A Dreamer Walking

Brad Bird – An Observation – Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.

 

Film Mediums: Live Action!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 11, 2010

Live Action is the most common film medium in film business.  In this day in age almost anyone with ambition can make a good quality film. The tools used to make film is getting more and more affordable, the knowledge in what is needed to make a good quality film is becoming more and more accessible.

With live action you are allowed many different takes from many different angles on any given scene. Unlike both 2D and CG animation, it does not take a vast amount of time to do just one second of motion. Everything is done in real time on the spot, which allows the actor to explore different ways to execute his or her performance. All the angles and shots are not planed out in pre-production.  On the spot inspiration is a huge bonus for live action film. You are allowed to see all the things around you and enhance your performance through those things.

The director of the film is allowed to see the big picture more clearly.  With 2D and CG animation you are given curtain aspects of any given scene individually. You go to one department to look at the acting in a shot and then go to entirely different department to see the landscapes and lighting for a shot. With Live action you are allowed to see everything at the same time, the performance, the setting, the lighting, and so on. The time it takes to do a live action film compared to a CG or a 2D film, is often cut in half. You are allowed to see the big picture much more quickly and it is not nearly as hard to make changes with live action as it is for animation.

One great aspect of live action is the individual performances that you are allowed to clearly see on screen. In both types of animation mediums you can not possibly create a main characters individual performance by yourself. It takes many people working together to act out a character such as Woody from Pixar’s Toy Story or Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. In live action one person often carries out the entire performance of a character, because of this the public often create “stars” from actors that have accomplished great performance after great performance, such as Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. More weight is often put  on one performer to make or break a movie.

With live action film, chemistry between actors is key. Each actor uses the things and people around him or her to enhance his or her performance. There is a famous saying about acting, “acting is reacting”, and there is no better medium to see this applied in then live action. The immediate reaction an actor can get in live action, can not be completely copied in any other medium of film. The performance is entirely built on the interaction with the surroundings around you. Steven Spielberg talked about trying  not to have much of a rehearsal time with his actors because he wanted his actors to give a sort of “in the moment” performance. There is a such thing as over working a routine where the natural flaws of an action disappear and the performance looks a little too mechanical. Usually a good actor has a good idea on what he or she would like to accomplish in a scene and an idea on how he or she is planning on going about executing his or her performance. However, all this planning can not be set in stone for it will change based on who you are acting with. An actor is only as good as the person he or she is performing with.

Post-production is a very important part in live action film. With animation you have a very clear idea on how you are going to cut the picture before any final footage comes to the table. However, with live action film you are allowed to be a little more loose with cutting, you have the ability to shoot many different takes from many different angles. Because it is so easy to shoot the film, you are allowed more options when the footage gets to the cutting room floor. It is the editor that has control of an actors performance. Although the actor has done his own characters performance, there is a vast amount of footage of the performance to choose from. If a actor is on screen for 20 minutes  all together in the final film, it is likely that there has been several hundred hours of footage shot of the actor. In these hundreds of hours, there no doubt has been some bad takes where the performance was not to it’s highest degree.  Thus, the performance is often based on the good judgment of the director and editor.

Live action film is a medium that has flourished for more then a century. From the silent days where a actor with a false mustache made us laugh  through his vast skill in physical humor to modern days where actors like Tom Hanks and Russel Crowe have shown us how life like and impacting a performance can be. An actor is allowed to be put in a position where they do not need to imagine anymore, where the costumes, props, and sets truly feel real. Live Action film is a medium that will last through the ages, because it shows us a reality that no other medium can.

(This is a scene where I think the surrounding had a vital impact on the performance. Because everything was right in front the actor Liam Neeson, he was able to create a performance that touches the core of my heart. My hope is that animation will one day be able to do the same)

(Here are the links to the rest of the posts for this series, Film Mediums, 2D Animation, and CG Animation)

Film Mediums: CG Animation!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 3, 2010

Computer Graphics (CG) animation is a limitless medium for film making. I think CG animation relies more on teamwork then any other medium of film. There are two very different aspects to CG animation, there is the artistic side of and the mathematical side. Great CG animation is the result of the artistic and mathematical sides working together for the purpose of the story.

With CG animation you have more freedom to use lighting, camera, texture, and effects to enhance the story. The more the technology of CG animation develops the more freedom you have to tell the story you want to tell. John Lasseter (president of Disney and Pixar animation) said it this way when talking about CG animation, “The art challenges technology and the technology inspires the art”. With a good CG animation studio every project is a opportunity to do more sophisticated and detailed animation.

It is usually the simple things that cause the most problems in CG animation. For instance, a character touching another character is very difficult. Trying to render long hair poses problems, making something look transparent often creates many difficulties,  and creating realistic clothing that interacts with the body and the world around it creates many problem that all take many highly trained people working hundreds of hours to fix.

