This week I had the opportunity to interview a talented animator and mentor, who’s truly open to sharing his thoughts and experiences working in the film industry. He has worked on a number feature films and has always pushed to not only learn, but to educate others when it comes to character animation and the technical side of setting 3d characters up for animation. Having conducted many workshops related to his expertise and continuing to be an inspiration for both present and upcoming artists. He is a recipient of Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Digital Media Arts College and a Maya Master Award recipient as well. I inquired what he thinks about animation and the industry itself. This is what he had to say…
Tell us a bit about yourself and about your experience working in the industry.
Thanks very much for the opportunity for this interview! I have had a very fortunate career thus far, having the ability to work on feature animated and visual effects films. Currently, I am a Head of Character Animation (HoCA) at Dreamworks Animation, working on an upcoming film that comes out in 2014. Each film here has a HoCA that is responsible for working closely with the Director and our team of incredibly talented animators to deliver moving and satisfying performances for the characters. Previously, I was HoCA on Megamind and a supervising animator on Night of the Living Carrots and Madagascar 2. While at Dreamworks Animation I have also animated on Shrek 3, Over the Hedge, Penguins X-mas Caper, and Madagascar. Before coming to Dreamworks, I was Animation Lead at Weta Digital, working on all three Lord of the Rings movies. In addition to animating on the shows, I also helped develop the character animation pipeline that was used for the entire series. While at Weta, I developed two character rigging courses that were delivered at Siggraph, and have since created a series of rigging courses called Animator Friendly Rigging that are available on my website http://jasonschleifer.com. I have also mentored and taught classes at the fantastic online animation school AnimationMentor.com. My career in the industry began back in 1995 as an intern at Alias|Waverfront where I worked on the Alpha version of Maya. After interning, I worked as a Product Specialist for three and a half years as a liaison between the developers and artists at various studios to help make Maya a successful product.
My day changes depending on what stage the film I’m working on is in. When we’re in pre-production I focus on two areas. First, I want to make sure that the animation department will be ready for when we start to get shots. I will work closely with my team of early animators to make sure we really know each of the characters inside and out. We figure out their backgrounds, create performance tests, design model sheets, create animation libraries, and prepare courses to help teach the other animators everything that we’ve learned about the show’s style and the character’s personalities. We also work very closely with the character technical directors to ensure that the rigs can achieve the shapes and results the production designer and art director wants. In addition to this, we will support other departments that might need animation for their pre-production development tasks including previz and layout, character fx (for clothing), fx, surfacing, lighting, and more. Thus my day is split between meetings with the director, producers, animators, other departments and animating to help define the show style. It’s a very exciting time because it’s when we get to define everything!
Once we start production my day will settle into a pretty standard routine. We start off with dailies in the morning with the Director. At this meeting the animators who are ready for notes will show their animation to the Director, their supervising animator, myself, other animators, the production supervisor, the head of layout, character fx, producers, and anyone else who may be interested in seeing the current state of the shot. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to get on the same page about where shots are at, and for the animators to form a close creative working relationship with the director. Throughout the rest of the day I’ll have other meetings with the Director, the editor, other department heads, my supervising animators, technical directors, character fx, crowds, cycles, and more. I will also have rounds with the animators where I can talk with them and their supervising animators about their shots, answer questions to help them move forward, and brainstorm ideas. As much as I can I’ll work in some time to animate as well. Towards the end of the day we’ll have walkies where we walk around with the director to visit animators at their desks. This is similar to dailies but a little more intimate, allowing the director and animator to have more in-depth discussions about their shots. After walksies, I will look through any shots that are waiting for notes from me for the animators, and check various renders to ensure that everything is looking how we expect as it moves through lighting.
In addition to all of this, I often take time out to work closely with our internal developers on new technology that we may use at the studio. One of the great things about having proprietary software is the close relationship we form with the developers. It’s exciting working together to create the best animation environment we can imagine!
From the days you started to where you are right now, what do you think has changed or inspired you? What have you learned from this experience?
One of the things that has changed a lot is the level of talent animators have now when they are entering the industry. When I started, it was pretty easy to get a job if you knew the software. If you could make something move somewhat convincingly and really knew Wavefront, Alias or Softimage inside and out, you were hired. Nowadays, knowing software is not nearly enough. The caliber of reels we see is astounding. We are seeing students graduating from school already able to create moving performances. It’s truly inspiring to know that you can work with someone right out of school and talk about subtlety and nuance of a performance instead of trying to train them how to make sure an arm doesn’t feel like it’s being moved by an “ik handle”. What amazes me about this is that it has inspired animators of all experiencs to elevate the craft of animation to a whole new level all over the industry, not just with young animators. It’s so exciting!
Personally, I don’t have much of a 2d foundation. I’ve drawn my whole life, but besides doing some animation for a children’s educational CD-Rom in 1994, I have never created any professional 2d animation. That being said, I strongly believe that having the ability to communicate your ideas through drawing is indispensable. I have heard many arguments from both sides about whether or not having a 2d foundation is essential to becoming a great animator. My personal belief is that it isn’t essential to being a good animator, but it can definitely help. I can guarantee this.. knowing how to animate in 2d would never be a detriment to a 3d animator.. it will only make your work stronger.
How important is telling a story or knowing the background of a character being animated?
