Category: interview

AnimSchool Interview: Alaa Aldeen Afifah

We’d like to welcome Animator Alaa Aldeen Afifah. Can you tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how did you get into character animation?

Firstly, I want to say thank you for having me in your Blog.
I’ve become obsessed with animation and film making at a very young age, when playing video games and watching
Since then, I’ve come a long way. Now with 11 years of industry experience, I focus on character
animation and how to bring characters to life.
During my career I’ve worn many hats, from rigging to modeling but also lighting
and other aspects of CG, which gives me 
a solid understanding of the entire CG pipeline.
I’ve started as a self taught animator but when I realized that I couldn’t push myself any further I decided to join an online animation school to expand my knowledge.
I would love  an opportunity to work
on a big studio like BlueSky, Disney or Sony. 

What is your current

Right now I’m a Senior Animator and the Animation Team Lead for Real Image Post Production Studio. I also work as a tutor where I record video lectures specifically focused to the Arab World future animators.

Your shot “The Elf” it’s pretty
impressive and really funny. You went for a cartoony style there, what were your
thoughts before animating it?

Actually, I am always looking for something
challenging and that I’ve never worked on before. For me, this is very important in order to improve my skills as an animator.

Also I have been animating  subtle shots for a
while  so I thought it was the right time for something cartoony. I wanted to get out of that mode and try out something new and
fresh, where I could push the character’s facial even more. And in the process have some fun with
it too!

What was your workflow for this shot?

first thing I wanted to do is determine the cameras position and the entire
flow of the shot.
So I did a simple animatic  where I had the
character in position and I could see
the shot flow, and also seeing whether my thoughts were working or not.
Basically, I’m very obsessed with Blocking,  and I love staying in the Blocking stage as much as I can so I get to nail down everything I want to see in the shot.
I recorded  lots of video reference for myself playing the two roles. I had different takes for each character and
then I chose the best ones and combined them together.

is a progression for “The Elf” shot showing my workflow: 

You’ve worked with the Animschool Malcolm
rig for that shot, what do you think of it?
Amazing! Malcolm is one of the best rigs I’ve ever touched, he is very appealing
and expressive, and it has never constrained me or hold me back on doing any expression
I had ever thought of.
Not to mention the performance and the speed factor of the Malcolm rig, where I could play the shot  in real time inside Maya’s viewport without making any playblasts!

AnimSchool Interview: Kevin Lan

We are very excited to present you Kevin Lan, animator currently working at ILM, who animated Richard Parker (the amazing tiger from “Life of Pi”) and several other awesome creatures and characters like The Hulk and Yogi Bear!

Hey Kevin! First of all, could you talk a bit about yourself and what led you to be a character animator?

I am an animator currently working at ILM, before that I was a lead animator at Rhythm & Hues for the past 6 years.
I was not the typical kid that grew up with Disney animation or super hero comics. I was born and raised in Taiwan, where Japanese anime and manga are the dominant culture influence. However I wasn’t interested in them until college. During my college years I was totally hooked by all the 80’s and 90’s anime and manga, through these I also got in touch with experimental animation from Europe and Canada. Anime director Otomo Katsuhiro and film maker Norman McLaren were the major influences for me to want to create animation. Eventually I knew I was going to pursue animation as my career of choice. After I finished my college degree (with struggles of course), I came to the US to study animation in SCAD. It was a time people were talking about 2D being dead and 3D animation is the future. I was very stubborn and decided to focus on 2D animation because of my anime/indie animation root. During my time at SCAD, I was exposed to more Pixar/ Disney style of animation. I think that was the first time I became more aware of “character animation” and started thinking about being an animator in the future.
What was your first job in the animation industry? How did you land the position?
I consider my job at Rhythm & Hues was my first real job in the industry. It was back at early 2007, I had just finished my MFA degree and brought my wife and kid to SF to attend a Pixar class at AAU. So I was learning 3D animation at the same time I was trying to find a job. Time was not on my side because as international students we only had one year to work legally in US. Luckily Rhythm & Hues liked my reel, even though I didn’t have much 3D animation in there, they somehow saw my potential from my 2D thesis film and brought me in for Golden Compass. 
Your animation on Richard Parker (the Tiger from “Life of Pi”) is pretty jaw dropping. Can you share how much time you spent researching reference and what was your overall process from start to finish of the animated shots?

We wanted to stay absolutely true to the tiger from Life of Pi, which means there should be no anthropomorphization or any guessing from animators. I spent the first 3-4 months studying reference and animating on test shots only. That was the time we figured out how the tiger would behave in different situations, the general physicality and posing, and how the muscle and skin works. Although I was matching reference in these tests, I didn’t do it blindly frame by frame. I still tried to find the key frames, analyzing where the force was generated, which control to use, how the force would impact other parts of the body and how the residual energy would be resolved. I also tried to emphasis the realistic motion quality on Richard Parker, tried to limit the usual CG smoothness and put in the imperfections we see in real life. Through these exercise I got a hold of the feeling for the tiger, and eventually I could deviate from reference in my shots and still make Richard Parker believable.  

