You have worked on some major projects over the years, but which have been the most interesting and which have proved to be the more demanding?
How to Train Your Dragon was an amazing project to work on! Chris Sanders and Dean Dublois are for me the best directors I have worked with. They have a sense of animation like no others and they really know how to direct animators.
Right now I am working on Guardians, a movie to be released in 2012. It's a lot of character development work and it's also my first time being involved so early on a project so it's very exciting and extremely creative. I get to develop the characters, which to me is the most interesting work I have done so far.
The most demanding I think is Rise of the Guardians because the level of acting and realism asked on it is something we never have done in CG animation at Dreamworks.
Can you tell us a little more about the role of "character development” and what it entails?
Character development is such a creative process as you get a character in a T-pose and nobody has ever made him move. So you get to decide with the director how the character is, his personality, his way of moving etc. As an animator that's exactly what we want to do; make a character believable and true to what he should be. By doing character development you have the power of determining what will transform your 3D puppet into a real character.
How to Train Your Dragon was actually the first CG movie at DreamWorks with character-based supervision. This means that every character has a supervisor and this supervisor has a team of animators who are only animating the same character through the movie. So by doing character development you have the ability to provide a starting point for this team.
Of course the character will evolve a lot more after a few months. It's a lot better to have character supervision because it gives a real consistency throughout the movie. That's why on Dragon the characters had so much personality and each one of them had a special way of moving/acting.
Do you ever do any 2D animation and do you think it is becoming a redundant practice?
I always wanted to do 2D animation, but fate decided otherwise. I didn't really have the opportunity during my school years to learn it. I love 2D animation; it is as technical as artistic and mastering it is not given to anyone.
Disney tried going back to traditional animation with The Princess and the Frog, but it didn't work out very well. Animation is evolving a lot and to me a project that feels a lot more like 2D is Tangled. It is like the old Disney; it looks like a 2D movie and even the character poses feel hand-drawn. At DreamWorks they are coming back to some 2D, but it is integrated in a 3D movie. You'll see it in Kung Fu Panda 2. To me Japan is a country where 2D is still a strong living art.
For any aspiring animators out there what advice would you offer them and what do you feel are the key skills necessary for a job in your field?
The key skills for animators are to observe and analyze movements, but also to understand what acting means and its purpose. A great way to observe and analyze is to use video references as much as you can! It really has to be used a certain way I think. For example, never animate the movement you perform while filming yourself – make it as real as possible and then you use the reference to push the poses and movements while animating. When I animate, reference is always part of my process. These are the steps I use when animating:
First think about your shot and the purpose of the character in that shot; never rush into animating. Then shoot a video reference, the more natural the better. Do a lot of takes so you can choose the best. You can also use thumbnails as a base for your video reference. Study what's moving and why. Try to stay true to the reference. Push your poses and make them appealing. Push your timings. Clean your curves, starting from your body and going up the hierarchy (body, spine, neck, etc.). At the end look at your arcs and spacing and polish all your little details.
As for other advice I think a demo reel is always an important thing to have and to get right. When you do a demo reel, always start with your best work. Big companies receive tons of reels and the first 10 seconds or so are the ones that will make them decide if they want to look further or not. As an animator the most important thing to show is acting, but also physical shots.
And finally: never give up your dream. It takes a lot of work, but I think everybody who is really willing can become a good animator.
Which animated films have impressed you the most and why?
I have too many, but let's go for one recent one from when I was in animation school and one of my all time favorites. The recent one would be Tangled, not for the story-part which was very simple yet worked, but rather for the quality of animation and the impressive technical aspects. It was like seeing Glen Keane drawings in CG and it was unbelievably well done. The Rapunzel character was so impressive and so consistent. I haven't seen it since, but when I was in school, Monsters Inc. came out and I couldn't believe how good it was in every aspect. I loved the story, Boo was the sweetest character ever, and for me it was one of the best Pixar films... this movie is special to me since it inspired my whole career. My favorite animated movies are from Miyazaki; my two favorite being Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. The animation is of a stunning and unique quality, as are the worlds he creates which are the most fantastic and twisted of all.