I think that if you really want to create a moving performance that is unique and special, you must know the background of your character. You can certainly fake it and get by, but imagine the subtlety you can achieve if you really understand the nuance of what the character went through to get to the point their at in their life the moment your shot starts. If you know everything about their childhood, their relationship with their parents, their fears, their successes, their desires, their relationships with those around them.. you can add incredibly subtle details that will add amazing layers to your animation.
What are some of the things you keep in mind when doing realistic animation versus cartoony?
My general process for animating remains the same whether working on realistic or cartoony animation. I thumbnail and shoot video reference for ideas, block my shot in stepped mode, break my shot down into easy to digest chunks, work though bit by bit, and finesse until it’s finished. The differences between the two have to do with the choices I make in acting and posing, and the finessing as I finish it up. In both realistic and cartoony animation it’s important to maintain integrity and honesty with the way the character interacts within their world. When working on realistic (or naturalistic) animation, you will tend towards “real world physics” and must pay close attention to the physicality and the “organicness” of the movement to make sure it doesn’t feel too staged. You still want the performance to read, but you will tend to work through your poses a bit more to make sure really overlap things and blur the lines a bit. In cartoony shots, I’ll tend to push towards the poses a little bit more and spend more time crafting them to really make the poses read. I’ll favor the extremes and work and find the funniest way to achieve an idea – even if it breaks gravity or a physical possibility. However, I’ll only do that if it doesn’t pop the viewer out of the film. As long as they maintain their suspension of disbelief, you can really push ideas and have fun.
Good animation is true to the idea and the character. I’ve seen some technically “poor” animation (pops, bad weight, etc) that I still find enjoyable because the choices the animator makes really suit the character. In this case I would say the animation is “good”. However, great animation takes this to the extreme. Not only are the ideas good, but every move is unique and special to that character. The poses are well crafted. The movement just sings with energy and has a special spark that makes the character come alive. Really great animation makes me forget about the animated character entirely and I become swept away in the emotion of the moment. I find that in most cases, these shots are successful not just because of the animator, but because of an incredible synergy between the composition, the character animation, the rig, the lighting.. what we do is not a singular art. It’s important to realize that only through working closely with every artist responsible for the end result can you achieve true greatness.
You’ve had a technical background in 3d and are author of the “Animator Friendly Rigging” DVD which provides a very good foundation for rigging artists. Tell us about it and do you plan to release more of such resources or ideas? Does it help animators to know about rigging in general?
Based off my work on the Lord of the Rings, I would often receive rigs from students and professionals asking me to review the rig and give them notes. I found that often these rigs were technically adequate, but lacked a certain focus on the animator’s process that made them hard to use. I found myself giving the same notes over and over again, and realized that there might be a market for some sort of training that would really teach the character rigger a new way to approach creating a rig that really helps the animator achieve their goals. However, I also wanted it to be something that would last beyond the next version of Maya. There was a lot of training material out there that taught people how to create an fk/ik arm rig but I couldn’t find that much training on why you would want to create this type of rig. In fact, I found a lot of riggers didn’t really understand where all these requests even came from in the first place.
Thus, my goal was to create a system that would allow riggers to understand what was important for animators, and work out a way to achieve their goals in an intuitive and exciting process. I wanted them to take these basic ideas and then blow them out of the water as new software tools and techniques were developed.
The DVD series is broken up into 4 chapter (totaling 8 downloadable parts). The first chapter focuses on creating a bouncy ball rig, and really introduces the rigger to the whole process. From there, we go on to create an animation rig for a biped character. The series doesn’t cover facial rigging or skinning, completely focusing on the animation control interface.
I’ve thought about releasing other training material, and have a few ideas in the works. No solid plans on releasing anything yet, though.
Do you have any favorite artists?
That’s a tough one.. there are a number of artists that I absolutely love! I can’t give an exhaustive list, but a few of the blogs I subscribe to are: Chris Palmer, Sarah Mensinga, Goro Fujita, Kory Heinzen, Tim Lamb, Tony Fucile, Shane Prigmore, Chhuy-ing, DeVon Stubblefield.. oh man, there are too many more to count! I’m leaving out a ton of artists that I absolutely love.. I’m sorry!
The other day I came home from work and my four year old daughter sitting in the middle of a pile of paper drawing away. I leaned over and asked what she was doing, and she held up a few pages of paper taped together. There were pictures of people, flowers and butterflies all over them. She had also put small clumps of letters together in to random groups. She pointed to the letters and said “what do these words mean?” I looked closely at them.. “xyqzzp”, “aurally”, “frqml”. I asked her what she thought they meant and she told me the story of the book. She obviously is too young to know how to spell any words other than a few names, but was so excited to create a book that she didn’t let that little fact stop her. She created her book anyway, even though she didn’t know how to do it “for real”.
I was totally blown away by that. So often we find ourselves up against some daunting task that we have no idea how to accomplish, and frequently we come up with a defeatist reason not to try: “I don’t know how”, “it’s too hard”, “I don’t have time”, “it’ll never work”. The most successful people I know take challenges like this and instead of being defeated by them, become energized. They think “I have NO idea how to do this.. and I can’t wait to figure it out!” If you approach every problem with this same openness, this same excitement, this same drive to create – there is nothing you can’t accomplish.