One Man, One Movie, 112,000 Drawings

In a way, William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about going it alone. As most of us know, the story follows two star-crossed lovers who decide to follow their passion, despite having no support from the embattled establishment (their families). This is also Phil Nibbelink’s tale – one of a ex-Disney man, who follows his dream of making animated feature films. In early 2003, with no help from the studio system, he summoned up his strength, chose a software and set off to make his vision come alive.

The result of Phil’s work, a 4 1/2 year journey, is a 77-minute Flash-animated feature film – ‘Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss.’ He drew the entire feature himself, all 112,000 frames of it, on a Wacom tablet, right into Flash. But he didn’t stop drawing there – last weekend he sat in the lobbies of two cinemas and drew Romeo & Juliet sketches for 600 children. And now, as his 5-year journey comes to a close, Phil will watch his feature film receive a theatrical release, beginning on October 27th throughout the Los Angeles area. It’s a remarkable story of individual achievement, and one that I know will have a better ending than Shakespeare’s classic version.

Have a look at the trailer, and then below Phil answers a few questions for CHF.

AARON SIMPSON: Was ‘Romeo & Juliet’ your sole project through these last 5 years?
PHIL: ‘Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss’ was the only thing I’ve worked on for the last 5 years. I worked around the clock 24/7 trying to finish before my savings ran out. But I have 4 small children who needed to be played with so I used them as my test audience and we’d have daily focus groups to discuss story points and whether or not gags were working.

AARON: At any point during the production, did the end seem out of reach?
PHIL: In order to reach my goal, I had to make 100 drawings, 5 seconds of film or complete 2 shots a day. As long as I hit one of those marks everyday I knew I was on schedule. And I wouldn’t go to bed until I had.

AARON: In the beginning, what was the common reaction when you explained what you were setting out to do?
PHIL: Well, everybody thought that I was a ‘mad man!’ They probably still do. But I worked for so long in the big studio environment that I just got sick and tired of the merry-go-round. So much money and time is wasted going in circles and having endless meetings and making useless changes. I kept saying to myself, “this would go faster if I just did it myself.” And it did – I proved it!

AARON: Did you develop any repetitive motion disorders on your way to completing 112,000 drawings?
PHIL: I had to wrap a kneaded erasure around the Wacom stylus to prevent callouses forming on my fingers. When we had to go somewhere, my wife drove and I did ink and paint in the car on a laptop with a graphics tablet. That bought me more time and relieved any repetitive motion disorder.

AARON: Was there much edited out in this final cut?
PHIL: No. I had a real clear vision of the movie. Working alone allowed me the luxury of starting at the beginning of the film and animating straight ahead. I could watch the movie from the start right up to where I just finished and it was very clear then what had to be animated next.

AARON: Had you worked with Flash prior to ‘Romeo & Juliet?’
PHIL: I hadn’t worked with Flash before. Prior to ‘Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss,’ I animated two movies on my own – ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Lief Ericson: The Boy Who Discovered America.’ Those films were animated on an Amiga using Deluxe paint at video resolution. I thought if I could get my work on 35mm I could reach a wider audience. So I explored a lot of options. I concluded that drawing on paper would add the extra steps of inking and painting or scanning. As a one-man-band, I had to look for ways to cut steps out of the process. I looked at all the animation software and concluded that 2K files don’t play back in real time on small cheap computers. So I had to go vector.

I bought a film recorder from Upgrade Technologies because I figured it was cheaper to shoot it myself than pay a service. I shot a 2K test at 2048x1234x24bit BMP’s with Flash, and nervously projected it up on the big screen. I was blown away with the perfect line quality, no jaggies, no rastering, no banding in the gradients – just perfect flat colors and sub-pixel antialiasing in the slow camera moves. OK, maybe the super slow rotations staggered a bit, but that was something I could see happen in real-time on the computer and I could easily correct it. So Flash 4 was it and I hit the ground running and never looked back.

AARON: Is that the version you used throughout the production?
PHIL: I used Flash 4 the whole production.

AARON: Did you rely on much re-use in your Flash scenes?
PHIL: When I tried to migrate to Flash 5 it created forward-compatibility problems. Being a one-man-band, I have to cut a lot of corners. And re-using animation is a huge time saver. So an animation created in Flash 5 couldn’t be opened in Flash 4 without a fight. Yes, there are cut and paste work arounds using Flash 4 and Flash 5 launched at the same time but that created RAM issues and crashes. So screw it! I just stuck with Flash 4. And besides, I couldn’t afford the upgrades and they really weren’t adding more art tools.

AARON: What feature is most lacking in Flash that would have helped your production?
PHIL: Defocusing, invertible masks, and that irritating pop from bitmap line to vector line would have helped.

AARON: What type of scene did you turn to Moho for?
PHIL: The slowest thing in production was inbetweening. Moho, now called Anime 4, allows you to take an Illustrator file from Flash and rig it with bones to create very organic squash and stretch movement. This was perfect for the “over-the-shoulder” or the “listening” characters, or keeping crowd scene characters alive. Then I could export a SWF vector animation that imports into Flash. With experience I found I could create hybrid animation. I would hand-animate a character in Flash moving wildly into a pose and then animate the moving hold with Moho. With very little effort I could make seamless transitions from one to the other and get through the shot a lot faster.

When it came time to sell ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ I was told by distributors that there “wasn’t enough 3D in the movie” and that “2D is dead.” So I’m hoping to prove that there is still a family audience out there that loves fully-animated, hand-drawn films.

Read more from Phil in the Cold Hard Flash message boards.

27 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this very interesting interview with Phil Nibbelink on the making of his one-man feature film. This is an amazing achievement.

  2. Anonymous October 17, 2006

    one thing that should be said is that, Flash is just a tool, it’s not becsue of FLASH that Phil could make this huge achivement, but becasue he is a great artist and animator, he could have used any other software out there and the result would have been the same, Mirage, PAP and the whole off the shelf packages would do the job just fine, maybe even better. so the credit, the whole credit goes to Phil.

  3. jennifer borrell anderson's sketch blog October 17, 2006

    This is so amazing!! Thanks for this story, and congratulations to Mr. Nibbelink for accomplishing an amazing feat. I can’t wait to see it in full!

  4. TempleDog October 17, 2006

    I’m going to take the dispicable bastard position here, and suggest that it’s not 2d animation that’s dead, it’s the Bluth-style family animated musical. Still, 5 years solo…hell of a thing. Good luck with getting distribution.

  5. WOW!! I am amazed the quality is sooo good and in 5 years that is amazing. I hope i get a chance to see this up here in Canada.

    Very inspiring!!

    And yes i agree 2D is not dead i would perfer to see 2D animation with a good story, over 3D any day.

    It all comes down to story.

  6. Miltonius October 17, 2006

    Amazing! I’m inspired!

    This is one of the greatest examples of drive and persistence I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you for the proving it can be done.

    I wish nothing but great success for you Phil Nibbelink.

  7. Ian Copeland October 17, 2006

    An amazing accomplishment. Swimming the English Channel amazing. Climbing Everest amazing. The preview is very charming and I look forward to seeing it in the theater.

  8. mangatanga October 17, 2006

    Amazing stuff, Moho is now Anime Studio.

  9. Mukpuddy October 18, 2006

    Man what an inspiration!!!

  10. Larry Rains October 18, 2006

    Dude you rock! I wish you much success with the film. :)

  11. Gene Fowler October 18, 2006

    what an achievment!

    Way to go dude, good on ya!

  12. The key with Flash 4 over all that other software is that you DRAW with it, it’s still the best and easiest tool to use for simple accurate hand-drawn animation, Macromedia/Flash/Alias/Toonboom still are far from re-creating the freedom Flash 4 has. Place that program in any classically-trained animator’s hands and it’s amazing what can come out of it. This inspiring to all traditional animators to give Flash a try, it can jump start the 2D feature film industry! Great job Phil Nibbelink!

  13. Hennie Blaauw October 19, 2006

    You must have the coolest most understanding wife ever…5 years infront of the computer is a looooong time…

    We have the DVD here in South Africa at our dvd rental stores for quite some time now. My little girl loves it! Amazing achievement!

  14. Dave Logan October 19, 2006

    Wow.

  15. Blown away.absolutely. Weirdly i was discussing a possible Flash feature for my local audience (india) and we were tentative with budgets etc.

    But i have renewed faith in this now.

    Staggering Mr.Nibbelnik

  16. Anonymous October 21, 2006

    I myself do 3D animation but I hope this would get a world-wide theatrical release to give a good slap at those stupid distributors’ faces who think 2D is dead

  17. Anonymous October 27, 2006

    Some people think animators should stick to animation instead of trying to tell stories…

    It is exactly films like this that make people around the world believe that 2d is dead. The trailer looks shameful. A collection of shots litterally taken from The Little mermaid and a bunch of Bluth films. What utter garbage.

