Many moons ago.. waaay back in 2006, I was interviewed by a website called Strut Your Reel. Unfortunately, that site has since gone *poof*. Thanks to the Internet Archive, I was able to find the original interview, and have reposted it here for your enjoyment.
I’d like to begin w. a giant “Thank You” for sharing w. us here at Strut. It is fantastic to be speaking with such a talented and accomplished artist as yourself. I am sure most of our readers are likely aware of you already as you are quite well known throughout out the internet and training circles. But for the few who aren’t, can you please introduce yourself?
Thanks Tim! It’s good to be here! I’ve been a big fan of Strut since you guys got started, so it’s very exciting to be able to get a chance to interview with you.
I got started in the industry way back in University ( 1994 or so) when I switched from being a Communications Major to an Art Studio major. My roommate Christian Fagerlund kept coming back from art classes covered in gesso and paint, and I was coming back from school with paper cuts from reading 2000 page books about the theory of communication. He drew naked people, I drew doodles in the margins of my books ensuring that I could never sell them at a decent price. It wasn’t fair! So I took a Photoshop course and fell in love with the idea of using computers to do art work.
The professor, Victoria Vesna, was amazingly talented at getting grants for the University, and was able to get a couple of hard core computers, an SGI Indy and Indigo2. She also was able to get a grant from Wavefront Technologies of some hip 3d animation software. I had studied animation my whole life and was totally excited to have the opportunity to learn 3d software other than Infini-D. Since we only had two computers that ran the software, and they were also being used to host the Art Studio Web site, I told Victoria that I would be the web administrator if it would get me access to the computers. It did, and thus I found myself playing with Wavefront’s Explore, Kinemation, and other such animation packages at 4 in the morning when I was supposed to be writing HTML. Ahh.. ik solvers and coffee.. a winning combination.
At that time I was also doing 2d animation on my own, and a woman named Karen (agh, her last name totally escapes me now) hired me to do little animations for a children’s CD-ROM entitled, Kid Phonics. It was my first “official” gig as an animator, and I was so excited! Then, Wavefront (soon to become Alias|Wavefront), contacted Victoria. They needed an intern to help test their new animation software, Maya.
I spoke with Gary Monheit, and soon after had a job testing the software. This was in my final year at University, so may days were spent going to class, running down to the Santa Barbara office, testing Maya, and then driving down to companies like Walt Disney, Dream Quest Images, Digital Domain, and others to help the td’s there learn how to integrate Maya into their pipeline. It was a HUGE opportunity, and I’m really grateful to Gary and the others at Wavefront who gave me the chance to get to know all these industry big-wigs!
Soon I was hired full time as a support specialist working with Maya. One day I was demoing some new features to a few developers and one of the product specialists (a group of internal users who developed demo material for trade shows and such) showed a project he was working on called Mel the Cowboy. It was meant to be one of the first animated shorts done in Maya. He was up in Toronto working with the developers up there, and I immediately thought “that is a job that I have to have!” I spoke with my boss and convinced him that I need to go to Toronto to work with the support team there to teach them Maya. He agreed, and I flew up to Toronto for my first “official” business trip.
While there I kept an eye out for where Kevin Lombardi (the product specialist) was going to be working, and set myself up on a computer where he could see my screen. I then waited until he was looking and “casually” started rigging up a character as fast as I possibly could. “la la la.. look at me rig.. aren’t I quick.. la la la”. He noticed and said “hey, can you rig up a leg?”
” You mean like this?” I asked casually building a very primitive inverse foot rig. Well, not really casually.. I was sweating like a pig.. but I thought I came across cool as a cucumber.
Anyway, we talked for a bit about what he and his team (Adrian Graham and Corban Gossett) were doing and so we all went out for sushi. Being a total newbie, they convinced me to order more and more sake and beer.. and pretty soon we were all incredibly intoxicated. Being the new guy, they somehow tricked me into having to pay the whole bill.. which was very difficult to get my boss to sign off on, since I wasn’t up there to try and jump to a new team. I think the only reason she signed was because she was good friends with the guys and knew they were “hazing” me. Thankfully she did sign.. because the bill was over 200 dollars!
So I worked with that group for about three years, designing demos, traveling around the world, making short films, and generally learning as much about Maya, 3d animation, and the industry as possible.
In 1999 I ended up leaving Alias|Wavefront to head to Weta Digital where I started as a technical director, building the animation rigging pipeline and soon moved over to the animation department where I animated characters like Gollum, The Witch King, Shelob, and a number of injured orcs.
