- Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that animation is your way of telling stories?
Growing up, I always liked to draw. And I loved reading comic books and MAD Magazine. So for a long time I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw comics. I went to college at the University of Texas and started drawing comic strips for the college paper. There I met a lot of really talented people telling stories with their art. And a lot of them were drifting towards animation. Then an animation studio opened up in Austin, and we all got jobs there together. It while working at this studio that I discovered how much I like telling stories with film, and animation in particular.
- What exactly is the job of an animation director?
I think the main job is to make sure the story works. The story is king. If the story doesn’t work, then all the pretty animation in the world isn’t going to make it a good film. So the animation director should, of course, work towards getting high quality visuals, but in the end it’s the storytelling that needs to crafted well.
- How many people are involved in creating an animation like yours? And could you tell us a bit about their roles, the flow of the team?
My film is a little odd in that I personally created almost all of the animation myself. I wrote the script, then hired a fantastic cast of voice actors and a sound designer (Louie Lino) to get the audio all worked out. Then, after drawing all the storyboards, I hired two illustrator friends to help me paint the background images. The only animation help I had was from an artist in London (James Pierson) who did a few incidental characters and walk cycles for me. I then had a composer friend (Graham Reynolds) help me with the music.
- What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your animation? How did that lesson happen?
Sometimes I get a little stuck in my ways. When I figure out a workflow that I like, I become very reluctant to change it. But then I started teaching animation classes at the University of Texas. And when I have to teach my work habits, I then have to justify why I do what I do. And many times the students suggest better ways. Or I’ll have to teach them how to use the latest version of a software package and there will be all kinds of new features and techniques to figure out. So, I guess I’m still learning how to stay open to new ways of doing things.
- What is the process in creating an animated character?
A lot of research. I try to look at a lot of different styles and try new ways of drawing. I never settle for the first image that I draw. It usually takes many iterations before I get even close to what I want. The hard part is sometimes keeping the character from evolving even more once production gets underway. I tend to want to keep refining character designs as the movie comes together, and that can lead to problems.
- 2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
I gravitate towards 2D for my film projects, but I do a lot of video game development as well– and I use mainly 3D software for games. So I am comfortable in both. And lately I think the most successful projects are the ones that take advantage of the strengths of each. The latest Spiderman movie took pains to make the 3D look very much like 2D work, and it was beautiful. And Disney’s short, Paperman, did an amazing job of blending the two.
- What does your animation workflow look like while animating? Tell us a little about the tools that you are using. What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins? Techniques?
I usually start by recording voices, then editing my audio together in Adobe Premiere. I then export the timed audio and bring that into Animate, where I do my storyboards and animatic. Then I export that image sequence from Animate and bring that back into my Premiere file, and that becomes my master edit file. Then, one by one, I build each scene in Animate using background paintings I’ll do in Photoshop and characters I draw with Animate’s brush tool. Each shot is carefully crafted using mostly Animate, but sometimes After Effects when there’s a complicated camera move or lighting effect. Then I’ll export the shot as a png sequence and bring that into my master Premiere file and drop it into place. So eventually all the shots from the animatic are replaced by fully animated sequences. Then I’ll get a polished sound file from my sound designer and render the final film from Premiere.
- What do audiences want? And is it the animator’s role to worry about that?
I think the role of any artist is to say, “This is how I see the world.” The artist is successful when the audience responds, “Oh! I see what you mean! And I’ve never heard it said quite like that.”
- What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?
The only reason I make films is to express myself, so finding an audience for my work is part of the process. It’s like the film isn’t really complete until it has had a screening. And film festivals are the best way to do this. I’ve made many lasting connections through film festivals, both on a personal and on a professional level. I found distribution for three of my films by screening in festivals.
- What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?
I don’t like the fact that the entertainment business can be so unstable. Animation and game development studios come and go based on how well their latest project has sold. Technologies and user habits change so quickly that business models and workflows can become obsolete within just a few years. I support my family as a professional animator, and sometimes it’s hard to feel secure. But Austin has a lot of opportunities, and I’ve been here a long time. So usually when a project ends or a studio goes under, another pops up and I don’t go for very long without work. But, still, it can be stressful.