Our general process started with animation director kicking off a sequence and shots.  Then we would compile a playlist of references suitable for each shots and gave those to the animators. If you were lucky enough, you could find a perfect reference and just try to match it. But that was not generally the case. We always needed to piece together segments from different clips and finding creative solutions for the best possible performance for each shots. 
I got some of the most challenging shots in the film. Without much similar references I could use, I tried to study all the tiger footages and real tigers in other movies for inspiration, then just imagining how Richard Parker would behave under these unlikely situations. I would block out my shots straight in spline mode, creating my key poses and also putting the correct physicality along the way. I think it’s the only way I could know for sure if my idea would work. After the blocking was approved  (usually this took the longest time), I would start adding all the juicy nuances and details on the tiger. While we were working on the shots, the model and rig itself was improving too. So it was a very organic process, and we were constantly improving and changing our shots until the very end.
You also animated a lot of scenes in movies going from Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 to The Incredible Hulk. Do you enjoy taking on projects with different styles from one another?

I definitely enjoy doing different styles of animation. I suppose being an animator means I’m suppose to animate “everything”, not being limited to a certain style or characters. Although, I can see myself enjoying more on creature/VFX films recently. Partly because I got recognition from what I did in Life of Pi, also mainly I feel like there are a lot of unknown territory waiting for us to explore. If you think about how many scripts are still hidden inside James Cameron’s drawer, and those impossible-to-make-movies may one day become possible, it’s a very exciting time for animation and VFX.
Do you have any advice for students wanting to land a job in the animation industry? What would they want to really master before applying to any job in big studios?
I can only talk about VFX industry as I’ve never worked in feature animation. The situation in today’s industry is very complex and much more difficult than before. Being a team player and work hard are the must. I would also suggest animators should master their sense of physicality and try to be original. A good sense of weight and presence of character would benefit you whether you are working in feature animation or VFX. It’s the most fundamental thing you will need for the rest of your career. Being original is extremely important in today’s animation. I think it goes back to observing real life and experience it yourself. Learning from existing animation is great, but it should just be a stepping stone for you to create your own character, even your own style. 

Episode 002: Mike Thurmeier – Co-Director of Ice Age: Continental Drift

In this episode we interview Mike Thurmeier, Director at Blue Sky Studios. Mike has been with the studio since the first installment of the Ice Age franchise. Mike recently co-directed Ice Age: Continental Drift. We ask Mike about his journey from being an animator to becoming a director.

 Podcast | Right Click to Download | Play in New Window | (63.3 MB)

Link to Podcast on iTunes

Show Notes:

Mike Thurmeier – Director at Blue Sky Studios
Ice Age: Continental Drift – trailer
Little Bear – television series
Chris Wedge – co-founder of Blue Sky Studios
Carlos Saldanha – Director at Blue Sky Studios
Galen Chu – Supervising Animator at Blue Sky Studios
Peter Dinklage – Voice actor for Captain Gutt
Patrick Stewart – Voice actor for Ariscratle

Episode 001: Nathan Engelhardt – Disney Supervising Animator

In this episode we interview Nathan Engelhardt, Supervising Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Nathan was one of our pioneering instructors who helped shape the direction and vision of the school. He previously worked on serveral projects at Blue Sky Studios including; Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Rio, and Epic. His most recent project was Wreck-It-Ralph. We ask Nathan about his journey to  becoming a feature film animator and about his experience working at Disney.

 Podcast | Right Click to Download | Play in New Window | (65.0 MB)

Link to Podcast on iTunes

Show Notes:

Nathan Engelhardt’s 2011 demo reel
The Neverhood – A Doug Tennapel game
Mike Thurmeier – Director at Blue Sky
Pete Nash – Animation Supervisor at Sony
Zach Parrish – Supervising Animator at Walt Disney
John C. Reilly – voice of Wreck-It-Ralph
Jack McBrayer – voice of Fix-It Felix, Jr.
“I love my mama!”
Wreck-It-Raplh trailer

AnimSchool Interview: Animator Tony Bonilla

Animator Tony Bonilla  (AnimSchool instructor) sits down with AnimSchool’s Andrew Tran for an interview!

The first question I wanted to ask is, Why? Why should animators or in fact most artists keep on trying? Can you tell us a little about your background, what motivated and shaped you into professional animator. What was the most difficult part of journey for you?

