Sunday, January 17, 2010

Interview With Feature Film Animator Payton Curtis- Part 1

Payton Curtis is a Canadian stop motion animator. He grew up in Southern Ontario, and has worked at a variety of Canadian stop motion studios, working on commercials, music videos, and TV series and specials. In the past few years, he’s made the transition to feature film animator, and has established his own company, Dark Farm Animation.

Payton was kind enough to answer a series of questions for my blog, about life as a stop motion animator in “the big leagues” of feature films. He’s animated on both Coraline (he did a large chunk of the remarkable opening credit sequence), and more recently on The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

This is Part 1 of the interview. I will post Part 2 next week. Payton's answers are in italics.

First, a fairly straightforward technical question- on features do you shoot primarily on 1s or 2s? Or do you mix it up? Can you elaborate a bit?

Primarily ones, depending on the film of course. They had a wonderful idea on Coraline which was that the 'real world' would be on twos and the 'other world' would be on ones, giving the two separate worlds a distinct look. The real world being a little choppy and the other being "perfect" and smooth. Unfortunately this idea was abandoned. Not really sure why. If you look closely, you'd see that many shots on the film are mixed 1's and 2's. They were used mainly for efficiency as scheduling was tight.

I myself shot everything on ones. Opinions vary but film is shot on 24 frames per-second and when projected the 'strobe effect' on two's can be distracting. On the other end of things, we shot Fantastic Mr. Fox entirely on two's to give it a more 'rustic' or 'classical' feel. Only shots with a panning camera where done on ones to avoid the awful strobing that occurs if shot on two's. On a big screen, a camera pan on two's can be enough to give you a stroke.


Another technical question- can you describe the general work flow for you, as an animator on a feature? To be more specific, can you take us through the process you would follow for ONE shot on a film, from beginning to end, in terms of your

One shot... Much is involved, I'll try and keep it light...
You would first have a meeting in editorial with the director, lead camera, and editor. Going through the storyboard to find key gestures, character movement, facial expressions, anything that may be needed for the current shot as well as the previous and following. You then talk with your camera team to figure out was is needed for execution. After action is established, you then move on to the puppet depot to discuss exactly which puppets are required.

This then leads to a visit with the wardrobe department to make sure continuity is correct. Shooting out of sequence can mean you have a clean puppet that in a previous scene say, fell into a mud puddle, or ripped a hole in her jeans. The slightest error in costume could mean starting all over again from scratch!

Then to the rigging dept. If a puppet needs an aid moving through space, jumping, running or handling props, a member of the rigging team will come up with clever levers, winders or pulleys to help your puppet defy gravity. These people are fantastic! Some of the most ingenious devices I've ever seen are conjured by these people and of course in the final cut, all of their work is invisible!! Then you go back on set with everything you've gathered and shoot a block.

A block is the shot filmed on 10's or 5's. A basic test to prove lighting, rigging, and animation are in sync. Also the post effects wizards can spot any potential disasters or discuss a specific effect that may have been requested by the director.
After this, back into edit a second time to discuss the block and make any alterations before going back out to shoot a rehearsal if needed. This is a much more involved effort where you shoot on two's or three's, including facial expression and any other details that will be present in the final product.

After this is done, back to editorial to discuss once more with the director. If all is good, then you go for it. Third times the charm! I should mention that sometimes after a block, if all involved are pleased, you can get the go ahead to shoot the actual shot which can be very exciting. You skip the rehearsal, but you've got to be damn sure your on the ball. If you blow it after a weeks work, nobody is very happy with you.

When shooting in 3-D, you have to make sure that your effect is going to work, without testing the 3-D camera, the entire shot could be blurry. The slightest error in distance the camera travels between the two exposures needed for 3-D can spell disaster. Worse thing is you only animate using one of the two 3-D exposures. So you don't notice the error until you've finished the actual shot.


You’ve mentioned that on Coraline, your approximate quota of animation you had to deliver was 5 seconds per week. Were those 5 seconds of finished animation created on Thursday and Friday (for example), with the earlier days spent testing
and rehearsing? Or were those 5 seconds the result of shooting a few careful frames each day, Monday to Friday, in order to have your quota complete?

Those 5 seconds per week are only finished frames that end up in the film, no rehearsals or pop-throughs count. Depending on the week, sometimes this was quite simple to achieve. Say for instance you have a single character who remains stationary, then 5-sec is more than reasonable. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to double or even triple your quota in a week.

On the other hand, a shot that is extremely difficult, for instance the floor disintegrating and Coraline falling into the web took weeks to plan. I worked with camera and rigging the entire time(between other shots) to prepare. So when we actually approached that shot, testing and correction took well over two weeks. Everything possible was done in camera, which can slow an animator down significantly. Then quota can be a little tough to meet!


In your experience, is the animation style of a film established as part of pre-production tests and run-throughs, with various departments and crew consulting? Or is it something that firms up only once the actual shots are being turned in,
during production?

The style is supposed to be established by lead(or key)animators early on in production. But since the film takes a year to two to complete many fresh new ideas or styles surface, and if possible are worked into the film. The best animated films in my opinion are seamless. You should not be able to tell who did what shot, a definite style should be set in stone very early on (Disney were masters). I think it's distracting from the story if style or character performance varies, especially in the main character.

On the topic of animation styles for features, can you tell us a bit about how the styles are determined in terms of what directors convey to you? Is it all through example footage of previous projects, or through discussions? Through acting
things out live, or letting animators go crazy for a while and then see what style is emerging, to then focus it from that?

It's a bit of everything you mentioned really. It could be reference from old films, clippings from a magazine that show a certain pose perhaps or animation test after test after test... Mainly though once a hard line for a character is established you play. By this I mean act it out with the director (you've gotta get over your shyness. Or what a lot of people do is film themselves acting out the scene and use it as a direct reference. Personally I like to fumble through my work without live action reference. I've tried using live action reference, but I found myself spending too much time trying to mimic the reference footage rather than letting the puppet lead me.

If there where hidden camera's in animators sets on films people would certainly think we are all nuts! Repeating the same odd movements hundreds of times over to better understand weight or action, or behaving like a 12 year old girl or an elderly obese woman! I would take great joy whenever I'd catch a friend in the middle of one of these moments, good fun! Like I said, you gotta get over your shyness in this business.


A complex shot isn’t just about the animation required. It involves having lots of rigs, lots of set people hovering, camera people involved, complex camera moves, tricky lighting, blocking, complex puppets that move and step in complex ways,
complex considerations if big digital post fx stuff is going to happen… how do YOU stay focused so that you can give the performance you need to give?

I can really only stay focused while actually animating the shot. Until then, everybody is tapping you on the shoulder. When you are finally 'launched', everyone who helped bring it along, camera, rigging, sets, post, etc. leaves you to it. They then have a red flashing light placed on your set entrance warning people to leave you be.

If I really wanted extra privacy on a tricky shot I would stay after hours when the building was empty. Very quiet and peaceful and absolutely no distractions, except for other animators. If anybody else is kicking around, it's nice to take a coffee break and discuss progress or problems. As everybody knows, a fresh set of eyes or perspective can be the quickest cure for a stale situation.



Ken A. Priebe said...

Thanks Chris...this is great to read.

Ryan said...

Agreed. This is great.

Jonathan Coit said...

Thanks for this, Chris!

Ashley said...

It's really interesting to hear about his thought process and all the stages an animator goes through to complete a scene. This is awesome. Thanks Chris!

ChrisW said...

Glad people are enjoying it.

It's a really detailed view into a fascinating process. Payton was super generous to go into so much detail...

Mitch K said...

Great interview. Thanks a lot, Chris!

jriggity said...

Awesome Interview man!!


marc lougee said...

Brilliant, Chris! Very cool of both Payton and yourself to get this up for everyone's benefit/. A wonderful look in to the process from an animator's perspective; totally enjoy reading this stuff from one of my fav working stop-mo animators. Looking forward to part!

Mackmation said...

Excellent interview, thank you for this.

network marketing training said...

I never saw this cartoon before, but I am quite interesting the cartoon technology.

Marc Lougee- Producer/Director said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Lougee- Producer/Director said...

Nice read, Chris! Glad to see you got this up to share. Very cool!

Anonymous said...

I was in Payton's first movie during High school... as the Janitor. Oh my how he has come a long way! Good read