Unlike a 2D animator, a CG animator starts with something on the screen.  The model has been created and the controls set by the time it gets to the animator. Every small detail can be controlled by the animator, you often have hundreds of individual controls for the face of a character alone. Before a animator starts on a character it is like a empty shell, lifeless with  nothing expressing who the character is except for the basic outside look (as you can see on the left with the character Mike from Pixar’s  Monsters Inc).

It is the animator who breaths life into the model. The principles of animating in 2D very much apply in CG animation. You have to have a thorough understanding of anatomy and acting. Pacing, overlapping, and squash and stretch are all principles that are shared between 2D and CG animation.

CG animation can lone itself to subtle action better then traditional 2D animation. You are able to read little things like the movement of the eyes and see how it expresses the characters feelings. With CG animation you have a better ability to create texture so we can tell the difference between something like leather and silk. 2D animation tries to simplify things to their basic shapes, the animator needs to be able to express his or her character through only a few lines and colors. CG animation is not limited like 2D animation, it is allowed to be as detailed as it wants. However, in animated films of all kind you often see that things have been simplified. The artists want you to pay attention to the important parts and they are allowed to throw away the unneeded detail.

It takes many people to finish just one shot in CG animation. You certainly need to have a combination of talent who are able to work well with each other. It all starts with the story and group of artist who create a storyboard showing the key points of the scene. Then there are the people who create the model, the people who create the background, the animator, the lighting artist, the people who are in charge of the cloths on the character, the people who write a program for the elements like water and dust, the shading artist, the editor, and then there is the director who has the vision of the whole film.  The director needs make sure everything blends into and works with each other so it looks like one artist created the whole story.

Click image to see step process

The picture of Carl from Pixar’s Up, is a great example of just a few of the things that go into making one frame of animation come to life. CG animation truly is the combination of math and art creating life on screen. Creating a program that simulates a simple thing like water is a very difficult task that has taken hundreds talented of workers many years to perfect.

There is so much that we can do in CG animation that was considered impossible just a few years ago. If you look at Pixar’s Toy Story franchise you will find that the original Toy Story (1995)  is extremely primitive compared to Toy Story 3 (2010) technology wise. The extent of detail that can go into lighting and movement  is so much greater then 1995 when the first Toy Story movie was made. However, what makes CG animation great is the thing that makes both of the other mediums great. You need to have a story worth telling.

With CG animation you need to have a good story in order to make a good movie. There are stories that very much lends themselves to CG animation. A good example would be Pixar’s UP which was about a old man who chose to go on a grand adventure by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away.  In a live action film a audience would most likely not buy into the idea of a house flying away on balloons. With 2D animation you would not be able to create as believable of imagery through texture, lighting, and the ability to move the camera. UP was a story that seemed perfect for CG animation. You were allowed the freedom to let go of what was reality and buy into the feeling of reality. UP created it’s own laws and stayed true to them, we were introduced to characters that registered with us and felt real.

Russell

We see artists trying to walk a fine line between the imagination and reality in CG animation. Most CG animated movies are not created for the purpose of making things look completely realistic, they want to create the feeling of reality. Russell from Pixar’s UP is a very good example of getting away from reality to create a more relatable character. On the left you can see that Russell’s basic shape is a oval. He has very rounded features. The  creators were going for a open and pleasing look. There is almost no neck on Russell, the length of Russell’s legs are completely unrealistic. But again, that is not what they were going for. The filmmakers tried to represent who Russell was on the inside through his outward appearance. Unlike Russell’s friend Carl, Russell is a much more open person who is curious (as you could see based on his shape and all the different things he takes with him) and interested in adventure (based on his expression and the kinds of things he has with him).

With CG animation every detail can be used to enhance the story. The filmmakers need to know the principles of both 2D animation and live action. It takes a animator working hundreds of hours moving thousands of controls to create just a few seconds of life. Anything is possible when it comes to how to use the camera, the director needs to have a thorough understanding on camera placement and what framing and movement creates the best effect. You are allowed to exaggerate shapes like you can do in 2D animation and you are allowed to work with sophisticated cinematography like only live action used to be able to do. The CG medium calls for constant advancement in technology, more things are becoming possible every day.

My ambition for CG animation is to create stories that push the medium forward. But, even more important then that, I want to make films that touch on core human values. Even though Toy Story 3 highlights the extent of how much CG animation has grown from the first two Toy Story’s, it is the story that will make a movie timeless. Technology will always be advancing but we all have our own individual stories to tell. The original Toy Story is still very entertaining to watch 15 years after it was created because the characters and story hit on core values that have stayed with human nature for hundreds of years, such as the value of friendship.

I look forward working with the possibilities CG animation brings us.  Buzz Lightyear, from Pixar’s Toy Story franchise, has a interesting saying that I think applies very well to the medium of CG animation.  With CG animation we can go “To Infinity and beyond”.

