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‘Tom Waits for No One’: Obscure Oscar-winning animated music video from 1979
12:18 pm
‘Tom Waits for No One’: Obscure Oscar-winning animated music video from 1979

A few months ago, I heard that not long after I was in a certain store, that Tom Waits had visited the same establishment maybe about 90 minutes later. I must have mentioned this to four people, whether in person or over email and they all, each one of them, replied “Tom Waits for no one.”

I went from thinking, “Oh what a clever pun” the first time I heard this to thinking that this phrase must refer to something specific and so I googled it. How I have managed to be a lifelong Waits fan (and the editor this blog for 9 years) and miss this one is beyond me—it’s a big world, and an even bigger Internet, I suppose—but miss it I did. Maybe you did too?

“Tom Waits for No One” is the title of an absolutely amazing animated short that was made in 1979 by the Lyon Lamb company, the Oscar-winning technological innovators behind the Lyon Lamb Video Animation System which allowed animators to see immediate pencil tests of something without having to shoot it on film. After that, the company worked on developing a rotoscoping (hand-drawn tracing of live action footage) device for animator Ralph Bakshi, who decided to go in another direction right as the thing was ready to be demoed for him. Through a series of lucky events (seeing Tom Waits in his memorable TV appearance on Fernwood 2Night, then a few weeks later noticing Waits’ name on the marquee of the Roxy nightclub after a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was sold out), John Lamb came to direct Waits in a rotoscoped animation for his song “The One That Got Away” to demonstrate their new device for the film industry. It was produced by his then business partner Bruce Lyon and utilized the (apparently mostly volunteered) talents of several up-and-comers who’d all go on to greater things, including lead animator David Silverman who went on to The Simpsons and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.

Over thirteen hours of video was shot and edited down to 5,500 frames, which were then individually re-drawn and hand-painted onto celluloid acetate. What today would take a comparatively trivial amount of time then took the best in the business about six months of hard work.

Lamb told the Tom Waits Library:

“I toured Waits’ apartment at “The Tropicana” on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood in the same time period. He had 2 adjoining rooms with the common wall removed to make the joint bigger. Newspapers, manuscripts, ash trays and empties cluttered up the digs about waist to shoulder high throughout. A path literally led from the fridge to the piano… piano to the couch… couch to the bedroom and so on. If it was foliage, you would have needed a machete to hack your way through… the path was just wide enough to maneuver your torso through, sometimes having to turn sideways to navigate a tight turn. “

“Tom also came to our studio in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Beverly Hills/West L.A…. primary residences to old silent era movie stars and the families of Hollywood entertainment personalities like Allen Carr, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Freed and the sort. So Tom drives up in his 66’ Bird with “Blue Valentine” spray-painted on the rear quarter panels [late 1978, as shown on the back cover of the album Blue Valentine]. His Bird was stuffed with newspapers, manuscripts and clothing from floor to ceiling, just like his apartment. There was only enough room for the driver behind the wheel, even the passenger seat was stuffed to the roof, his vision was completely obstructed except for his forward view out the windshield, and all these old neighbors are peering out their windows watching this seedy looking character with a wrinkled suit and porkpie Stetson hat meander across the street ... pause and head up the stairs to our old Spanish - studio house. One of the old neighbors called after his arrival to see if everything was ok or if we wanted her to call the police.”


Sadly, the impressive short had few outlets for people to see it, preceding MTV as it did by just a few years. The film remained in obscurity until it was uploaded to YouTube a few years back, and Lamb—who kept nearly all of the film’s elements safely stored away—started a Kickstarter to fund a remastering in modern day video resolution. There’s also a book, Tom Waits for No One: The Illustrated Scrapbook, that was published in 2014.


A “pencil test” for ‘Tom Waits for No One’

A segment of the original live video footage shot at the La Brea Stage in 1978 with stripper Donna Gordon

Posted by Richard Metzger
12:18 pm
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