Old Dog, New Tricks

A talk with the animators of My Dog Tulip, where old-school meets high-tech.

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 28, 2010

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My Dog Tulip, the film that opens this week from acclaimed animators Paul and Sandra Schuette Fierlinger, looks like the work of a human, not a computer. The lines are squiggly and unpolished, the movement of characters and objects deliberately rough; it lacks the cold precision of, say, a Pixar product. It looks for all the world like it was drawn by hand—and, despite the fact that My Dog Tulip was animated completely on computers, it was.

Stay with me.

The Fierlingers, who have been partners in animation and marriage since the early ’90s, work out of their cottage on the Main Line. Paul (who also teaches at Penn’s School of Design) does the drawing; Sandra, who studied fine art at PAFA, does the colors, and they share the rest. The producers were so worried about having such sparse credits that they stuck anyone remotely associated with the film, including members of a bank that loaned them money.

The Fierlingers used to work on paper, but for My Dog Tulip relied on a Wacom tablet. Animating on paper, Paul says, takes an enormous amount of time. “When you use a real-life eraser, it smudges things. You have all these crumbs on the paper. Paper can withstand only so many erases, and then you have to pick up a new one.” With paper, he says, deadlines can result in cut corners: you don’t draw every single frame, resulting in a jittery image. Plus, with the tablet, “the pencil is always sharp.”

Using an electronic stylus, Paul draws on the tablet’s darkened screen, a little bigger than an iPad. He doesn’t look down as he draws; his strokes pop up on a computer monitor in front of him. Everything Paul and Sandra would use in real life—brushes, pencils, charcoal, crayons, watercolors—can be emulated.

Adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir of the same title, My Dog Skip tells of the 50ish author (voiced by Christopher Plummer; Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rosselini also lend their voices) and his adoption of a loud Alsatian. You’ll never confuse it with My Dog Skip , though.

“We wanted to make a film about real dogs and real dog behavior,” Paul says. “They poop a lot, they eat a lot, you have to take them to the vet a lot. There’s a lot of responsibility. It’s basically a film that would make people who don’t know dogs and are contemplating getting one think long and hard.”

And so Tulip barks incessantly and hates certain people for no reason; she’s shown defecating and pissing, and there are close-ups of her anus and male dogs’ penises. Even her death is matter-of-fact—though quick, painless and sad, it intentionally steers wide of maudlin. “I insisted there was a way of doing [her death] that was not a tearjerker. Dogs have short lives compared to us, and if you get a dog that’s what you have to deal with. I didn’t want to hide that point.”

Covering the 15 years of the dog’s life, the film is sentimental without being manipulative. It has an episodic form, but the Fierlingers’ busy, playful style and constant reinventions hold it together and carry us along even as settings, objects and even people frequently mutate.

To get that handmade feel, it helps to have the right software. The Fierlingers use TVPaint—other animators like Nina Paley, another small-staff-big-name animator who did her Sita Sings the Blues entirely herself, use Flash. But Flash, Paul says, looks too mechanical and clean. “It’s a mathematical system. If you draw a curve of a face, and you have a little jitter in it, it will fix that jitter,” he says. “I don’t call it fixing, I call it spoiling.” TVPaint, he says, “has that tactile look. It doesn’t compute anything.”

My Dog Tulip is the Fierlingers’ longest film and first to be released theatrically, but they’re hardly new. Paul, 74, created Sesame Street’s Teeny Little Super Guy and the Oscar-nominated It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House . After meeting, marrying and teaming with Sandra, he’s done commercials for Comcast and United Airlines and work for PBS, including Drawn From Memory (1995) and the Peabody-winning Still Life With Animated Dogs (2001), about his life in Communist Czechoslovakia before he escaped in 1967.

Their animation method may be innovative, but they’re already looking beyond theatrical distribution. Their next film, based on Joshua Slocum’s circumnavigation memoir Sailing Alone Around the World , will be released in episodes for the eBook. “Everything is going to the computer screen,” he says. “This is a huge development for animation, because it’s so image-oriented.”

Frankly, if the future was just more work like My Dog Tulip, the world would be richer for it.

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