Thursday, 22 December 2011

Andy Schmidt Pixar talk 2011

Andrew L. Schmidt is a senior animator with Pixar Animation Studios. He has worked in the animation industry for twenty years and has a long list of credits in both traditional 2D animation and CG animated films.
Andy discussed the making of Disney Pixar's 12th animated feature film Cars 2, and revealed some of the process and pipeline used at Pixar to develop their films. 

Admittedly, I wasn't overly enthused about the prospect of a talk about Pixar's Cars 2; Cars 2 didn't set my world alight. But Andy Schmidt proved my reservations were misplaced. The presentation was entertaining, insightful and inspiring.
Recording devices and cameras were strictly prohibited during the talk so I had to up my note taking speed to get all the good stuff. Enjoy...

Pixar do CG animation, but Andy reassuringly reminds that it is not the only type of animation that is good and should be done. He has experience with traditional animation and is fond of stop-motion and other forms of animation. The technique you use for your animation depends on the film you are making and what works and what does not.
Andy broke the ice at the beginning of his talk with a light-hearted look at Pixar studios. He began showing photos of the exterior and interior of Pixar studios built in 2000, followed by a shot of the hundreds of employees at Pixar.

"The building is just brick and mortar; it's more about power to the people."

At Pixar, they promote extra-curricular activities. They have a full bar in the animation department and their offices have their own personal touches. John Lasseter’s office is full of cute toys. The employees even got together and created an elaborate Micheal Jackson Thriller dance during Halloween. There was also an “ugly contest” towards the end of the production of Nemo where they would dress up in the most off-putting clothes and make-up.

"We work hard, but we have to play hard too."

Cars 2: Pixar's process for making films

"This was a dream come true for John Lasseter."

Cars combined a couple of John Lasseter’s greatest passions: cars and animation. He grew up around strong car and art influences because his father worked at a car dealer ship and his mother was a high school art teacher.
Cars was conceived after John had completed three feature films back to back. After he had worked on both Toy Story films and A Bug's Life he found himself in a situation where he felt he was missing out on key experiences with his children during their childhood. He decided to go on a road trip with his family across the US in a huge camper van and a lot of those personal experiences that he had while he was travelling inspired the idea of the movie, Cars.


Telling a compelling story that keeps people at the edge of their seat
Populate the story with appealing and memorable characters
Putting that story and characters into a believable world - not necessarily a realistic world

Cars was influenced by that family road trip and to some extent, Cars 2 was also influenced by a road trip. When John was doing publicity for Cars, he was going to different countries and he felt “like a fish out of water.” Then he asked himself, "What would Mater do?" And that was one way the story started to develop for Cars 2.

Another development was an early concept for the character, Finn McMissile. When they did Cars, there was a scene that was cut where McQueen and Sally go to the movies for a date. They see a spy movie and there's a character there called Finn McMissile. This was developed by Joe Grant and Rob Gibbs two story writers at Pixar. This landed on the cutting room floor, but at the same time it was too good to pass up, so they kept this character alive for the sequel.

“Another impetus in Cars 2 was the case of mistaken identity.”

The idea of this bumbling character travelling around the world was influenced by the Hitchcock mistaken identity character as seen in North by North West, The Man Who Knew Too Much or Foreign Correspondent.

Believable World
With the believable world, the environment is going to affect how the characters move such as the kitchen environment in Ratatouille or underwater environment in Finding Nemo.

Memorable Characters
There were already characters from the previous Cars film such as Doc Hudson, McQueen, and Luigi but Pixar needed to introduce new characters. McMissile, voiced by Michael Caine, was a slow mechanical type of car using 1960’s technology. With the female car, they tried to strike the balance between curvy sexy female without being sexiest. Another key character was Francesco, voiced by John Turturro. He was the cocky athlete or “the movie star who likes to walk around with his shirt off.” He was an open wheeled F1 racing car to indicate no sleeves.

There were many logical loops that Pixar got stuck on with the cars such as “Why do they have door handles? Who’s inside the car?” or “Why is Francesco kicking a football? He doesn’t have feet!”

Pixar’s Production Pipeline

It takes about 4 years for Pixar to make a movie from beginning to end. All of these phases in production are supported by a number of people who develop the tools and keep things running.

Development – Story – Art (broken down into Character and Sets) – Model – Layout – Animation – VFX – Lighting – Render 

Development – This is where all the fun research takes place. Members of the Pixar team will travel to various locations to collect their research first-hand. For Nemo, they went Scuba diving. For Ratatouille, they did a lot of research in busy Paris kitchens and even took cooking classes. They would study behavior and where and how objects are situated/placed within the environment. In Up, they brought in an Ostrich to study how the large bird, Kevin, would move. For Cars, they took part in motor sport racing to experience the feeling of g-force and how much strength and balance it takes to drive these vehicles at these high speeds. This meticulous research was essential for creating believability in their films.

