Sunday, January 31, 2010

Interview With Feature Film Animator Payton Curtis- Part 2

As promised, here's the second and concluding part of the interview. Much thanks to Payton for taking the extensive time to answer so many questions, in such detail.

And again, Payton's answers are in italics...

Part 2
The relationship between a stop motion animator and his or her animation director is typically a very important one. Can you describe what in your opinion makes for a great feature film stop motion animator director?

That one is simple, going to bat for you. You've got enough on your plate to deal with from day to day set, prepping and shooting. So a good animation director will oversee anything to do with the animation side of things. Sets, puppets, wardrobe, you name it, can cause problems in animation. Although these people are truly brilliant artists, they are not by trade animators. A good animation director will float between all departments making certain that everything being made is "animator friendly".

Another relationship that’s key is between a stop motion animator and the puppet department. The puppet department is responsible for helping you perform to your greatest potential. Can you describe how that relationship flows on a feature?

Very important! A poorly tensioned puppet or an unfastened piece of fabric for instance can be hell once launched on a shot. The animator/puppet maker relationship is crucial. As an animator it is your job to give defined demands and reasonable explanations for anything and everything you request. Once a puppet is in a shot it must perform well, otherwise your performance will suffer. And as I've learned, do it exactly right the first time! Once it's done, it's done. After that you will be forced to look at your mistakes every time you watch the piece. Patience and preparation are paramount.

What are some of the biggest challenges in being a feature film stop motion animator?

The biggest challenge is keeping your chops up! Unlike most television series(which are quite forgiving), feature work generally speaking demands the utmost attention to detail and quality of performance. In a 50-60 hour work week, spanning two years, you are required to stay sharp and give it your best from shot to shot. That’s a very difficult thing to do. If you have an off day, everybody notices it and it'll be there on display for the world to see!

Biggest rewards? (beers with Bill Murray could definitely count).

Definitely the best rewards are the people you work with. Yup, meeting a childhood hero like Bill Murray (a true gentleman) and downing a few was pretty cool. Working with Henry Selick was a treat, I was a huge fan of “Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions” in high school.

But the absolute best is working with the best artist in the business! Painters, sculptors, cameramen, animators, designers, effects wizards, wardrobe, riggers, set builders... These people are the reason you give it your best day to day. That immense wealth of talent keeps you on your toes! You don't want to disappoint all these brilliant people by shooting a poor performance. You want to make them proud of their efforts by doing the best you can.

Looking back at your successes thus far as an animator, was there a moment that has proven to be pivotal, or key, in terms of your development? Even a childhood thing, perhaps, that “makes sense” in some way today?

Not to be grim, but losing my Mum as a boy was tough. I grew up fast and learned, arguably the greatest lesson a kid can learn- take nothing for granted. Work hard, stay true to yourself and expect in return only what you put into your efforts.

Other pivotal, professional moments that stand out that you’d like to share?

A few, but the standout moments professionally were working along side people that had an impact on me and whom I admired through the developing years. Henry Selick of course and Trey Thomas for instance.

Trey has worked on nearly everything stop-motion over the years and I split an “Other Mother” sequence with him on Coraline once I had proven myself to be relatively competent. Trey is a great supporter of other animator's work and has no ego. Seeing my work along with his was a kick. He was the "Godfather" of animation on Coraline. Trying to mimic the masters and make seamless cuts from one animators work to another was a great challenge.

AND...of course professionally and personally, meeting Julianna. An amazing animator who worked on Coraline. We were pals throughout the two years on the film and were recently married! That's pretty pivotal I'd say!

What is it with stop motion in recent years? It’s only growing bigger. My thinking is that in an increasingly digital age, it’s hugely reassuring to see something so human and physical on screen. It has a warmth that we, as humans, deeply crave. What are your thoughts on the medium’s continued rise in popularity?

You pretty much nailed it! Computer animation has the look of something that's been "over-polished"(in my opinion). Stop-motion on the other hand has a unique look that cannot be mimicked. Slight imperfections whether it be a misplaced frame, a 'boiling' piece of clothing (flutter from being handled by the animator), a slight set shift, or a prop being nudged... All of these "imperfections" is what makes the craft so unique. Every frame has been manipulated by hand.

For the premiere of Coraline, they had work stations from the studio set up in the theatres. This gave the public an insider, behind the curtain look of just how complex, detailed, and hand-made the process is. From the design, to build, to animation people were mesmerized by what they saw. They then went into the theatres to see how all of these inanimate works of art could be coaxed and manipulated into a lifelike performance! Great fun! Beat that CG!

This tactile presentation taps into anyone who played with toys as a boy or girl (that’s everybody I assume). Luckily I get to do this for a living! Bringing beautiful "toys" to life for others to enjoy.

If someone reading wants to be where you are professional down the road, but is just starting out in formally learning about stop motion, what insights could you share to help him or her in that effort?

Practice. Whether it's music, sports, academics or animation, you must focus and improve your skills constantly. Now more than ever before, anyone can take up stop-motion in their own homes with as little as a computer and a cheap digital camera. So get cracking! We are all students for life.

I've been animating professionally for about a decade, and am now working on my fourth feature film and I still pick up new tricks and gags constantly. You just have to keep your eyes open and leave the ol' ego in a box somewhere where you’re not likely to find it. You can learn something from everybody if you keep your mind open to learning and criticism.

I know you have some of your own projects in development. Would you like to tell
us about that?

I just finished producing and directing (and animating of course) Wes Anderson's acceptance speech for the National Board of Revue in NY. I guess I did a good enough job on Fantastic Mr. Fox to have them give a ring here in Canada and ask if I'd like the job. It was fun! I shot it in my studio at home over the holidays. This is the first high profile gig that my company, Darkfarm, has produced! Hooray!

I have also optioned a television series I created called "Super Robot Fight Planet!" to a company here in Toronto called Copperheart. They are a great bunch and with any luck in the next year we'll be making a stop-motion giant robot series for the kids! (and big kids).


Anonymous said...

Wow great interview. Very interesting to know how much work goes behind the scenes.

Joe James said...

Wow. Awesome interview. I recognized Payton's name in the Coraline credits and after seeing ParaNorman yesterday I had to see if he was indeed the man I knew in high school. (I knew it HAD to be, considering the artistic achievements).

Thanks for the interview and confirmation. I wish him the best and much more success.