Tom Waits for No One was released in 1979, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize this film had a habit of being a first. For Lyon Lamb, my company at the time, it was our first animated film. It was the first production use of the Lyon Lamb Video Rotoscope, which was the latest in rotoscope technology. It would also be a first job in animation for most of the crew and arguably the first animated American rotoscoped music video.
In other words, we were blazing a mostly uncharted territory. The video rotoscope required extensive testing by the crew to figure out its technical parameters, while also experimenting at how to effectively rotoscope Waits. Lyon Lambs’ intent for Tom Waits for No One was simple: we wanted to make a unique video using this new technology, gambling with a build it, they will come approach.
Several months of preproduction culminated in a solid first draft storyboard. Everybody took a go at designing their interpretation of the Waits character. Then we had the task of figuring out which caricature would best animate and perform the poetic justice that Waits’ persona deserved. The one closest to that vision was created by Keith Newton. Keith was an amazing artist and only 19 years old – and this was his first job in animation. His portfolio came to me via friend of a friend. When I saw his work, he was hired on the spot, even though that spot was in the suburbs of Detroit and we were in Los Angeles. So we had to get him here. Arriving carless and homeless, we set him up near the studio in an unflattering post-war apartment on Olympic Boulevard with a company van, and put him to work. Keith was a drawing machine – reserved, talented, and relentless, coupled with a great sense of humor. Maybe it had something to do with his fresh arrival in a land full of strangers, but somehow the animated Waits became his best friend, at first. Keith would ultimately take on the task of the tortuous rotoscope, which required him to hand-trace 12 drawings for every 1 second of film.
All of that in place, we were now prepared to tackle the live action and we needed a stage. We found a vintage art deco facility, the old La Brea Stage in Hollywood – a fading relic from a by-gone era that was perfect for our scenario and comfortably fit our budget.
The grips plugged in the lights and experimented with the sound levels on the boom mics. Our set was a raised, faux back porch with hand railing and steps leading down to the “street”, an early 1940’s street lamp, reference points to indicate a curb and sidewalk, two agency dancers, and someone’s pet dog. To shoot the live action, two rolling storyboards gave us the general direction. We utilized 5 video cameras: 2 high, 2 low, and 1 handheld. The sound system was double checked as the lighting was readjusted. The camera operators were testing their video signals and correction levels, while make up was being applied to the dancers. The crew was ready. Where’s Tom?
Tom finally arrived in the conspicuous T-Bird, newspapers and all. He steps out of the Bird wearing a slept-in looking wrinkled old suit and carrying a duffel bag. He cautiously walked toward us, yanking on his tie and adjusting his Stetson, then gruffly asked for directions to the dressing room. “Whew, he’s going to change that suit”, I thought. He sure enough changed, right into another wrinkled old suit. Then he said, “Excuse me, but can somebody get me a pack of no filter Viceroys?” A crew member obliged. Tom paced back and forth as tensions grew until the hard to find Viceroys finally arrived an hour later. Once the Viceroys arrived, Waits became a professional.
It was time for the cameras to roll and for me, it seemed miraculous that it was all coming together. Waits sang while the background music set the mood. He just owned the place, all of it, and moved like silk gravel. We did six individual takes with two separate dancers. Between takes, Tom joked to the cast and crew in a sardonic repartee wrapped with a sense of humor that put everyone at ease.
Although our rolling storyboards made for good reference, in reality it felt like we were shooting on the fly and everything was organically falling into place at its own pace. As changes were made to the story during the shoot, we would take an occasional break and Tom would slip away to slowly work a Viceroy while sitting on his haunches, like he was alone in front of a campfire.
The whole animation and production crew was there: Keith Newton, David Silverman, Garret Smith, Mike Cressy, Ray Roberts, Gary Beydler, Steve Rogers. Every one of these talented people were hired because they shared the vision and the excitement I had for this project. We felt like it was the beginning of something great, and wanted to be part of every step. Somehow, though, we were all looking at the live action shoot through an animation lense – and we couldn’t wait to get started on the art.
With five cameras rolling and six takes, we ended up with thirteen hours of Waits footage that would soon become Tom Waits for No One.
Part 1: The Story
Part 2: The Scrapbook
(Credit: ©John Lamb)
To mark the release of Uncut Magazine’s Tom Waits Ultimate Music Guide, The Mule is teaming up with Uncut Magazine to give away two free copies! To enter the contest simply “Like” this post on The Mule’s Facebook page:
Two winners will be randomly selected at 12:00 PM BST on Monday 4th August.
The Mule is delighted to announce the release of Tom waits: A Photo Session With Mitchell Rose.
Tom Waits: A Photo Session With Mitchell Rose provides a unique glimpse into the time Tom Waits spent as a permanent resident at the infamous Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood. By 1977, Waits had immersed himself in the world of sleaze and excess he was writing about. Waits sits on a lawn chair in his cluttered bungalow, surrounded by empty bottles and cigarette butts atop piles of records, magazines, books and cardboard boxes. Other portraits show Waits playing the dusty piano where he composed in his kitchen, having sawn off the draining board to make room. Throughout this remarkable book, Mitchell Rose shares previously unpublished photographs from what he describes as the most memorable photo session of his career.
The book is available in both hardcover and softcover editions, as well as a larger coffee table edition with a protective sleeve.
Order your copy at: www.mitchellrosephotos.com/waitsbook
(Credit: ©Mitchell Rose)
The green light from Tom gave our project a GO. The Lyon Lamb studio was located in an old California bungalow nestled in the west side of LA, a place where the stars of Hollywood retired their parents, a friendly but nosey bunch that kept a watchful eye on the hood. If something was awry, it spread like wildfire through the blue hair grapevine. Tom came to the studio on a few occasions to check the progress of the film. One particular time, Tom pulls up in his ’66 Blue Valentine T-Bird with a rattle can paint job. I looked out the studio window just in time to see Tom pull up in his conspicuous Bird as the car belched to a stop. The entire cab, front passenger seat and back, was chuck-full of newspapers from floor to ceiling. There was nowhere to sit, much less peer out the windows… only room for the driver to see straight ahead and that was it.
He gets out of the car looking like a nickels worth of dirty ice, shuffles around a bit yanking on his wrinkled suit lapels, chin up high, and then with one hand adjusting the pork pie Stetson, he slowly turns around and saunters towards our studio. Before he gets to the porch, my phone rings. It’s the old lady across the street frantically calling me to warn me about an undesirable fellow heading my way and to see if she should call the police. No police are needed I said, but he may play a bit of piano if she would like to come over for a listen. She declined but he actually did sit down and play four songs on the upright in the living room. Fortunately, a tape recorder was on the piano and I pressed record.
During the Tom Waits For No One production, I had the opportunity to visit Tom’s place at the Tropicana. He had two adjoining rooms with the wall ripped out making it one large room. The apartment looked just like his car, newspapers and such stacked to the ceiling in every room, empties were like floor chimes on the narrow paths of carpet leading through the walls of newspaper, from the entry to the baby grand, the baby grand to the fridge, and from the fridge to other rooms that disappeared behind the newspapers.
Building the concepts, caricatures and storyboards began the several months of pre-production. The animators sketched up a tornado-like storm creating caricatures of Waits. Drawings were flying all over the place and the rejected ones ended up on the floor or in the trash. But they were just too beautiful to be trashed so I would systematically inspect the place when the animators left for the evening and saved the throw-aways. Everybody loved to draw and it was reflected in the atmosphere of the studio. There was a lot of humor and laughing going on which was a good diversion for the intensity of the work that was yet to come. The studio walls soon filled up with Waits drawings, along with extraneous but illuminating post-its, media clippings and ticket stubs from the life that was going on around us.
Once the look and feel of the film was determined, a first draft storyboard was created. We built two 8’x 5′ steel framed portable rolling cork panels for tacking up the storyboards to assist in visual continuity for the flushing out story concepts in boiler room sessions. Many character revisions ensued and the drawings they replaced were also saved. From time to time, the studio was cleaned, the walls would be stripped and the cycle would repeat itself. My conservator instincts prevailed, and I saved all of those items as well.
When the film wrapped, the stack of boxes filled with saved art was about four feet high and in chronological production order. That order was maintained, sorted and scrap booked. As it turns out, simultaneously mixing the production art with the current event clippings not only created a microcosmic peek into LA pop culture of the late 70s, it also illustrates the complete production process of Tom Waits For No One.
