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Tim Sample is a Maine humorist, writer, and illustrator.
I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears illustrator/cartoonist, barely 27 years old in 1978 when I moved into Noel Stookey’s guest house in South Blue Hill, to begin what I then hoped would be a successful career in animation.
I had met Stookey (the “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary) about two years earlier when I was an opening act for him at what is now Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Over the next couple of years we continued to perform together, gradually discovering that we had a lot of things in common besides music, including a lifelong interest in cartoon animation.
Although I’d been a fan of Stookey’s since the early ’60s, I‘d only recently learned that he was also a talented cartoonist with a knack for generating “funny voices” and whacky sound effects.
That’s a good skill set for an animator. In fact, in 1968, working with Warner Brothers, Stookey had helped create a cartoon based on the Peter Paul and Mary song “Norman Normal” (yes kids, you can watch it on YouTube). The animated short feature, loosely based on the song of the same name, had been shown in movie theaters around the world. Color me impressed.
Stookey and I began daydreaming about starting our own animation studio and before long a plan began to take shape. The next thing I remember I was in South Blue Hill building an animation studio with Stookey and a few other talented, ambitious (and incredibly naive?) young artists.
We managed to scrape together some used equipment, including a large cel-duplicating machine once used by Walt Disney, and began setting up shop on the second floor of a refurbished hen house overlooking Blue Hill Bay. Noel’s dad, Nick, a retired machinist and inventor, built us a professional grade animation stand using about a 150 bucks worth of grommets, nuts, bolts and PVC pipe from the local hardware store. Thus outfitted with second-hand gear, a homemade animation stand and a shoestring budget, Neworld Animation was born!
Our first paying job involved creating a 59-second TV spot featuring original “full cel” animation. Now, 59 seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time to fill until you discover that each second of on-screen animation contains around two dozen, painstakingly drawn, inked and colored frames. That’s over 1,400 frames per minute, plus another 1,400 frames for the “pencil test” to make sure the movement looks right before you ink it in. Did I mention writing the script, recording the sound track, designing and painting the backgrounds? Suddenly, running our very own animation studio was starting to feel an awful lot like working in our very own coal mine.
Fortunately, Stookey’s celebrity status brought plenty of interesting visitors by to break up the monotony. One day he showed up with a fellow named Doug who asked intelligent questions and mentioned that if any of us were coming to Los Angeles we should stop in and see his current animation project.
Since I was, in fact, going to be in L.A. myself in a couple of weeks he gave me his card and told me to call when I was in town. Sure enough, finding myself with a little extra time on my hands I gave Doug a call. He gave me an address and the following morning I dropped by.
Frankly, I wasn’t too impressed. Our funky old hen house in Maine was pretty cool compared to a grungy warehouse in the industrial quarter of Long Beach. Oh well, I guess things are tough when you’re just starting out.
When I rang the buzzer, a man with a headset appeared and opened the door. Stepping inside, it took me a second to absorb what I was looking at. Dozens of technicians sat at illuminated consoles maneuvering little motorized cameras along a vast network of tracks snaking through the building. Suspended from invisible wires in the center of the warehouse I saw … The Starship Enterprise!
It turned out that “Doug,” who had dropped by to visit our little animation studio in Maine, was in fact legendary special effects genius Douglas Trumbull, whose credits included “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The scene being shot that morning was for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
I’ve always figured that if you aren’t embarrassed on a regular basis, you simply aren’t paying attention. So, my mortification at having failed to recognize one of Hollywood’s most famous special effects geniuses, who died earlier this month, was short lived. On the other hand, the memory of spending an entire day watching a true Hollywood legend create “movie magic” in an old warehouse? I expect that will last a lifetime.