(With CG animation the key is still about the feelings the audience has for the characters and story. In the beginning of this clip Doug Sweetland expresses this point excellently)

(Here are the links to the rest of the posts for this series, Film Mediums, 2D Animation, and Live Action)

Film Mediums!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on June 15, 2010

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So there are three different mediums of film making that I have done a lot of research on. I have ambitions to make movies in each one of theses mediums. 2D animation, CG animation, and live action all have their own strengths. Contrary to many people’s belief, animation is not just for little kids. It can be and often is as much for adults as live action is. In this post I want to give a basic outline of the differences and strengths I see in each medium.

Above are some photos of the legend animator Frank Thomas. You can clearly see the resemblance of the real Frank in the cartoon drawing and the computer rendering. However, neither the computer generated picture or the cartoon drawing are supposed to look exactly like Frank. The beauty of both CG and 2D animation is that they are less interested in the reality of what something looks like but instead strive for creating the feeling of an object or person. In both the CG picture and 2D picture the artist have exaggerated Franks face.  It stays reconcilable but we are given a stronger impression of the person’s character.

If you study the face of the real Frank Thomas you will see that the animated pictures have the head 1 1/2 times the size of the normal head. Also, the nose and chin have been sized up. Frank’s facial features are more rounded, the artists are able to create a impression of Frank’s real face out of simple shapes that are easy to read.  In both mediums of animation you are allowed more freedom with expressing who your character is on the inside, physically.

Carl Fredricksen from Pixar’s UP is a great example of how abstract animation can make something physically look. Carl is a very closed minded grumpy old man, thus everything on the outside expresses who he is on the inside. Look at Carl’s head, it takes up more then 1/4th of his body. His body is extremely square, you can even see that the model artist has made Carl’s fingers square, no doubt representing who he is on the inside. If you look close, you can see that Carl is wearing some extra thick clothes.  The coat Carl has on is about 3 times thicker then normal.

We as an audience do not question the realness of Carl. Even though his body and clothes are very much exaggerated, we are allowed to get to know Carl and think of him as a real person full of emotion and feeling.

Another huge difference between live action and animation is the time it takes to do just one shot of film. With live action you just need to take a camera and record real life footage. With animation you have an animator for each character. Animators spend weeks of hard work just doing a few seconds worth of animation. This is actually one of my favorite things about animation because every single movement is taken into consideration, every single frame is carefully planned out by the animator.

With CG animation you are given a model to use. This model is a empty shell until the animator breathes life into it. In a model like Carl Fredricksen there are literally thousands of different body parts that you can move. For example there might be well over a hundred different switches that control Carl’s face alone. Each switch moves a different part of the face and allows the animator to put more detail into the acting.

With 2D animation you are given a blank page. The animator most likely has model sheets in front him or her, giving pointers on how to go about drawing the character in the right dimensions. However, each scene is different and the 2D animator needs to start with a blank page. 2D animation takes the most broad talent of the three mediums. The 2D animator needs to have a firm understanding of movement. He needs to be a good draftsmen so he could draw the dimensions of the character correctly. And, he needs to know how to act. Even though it seems 2D animation is the hardest medium to work in, I have found nothing more magical then seeing a bunch of drawings turn into a living breathing character.

I appreciate some of the wonderful aspects of live action. With live action you can have everything. The actor does not need to start with a blank page and he can not possibly think of every frame of movement he makes. There is a power in just going with something and not thinking about every little action you are going to make. It give you the ability to have on the spot inspiration and improvise. Improvisation is sometimes the most powerful aspect of film. There is nothing more exciting to some actors then to be thrown a curve ball and need to deal with a comment or action they had not prepared for. With live action characters are allowed to bounce off of each other more easily. You are allowed to see a scene be expressed in many different ways and pick and choose what fits best for the over all film.

In both types of animation you do not have more then one take. You do not have the ability to act something out a million different ways and choose what’s best. The best type of animators are able to thumbnail different ways on how to go about animating a scene, however they do not know exactly what is going to happen until they are done animating the scene. Because of this the animator and director need to already have a good idea on what they want from the characters and story in pre-production, before any animating actually takes place. Pre-production is the most important aspect in animation, a bunch of artist grow through hundreds of drafts of the story on storyboards  so they can figure out exactly what they want to happen in each scene. This is often the reason why animated films take much longer to create then live action.

In the next few posts I will highlight each medium and go into more depths on what their individual strengths are. I think this is useful information and gives you a good idea of the basics of each medium. I am sorry if I am not as organized in this post, I stated at the very beginning of this A Dreamer Walking blog that I will be talking about things from off the top of my head. If something I have said does not make sense please feel free to comment. I will try to have the follow up blogs come sooner rather then later.

(Here are the links to the rest of the posts for this series, 2D Animation, CG Animation, and Live Action)