The answer to the “why” has to come from within each artist, and that will most likely be a unique and personal answer. For me it was simple. I didn’t want to spend most of my life doing something I didn’t enjoy. I’m a firm believer in following your dreams. I didn’t pursue my dream of becoming an animator until I was 28 years old. Unfortunately, I let too many years slip by because I simply didn’t know what to do or where to start.

I grew up in a family of very limited means. As a child, the Disney shorts were so magical to me. It gave me an escape from the real world. That magic made a huge impression on me. As much as I wished I could be a part of creating something like that, I never imagined I could ever be as good as the animators that created them. In high school I figured I would be a pilot or an engineer of some sort. That changed when I saw Jurassic Park. I knew I wanted to make movies after I walked out of the theater.  I had no idea what 3d animation was or that I had been exposed to it, but I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever it was that brought those dinosaurs to life.

It wasn’t until 1996, when I saw Toy Story, that I realized that 3d animation existed. Ironically I was a manager at a movie theater at the time. I worked managing movie theaters, restaurants, or staffing agencies for several years before I made the decision to do whatever it took to become an animator. I made that decision in October of 2002, and got my first animation job in March of 2005. I actually took a video camera with me my first day on the job! That’s how special working in the industry was, and still is to me.

My first attempt to learn animation was with a local “art” school that had a 3d animation program. I spent 9 months, and entirely too much money, and never set one keyframe. Fortunately I met an animator, Ray Chase, who worked for DNA Productions. He generously offered to mentor me, so I quit school and worked on “assignments” he would give me. We’d meet for lunch once a month and he would critique my work. About a year and a half later DNA had an opening for a Production Assistant. I applied and fortunately got hired. About 8 months later they offered me an animation position. The day I got that job offer is still one of the most exciting days of my life. Every job offer since then has been special as well, but I have to admit, being offered a staff position at Blue Sky Studios still feels like one of my greatest accomplishments in my career.

The most difficult part of my journey is tough to select. I struggled financially. I wrestled with exhaustion. I lost lots of time with my wife and son. I battled self doubt, and people telling me I was foolish for chasing a pipe dream. I struggled to learn both animation and maya at the same time. In the end, the most difficult part of the journey, I think, was learning to enjoy the journey itself. I wanted to be a film animator too soon. I didn’t have the skills to get the job done, but I wanted the job. Eventually after years of hard work I was ready, and the opportunity was there.

For students who are still studying or have graduated and are seeking to animate at a professional level at a big studio, how many hours or study would it take?

This will be different for everyone. When I made the decision to become an animator, I quit my management job that paid $40,000 a year, so I could take a job with less responsibility and shorter hours. I cut my salary in half over night so I could dedicate more time to learning how to animate. I don’t recommend everyone do this, but I was determined that animation was my future, and nothing would get in my way, including sleep. I probably got an average of 4 hours of sleep each night for over a year. Again, this isn’t a very healthy lifestyle, so please don’t take this as a recipe for success. I was already married and had baby boy, so I had to carve out time whenever I could.

I also don’t believe I’m especially talented, I just work hard. That being said, the big studio job didn’t come until I had worked as a professional animator for over 3 years. So my advice is work hard, and be patient. The opportunity will come when you are ready for it, and hopefully not before.

You went from animating on feature films to animating in game studios is there a big difference in the way how you animate now?

My career as an animator is as diverse as my jobs before. I’ve worked on television shows, video games, theme park attractions, commercials, shorts, and films. Every job has different requirements. Film requires the utmost quality as fast as you can produce it. Video games requires the utmost speed as good as you can make it. So I definitely don’t finesse my work as much as I would like to.

How did the camera angles affect the way how you animated in a game studio?
One benefit in film you aren’t afforded in games is a single camera. You can craft a performance by any means necessary to the camera. In game animation you have to make sure your work reads from all angles.

When your supervisor or instructor would say “polish up that shot” what are you looking for in your shot?

When I polish the first thing I do is add the extra finesse the shot needs. I look at all my poses and make sure they are as strong as they can be. I drop in smear frames. I add more squash and stretch in areas that would plus the shot. I make sure all of the extremities of each character are making nice fluid arcs. I add all the fine details in the feet, hands and fingers, and I spend lots of time really polishing everything in the face. The eye darts, blinks, brows, lip sync, and anything else that will add fleshy life to the face.

And lastly what do you enjoy most when it comes to animating?

This may sound corny but my favorite part is when I get a shot finaled by the director, and he says  good job. I love blocking and I love polishing, but the best part is when you are forced to let go of your shot (any animator will tell you they are never truly “done” with their shot) and you get to sit back and watch the life you just created, from absolutely nothing. That still gets me. It’s a natural high for me to get a shot finaled. I think I experience that same “high” when the last shot of the film is marked complete and the whole team gets to celebrate the accomplishment.

Tony’s Web Page:
Tony’s Demo Reel: