You’ve worked on VFX movies (like “Prometheus” and “The Hobbit”) as well as animated features (like “Megamind” and “Zootopia”). As an animator, how do you adjust to the various styles required for each project?
There is definitely an adjustment period as you shift from one style of film to the next. Usually what I do when I start on a show is I take a look at what the supervisors, leads and other animators have done to get an idea of the style they’re looking for, as well as what the directors gravitate towards – which is a process in itself. The biggest part of this process is to allow yourself the freedom to explore and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I remember starting at Weta after working at PDI/DreamWorks for a couple of years and I initially got a lot of notes for breaking the wrists too much or my timing was too snappy. So a big part for me is to rely on my peers for inspiration and advice.
Starting on Zootopia, there was already a lot of work that was done through character tests and cycle work done for the enormous amount of background characters. So I had a large sample to look at to see what the show should look like. What I’ve always found is everyone has their own style and tendencies and you can often see that in peoples shots. So it’s not really the goal to stop animating the way you want, but it’s finding what’s appropriate for the show at hand. Both Nick and Hopps weren’t that cartoony but the weasel character was, so even on the same show you’ll have characters that have different range. I personally like a bit of variation as it keeps things fresh and interesting.
My instincts naturally gravitate slightly towards more characterized and cartoony rather than realistic. I find a lot of enjoyment in exaggerating something big, or the total opposite and going really small, to enhance the dramatic effect of whatever you’re doing.
Each new show can mean a big move, potentially to a different country. In your view, what are the pros and cons for this type of work model?
For me, it was a wonderful way to see the world and meet some amazing new friends. I remember moving abroad for the first time and it really felt like I was going on an adventure. But at that point in my life I didn’t have much to my name, so it was literally me and my two suitcases! So in that sense, that sort of business model only really suits single folks and typically younger folks. Not to say that it can’t be done for older folks, I just wouldn’t consider it ideal, personally. So for me, it gave me amazing opportunities and experiences but it’s not something I could continue to do forever! (Specifically, the constant moving around and relocating.)
What has been the toughest character you’ve had to animate? What did you do to break it down?
The toughest scene I’ve had to animate was a shot from Megamind. The villain, Titan, drops Roxanne from high above the skyscrapers, flies down to grab her, only to get there a little late so he’s gotta juggle to get her under control. There was a lot going on with the choreography and keeping things clear enough was a real challenge.
The first thing I did was to draw some thumbnails to see if I could find an interesting way to stage the two characters since there would be traffic on the streets that they had to navigate while doing their flying/falling. The first part of the shot was straight forward enough but once I hit the second part, I struggled with getting that jumbling/ juggle feeling. In this instance, I think I reanimated that section 5 or 6 times, trying different ideas to see what was clear and to experiment with the timing. It can get be a bit discouraging at times when you feel like you’re not getting it and in those instances it’s great to rely on feedback from your peers.
I think having some experience in a mocap heavy environment has helped me with simply deleting sections of animation that don’t work and stiching that back together with new ideas. It can be hard to know when it’s best to just restart something but sometimes it’s the cleanest and easiest thing you can do – rather than mess with a tangle of poses and splines that aren’t helping you see things clearly.
I stick to a fairly rigid workflow which helps in these situations. I’ll typically set my key poses and then breakdowns and then time those out as best I can. When that’s working fairly well, I tend to go body part by body part fleshing things out. Starting with the head and torso and then working outwards. I usually pose in stepped because I have problems mentally blocking out bad inbetweens. If I see something a bit funky I tend to want to fix it. The reason I work with different body parts is that I can really hone in on subtle things and ensure they’re working as well as possible. I tend to block fairly detailed so it’s not often that limbs feel disconnected from the torso or vice versa, though that can happen if you start messing around with timing after the fact. Having a workflow you feel comfortable with and can trust, really helps when you find yourself a bit stuck!
You’ve done some “extra-curricular” side projects with your fellow animators. How do you balance the demands of production with your own personal creative projects?
The balancing act can be hard, especially when you get to the end of a project. That said, I think it’s really important to find creative fulfillment outside of our careers. I notice a lot of people in this industry, pick up sketching, or photography or play musical instruments. I think it’s good to have something that you work on that is yours and you can do it at your pace without the approval from anyone else. Because it can be a very demanding job from a creative perspective finding fun in the process is the hardest part of what we do.
In your career, what artists have been your biggest inspirations? What do you do to stay inspired every day?
Once I knew who they were, basically anyone that animated on all my favourite childhood films! Working on the same film with guys like Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn and Randy Haycock is a huge thrill. Anything Glen Keane does is incredibly inspiring as well. I love anything Miyazaki too!
Bobby Beck, Carlos Baena and Shawn Kelly were instrumental in getting top rate animation knowledge out to the rest of the world through Animation Mentor and I know so many people I work with today that got a real kick start to their animation careers because they went through that program. Growing up in Sydney, Australia there weren’t many places where you could learn a high level of character animation. So for me, that was huge!
For a daily dose on inspiration, every morning I check out what my other Disney animators have submitted for rounds and dailies. I’m constantly inspired, impressed and intimidated by the level of talent I’m surrounded by and that’s a great feeling. I want to grow and be challenged and I’m in a wonderful environment for that! Also coming to Zerply and checking out the new featured art always knocks my socks off! Thanks guys!!!
Images courtesy of Weta Digital, Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation.