Saturday, February 27, 2016

Werner (and the fall of the Berlin Wall)

I recently came across this wonderful picture from Gerhard Hahn Film in 1988. It was posted on Canadian animator Nancy Beiman's Facebook page last month and shows the staff at the West Berlin animation studio as of April that year. Thanks Nancy! I hope you don't mind my stealing the photo, I just had to have it.

From left to right: Michael Hegner, yours truly, Nancy Beiman, Stefan Fjeldmark, Andy Knight, Børge Ring, Gerhard Hahn and Jody Gannon. It even has the NAC Quick Action Recorder, a very early (and fantastic) animation test computer, sitting there on the right! So retro.

The crew at Gerhard Hahn Film, April 1988: Michael Hegner, Dan Harder, Nancy Beiman,
Stefan Fjeldmark, Andy Knight, Børge Ring, Gerhard Hahn and Jody Gannon.

This picture really stirs up a lot of memories. Forgive me for tripping a bit down the ol' lane. If you're not into that, please skip the rest of this post.

Swan Film Productions, the animation studio that finished the Danish feature Valhalla in 1986, went bust in the spring of 1988 before finishing a series of 13 (or 14?) planned Quark shorts. With around 100 animation workers suddenly out of a job, everybody scrambled to find new ways of employment. A young animator at 19, I teamed up with a group of slightly more experienced guys to form a new animation studio, Figaro Film. There was just one catch - we were seven people with nothing to do.

So when Stefan Fjeldmark, the former top animator from Valhalla, asked if any of us wanted to join him on a trip to West Berlin to do cleanup on a TV commercial, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. At the time, I had already worked several months as an animator on the Quark shorts, but didn't mind going back to cleanup, when there was a prospect for adventure. I was young and eager and had no wish to sit around idly. Since none of the other guys wanted to go, I suggested we bring along my friend and colleague Michael Hegner.

At Gerhard Hahn's studio in Berlin we met Nancy Beiman (who had already worked with us in Denmark at Swan) and the legendary Danish animator and jazz musician Børge Ring. Stefan and the other old-timers (Stefan was probably 24 by then) would do the animation for a TV commercial (according to Nancy's Facebook post a Mad Magazine TV ad with Don Martin characters for the Swedish elections), and Michael and I were supposed to do the cleanup.

Werner - Beinhart! movie poster, 1990.
But when Gerhard heard that I could also animate, he had me do some test animation instead for an upcoming feature with this odd looking, beer-drinking character, Werner. It was a great task. I quickly animated a scene - straight ahead animation, no planning whatsoever - of Werner entering on his motorbike, opening a bottle of beer with his teeth (with a stagger) and probably drinking it or something.

I don't recall doing any cleanup, but I do remember that Børge had some wise words about keyposes and how they, if animating properly, would work with all different kinds of timing. I believe he was probably right about that. Anyway, we only stayed in Berlin for a few days, but apparently long enough to have our group photo taken :)

News of Swan's bankruptcy had apparently reached the Hollywood animation high-fliers of Don Bluth & Company who had moved their studio til Dublin, Ireland, and were searching for European talent. So back in Copenhagen we were all busy presenting our portfolios to Bluth's emissaries, former Disney animators Gary Goldman and Linda Miller. The animation royalty, very fitting, received us in audience at the fancy Admiral Hotel. I presented some rough animation from the last short I worked on at Swan Film, Quark in China (which was never finished). And within weeks I was on the way to Dublin along with eight other Danish animation artists. But that's a whole other story...

After my 16-months stint at Bluth in Dublin, I returned to Copenhagen in September 1989, only to realize that there was no animation work to be found. In the meantime the Werner feature was in full production, and several Danes and some of our friends from Bluth were already working over there. So off I was, back to Berlin to animate on Werner.

This is a rough test of a scene I did for the film's opening sequence (after the long animated intro), where an accidental soccer game develops in a marketplace, destroying everything around it, and with Werner in a window above acting as a sports commentator. See the entire sequence on YouTube here. The shot is towards the end of the sequence at 7:43.

The storyboard was done by Nancy Beiman, possibly together with the film's animation director Tahsin Özgür, whom I also worked with at Bluth. They both animated on the sequence as well. The shots of Werner in the window were animated by Şahin Ersöz, Tash's Turkish friend (Tahsin was called Tash at Bluth, not necessarily to his greatest appreciation).

These are the key drawings from the scene. The man is shouting "Komm runner, Bulle!", suggesting that the police officer descent from his refuge in the lamppost.

Of course, there's no getting around it. The Werner experience would have been great in any case. But it sure did add a touch of historical grandeur that the whole thing coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On the evening of November 9th, 1989 I was having a beer at Şahin's place, before walking back to Michael Hegner's and Tomas Landgreen's apartment, where I stayed during my initial time on Werner. On Spandauer Damm, I noticed that there was an unusual police presence in the street. Of course, I didn't think much of it and just went home to sleep.

The next morning, I had to fly back to Copenhagen for the weekend to attend a birthday party. So I got up early and took the U-bahn to the transit bus which would take me to Schönefeld Airport, situated in East Berlin. The East German national airline, Interflug, was a lot cheaper than flying directly from West Berlin.

On the train, the front page headline on somebody's newspaper read "Die Mauer ist weg! Berlin ist wieder frei!" (The wall is gone! Berlin is free again!) I just shook my head, thinking that the tabloid papers were exaggerating as usual. Sure, there had been some demonstrations in East Germany, and some DDR-citizens had escaped through a hole in the fence between Hungary and Austria, so we all knew that something was brewing. But nobody in his right mind would imagine the wall - the very symbol of the Cold War - coming down so quickly.

On the transit bus to Schönefeld I then crossed the wall into East Berlin. At the checkpoint there was a huge crowd of people clapping and cheering everytime someone crossed the border. I even noticed some of the tiny East German Trabant cars (the bodies of which were made from a fiberglass-like plastic material) crossing into West Berlin. And still, I'm ashamed to say, the penny didn't drop.

B.Z. newspaper, November 10, 1989.
It was only when I returned to Copenhagen, and a taxi driver, asking where I had traveled from, told me that the wall had fallen the night before, that I realized what I had witnessed. The division of Europe had been so firmly ingrained in my mind that I couldn't imagine it ending, even when I saw it with my very own eyes.

After I understood what the newspaper headline had really meant, it was stuck in my head ever since. When I did a search for the exact wording just the other day, I realized that I got it slightly wrong. The last word was not frei, but Berlin. Still, pretty close, considering it has been over 26 years. Here's the actual page that I saw that morning.

On Monday I was back at work at Hahn Film. Berlin was a changed place. Especially during the weekends the Western part of town was flooded with Ossis (Easties). On Saturdays, they said, in addition to the regular two million West Berliners, another million would visit from the East.

It was a fantastic experience. Danish animators Jesper Møller and Kim Hagen even came over from Dublin together with another friend from Bluth, Tara O'Reilly, to participate in the celebrations. This is me attempting to climb the wall, and Tara chipping graffiti-painted concrete bits off it. Below, we are in the pleasant company of Hope Devlin and Anna Gellert Nielsen in the streets of Berlin and looking at the Brandenburger Tor, when it was still enclosed by the wall complex.

Later, another Dane who had worked at Bluth, Jens Leganger, came down to do cleanup and inbetweens on my scenes. Here's a bunch of linetests - some of my rough animation and some scenes cleaned up/inbetweened by Jens. They are all from the sequence "Lehrjahre II," depicting Werner's apprenticeship as a plumber.

The tests were shot on the NAC Quick Action Recorder (with its 1-bit black/white display) and then recorded on a regular VHS tape, from which I recently grabbed the material. On the NAC there was no adequate way to combine layers, so they were all shot individually for testing. In the video below I cheated a bit and combined all the layers (characters, effects and backgrounds) for a better viewing experience.

Here's a selection of color scenes that I animated, some of which don't appear among the linetests above. I'm particularly happy with the one where Meister Röhrich swirls around in the bathroom after having gotten more than a bit tipsy with Frau Hansen.

As a principle, I try to avoid drawing characters covered in human waste, so the scenes where Meister Röhrich has a toilet bowl over his head must be considered an exception. In my defence I will say that, judging by the watery texture of the special effects in the shots where he falls from the window, I probably hadn't expected it all to be colored brown.

Note that the substance which Werner swallows at the end of the clip is not related to the plumbing incident, but rather an extemely strong coffee.

You can see the entire sequence with the unfortunate plumbers on YouTube here (part 1) and here (part 2). Watch the official Werner - Beinhart! trailer here.

Here are some modelsheets of Werner and Meister Röhrich, along with some rough sketches. The two bottom ones are inspirational sketches for handling Meister Röhrich's mouth and cigar. Based on the drawing style, I would say that they are most likely the work of the movie's animation director, Tahsin Özgür, alternatively by (the late) Andy Knight (see photo at the top of the post).

Werner in his hospital outfit.

Werner construction sheet.

Mistakes to be avoided when drawing Werner.

Meister Röhrich turnaround model
(apparently his name was changed during the production).

Basic staging sketch from the scene where Werner had too much coffee.

Meister Röhrich mouth/cigar control, probably by Tahsin Özgür or
Andy Knight.

More mouth action on Meister Röhrich, again most likely by
Tash or Andy.


  1. Michael Hegner01 March, 2016 21:47

    Very well remembered Dan. Some of the details from our time in Berlin I had forgotten, thank you for putting the past back in its right place. Good times :-)

  2. I was living in a one-room apartment and rode a bike (which I still have, incidentally) but I was happy! My work was appreciated and the times were exciting.

  3. Great memories of that day. The day the wall fell. I had just moved from Berlin To Hamburg. I did Layouts on Sportstudio (in Berlin) and Krankenhause.(in Hamburg) Nancy and I went to school at CalArts in California and worked together at Zanders Animation Parlour in New York City. Many guys from that time, came to work later in LA. Paul Bolger, Sahin, Nancy, and others.

  4. Hi Dan,

    Enrique May shared your article of reminiscences from your European studio animation experiences, and I must say, your engaging, and vivid account gave me a bit of 'Euro animation studio envy'. Ha! Enrique had recently filled me in on his efforts working on the Werner feature, and shared that marvelous soccer game breaks out in the town flea market scene. That comedic bit w/ the floating cigar was especially hilarious. The cigar almost takes on the guise of one of those stubby cocktail weiners... appropriate for a German production. Ha! ------I came to L.A. in June of '79 from Canada (Toronto) as an Ontario College of Art grad (1974), a sculpture major w/ a printmaking minor, having been hired by Hanna-Barbera as a character layout guy. Long story (board... Ha!) short, Enrique and I first met during the Warner Bros. Animation renaissance in the early '90s, working on the same ANIMANIACS crew w/ dynamo director, Audu Paden. In the late-80's. We'd both worked at Filmation Studios at the same time, but our paths rarely crossed. He was in character design, and I in layout. But enough about moi. Thanks again Dan, for sharing some anecdotes, and recollections from your fulfilling German animation experience, in what proved to be a pivotal moment in modern European history.