The Book of Life is the second 3D animated theatrical feature made by Dallas-based studio Reel FX. The feature is directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro with an all-star cast including Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. Just weeks after it’s U.S release the show has performed strongly with movie critics and audiences alike, proving to be the hot ticket for the Halloween season. Our chief creative and senior animator James Bennett chatted to head of animation and old friend Wes Mandell about his work at Reel FX and what it’s been like heading up animation on this exciting project.
How long has Reel FX been working on The Book of Life?
The Book of Life has been in production for about four-and-a-half years, but Jorge (Gutierrez) had been working on it for about fourteen. He was at CalArts and he kept trying to get it bought, and then did El Tigre and a bunch of other projects to get his name out there. Eventually Brad Booker, who is one of the producers on the movie, started working at Reel FX. He saw the pitch and thought it was completely different and unlike anything else that had been done before – which is what Reel FX strives to do. So they picked it up and the rest is history.
We are all super excited about it, because it’s the reason many of us came to work at Reel FX, to work on this particular show. Jorge is a very passionate man who inspires you, so it was definitely one of those projects where everyone, everyday, was excited to come to work. There were many challenges as always, but they pushed the creative soul and definitely made it a lot of fun.
You’re no rookie to the industry. What’s your background and what exactly do you do?
I have been in animation since 2003 and got a job straight out of college at Industrial light and Magic (ILM). I worked there for about three-and-a-half years, and then went to Blue Sky Studios in New York for about three years, then went back to ILM for a further couple years and then to PDI/DreamWorks Animation for a couple years before moving to Reel FX which was almost two years ago now.
I wear many hats. I have to be an extension of the director when it comes to the performance of the characters. That being said, I don’t dictate acting choices an animator makes. My job is to guide, teach, and suggest things to the animator to put them in the best light in front of the director. I’m also responsible for setting up the department for success. I try and predict any issues we may have from the character designs, to possible workflow issues, to casting and quota issues. I like to say I do my best to put out the embers before they become fires. Now, I don’t do this alone. I rely on my supervisors and leads to help me. Without them, I’d be lost!
You started off as an animator and now you are an animation director?
Technically I’m “Head of Animation”, the title “Director” is reserved for the art director and feature director. That’s how the studio feels about it. I guess my path was that after a while you hit your goals and you look for the next thing. When I got into animation my goal was to work on Star Wars, and once I did that, I thought, “Ok, now I want to become a lead.” Once you do that, then you start to look bigger picture, and eventually I would like to direct my own movie so this just seemed like the natural progression towards that goal.
I really feel that being in the leadership role is a completely different skill set to being a lead animator. And being a good animator does not necessarily make you a good leader. I took a couple classes and read some books about leading people, which led me on this path of moving into more of a leadership role whilst maintaining that animation skill set.
How tough is it to not continually step in when you know you can do it yourself?
It is extremely tough. As an animator it’s all about your work, it’s all about the prestige and honor for yourself. But as soon as you get into those leadership roles, all that changes and it becomes about your team. When my team or team member isn’t performing up to the standard that I want them to be, I see it as my job to get them there by sitting down with them and going over their shot, plotting points on their screen, and doing everything in my power to share my knowledge in order to help them learn. I would hope that every animator would be a much better animator after they finish the production than when we started.
How do you keep your energy up, how do you stay motivated?
By watching what our team of animators do and what they pull off, it excites me. We quickly grew to fifty-five animators, which mean’t fifty-five different ways to present and solve problems. Sometimes we would see a shot in dailies, and it would blow me away. That gives me energy. Or I would give someone an idea and they would take that idea and go nuts with it and bring something else out of it. It’s super inspiring – they inspire me daily.
How long have you been working on The Book of Life?
I’ve been on the project for about two years.
What part of the process have you been involved in?
I wasn’t on any of the conceptual stuff, but I was a big part of when they started modelling the characters and taking them from 2D to 3D, because we have to move them. I was also involved in the expression sheets. They would come to me with their designs, and say, ‘What do you need in order to make them move? …but don’t change my designs!” So there was always that little edge which was great. I think that was one of the big things about this movie. It’s never been done before as far as these styles of characters. Jorge was determined that we wouldn’t be like other features where the artwork was better than the actual movie, so his challenge to us as a studio was: “Don’t change my art, don’t change my designs.” I think we pulled it off. It was incredibly challenging to get a three block square arm to look natural, but I think having those types of creative challenges is really inspiring.
How do you find reference for three-jointed arms to look natural?
We used reference just like anything else. It’s not necessarily how the arm bends but where it ends up. Just like anything else, you can film reference to get little ideas, but when you put it on a character in animation, it looks a little different. You have to go in and make it more appealing afterwards anyways. Just speaking of arms, there is no bow in our moving arm, but we might add a bow for more appeal. The same kind of ideas apply with using two joints instead of one.
You have your favorite characters and those that really were a pain – what were the technical challenges around that?
All of the characters had some sort of technical challenge, my favourite was Xibalba but he was probably also the most difficult to deal with. Xibalba had so many ornamental things hanging off him, and Jorge was really adamant about us capturing the silhouette and his mouth. Every character was either made of wood or stone, and then you had the life characters, so we had to pull back a lot on expressions, because we didn’t want them to see too rubbery. Someone like Xibalba that was made out of tar we could just do everything imaginable, but then you had all of his controls to consider – I think he had 955 controls! I would say he was my favourite and yet the most difficult.
