Whilst at school in the UK, Simon Ashford spent a great deal of time in the art room. The school was perched high on a hill overlooking the ocean and when wild Atlantic storms made playing rugby too unpleasant, which it frequently did, he had the choice of either sitting quietly reading a book in the library or going to the art room to draw. Simon chose to draw — a lot.
Working for animation luminary Richard Williams (Roger Rabbit) on his Magnus Opus 'The Thief and the Cobbler' — twenty eight years in production and remains unfinished, ‘The Thief’ was the subject of the documentary 'The Persistence of Vision'. Other high profile projects include 'Balto' for Steven Spielberg, 'Peter Rabbit' and 'The Tales of Beatrix Potter' and 'The Silver Brumby'. Simon was a 3D animator and digital artist in the early pioneering days of the computer games industry, animating Warner Brothers characters such as Bugs Bunny for a title called ‘Space Race’.
Simon is a former Program Manager for graphic design at CATC Design School and Senior design lecturer at Billy Blue Design School (Torrens University, Laureate Australia). Simon’s other obsession is typography and the study of letterforms. He has served on the state council for AGDA (Australian Graphic Association) and has written on the subject of design education for industry journals.
Now Head of Animation & VFX at Collarts, we caught up with Simon to discuss Animation and what inspires him.
Hi Simon, thanks for chatting with me today! Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I originally started out as an illustrator and graphic designer before working in animation. I got my first design job at 18 working for Tiki, the largest surf company in the UK at the time. At school I was that kid who was always in the art room drawing. I just liked drawing and image making and would lose myself in the process. I played guitar in pretty terrible punk band and the job of drawing our gig posters was always left to me. I particularly loved drawing letter forms. Like a lot of teenagers I have always been fascinated by album covers as well as music, fashion and surfing magazines.
“Ideas have always been central to my practise and I was really interested in experimenting with lots of different animation techniques.”
So when did you realise making art was an option for your career?
I had a great art teacher who really inspired me. When he asked me what I wanted to do when I left school and I explained that I either wanted to make LP covers or work for a surfing magazine. I was pretty naïve and didn’t even know what that job might be called. He explained what ‘graphic design’ was and pointed me in the direction of the local art school. During my two-year foundation design course we got to try out everything. Painting, photographic, ceramics, fashion, sculpture, art history etc.—I loved it.
In particular, we were taught how to think creatively. This process shaped my life. In my second year I specialised in graphic design. Upon graduation I was offered the job at Tiki Surf. Looking back, it was an incredible opportunity. I was only 18. I designed advertising and marketing material, wetsuits and illustrated some t-shirt. It was during this time that I did a short animation course. The experience of making my ideas come to life changed everything.
It sounds like a light bulb moment! How did you start pursuing animation?
Yes it was. Whilst I had my dream job, with just a diploma, I realised that I needed to go back to University to learn more. I found a course that had a good mix of graphic design and animation. Ideas have always been central to my practise and I was really interested in experimenting with lots of different animation techniques. The '80s was a really creative time for animation. Music video clips were happening for the first time.—MTV was the reason for that. Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer' came out around 1986 and it had this incredible video using every kind of animation technique possible. I was really inspired by that. I made about 12 short films using different creative techniques. I just tried to push the envelope on everything.
And was that diverse portfolio the key to your early career path or?
I think I was just really fortunate. When I graduated there was a boom in animation production in the UK. ‘Roger Rabbit’ had just been released. There were lots of animated feature films being made as well as smaller animation production companies making commercials and music videos. They were labour intensive, time consuming and expensive but really popular. And London was the best place in the world to be an animator. As a junior there were incredible people to learn from.
That’s so interesting. What was it like working in an animation apprenticeship?
In my first job I was apprenticed into the craft of traditional cartoon 2D animation. They hired graduates and put them through an intensive training course ran by the legendary animator Tiger West. He was such a character! He had worked on all of the cartoons that we had grown up on. He was pretty tough on us but he whipped us into shape. Once we graduated from that course we went into production and worked as 'inbetweeners' and assistants to a team of more experienced animators.
“At the time ['The Thief and The Cobbler'] was considered to be the greatest animation film ever made. The attention to detail was incredible."
That does sound hardcore. What happened once you were through with that apprenticeship?
After about 12 months of 'inbetweening’, I had learned a lot from the master animators that I worked under. There was a production in town that everyone was talking about. It was called ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. It was the lifelong project of a guy called Richard Williams — He is regarded as the world's greatest animator. He had just won an Oscar for ‘Roger Rabbit’.
Richard Williams had been running his studio in London since the early '60s and had invested all of the money he had made into this 28 year life long project. He brought animation pioneers like Ken Harris (Wile E Coyote) and Art Babbit (Walt Disney) out of retirement during the '70s to mentor his animators and to keep the craft alive. On the back of his success with Roger Rabbit, Warner Brothers agreed to fund the completion of ‘The Thief’. At the time it was considered to be the greatest animation film ever made. The attention to detail was incredible.
28 years?! Wow, just wow. What was this project he’d spent so much time on and what was your involvement?