In 2004 I left Weta and came back to California to work at PDI/Dreamworks as a senior character animator, dragging my wife and two dogs with me!
Q. You have traveled quite an interesting path and have experienced a wide range of roles. What have been some of the highlights?
It’s been an incredible ride. I’ve gotten to travel to some amazing places and met incredible people. I have to say that every chance I get to travel and speak about Lord of the Rings, Madagascar, or demonstrate some piece of software my blood just pumps like crazy and I end up grinning like a complete idiot for days on end.
One of the most exciting demos I ever gave was my last few weeks as an employee at Alias|wavefront, where I demoed Maya to over 3,000 people at Siggraph. That was intense. All those people.. I literally bounced around for hours afterwards.
Talking about Lord of the Rings was also amazing, because people are still SO excited about it! Matt Aitken and I went and talked at a conference in Copenhagen one time and I swear, the energy coming from everyone made us feel like total rock stars.
Those types of experiences are fantastic and hugely exciting. But also just working on shots that you really like is extremely rewarding. Every time I show a shot in dailies and somebody laughs I feel like “yes, THIS is what I love!!” It’s like a huge pat on the back.
Q. You have already achieved some large goals and your career is still young. What were some of the key decisions you had made in order to get where you currently are?
The biggest decision I made early on was not to let someone else manage my career. I’m a huge advocate of taking active part in what your career becomes. If you want something, nobody else is going to give it to you. You have to actively find out what it takes to get there, honestly evaluate the current situation, and then do what you can to achieve your goal without burning bridges or pissing anybody off. That last part is very important. This is an incredibly small industry. Everybody knows each other, and word can get around very quick.
So I decided early on to be completely honest with myself not just about where I wanted to go, but about what I needed to work on in order to get there. I also discuss these things openly and honestly with my bosses and let them know what my goals are and what I’m thinking, and I ask them to give me honest feedback. So far, it’s been very effective, and I feel like whenever something isn’t working, I have the tools to honestly look at the situation and make changes.
Q. Even the best have to overcome obstacles in their careers. Can you explain some of the biggest obstacles you have faced and how you overcame them?
That’s a tough question… I would say that the obstacles are more of steps towards reaching your goals. For example, when I first got hired at Wavefront I was one of two interns. We both had to share a single computer, so I would work 3 days a week, he would work 3, and on the day we overlapped , one of us would find another computer somewhere to work on.
Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but this guy was a complete jerk. He would take every opportunity to insult me, call me names, ridicule my work, and generally treat me like complete crap. There are very few people in this world that I don’t like, and this guy.. well let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan.
The tough thing about this situation was that we had to work together, but being near him would cause me to nearly break down. I’d come home from work either so enraged that my hands were shaking, or I’d nearly be sobbing with frustration. Having to even be in the same room with him made my skin crawl. It was horrible.
So how did I overcome it? I learned to get a thick skin. I took everything he had and learned to let it slide off my back and let it go. I focused on what it would take to get out of the situation (i.e. get a promotion), and put all my energy into that. My vindication was when I moved up after 6 months, and he kept that position for a year or so. Learning to deal with a tough situation like that was extremely helpful, as sometimes you come across people who just don’t know how to treat people well, and I’m able to not take that negative energy on anymore.
Q. On a similar note, what are some obvious traps you see Animators falling into? I am sure you can even split them up as well. What would be a typical pitfall you would tell a junior Animator to look out for and on the flipside, what is something you see experienced Animators doing that they should avoid?
Awesome question, and in fact, my answer applies to both levels! It’s trying to do too much, or make something more complicated than it needs to be. I find myself doing this all the time! I’ll be working on a shot and trying to throw as many cool acting ideas in as I can, and I end up making the shot too busy and unclear.
It’s important to find what the key point is of any shot or series of shots you’re working on and make sure that you get that idea across. Putting too much in the shot can easily overpower it and confuse the audience. Remember, they’re only going to see it once, so just make it clear!
Q. You have been able to work on one of the most revolutionary characters in CG with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. What are some experiences you had on that project?
Besides getting a chance to work with some of the best animators in the industry, one of the coolest experiences I had was when I had the opportunity to direct Andy Serkis at one of the motion capture sessions. It was totally surreal, since I had never done anything like that before and didn’t really know what to do. Luckily there was a great crew of people there who knew exactly what was going on. Andy’s job that day was to shoot some mocap for the part in The Return of the King where he’s talking to himself in the river. Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh where there writing lines & directing his acting. I was just there to sort of observe and make sure that Animation got what we needed.