My respect for the art this incredibly talented team produced Is reflected in the collecting and preservation of these saved drawings, which they did often as a break from the work of film making. These guys relaxed from the task of drawing by doing more drawing, and the love of that work is present in every one of these throw-aways. It’s classic art for art’s sake. Just a few weeks back, 35 years later, I ran into David Silverman, one of the key animators. He looked through the scrapbook and hooted “Wow…I remember doing this drawing!” That, my friends, is what it’s all about.
Part 1: The Story
(Credit: ©John Lamb)
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)
“I first met Tom Waits in 1975 when Dutch music paper OOR sent journalist Constant Meijers to Los Angeles. I was his photographer for six weeks while he was there.
We met Tom while he was living at the Tropicana Motel for an interview and photos. Then we went to Duke’s which was the coffee shop of the motel.”
“Then we saw Tom do a midnight show at the Troubadour, where I did some more photos.”
“When I met Tom at the motel and coffee shop he appeared like an extreme oddball, but when I saw and heard him sing at the Troubadour that night I was so very much impressed by his talent, especially when he sang so visually about raindrops forming diamonds on his windshield, using parking meters as walking sticks and saying that he was so horny the crack of dawn had to be careful around him.”
“Later after I moved to Amsterdam, I saw him do a small show for insiders at the American Hotel in Amsterdam and I photographed him in the lobby of Wiechmann Hotel.”
(Credit: ©Barry Schultz)
The Mystery of Tom Waits
“February 4, 1999 was the scheduled day for my portrait session with Tom Waits. The location was to be Prairie Sun Recording Studio in Cotati, California. Cotati is 60 miles north of San Francisco and fairly rustic and Prairie Sun was just that…rustic. A beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio set on a 20-acre chicken ranch. There were beautiful hi-tech rooms built inside older re-furbished barn type buildings. There were also hundreds of chickens, old red barns with peeling paint, an abandoned claw foot bathtub and a motorcycle littering the grounds around the small buildings that housed the visiting artists who were recording there. Visually, you couldn’t ask for a better location to shoot someone like Tom.
On this crisp and clear winter day, I set up my Tripod with a 4×5 view camera behind a small tin-walled building that also sported an old fashioned water heater made out of steel. For the possible cover photo, I set up some studio lighting in front of an old set of wrought iron furniture with the beautiful blue sky and green hills as the background. I scoped out several other locations as possible backgrounds for available light shots where we could move around freely without the constraints of set lighting. I had lots of ambition, and a 30-minute window to get the cover shot and photos to be used inside the story.”
“When Tom arrived, I sat him down on the wrought iron furniture and shot a test Polaroid. He looked at it, and in his I just drank a bottle of whisky and swallowed a box of razor blades voice, said, “Jay, this looks like my grandmothers furniture, what else you got?” We shot no film. Next we went to the claw foot bathtub. “No, don’t like it,” he said in that raspy voice. We shot no film. “How about this wall on the side of the barn with the peeling paint I asked?” “Nah.” At this point about 10 minutes of my 30 had passed, and I had not taken a single picture. The publicist who was just as perplexed as I was didn’t know what to do. I lead Tom to the old motorcycle and he proceeded to circle it like a hungry vulture. Feeling a little bit nervous about the lack of photos taken, I started snapping pictures of him eyeing the bike. He sat next to it on the ground in the harsh sunlight, looked up at me with squinty eyes and I blasted off a whole roll of 35mm film. He got up and said, “he wasn’t feeling it.” Usually when I shoot an artist in one spot, even if it is just for five minutes, I might try a few different types of film, cameras and/or lenses. Things were not going so great. We walked over to where I had my 4×5 set up and I asked him to sit. He said, “I prefer to stand.” I offered to do a Polaroid of him both sitting and standing so he could compare. “You know what Jay, your right, it’s better with me sitting.” I shot about six sheets of 4×5 film, and about eight frames of 35mm when he got up and insisted that we leave the farm and drive to this house just two or three minutes down the road where he’d seen an old abandoned car earlier that day. Our 30 minutes were pretty much up, so I said “Yeah, lets go.” Tom wanted to change out of his jeans and in to his black Italian suit that was tailored to fit a man about two sizes smaller than he was. I huddled with my assistant to gather cameras and film as quickly as we could. We left all our lighting and 4×5 camera set up in their original locations and I jumped in to Tom’s truck with three cameras around my neck while my assistant and Tom’s publicist followed behind. As we drove down the backcountry roads Tom and I talked about people we knew in common, mostly musicians, kids and the weird relationship artists have with press. I shot a few photos while driving when he asked if I remembered the old woodpecker stickers from the sixties with the big wide mouth grin. Before I could answer he began to make the face for the camera and me.”
