HBO City: Artisanal Animation Magic Circa 1983
Craftsmanship lessons from the 80’s, or why 100 lightbulbs are putting Tim Burton to shame.
By Maria Popova
With all the stop-motion, time-lapse, paper-cutout, tilt-shift, CGI animation floating around these days, it’s easy to fall into the all-too-common trap of modern arrogance, assuming we’ve practically invented these art forms and none of this has ever been done before, let alone well. We, of course, are here to wiggle a disapproving finger and prove otherwise.
In 1983, HBO made a short but impressive opening sequence that really embodied just what makes HBO “premium” — brilliantly conceived and produced with enough meticulous craftsmanship to make Wes Anderson feel inadequate and send Tim Burton’s set designers running to mama.
Now, a short documentary goes behind the scenes of the elaborate production process.
If there’s something missing, you know something’s missing, but you don’t know what it is. So you put in as much detail in it, so the eye picks up every little thing.
Six craftsmen worked for over three months to create close to 100 unique buildings for the 30-foot-long HBO City, each handcrafted with painstaking precision to produce one of the best-constructed model cities ever built — with working lightbulbs in all buildings, headlights on the cars and buses, and hundreds of unique trees covered in handmade foliage.
Even when the model was finally completed, bringing it to life as an opening sequence was equally elaborate — it was photographed with a bleeding-edge computerized camera, filming for 14 hours something designed to last 20 seconds on the screen.
We didn’t want just a line. We wanted to communicate to the viewer that when they were turning on HBO, they were tuning into an entertainment center.
This sort of patient, labor-intensive, artisanal entertainment craftsmanship is quite rare these days. (Though the fantastic Moray McLaren We Got Time animation does spring to mind.) And while the digital revolution may have opened the doors to incredible CGI whimsy, we have to wonder whether it has also, ironically, reduced our capacity for such meticulousness. Could the digitally-induced shrinkage of our attention spans be eating away at our attention to detail — and at our tolerance for the effort require to attend to it?
Because in this world of ubiquitous Flashturbation, there’s still something to be said for the art and craft of old-fashioned, hands-on, painstaking creative tinkering.
Published February 18, 2010