The Richard Williams studio had a phenomenal reputation in the industry and having a film credit on ‘The Thief’ was considered to be about the best thing you could have on your resumé. I applied and was lucky enough to be offered a job on the fabled production. I was just a lowly ‘inbetweener’ and later an assistant animator, working under the guidance of master animators.
What was it like working on The Thief?
It was an incredible experience working with the world’s most talented team of animation professionals. I was young, very ambitious and realised what a unique opportunity I had. The process was incredibly labour intensive. It couldn’t be achieved these days.
We would work from 9am in the morning ‘till 10:00 at night. That was five days a week, and you would then go and do a standard day's work on a Saturday. On Sunday, you just washed your pants, ate and slept. We pretty much lived at the studio. I did that for a couple of years. It was like working in a monastery as a medieval scribe, hunched over my desk—scratching away.
That sounds exhaustive. What was the biggest lesson that you learnt from that experience in hindsight? Do you think the hours that you put into it were worth it?
Definitely worth it. When you are young and ambitious you have the stamina to make those kinds of sacrifices. I realised how fortunate I was and just absorbed as much as I could.
"I would prefer to see passion and desire over talent. Hard work and focus wins out every time. Coming to Collarts, we can work with that and develop those skills."
What made the film so enigmatic?
Dick is beyond being a perfectionist. Typically animation will take one drawing and hold it for two frames, so that means 12 drawings per second. 24 frames = 1 one second. But Dick Williams didn't do that. He would have a drawing for every frame! This was unheard of but it gives a very smooth feel to the film. Also, the paper we used was larger and longer than usual—fifteen field scope. So the detail was incredible. The level of craft has never been surpassed.
But what happened in the end?
In the end, Warner Bros got frustrated with Richard Williams — he was refusing to complete the project — and the film went wildly over budget. For example, he'd have a whole scene completed, which would take almost a whole year for a team of artists, and then he would make a sudden decision to cut the scene. It was heart breaking for the teams involved.
Warner Bros are a business and not very interested in the craft. They realised that they were unlikely to see a return on their investment. Every film project is insured, and they simply called in their loss to an insurance company who ended up owning the film. One day a bunch of men in suits came in and said, ‘OK, pencils down. It’s over!’ Everything was boxed up and sent overseas to be completed as cheaply and quickly as possible. It went on a very limited release in South Africa and Australia, then straight to video. If anyone is interested there are various directors cuts of the film on Youtube. There is a great documentary about the film called ‘The Persistence of Vision’.
Even though that film didn’t work out, what doorways did that project open for you?
I went on to freelance around Soho in London, which at the time was the heart of the film industry in the UK. I worked on commercials mostly. There was no LinkedIn or social media, so you had to be really good at networking. There was a pub where all of the animators drank. Having worked on ‘The Thief’ pretty much opened every door I knocked on.
I mostly worked for a studio called ‘Grand Slamm’. And that's where I worked on the original animated series ‘Peter Rabbit and Friends’ based on children's’ books by Beatrix Potter. I also animated the Coco-Pops monkey as well as the occasional frame or two for the studio’s passion project for Paul McCartney.
I also spent a year working on a Steven Spielberg project called 'Balto' for Amblimation which later became Dreamworks. It was on the back of that I was offered the incredible opportunity to come to Melbourne to work on ‘The Silver Brumby’ for Media World’s Animation Works studio. I helped set up the studio and mentor young animators.
How do you feel animation and graphic design has changed?
I think we're actually about to have a really exciting period. We have unimaginable technology, production tools as well as applications for animation. In the past your work either went out live on television, film theatres or animation festivals. These days we have the option of streaming on demand. There is such a high demand for content now. Either on platforms like Netflix, YouTube or social media.
“I get excited about bringing out the potential in our students. We are on the verge of a new era of animation and my contribution is to encourage future animators and designers to take their place in that era.”
I’m sure there’s people here who love animation but are unsure if they have the right tools or skills to succeed. What would you say to those who would love to have a career in animation but are feeling unsure?
It’s only natural to feel a little daunted and overwhelmed. In many ways it is much easier than it has ever been. I would prefer to see passion and desire over talent. Hard work and focus wins out every time. Coming to Collarts, we can work with that and develop those skills. People are capable of so much more than they think they are. The tools have never been cheaper and accessible. You don’t need to work with huge teams of people anymore. It’s incredibly democratic. You can collaborate with people remotely. I am excited about what people are going to create!
With the Animation & VFX degree taught online, what you are looking forward to teaching as the Head of the course?
You just need ideas the desire to create. You don't necessarily need to have a fantastic drawing ability. Drawing is just practice. It can be learned. You just need to get good at being you! The possibilities are endless. I get excited about bringing out the potential in our students. We are on the verge of a new era of animation and my contribution is to encourage future animators and designers to take their place in that era.
What can future students expect learning Animation & VFX with your guidance?
When I can take a young person and get them to believe in themselves, and achieve things that they don’t have the confidence to dream about… that’s actually what my job is. My job isn't to be the best animator in a room anymore. I want to get a student to be a much better animator than me. Over the past two years I have been working as a Creative Coach in design. It’s all about student success.