It was great watching Fran and Philippa work with him, and just watching Andy himself was amazing. Especially at the end when he just sort of crawled around so we could get good reference of how Gollum might move. I was so enthralled watching, that I forgot to say “cut” & Andy ended up nearly collapsing from the act of crawling for too long. Oops!
That was also the day that he recorded his performance that ended up being used for MTV Music Video awards. That was hilarious, and we actually had to shoot it twice because the crew cracked up so bad & ruined the audio take!
Q. How did working at Weta differ from your current studio Dreamworks Animation?
The major difference for me is that I’m no longer doing any character rigging! At Weta my job started as a rigger, so I was always doing tech support for people and helping fix rigs. At PDI, we use a totally proprietary system, so I wouldn’t be able to fix rigs even if someone asked me to!
Also, I’ve gotten a chance to have more “fun” animating at PDI. The animation at Weta was all about achieving realism and a quality of motion that was believable for live action. At PDI, I’ve been able to “go for the gag” which I really love.
Q. You are also one of the Animation Mentors. What has been some key advice you received from a Mentor in your career?
The first time I had an animation director draw on my screen and show me a “pop” in my animation that I couldn’t see was like a moment of.. I don’t know. Like the heavens opened up and went “LO, AND YOUR ANIMATION SUDDENLY STOPPED SUCKETHING”. It was Richie Baneham, and I was working on a shot of Gollum. I was trying to get his head to move correctly. He reached over my shoulder, drew a line on my monitor showing the path that Gollum’s head was taking. Suddenly there was the pop! It was amazing! So ever since then I always look at the leading edge of my objects when they’re moving and it’s really helped make my animation much more tidy.
Q. Now that you’re the Mentor, what advice do you find yourself continually repeating to your students?
Sleep is for the weak!
Just kidding! The thing I try and do as a mentor in general is really give them a sense that they can do this. Even though it’s hard work, and I might give feedback about the work that makes them go “AGGHH!! I’ll NEVER get it!” I try and make sure that my critiques come across in a way that’s encouraging, and not discouraging. I totally respect each and every one of them for the commitment that they’re putting into learning animation. It’s super inspiring!
In terms of general animation comments, I’m usually harping on them about “hitting an invisible wall”. That’s when some part of their character’s body appears to “bounce” off of something invisible. Usually it just means overlapping the motion a bit, but it’s one of those things that takes a while to develop an eye for.
Q. Most would assume someone like you rarely makes mistakes ever. But the reality is that everyone does. Could you share the biggest mistake you made and how you bounced back from it and what you learned from it?
Hah! never make mistakes? I always make mistakes! The important thing is recognizing that mistakes are common and they come often, and to not be discouraged by mistakes.
I’m constantly re-working various parts of animation because they’re not working, or the motion isn’t right, or there’s too much in there, or not enough stuff.
I think it’s important to not be embarrassed by your mistakes, but to embracethem. If you didn’t make mistakes, you would never learn!
Q. Who or what would you cite as the single biggest influence in your career?
Probably John Lasseter. I saw Luxo Jr. when I was in High School and it was a defining moment for me. I just loved everything he did with that short in terms of the simplicity of the idea to the character development.. I just think it’s totally brilliant!
Q. You are a Character Animator but you are also really well known as a Character Rigger, which was probably what many know you as best. How do you compare the two roles and how does being able to rig benefit you as an Animator?
It’s so strange, I’ve always thought of myself more as an animator who rigs, but I think the general perception is that I’m a rigger who animates.
Maybe that’s changing now that I spend more time publicly animating.. well, not like I’m busking on the street animating tourists, but the fact that I am animating is more visible…
Anyway, how do I compare the two roles? It’s a tough comparison. I think that rigging definitely helps me understand how to tackle challenging technical shots. For example, I’m able to work out how to handle complicated parenting situations (this character, picks up this, while holding on to that, while being carried by this, but its then pulled by that) by thinking more about how the rigs work and setting up parenting relationships in a way that make for easier animation.
I am also able to communicate my ideas on rigs to the riggers here at PDI in a way that they understand because I know exactly what they’re trying to solve. They’re better at it than I am, but at least I can communicate my needs.
Being an animator also makes me a better rigger because I’m able to make decisions on how rigs should work based on the knowledge of what the animator will try and accomplish. I know where to focus my energy, and what’s important. for example, auto-shoulders vs. fk/ik snapping. Sure, auto-shoulders are cool.. but it’s WAY more important to me as an animator to be able to snap my fk control to my ik control without it popping. If I have 1 week to develop either system.. I know exactly where I’ll put my energy.