Story – After collecting all the research, they would get down to writing the story. Sometimes they would employ story writers but usually Directors at Pixar, such as John Lasseter, would write their own material. For Toy Story 3, they hired the Oscar-winning writer behind Little Miss Sunshine, Mike Arndt. Storyboard artists would efficiently draw sequences based on the script and pitch it to the Director. Previously, such as in Cars, Storyboard artists would use traditional pen and paper to draw the sequences but this has now made way for a digital method using tablets. Digital storyboarding has been found to be a more efficient than traditional storyboarding although Andy admits he misses using paper.

  • Art – With reference to the Development and Story phase, artists will begin creating tons of drawings and designs. They would use a range of different art mediums such as pen, pencil, watercolor, digital art and clay for sculpting. Designs will develop and improve based on continuous feedback.

  • Character – Once the character designs are complete, all characters are sculpted to see whether their appearance and expressions maintain their appeal in 3D space. 

  • Sets – “The biggest hurdle of Cars 2 was the sets.” 
Entire environments were built of London, Paris, Porto Corsa (Italy) and Tokyo.

In Cars 2, they already had all the complete character designs and models from the previous movie so they decided to use ‘Car-ification’. This is where elements of the car design would be injected into the designs of the environment such as grills and headlights. The effect will be similar to how you can sometimes make out familiar shapes in clouds and rock faces.

*** Unfortunately, due to unexpected events, the rest of the document cannot be found*** 

Interview with Matthew Stephenson - Bradford Animation Festival (BAF)

[Interview date: 9/11/2011]