    I wish Mr. Nibbelink all the best of luck though- I’m a big fan of his past achievements. He really is a great animator and his persistence is astonishing. 5 years! My God what an amazing feat, and what an amazing waste of time and energy.

  18. Anonymous November 14, 2006

    Hee hee…

    I will bet Mr. Nibbelink would jump up and down with joy to be compared to Disney or Bluth studios… even if accused of derivation.

    It doesn’t matter if you like it… it still is an amazing achievement by one person. It is the “one man” aspect that is important. Doesn’t need to be another Titanic or Toy Story. One freakin’ guy did it.

    -vern

  19. What an amazing person! The quality in the film looks so good! I hope I can see it soon.

    I’m glad he made a 2D animation. I love 2D just as much as 3D, but it makes me sad that a lot of people are sticking to just 3D and think 2D is dead.

    Makes me more inspired to keep drawing!

  20. Timothy Albee December 1, 2006

    Absolutely fantastic! From one “highly-independent” filmmaker to another, you’ve done a great thing and a wonderful job! And I am so happy to see such hard-and-fast proof that with new technologies, a Traditionally Animated feature film can be done by one person in the same time-frame WDFA gave to its own Traditional productions.

    Sincerest Salutations, and strong wishes that your film is exceptionally well received, and that your proof sends a clear note to other dedicated Traditional animators that the art-form is still very much alive!

    Timothy

  21. Anonymous December 13, 2006

    This is a fantastic achievement and one that makes my creative side very jealous as I’d love to do something remarkable like this too.

    However, I’m going to take a devil’s advocate position like some of the posts have said already.

    First, the guy already had the talent, expertise, and most of all, the *resources* to do this. “Finish before his savings ran out”?!? Five years?!? My savings would run out five minutes after I started. And using a portable computer to sketch on while his wife drove the car? The guy already has a setup and lifestyle most of us just see on TV.

    Secondly, as someone has already said, someone with this drive, resources and know-how could have done this with pen and paper. It isn’t Anime Studio Pro that made the film, it was Phil Nibbelink. Java, Sumatra, Peking, Papua New Guinea, it doesn’t matter what he used… he had the money (to last five years!), equipment and skills to do it with any software set.

    Lastly, I’m not sure that “Bluth” style Disney musicals will ever be old. There will always be children and children love that inane rondo musical/comedy stuff. And being children, they dont know its been done to death. So, I think its rather a good bet for him to make this film. Imagine if he would have chosen an original idea, or even something from 2001 which would be horribly out of date now. Oh he made something I’d never be able to make, but a silly children’s musical is a sure shot that everyone under the age of six is going to like it.

    What’s my point? He needs to sell *his* story to Hollywood. Been along time since we’ve had a “one man obsessed with a dream” film about something so trivial. I see Tom Hanks in the starring role now. Oh yes, yes, its an amazing feat. Channel swimming or Mount Everest? I dont think so. But, building a 1/20th scale of the brooklin bridge out of toothpicks… yah that’s what this is like.

  22. Yo Phil,

    This is Ella from LACC. Remember me?
    Well, if you don’t, you’d remember Dr. Desmond’s class (what fun!).
    Anyway, drop me a line sometime.

    Take care.

  23. Yo Phil,

    Hi from your former LACC classmate, Ella. Hope you’re doing well. Drop me a line sometime, would be fun to catch up.

    Take care.

  24. Yo Phil,

    Hi from your former LACC classmate, Ella. Hope you’re doing well (and hope that as a techno moron, this message gets through).
    Drop a line sometime (EllaDyer@Yahoo.com)

  25. iTortuga June 5, 2007

    Phil is an amazing, talented, dedicated, and passionate man — and an inspiration to all of us who believe that the art of 2D animation is alive and well.

    I’m a big fan of Phil’s and wanted to let you know that Phil will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2007 Best in the SW: Flash Animation and Motion Graphics Conference in October.

    His movie, Romeo and Juliet, Sealed With A Kiss, will have it’s NM premier during Best in the SW.
    Check it out at http://www.bestinthesw.com.

  26. Wow what an achievement, the story of the maker defies the story of the movie. I wanted to see if the movie was successful, searched around and found that the movie collected $454,266 (Source – http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2006/RJSWK.php). But I d’t have any clue if that made the movie successful. Any comments?

    I can’t even imagine a single person creating a movie with that standard, alone (76 minutes of it). I made a 20 minute animation alone spending 600 hours (with no returns) and I became ‘bald’. I wish if this movie becomes a great success.

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