“After about 20 minutes of driving to the house that was two or three minutes away, Tom informed me that we were possibly going to run out of gas. I thought, “How great, pictures of Tom Waits pumping gas! Very cool!” He said “there are no gas stations on this road”, much to my dismay. After 30 minutes and almost half way back to San Francisco, he announced we had arrived.”
“About 200 feet up a long driveway, behind a small house with all the windows covered by old sheets, and over a short barbed wire cow fence, sat the car he had scoped out. “Jay, I don’t know who’s house this is, or who that car belongs to, but you are the captain of this ship so you better go knock on that door and ask permission to take some pictures.” With my cameras around my neck, I quickly went to the door and started ringing a doorbell that did not seem to be working, first knocking politely and than with a louder, fist-pounding action. No one answered. I went back to the truck and informed Tom that no one was home and we should just “do it.” He agreed, and the four of us started to work our way up the long driveway towards the car. Halfway there, a little old lady came out of the back of the house. She was wearing what would now be considered a vintage overcoat, but for her, the same coat she wore when it first was in style 40 or 50 years ago and a chiffon scarf tied around her head and under her chin. She yelled at us in a piercing scream, “Can I help you?” I responded that we were wondering if it would be all right if we hopped the fence and took some pictures of my friend Tom in front of the car. She responded in an even louder voice, “THAT CAR, IT DOESN’T DRIVE.” “No,” I answered. “We don’t want to drive it, just take some pictures,” as I held up two of the cameras that were weighing me down like the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. Again she screamed ” IT’S GOT NO WHEELS!” I shook my head, motioned to my cameras and Tom and realizing the woman was as deaf as a stone, I loudly replied, “We just want to take some photos.” Her response was “IT HAS NOT BEEN DRIVEN SINCE MY HUSBAND DIED 30 YEARS AGO.” I grabbed a piece of paper and sharpie from my assistant, and wrote – “We just want to take some pictures; I can pay you $25!! ” Waving my offer of money away with her hand, She responded in an even louder voice, “OK, BUT IT’S GOT NO WHEELS!” She walked back to the house and we proceeded towards the barbed wire fence and the setting sun. The car was beautiful! When Tom got in front of the car, he went into character as the “sleazy car salesman” waving his hand out like an automobile spokesperson and added the wide grin woodpecker face in for fun. He prowled around the car, stopping to inspect the trunk, the sides and eventually the front grill where he insisted that his face and the grill of the car looked alike!”
“I was shooting as fast as I could knowing that our 30 minute shoot was now well over 90 minutes and could end at any moment. After the grill shots, Tom jumped up and I broke out a fun little plastic toy camera called an “action sampler” and shot what would be my last roll of film. I was hoping we could have done a few more angles – you know, “just one more shot,” but he jumped over the fence and I quickly followed carrying just an old fashioned Polaroid Land Camera that does not really focus. He trotted down the driveway with me in hot pursuit shooting Polaroids and dropping them on the driveway as we went. He got to his truck, shook my hand and kept driving south most likely in search of the nearest gas station.
The three of us who remained were feeling a bit dazed and overwhelmed by what just happened over the last 90 minutes, and gathered our things and headed back north to the studio to retrieve my photo equipment and make the drive back to San Francisco.
All we could wonder was if this was some completely once in a lifetime experience, or was this what Tom’s everyday life was really like? The mystery of Tom Waits….”
More images from the shoot can be viewed on Jay Blakesberg’s Facebook page.
(Credit: ©Jay Blakesberg)