Matthew Stephenson is a freelance character animator from the UK with 7 years industry experience under his belt. He most recently held the role of Principle Animator on Disneyland Kinect Adventures (Microsoft) for Frontier Developments. 
I caught up with Matt at BAF Game where he held a talk about his work on Kinectimals and Disneyland Kinect Adventures.
University of Bradford has been a BAF venue for many years. Could you tell me a little bit about your time here as a student and why you chose to become an animator?
I studied at the University of Bradford from 1998-2002 on the EIMC course, before it split into different parts. We got introduced to 3D stuff in that course. It was quite a small part of the course, but enough of a taster for me to decide that it was something I'd like to pursue a bit more.
While I was a student here (Bradford), BAF was definitely part of my inspiration to become a character animator. I saw Richard Williams, the guy who wrote the Animator's Survival Kit and lead animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, speak here. He was really inspiring and brilliant.
Also, as a student I spent a lot of time not doing work, but acting at the theatre in the Mill; therefore along with the graphics stuff, I found a way of combining these and so character animation became the career I wanted to pursue.
After graduating, I worked for a year then used that money to do an MA in 3D Computer Animation at Bournemouth.
Do you have a 2D/traditional animation background?
No. Drawing is probably my weakest point as an animator. I draw thumbnails sometimes, but I'm much more likely to get up and act something out and use other kinds of video reference for my animation.
I've started doing 2D work more recently; I do a bit of stop-motion work in my spare time and I've done some silhouette cut-out animation. It has been really good fun and an eye-opener trying to do an animation that is both 2D and is also straight -ahead. You've got to plan what you're doing quite meticulously and know everything that's going on every frame. It makes you look at your 3D animation in a different way because you start framing through it and being a lot more fussy about every frame of that animation. This is a good thing.
You mentioned BAF being an early inspiration. What/who inspires you now?
[laughs] There are so many! Obviously, Disney is really inspirational. They invented all the rules and discovered the techniques that we now use and still struggle to re-create.
At the other end, I really love animators like Michael Dudok de Wit who did the Monk and The Fish and The Triplets of Belleville animator, Sylvain Chomet.
David O'Reilly does some really disturbing animation that uses a lot of pop culture and video games culture references which makes you feel empty inside, but in a good way!
...How about Pixar?
CG animators can get stuck in a Pixar rut so they don't see the broader world of animation beyond that. It's one particular thing making a feature film with these lovely expressive characters that the whole family can enjoy, but that's only part of animation; the Pixar style is only a small subset of what you can do and what potentially could be done. Going to animation festivals is always a big eye-opener. It always makes you realise how narrow you could become in what you think is good animation and what it means.
What is your opinion on government tax breaks for the British animation industry?
I’m in two minds about the whole thing because it's obvious for the British games industry and the animation industry, as Aardman have pointed out recently, that tax breaks would help a great deal. It's becoming cheaper and easier to do animation in other countries where labour is cheaper or in countries that have tax breaks themselves. So if a TV company is going to fund you to make a program or a games publisher is going to fund you to make a computer game they're going to say, “Well, you can do this animation in Thailand or Canada for cheaper, so why don't you do it there?” There's no real answer to that.
Britain’s strength is that we are extremely good at what we do. But other countries are also getting really good and there's absolutely no reason why they won't get better than us. So part of me believes that we need it but another part of me thinks, “Who am I to say that the people of Thailand don't get to make games and television programs? What right have I to say that it will only happen in my country?” So I'm really torn about it.
You can make a very solid economic argument for having those tax breaks: If we have these breaks it can bring more work here doing that particular thing that we are good at and make more money out of it rather than it getting lost in tax revenue. But there's a broader moral question about those tax breaks that I don't think anyone has dealt with, but I have no solution. It feels like the government largely ignores the video games industry, which is weird because the country is getting a lot out of it and you feel like you should have at least some acknowledgement that they recognize that we exist. We are an enormous industry and they don't seem to want to talk about it. I think it's partly because electorally it's not popular. The majority of the electorate probably see games at best 'a bit fun' and at worst,' a dangerous waste of time.'
Any advice for budding animators trying to crack the industry?
The only reason you’re going to be employed as an animator is because you are a good animator. And that really is it. So you’ve got to do animation that you are happy with and that other people are going to respond to.  On a very basic level, that is all you need.
Your CV is important, but your showreel is a million times more important than your CV. It is really important to have good showreel which shows that you can do the sorts of things that would suit the type of job you are going for.  If you are going for an animation job in games then they will want to see some runs, walk, jumps, lifting things, putting things down, climbing and some performance. It is important in games as well as TV and film that you can make a character appear to be thinking about things. If you are going for a job in films, you really need to push your performance animation work and fill your showreel with beautiful scenes with characters talking and interacting with each other.
It’s also important to get feedback from your work. That is a reason why the Animation Mentor scheme has been so successful. The more feedback you get for a piece of animation, and even if it isn't from some genius at Pixar, the more you can improve it and the better it will be. No matter how good you are, your own eyes let you down after you've watched the same thing hundreds and hundreds of times. I've worked on animation for days then I'd show it to someone else and they'd point out a flaw that was so obvious, but I didn't see it myself. So getting other people’s eyes on your work is really important.
Would you say having a degree in animation gives you the edge over other animators?
No, not at all. But I have not met many people who have had the staying power to put enough effort to working on that graft without that structure around them. So higher education gives you two things: It gives you the time and space to do animation; It can be very difficult after a hard day at work to sit down, look at a screen and start animating, but if you are at university you have more of your own time that you can dedicate to it. The other thing is that you have people around you that are potentially pursuing similar goals.
One of the great things about my course at Bournemouth, in the National Centre for Computer Animation, was that almost everybody on that course was really dedicated to animation and we all pushed each other. And that makes all the difference. If I had been sat at home working on my own, I would never have got that experience.
With something like Animation Mentor, you get the feedback from your mentor and the people who are on the scheme with you.
Were you on the Animation Mentor scheme yourself?
No, but at Frontier we employed quite a few people who had done Animation Mentor. It's a good scheme but if you do Animation Mentor, try and get something that isn't Animation Mentor onto your showreel. At first, it was a massive novelty in itself and when the first Animation Mentor graduates started coming out, we were like, "Ahhh wow this is amazing! This is amazing too! This is ... the same. This is the same too..." They tend to come out at a fairly high standard, fairly uniformly, so you think that's great, but once you've seen a lot of them you start to think, "But what can they do on their own?"  When they work in the games or animation industry they're almost certainly not going to have a mentor of the calibre that they had on the Animation Mentor scheme. They're going to have to be able to be self-critical and use the feedback from just their peers. It's not clear from their showreels whether that person is capable of that and you only find that out once they start working. So it's always good to see someone who has completed Animation Mentor and then done a couple of other things afterwards, but still be really good. That clinches it.
What is your opinion of performance capture animation, like that in Tintin?
Oh yeah, those creepy people running around in latex suits! WithTintin it's like my brain doesn't know what it is looking at, but I hear that kids really love it; they don't get freaked out by that, but I get freaked out by it. There's a fundamental problem there that if everything about the style is caricatured apart from completely realistic movement, then the movement is going to sell itself short. So you need to caricature the movement. If the characters, lighting, models and everything else is stylized then the movement has to be stylized too. And that's why it looks, to my eyes, pretty strange.
I think that those performances in the film would have worked better as a live action film with those actors acting or as an animated film that animators have animated. I don't object to performance capture. Probably computer games are its most useful application because in computer games you want to look at performance from all different sides. For films, it has yet to totally convince me although it can work as special effects for live action like in Avatar.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just done some stop-motion animation that will be projected onto the sail of a boat behind the band, Sharks Took The Rest, during their gig in Newcastle. I’ll be over in there this week to check it out!

Here is a link to Matt Stephenson's personal website:
Disneyland Adventures Kinect:

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Mad world

For the past month, I've been subjected to a continuous stream of bad news. This is the main reason why I haven't blogged for so long. Most of us go through it at some point, but the most important thing is to hold no grudges. Forgive, forget and move on.