skeleton. Put on the first cell of the incoming mask animation that will reveal the image from top to bottom. 

At some time in the early hours of the morning after a couple of days of camera work the final frame is complete. Hurriedly wind on 200 frames, open the camera, cut the film and release the magazine. Down the corridor to the darkroom. Pitch black. Fumble the magazine open and take out the take-up roll. Into a black plastic bag and a film can. Lights on. Into the studio. Start filling out a camera sheet and label. It’s 3.30am and the processing labs will stop accepting film soon. Phone the lab and ask for the night manager. Please…PLEASE…will you hold the bath till I get there. Ok, but only till 4am. Grab sealed can, dash around switching everything off and locking up. Out to the car. Head for the motorway. Careful. Luckily no speed cameras in those far-off ancient days but still the occasional cop around. Worry about wether there might be a hair (sliver of emulsion) in the camera gate, or a light fog in the magazine, or the film not seating on the register pins…etc, etc 

To be continued soon…

Share: 
Facepuke
Google+
Pinterest
Scroll to Top