Q. From what I had read is that a lot of motion capture was used for Gollum. Can you explain how much of it was used in the end performance and also how it was used? How much was hand key framed?
Ah yes, the “GOLLUM IS ALL MOCAP” question.
Gollum was a combined effort between a phenomenal actor, Andy Serkis, a great mocap team, and a hugely talented animation team. Without any of those people, he would not have been the success he was.
In film 2, I would say that around 50% of the Gollum shots were mocapped, and of those most were touched by animation for modification ranging from re-animating to tweaking. All shots were tweaked for animation for fingers and toes, and all facial animation was hand animated.
The rest of the shots were hand keyframed, some being done by using Andy as reference, others just by using the animator’s own ability to animate well.
Film 3 had more motion captured work in it, but that was because Gollum was in the film more, and the process had been refined a bit. Still most shots were tweaked, if not re-animated, by animation, and all facial animation was hand keyframed. Again, many shots were keyframed simply by hand using Andy for reference, or by just animating the way one normally would.
Q. I would really like to learn the process you take when animating. Can you walk us through the steps from the time you first receive your shot through to the final animation?
When I get handed a shot (or a series of shots), I’ll usually watch the storyboard and layout passes of the work over and over again within the sequence so I can get a good idea for the rhythm of the shots, the pacing, and the general feel of the sequence. I’ll start thinking of ideas for what the characters might be able to do, and start coming up with questions for the directors.
Then we’ll have a kick-off where directors give us the initial direction on what the shots should be. I’ll ask as many questions as possible in order to try and get an idea as to what is in the director’s head. If anything is unclear, I ask and ask and ask. It’s my job at this point to pull as much info as possible, so I never hesitate to ask!
Then I’ll watch the sequence again with the new information in my head and start to try and come up with ideas for the shots. Sometimes I’ll act things out in front of the camera, sometimes I’ll draw thumbnails, sometimes I’ll just make notes. But most of the time I’ll start making a plan of attack for the shot to figure out what the acting will be, and what’s important to get across to the audience.
Now it’s time for blocking, so I’ll go through and block each shot in my sequence to make sure that the main point of the shot is clear. When blocking, I’ll usually just to a quick pose or two with the intended emotion so I can see how it reads. This is really early blocking, however, and not meant to have all the details of the acting in it, it’s just to get the emotion.
The next pass will then be more tweaks, and finessed facial work, putting in twitches and really trying to allow the face to look natural.
Once I’ve shown the shot for final, and gotten that approved, then I’ll go back and do final finger contacts and minor tweaks that don’t affect the shot’s acting, but they make it sing.
Next, I’ll do a more refined blocking pass, trying to again get the main ideas into the shots and get a better idea of how the character will act things out. What types of moves they’ll do, where they’re going to look, how long a take will be, etc.
I’ll show this to the directors and get feedback. Then, taking that feedback I’ll start working on the shots one at a time taking them from blocking to first pass. This means taking the animation out of stepped curves and putting in the first pass of overlap and weight. I try and nail that stuff pretty early, because if you don’t get it early it’s hard to fix later on without messing up other stuff. I’ll do a rough pass on the facial shapes, usually not with lip sync unless it’s a close up acting shot.
After showing the first pass and getting comments, I’ll go back and do another pass on the body, this time with more work on the hands and face, refining the body motion, and really focusing on the lip sync.
Q. Animating is making your character act. Can you describe what you do to make your characters show emotion and act?
I first try and really think about what it is that’s motivating the character. What are they wanting? What is their desire? What are they thinking about? Randy Cook (animation director on the Lord of the Rings) had a trick where he’d record the internal dialog of the character and play that with the shot so you could make the internal dialog work externally. It’s a really great trick for getting into a character’s head.
So I’ll think about all that, and then I’ll focus on the eyes and eyebrows mostly. I’ve learned through watching animators around me like Melanie Cordan who are awesome at making characters “go internal”. She can really make characters thoughts come alive simply by getting a good eye shape, and positioning the pupil in the right place in the eyeball.
I spend a lot of time trying to think about that internal motivation and how to show it. It’s certainly not easy, and it’s something I’m trying to get better at.
Q. Every so often, an Animator will hit a wall and struggle with coming up with a fresh or suitable idea for their shot. What do you do when seeking out an appropriate action or new idea?