As head of animation how much do you interact with the other departments?
I interact with the other departments a lot, especially the rigging guys who I have a great relationship with because of my background in rigging. We have a lot of constraints with time and budget, so my prior knowledge helps me appreciate the position they are in, but also to lobby them in order to ensure that the pencil they provide is sharp enough in order for us to draw with.
You’ve worked at all these studios with different legacies and varying resources, how does Reel FX compare to some of the more established studios you have worked at?
Every studio has its positives and negatives. As far as feature films go, Reel FX is very new. This is only our second 3D animated theatrical feature. We are still very young but the beauty of that is everyone is still excited and wants everything, versus, “Oh we have 20 years of legacy and we don’t want to change”. Here they want everything to be fantastic and are open to new ideas and tools that someone might bring from their experience at say Disney. And we might say that’s great, but what if we did this and brainstorm a little on developing the idea. We will usually get the tool. Sure it may take a few months, but there are resource issues at every other studio in prioritizing certain things according to constraints. We don’t have all the bells and whistles that other established studios might have, but I’d say the ones we do have are actually better, because we are young and eager to be the best.
You’ve moved around a lot. How do you deal with life as a digital gypsy?
I can only speak for myself, and it’s much easier for me as a single guy, but I can’t speak for people who are married with a family. I think our industry helps in that when you join a new company nine out of ten people understand what you are going through because they also are these digital gypsies, and you find instant friends at the studio. All of my best friends are animators, because you go to the trenches together. A lot of my friends are from California, or Australia or somewhere other than where you are now, and you instantly bond. I find it’s usually the culture of the studio where I’m at that helps me transition into the new surroundings.
What is the makeup of your animation team?
The team ranges, we have some juniors who have never worked on a feature film before, all the way up to like Bill Haller, Louis Jones, a few guys that have worked at Tippett Studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks etc. We have the full spectrum of experience. It’s up to me to cast appropriately, so I will give a junior animator shots that are just above their skill set to help push them, and I know they can pull it off. You also have to give the proper shots and proper critiques to the skill level, and I always try to give people a little bit more than they’re expecting because you need to excite and challenge them.
One thing we do here is we have everybody request shots, and no shot is too big or small. If I have this shot and I’m needing to decide between two people, I’ll give it to the one who wants it because I know they will be more excited by it and do a better job, versus trying to dictate what they work on. That’s one of the differentiators about Reel FX and how we try to be innovative in the way we work, I truly believe that if someone wants to do a shot they will do it better than someone who doesn’t because they will have the inspiration.
We definitely believe in having clear communication between the animator and the director. Instead of having twelve chefs in the kitchen that you need to get through, we have a one-to-one conversation with the director. Our job as leaders is to put the animators in the best light. If an animator has a different idea than I do, and the idea fits the character, we show their idea in dailies and discuss the other idea as well. The best idea ends up on the big screen.
What piece of advice would you give to both the rookies and the older guard?
I’d almost give them the same advice – swallow your pride. With junior animators what tends to happen is they do what we call ‘wood shedding’, they go away and don’t want to show anyone their work until it’s completely ready and then they’ve gone down the wrong path and wasted their time. I see that happen over-and-over. With more senior guys they can get so focused on their shot that they start to see things that aren’t really there and start taking offense. Those guys try to explain away all your feedback, and I always say, “There’s no subtext in the movie, if someone doesn’t get it, it means it doesn’t work, so swallow your pride and let’s just work as a team and fix it.” Animation is very much a team sport even though it’s an individual doing it. Swallow your pride and realize at the end of the day your shots will be great, you’ve just got to be able to take that feedback.
Ultimately everyone wants the same thing, everyone wants the movie to succeed and look good. My job as head of animation is to have that larger view to look over the entire sequence and show, and make sure everything is consistent. The animator is more focused and ‘honing in on’ his or her shot, but at the same time they have to let down their guard and take critique. They have to realise they are not personally being judged, because nine out of ten times it’s not an issue with their shot in particular but getting that consistency.
What is your proudest moment of this film?
It’s not what the movie is, but what it brought out creatively. It’s one of those things that when anyone came through the studio, and they saw Manolo, they’d say, “He’s a block! You can’t move him!” And the same thing with Xibalba and his skull eyes, there were so many “you-can’t-do-that-because-X.” But we did, and it turned out great, and I’m really proud of what my team and studio have achieved. I got a compliment from the art director Paul Sullivan. He was always a little nervous about the skull eyes on Xibalba, but Vitor Vilela who was the character specialist came up with a really cool solution, and he freaking loved it. Neither Paul or Jorge thought about rotating the eyes around for example, but because Vitor was set inside of a box with a set of rules and just had to figure it out, he did. I think it was those kinds of challenges set by Jorge that my team overcame that I’m most proud of.
What will you take away from your experience on this project?
I learned that I need to put my foot down a little sooner. Certain decisions I knew were going to have a certain outcome, and I was a bit like you do it your way and we’ll figure it out. But I need to have more confidence in my decisions, and I learned that pretty early on during this project.
Do you have a personal motto?
I have a few, one of my favorites is “Never fear failure.” I say that a lot, because I feel many people are afraid to lose their job or make a decision and risk screwing stuff up. The way I see things, the more I’m screwing up the more I must be pushing the limits, so I screw up a lot, and I learn a lot. I think because of those failures, I’ve pushed things forward. If I see something going wrong, I’m not afraid to go and have that conversation even if there is a fear of not being the popular guy.Z