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).

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.


4th Year Stop Motion Projects

So our fourth year students are for the most part up and shooting now in the stop motion studio (or at home)... very exciting!

Here's one awesome pic from Kevin Parry's project:

There will be more pics and hopefully some video profiles on more student projects very soon...

Nerdland Update- Da Winner!

So from what I understand, the stop mo pilot called Nerdland that was created locally by a lot of great people (at Cuppa Coffee, and more specifically created by Ted Heeley) has officially WON the online contest at Teletoon!

That means it was voted for most, compared to all the other pilot projects. This can only mean good things for the show, as it strives to get "greenlit" for series...

Thanks to everyone that helped out.

I'm loving the direct approach that's in the nature of online promotions like this. Create something (or develop something to a stage) then DIRECTLY appeal to readers/viewers/like-minded supporters.

I love that it by-passes old school "gate-keepers" like traditional broadcasters and producers. Go right to your fan-base, and appeal to THEM. That's who the content is being made for, after all. Of course, the contest was set up by a traditional broadcaster, by the results are from strictly online viewing and support.

Wheee... I'm really glad I invented the internet.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stuffed Toy Goodness

I'm having fun making little critters like this one for my little guy. Nate's almost two now, and he's got a lot of love to give to stuff animals, so I'm happy to oblige.

He named this guy "Bert".

The nice thing about making toys like this is that they are fast to make, compared to the work that goes into a puppet. And of course, when a stuffed toy is done, it's ready to be loved. Even once you finish a puppet, it still has to perform.

Making stuffed animals is a really simple pleasure. And it's such a great feeling to hand something I've made to my son, who in turn simply hugs it and loves it.

A very simple thing. I wish all of life was like that!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Line-Stop Motion Project

Justin and Shel Rasch are fast becoming the dynamic duo of indie stop motion. Their amazing film Gerald's Last Day is still cleaning up at festivals, and they are well underway on their next amazing effort- Line, a sci-fi epic starring (of all things) a Doberman.

Justin and Shel are not only talented artists, they are also really honing their skills as self-promoters and fund raisers. As traditional methods of development and broadcast continue to shrivel up into dust, indie methods are proving themselves to be truly viable. And their film Line is proof-positive.

They're using IndieGoGo to raise funds, and they're already on their way. A few years ago raising money like this would be completely impossible. Today, it's a reality.

This is so encouraging for indie artists, I can't even begin to explain. You really should contribute. In part because the more a site like IndieGoGo succeeds, the better it is for all indie efforts. But more specifically because you can use your money to help quality indie film (and stop motion in particular) to succeed.

It's one thing to go the multiplex and plunk down your money to get some popcorn and a ticket in order to be dazzled by Avatar for three hours. That makes you happy for a bit, and it makes James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg a little bit richer. It also drives an industry that employs thousands of artists I know, I know. But it's still a pretty impersonal thing.

If you use the same amount of money to support Line, you're doing something REAL with your money. You'll see real results, as your money clearly helps the project develop and succeed.

In other words, you are getting huge bang (and huge artistic karma) for your buck.

I've contributed and I hope you do too.

You can contribute by clicking here.