John Lamb (Part 1)
35 years ago, a rotoscoped, animated rock ‘n roll video was made. It debuted a year before Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped American Pop, and almost 2 years before MTV first aired. And then it slipped into obscurity, almost as quickly as it had arrived.
In 1977, Tom Waits was on the classic send-up talk show Fernwood 2 Night. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Waits’ appearance. After his rendition of “The Piano Has Been Drinking”, Waits took a slug from a bottle during the post-performance interview and set it down in front of him, the host looked at him and said “It’s kind of strange to have a guy sitting here with a bottle in front of him”. Tom responded “well… I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”. I became an immediate fan.
Fernwood 2 Night, 1977
Later that spring, I stumbled upon Tom Waits at the Roxy. Leon Redbone opened the intimate venue, and Waits followed with a poetry-jazz/art performance that was mind blowing – unlike anything I had ever seen.
At the time, I needed to create a unique project for my company Lyon Lamb, which had just invented the Video Rotoscope. It worked along side our Video Animation System (VAS), which was a technological game changer for the animation industry.
To prove the video rotoscope’s viability, we wanted to make a one-of-a-kind animated short. I recalled Waits’ animated performance at the Roxy; his evocative music and style was exactly what we were looking for. Little did we know at that time, a huge change was coming.
So a pitch was hatched, phone calls returned and after various meetings with Tom, we had the green light. Concepts, caricatures and storyboards were created. Several months of pre-production began and a live action video shoot was scheduled at the old La Brea Stage in Hollywood. It took 6 takes and 13 hours of video to create a 5 1/2 minute live film, which was then rotoscoped, frame by frame, to create Tom Waits For No One.
The film premiered in 1979, lived one night with “Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation”, took first prize at a single Los Angeles film and video festival, and quietly slipped into obscurity for the next three decades.
After 35 years, most of the live action and animation production elements of Tom Waits For No One have been re-discovered. A scrapbook of drawings rescued from the walls and trashcans of the original production studio has been re-opened, and the work is astonishingly talented and rough. When I began to look back at all the animators involved, many who had never had a job in an animation studio before, I was humbled and blown-away by the accomplishments they went on to achieve: the first (and still primary) animator for the Simpsons, Disney animators, Disney co-director, Disney background artist, senior illustrator for Electronic Arts, renowned fine-arts plein air painter, co-creator of DVD and HD technology, Academy Award nominee in animation, and Academy Award winner for invention of the Lyon Lamb Video Animation System. And then there was Tom. In 1977, he had a cult following.
Now, after so many years, it seems like Tom Waits For No One is finding a home in the digital world. The video, uploaded to YouTube in 2006, has gone quietly viral. Inspired by the public interest, my own interest was renewed to tell the story of the animators that made it happen. Quite literally, within hours of finishing a new web site, Jeremy Farrance found it and introduced me to his work and this excellent blog. Barely a week later, I’m thrilled to be able to share the Tom Waits For No One story, which seems to be reaching out from the 20th century to be told.
The song that Tom performed for the shoot was “The One That Got Away”. Ironically, this wonderful video appears to hold a special place in animation history: it’s perhaps one of the first animated rock videos ever created, the first American rotoscoped rock n’ roll video, the first use of the Video Rotoscope in a production environment. Tom Waits For No One appears to be a landmark in so many ways, and yet it’s virtually unknown and undocumented. To my eyes, it begins to look like the video itself, may be the one that got away.
Throughout this article are just a few images from the scrapbook and the web: Tom’s Fernwood 2 Night performance and interview; the 1977 ticket stub featuring Tom at The Roxy, and various choice drawings by the animators. So many years later, these are being seen for the first time…
(Credit: ©John Lamb)