I ask people around me! I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by very talented animators (Melanie Cordan and Cassidy Curtis sit right next to me in my cube!) who are super encouraging. By just turning and asking them we can usually come up with good ideas to try.
Q. I am really curious as to which live actors you study. Can you share your favorite actors and scenes?
I actually don’t spend a lot of time studying live action movies. I tend to look at real life people instead and watch them. There’s something just so interesting about how people do things. Actors know they’re on camera and will stage their performance with that knowledge. Real people do things that are unexpected and less dramatic, and for some reason I really find that exciting.
Q. You are so well known for your rigging skills. How important is it for an Animator to know how to rig a character?
I think it can help with some types of shots, but it’s certainly not necessary. The most important thing an animator has to know how to do is animate! So if you want to be an animator, learn that first. Rigging can come in handy, but if you’ve got a week.. animate first, rig while you’re rendering.
Actually, the things that DO help animators is understanding the space that things operate in. Understand what it means for one thing to be parented to another. Understand how pivots work, and how rotation orders work. Try and get a handle on Euler angles and all that stuff. Learning that will help you incredibly!
Q: Have you had a moment that changed the way you approached your career or the way you animate? If so, what was it?
My career-changing moment was when I was trying to decide whether or not to come to New Zealand to work on the Lord of the Rings. I was taking a break after working months straight getting ready for NAB (National Association of Broadcasters). Some friends and I had driven out to the desert to relax and we decided to climb some sand dunes. At the top of one of the dunes was a weird guy sitting on a carpet drinking a glass of wine. I decided to ask him what to do and his advice was to go to New Zealand because.. “why not?”.
You only live once, right? It’s an important thing to remember. You live once, you have to try things and if they work, GREAT, if not, okay, so you learned something.
That’s the way I try and approach everything. Sometimes I forget.. but I try and make a conscious effort to remember that it’s important to let yourself try things and not be disappointed if they don’t work. That works with life and with animation.
Q. If one wants to become a skilled rigger, what advice do you have for them?
First, study reference material. Look at examples of what it is you’re going to be rigging and try and understand what you’re going for. If you’re rigging for animation, try and understand what the animator wants and how they’re going to use the rig. If you’re trying to make realistic muscle simulations, try and understand what muscles do, why they do it, and what the result of them doing it is.
Then, try different ideas and don’t be afraid to throw out ideas. Just TRY things. Keep track of what you’re tying. Think outside the box. Try stuff, then try it again, then again, then when you find something, delete it and re-create it.
I find that the more I do something, the more I understand it, and the more I understand it, the better I can make it.
Q. You teach a course titled “Animation Friendly Rigging”. Can you share what this course offers and who it is designed for?
I have a detailed outline available on my website, but in general it’s a course that tries to teach people the process of rigging for animators. It’s a bit about my workflow and how I think about rigging when I go about doing it. It discusses trying to understand the animator’s process, and how what you do as a rigger can directly affect their sanity.
Q. When you are getting close to wrapping up a shot, there is always a bit of polishing that goes on. Do you have any advice that you can give or ‘polishing’ tips?
I always step through the shot frame by frame and watch the different parts of the body and how they move. I’ll look at an arm, and watch the leading edge of the arm (if the arm is moving from left to right, I’ll look at the right side of the arm geometry) and make sure it’s not doubling up on itself and it moves correctly. I’ll check my arcs on fingers and hands. I’ll check the arc of the head, the angle of the nose, and the intersection of the eyelids and pupil. I’ll spend quite a bit of time just watching different parts of the body and make notes of all the changes that need to take place.
Then I’ll take my list and just tackle each part one at a time. I’ll try and get a whole bunch of notes covered before doing another render or playblast, because that can take up too much extra time!
Q. A question from Aaron Hartline: Are you ever completely happy with your shot?
Yes and no. I’m usually happy that it’s over, and that the shot was finalled. I’m satisfied when it fulfills the need of the show. There’s usually stuff I would like to do to finish it, but I try not to dwell on the shots too much. Not every shot can be 100% perfect, and I’d probably sink into a deep depression if I realized how much more I could have done. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s coming up and just look back on the shots and be satisfied with the fact that I was able to get the shot to the level I could with the time given and the direction that I had. As long as the director is happy, then I’m happy.
Q. What question would you like to leave for the next Featured Artist?
What would be your all time favorite style to animate?
Q. What is your next challenge?
Having a child! My wife and I are about to have our first child (a little girl!), so that’s my next challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s excited about, and experiencing life through her eyes!
Q: What active artist would you like to see featured on Strut?
:: Thanks so much Jason!