This is an excerpt from How to Cheat in Maya 2013 by Eric Luhta and Kenny Roy. How to Cheat in Maya 2013 covers all of the methods available in the latest version of Maya. The following is an exclusive interview with Dan Barker. Dan Barker is the Character Development Supervisor at Blue Sky Studios. He has worked on Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Dawn of The Dinosaurs, Rio, Ice Age Continental Drift, and is currently working on Leafmen.
WHAT IS THE MOST REWARDING ASPECT FOR YOU OF WORKING ON IN-HOUSE FEATURE ANIMATIONS?
For me one of the most rewarding aspects is the collaborative creative environment. Early on I was really reluctant to show people my work, honestly because I thought they would think it was bad, and I didn’t want to hear any negative criticism. But what I found is that by working with other people, not only do they help you when you are struggling with something, they help you be the best artist you can be! Obviously the other aspect for me in particular is helping define how new characters are gonna act, and behave. Helping define the personality traits of the characters is an incredibly rewarding process. I love being able to speak to the director, the story team, the art director about how a character should look and behave. Then you finally get to animate them, you understand them and can hopefully make them sincere, and believable for the film. And then simply animating them. Animation is a lot of fun! Working on an IN-HOUSE feature you get to have fun for work! That in itself is pretty rewarding!
WHAT IS YOUR AVERAGE QUOTA FOR SHOTS PER WEEK?
Our average depending on complexity is about 75 frames per week.
PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR WORKFLOW FOR DECIDING ON PERFORMANCE CHOICES.
Depending on the character I would speak to the character leads. They generally will have a lot of reference and info on how the character should act, and perform, and more importantly on how he shouldn’t act or perform. I will look at the reference and the character pages first. Then I will look at the boards and the full sequence to get a good idea as to where my shot fits into the overall sequence. I try to identify what the character’s arc is in the sequence and where my shot fits into that. Once that is complete I would shoot reference. If I can’t get what I am looking for in my acting I would get someone else to act it out. Jeff Gabor is always a good guy to go to for that! Then once I have something I like I generally will do one or two drawings based on the reference, trying to push my character more. Once I have this I would show the other supervisors or the director to get a buy off on it. And then I start blocking it out.
DO YOU HAVE ANY CHEATS FOR COMPLETING A SHOT THAT HAS THE DIRECTOR’S SPECIAL ATTENTION?
Yes, listen to what the director wants. Get to know how your director works, what he/ she generally responds to, and what they don’t respond to. Depending on the director this may be taking his notes word for word, or sometimes it’s trying to decipher the underlying meaning of what he wants. Sometimes if your shot is not working a director will give you notes like “Maybe have him come in slower from the left.” And when you try to actually have the character come in slower from the left, the acting is thrown off, or the energy isn’t right, or it simply doesn’t work. In moments like this I try to get understanding of what “feels” wrong, rather than identify frame by frame what’s wrong. More than likely my whole shot is not working and I need to redo it with the right “feeling.” And other times I just need to have the character come in slower from the left. It really is getting to understand your director. That’s the secret! SO I would go to sweatbox a lot, read the notes other guys are getting. That helps you understand the director’s sensibility.
DO YOU SHOW THE DIRECTOR YOUR THUMBNAILS AND PLANNING PHASE, OR IS IT JUST FOR YOUR OWN PERSONAL WORKFLOW?
Yeah, I always try to show the director as early as possible. Things inevitably change from your reference/thumbnails to what you actually have in your shot, but if your idea is strong and clear, that remains constant, and if the director has bought off on that earlier you are in a better place. Try to show other animators as well. They will let you know if your acting is bad, or cliched. Try show them before you show the director.
WHAT SORT OF BREAKS DO YOU TAKE WHEN YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON A SHOT TOO LONG? WHAT HELPS YOU CLEAR YOUR MIND?
Sometimes just going home and not thinking about it. Watching films, playing a sport or an instrument. Something to get your mind off your work really helps. Going to the pub and having a shot, to stop thinking of my shot! Sometime you just need to remove yourself from the shot, and more importantly stress associated with it. I sometimes would talk with the production supervisor about getting an extension if things really are not working. Reducing the pressure to perform, on something that is taking a long time helps.
After a little break, like an afternoon off, my mind is cleared and when I get back in there I generally nail it! Another thing that helps is going onto another shot if you can. Sometimes the creative juices that flow on the other shot give me the impetus to go back into the shot I am struggling with and bring it to the finish line.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE STYLE OF ANIMATION TO WORK ON? CARTOONY? PUSHED REALISM? OTHER?
I am a fan of all animation, but if I had to choose I would say I prefer cartoony. It’s a lot of fun to really exaggerate your poses and acting choices, which cartoony lends itself to. And then there is the contrast in a cartoony film where the character has to be played more straight, and sincere. I feel we get to get a good range. For me pushed realism is actually a lot harder to do. So I respect those guys a lot!
HOW DO YOU ADDRESS CONTINUITY ISSUES BETWEEN SCENES OR CHARACTERS?
It’s important to communicate with the animators on either side of your shots. If you know someone is going to be starting a shot later than you, and say the end pose of his shot will dictate all of your shot, I try brainstorm with him/her on what they would be thinking for their shot. That way continuity is generally not that much of an issue. And sometimes if I see a problem, I will go back into my shot and correct a pose to make it feel the same. Communication is the key!
WHEN YOU RECEIVED YOUR FIRST JOB AS AN ANIMATOR, WHAT ONE PIECE OFINFORMATION DID YOU WISH YOU WOULD HAVE KNOWN?
Not to be afraid to ask for help, out of fear of people finding out I was a hack! I think all artists go through periods where they are confident with their work, and then they think that they are completely useless. To this day I would love to go into all of my shots and redo them with what I have learned. But the big thing I found is getting feedback from other animators in the know. You don’t have to take it all, but it’s good to get them to look at stuff and give you feedback. I think I would have grown a lot quicker had I realized that early on.
ANY ADVICE FOR STUDENTS AND YOUNG ANIMATORS WHO WANT TO WORK FOR STUDIOS THAT PRODUCE FEATURE FILM ANIMATIONS?
Be open to criticism. One of the key aspects of working at a major studio is having a well-trained eye. And if you can’t see that there are problems with your work, then your eye isn’t trained well enough to pick up some of your mistakes. Try to get feedback from people in the know. And if you feel the feedback is harsh, it probably is because your work isn’t strong enough. Don’t take it personally, just try hit the notes the best you can as you slowly develop your eye. The other advice is that there are a lot of people trying really hard to get into the studios, and they are putting a lot of hours in, days and nights. You are probably gonna have to work as hard if you wanna get considered. Lastly if you get rejected, don’t take it personally, just try get feedback as to what was not right, and then improve that, and resend your reels out. The other BIG BIG thing is not to put everything you have ever done on your reel. Keep it short and only put your best work on. Only was I started taking part in reel reviews did I realize how brutal the review process is. As soon as there is something that is not strong, or has bad polish, or the acting choices are cliched, the reel comes out DVD Player and goes into the rejection pile. So make sure your strongest stuff is right at the beginning.
Excerpt from How to Cheat in Maya 2013 by Eric Luhta and Kenny Roy © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. How to Cheat in Maya 2013 can be purchased Amazon.com, BN.com, and wherever fine books can be found.