NewtekPro Magazine
NEWTEKPRO MAGAZINE
Issue Number One


ProFile
Subject: Walter Williams & Mr. Bill
MAY/JUNE 2001
By Bob Ketchum

Probably not too many people would have recognized former accounting student, nor former part-time night watchman, Walter Williams, if they had seen him walking down the street. But now that he's famous, you would likely expect that Williams is immediately recognized wherever he goes. But, you would be wrong. And that's just the way Walter likes it.

His Play-Doh creation, Mr. Bill, however, has surely become an American television icon. Since their first appearances on Saturday Night Live in 1976, Mr. Bill and his co-stars Sluggo, Mr. Hands, Spot, and Miss Sally have all gone on to become television legends.

With a 25 year career already under his little Play-Doh belt, Mr. Bill's success is surely the envy of many. And what a career it has been so far… The Mr. Bill Show book which rapidly climbed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list; television appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Dick Clark, Bob Hope, and Shelly Duvall - to name just a few; regular host of USA-TV's Night Flight; guest correspondent on HBO's Not Necessarily the News; advertising campaigns with Lexus, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Ramada Inns; and he's even recorded a comedy album with Rich Little. A Play-Doh iceberg, with no tip insight.

It's Not What You Think
That Mr. Bill has had so much success may come as no surprise to his many fans, but how all of this got started might. Williams recalls, "I think it was, uh, the scent… of Play-Doh. I was hooked on it at an early age. Actually, I sort of wish there was a Play-Doh scent of cologne." I find myself wondering whether he meant for men, or women.

Ordinarily, claymation would involve hours upon hours of slight adjustments and frame advancements, caught in a seemingly endless loop. But when he started it, Williams never intended it to be a serious project. Mr. Bill had been created as a sort of joke, and was later submitted to a Saturday Night Live home movie contest, "Actually, I cheated. Mr. Bill never moved, so it was kind of a satire on bad animation. I don't even dispute it anymore. I just say 'Yeah, it was a tough day… I knocked out ten frames.'" If Mr. Bill needed to move, that was a job for his trusty friend… Mr. Hands.

For the most part, the idea was to come up with ways to get around requiring Mr. Bill to have to make any movements. The solution was a creative use of cut-away shots, "Most times nothing really actually happened to Mr. Bill. It was all like an illusion." Williams cuts to a close-up of Mr. Bill saying "oooh", then cuts back, and mysteriously the action has already happened - the audience just sees the end result.

But it wasn't always so easy, "I actually had to make a gigantic Mr. Bill head for one cut-away because my Super 8 camera had a minimum focus of, you know, like 2 yards or something." Even then, it still wasn't quite right, "So I had to make an even bigger head. But it was still out of focus. What are you going to do? Everyone thinks I was just trying to make cheap films and I was doing the best I could."

From Film To Video With Love
It was the release of the Amiga computer that got Williams working in video - as a more affordable alternative to film. He was among the first to put the new computer to work and Deluxe Paint was his graphics tool of choice, "Then I got [NewTek's] DigiView and that was innovative. [That kind of digitizing was] the only way of getting real-world objects into computers. The Amiga just kept evolving and I incorporated it into various jobs I had working on TV shows."

With the release of the Video Toaster and Flyer, Williams was able to save a lot of money by shooting on Super VHS video and editing on the Amiga. "I edited the 20th Anniversary show and the [Ho Ho Nooo!!! It's Mr. Bill's] Christmas Special entirely on the Flyer. And it looked great!"

Williams felt that the Flyer's storyboard interface had "it's limitations when placing sound effects. I still prefer the timeline for more precise editing. I'm thinking that Video Toaster 2.0 might be the best of both worlds, because you can use either the timeline editing or the storyboard approach."

Evolution of a Dream
The whole process has continually evolved since the earliest days of shooting on Super 8 film, "The nice thing about it is that as I have been developing the idea about Mr. Bill's neighborhood, the supporting technology has been getting better and better." Tools such as LightWave, have made the impossible possible, "Doing things like sending him [Mr. Bill] to the Mir Space Station would have been difficult. Some things just couldn't be done with a real model."

Williams is equally ecstatic about the changes he's seen in editing technology, "I can really appreciate this stuff because I started off cutting Super 8 film. Then I've gone through the 16mm Moviola and into linear video editing, which had all these restrictions like not being able to go back and insert. When the [Amiga] Flyer came along it was so great to get into non-linear. Now with the Video Toaster [1.0] I'm producing finished shows and DVDs. It's working really well."

And about the advantages that less expensive production offers, "This is just another tool that eliminates a lot of the pain of the post-production process of film making, because that's like half the job. All this dealing with film because that was the way it used to be done… is not only time consuming but very expensive. If you can eliminate that part of the process… in other words, once I can edit without a cost, so to speak, it allows me to put my resources into creative people or writing instead of, like, financing the yogurt machine at the post[-production] house."

As the technology continues to grow and offer new capabilities, Williams is quick to think of fun and exciting new applications for it, "I have a new show that I'm planning to produce once I get the streaming technology in place with the new Video Toaster 2.0. It's not connected to the Mr. Bill thing, but should be an entirely different type of internet show. So I'm anxiously awaiting Video Toaster 2.0. I want to do a show just to be the first to have done that type of show. So I'm anxious for that ability. I know it's possible to pull it together now, but I'm willing to wait because I'm sure they will have it that much better and easier to use."

Chroma key applications are also very important in the work, so improvements on that front are anxiously anticipated, "I have a [Play] HoloSet system and I just shot 35mm film with it on the new Mr. Bill Ramada [Inns] spots. Everyone was totally dubious of it. But the nice thing is, I could put Mr. Bill's car, which has all this chrome on it, right on the [chroma keying background] material and there's no blue spill from it. Using uncompressed files makes it very clean to work with. As that stuff gets easier, that'll be great."

High Quality From Start To Finish
The process begins with shooting on Betacam SP or Digital Betacam, followed by transfer to the Video Toaster via an SDI interface, "The beauty of SDI is that I can go back and forth between the Toaster and Digital Betacam and I don't have to do anything to correct the color. It's virtually the same as the original footage." And by editing with uncompressed video, high quality is maintained through to the finish product, "I have two large Medéa drives and four other 50 GB Seagate's, so storage is not a problem. It's like six or seven hours of uncompressed video; and if I need more, the prices are dropping so fast, I can just slap in another drive."

Old Becomes New Again
It's inevitable that any project as successful as this, should eventually find itself looking back to the past. The DVD release, Ohh Nooo!!! Mr. Bill's Classics, celebrates 25 years since the first appearances of Mr. Bill on Saturday Night Live, "I got all the original film out of the vault. The various dirt spots turned into white spots, so I had to have someone actually paint out the spots, frame by frame. The Video Toaster allows me to do the ultimate spring cleaning of the entire film library, assemble it all, and get everything into the DVD format. I'm amazed at all the stuff I can do with it. It's great."

DVD has been a great medium for Williams, for both reliving the past and as a home for all the latest and greatest adventures. Keep your eyes out for Mr. Bill Does Vegas - Plus 25 All New Shorts on DVD as well.

Williams uses a Spruce DVDMaestro authoring system with an MPEG encoder for his DVD mastering. It's a part of the process that he thoroughly enjoys, "I like DVD authoring. It's a lot easier than film production, which is the most painful of all. You have to physically go out there with the lumber and the paint, and real things happening, and lights and heavy equipment and people, you know."

It's Fun… and Games Too
But what about a Mr. Bill game? There's got to be a video game lurking somewhere. Of course there is, "I always wanted it to be a high quality 3D character adventure game, where you're trying to get away. Different people can play different parts in the interactive game, and in a Trivial Pursuit kind of way, like 'Where did Mr. Bill meet Miss Sally?' As you get more correct answers you gain access to all these extra Mr. Bill film clips, that no one's ever seen before, and get bonus points and so forth."

And Onward We Go
Though this story began with a lucky break on a hugely popular television show, it's clear that the success of Mr. Bill, was no fluke at all. A great sense of humor, tremendous vision, and a lot of hard work have gotten Walter Williams, and Mr. Bill, where they are today. He's clear about what keeps him going, "It's always been to produce a project. It's always been to accomplish something."

And he's thankful to those who have helped him, "I know Tim [Jenison] from way back. I ran into him at one of the earliest Amiga shows. He's like one of the most amazing people. I thank him for coming up with all this stuff every time I see him, because I really get so much use out of it. I've gone through all the other ways you've got to edit a film and it's all so very, very painful. This system allows me to be hands on and take the time I want to get it finished the way I want. I don't ever have to leave the house."

Which might explain why nobody recognizes him.

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