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Bringing characters to life with Pixar’s animator magic (interview)

Scott Clark is one of the animation wizards at Pixar, the Disney-owned movie animation studio that is about to debut its next animated film, Monsters University. Without a supervising animator like Clark, the visual masterpieces that Pixar keeps churning out wouldn’t be possible.

And Clark is just one of hundreds of people at Pixar, the digital animation studio made famous by films like Toy Story and Up, who participated in the making of Monsters University. He joined Pixar as an intern when Toy Story was coming out in 1995. He worked on A Bug’s Life as an animator.

The Pixar way of creating an animated movie is a far cry from the hand-drawn art that Walt Disney’s artists used to create their first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. But it’s all about creating movie magic. Even with a lot of computer automation, it still takes a long time to animate something because you have to create the animation frame by frame, crafting something from nothing on a computer. It takes weeks to do a few seconds’ worth of animation.

Animators are the “actors and stunt people of this virtual world,” Clark said. That’s because animators have to make the same kinds of decisions actors and stunt people make. If the actors get 20 takes to perform in real time, the animators take a lot longer to plan a scene, and they ultimately wind up with just one take. That’s because it is expensive and time-consuming to render (or fully animate with the highest quality imagery) a scene. In fact, it took Pixar’s server farm about 29 hours to render each frame of Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters Inc., one of the studio’s most beloved films.

“We can’t do 20 versions of something,” Clark said.

Pixar's Monster's University

Above: James P. “Sully” Sullivan (right) and Mike Wazsoski (center) hang out at a frat party in a scene from Monsters University.

Image Credit: Disney/Pixar

Clark uses Pixar’s own proprietary software, Presto (named after a 2008 short film), to create the skeleton of a scene. Clark can create something and then play it back at around 8 frames per second (a film runs at 24 frames per second or faster) just to see if it works. Clark talked about one scene that depicts a disco dance party at a fraternity house. At first, Sully (the big blue furry monster voiced by John Goodman) isn’t participating. But he eventually joins in the fun thanks to encouragement from a character named Squishy.

The party has a lot of characters in the scene. Clark had to focus on animating just one character, Sully, over the course of a few weeks. He uses a mouse and keyboard to highlight a piece of Sully’s body (which had already been created by character designers). He then uses the visualization software to direct Sully’s movements in a 3D space.

When he wants to drill down into what is happening in every frame, he looks at the software’s spreadsheet, which shows everything happening in a given frame. In each scene, it’s important to know what is within the view of the camera. If it’s not in the shot, Clark doesn’t have to animate it. That’s a sharp contrast to something like a video game, where a gamer is free to roam throughout a 3D world.

The tough thing about Sully is that he is not built to dance, since he has huge, lumbering arms. So Clark decided to have Sully sway back and forth, with his arms matching his movements. He tweaked the image until he got the right balance in Sully’s attitude, mixing confidence and awkwardness. Clark had to search to find the right shot.

“When it plays back, it has to be believable,” Clark said. “It’s a magic trick. Every decision we make is carefully thought out and talked about with multiple people over a period of weeks. When you watch it, you don’t think about that. You just believe that character is alive.”

I heard Clark talk about animation at an event at Pixar’s headquarters and interviewed him afterward. Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Clark.

pixar scott clark

Above: Scott Clark demonstrates how the animators work at Pixar.

Image Credit: Disney/Pixar

VentureBeat: I absorbed from your earlier talk that some things have gotten easier for you and some things have gotten more complex. Could you sort through some of that?

Scott Clark: Animation is never easy, but I think we’ve gotten— we have a lot of animators that have been around for a while. We understand the process. We have experience, maybe. Maybe there’s a little bit more wisdom?

The tools have made certain things faster. They allow us to get ideas out quicker. But still, no matter how much technology you have, it’s still a creative process where you’re trying to get something human and organic out there on the screen that really speaks to a truth, an emotion.

VentureBeat: Technology in the service of creativity, or something like that?

Clark: Yeah. It’s just a big fancy pencil. You’ve probably heard that a million times. You can teach someone the software, but what are they going to do with it? What are they going to say with it? What kind of story are they going to tell? What message do they have? That goes across the line through anything.

VentureBeat: In the old days, did you lack this visualization part of the tools?

Clark: No, what I demo’d today – that spline editor, and then the graph, the spreadsheet – those two tools existed when I started as an intern 17, 18 years ago. But they were some of the only tools. Now we’ve got other things that help us see the answer. There’s a lot of different techniques the animators have to try to communicate. We have other tools that might help someone that came from a different background, like hand-drawn animation or stop-motion.

VentureBeat: And then computers get faster. I suppose they enable you to work faster or do things that are more complex.

Clark: When I was animating on A Bug’s Life, we were using these really expensive Silicon Graphics computers. Now your kid can download an animation program on an iPad. It doesn’t do quite the same things, but if you’re a good animator, you can make something interesting on a smartphone, if you really wanted to.

VentureBeat: My 13 year old’s doing that with her iPhone.

Clark: That’s the great thing. When I was 13, I was drawing on index cards and filming with a 16-millimeter film reel. We’d have to send it away and get it developed and come back and go, “Oh, that’s what happened.” I couldn’t change it. Now you can change it. You can react to it. The kids today, a lot more of them can play with animation than probably knew they could, or even knew that it was something you could do 20 or 30 years ago.

pixar monster's university house

Above: Sully and Mike ham it up in Monsters University.

Image Credit: Disney/Pixar

VentureBeat: You would think, as films got more complex and budgets kept going up, you’d need armies and armies of additional animators. But it sounds like that hasn’t quite happened. You’re also able to become more productive so you don’t need those armies.

Clark: I wouldn’t say that’s true. I would say that we keep making our films richer and more complex. This film had so many characters in it that we needed an army of animators anyway. The more characters you throw onscreen, they still all have to be hand-animated. There are no shortcuts. We try to pick and choose our battles, so that if it’s way in the background, we’re not polishing it to the same level of detail.

Still, no matter what the technology is, it takes a certain amount of time to think about your idea, to explore it, to try some things out, to try a first pass or a rough draft. “OK, now here’s my next pass.” That never goes away for creativity, I think. That’s what’s great about Pixar. We have a structure and a culture that allows us to move around and try different things and not say, “No, no, that’s a bad idea.” You can try. You can fail. You can say, “No, that was interesting, but that’s not the way we’re gonna go,” until you hit it.

VentureBeat: Are there things that are very different in this film compared to something like Brave? Any things that are very new?

Clark: Brave was the first film to use the newest iteration of our animation software. Like I said, they’re still the same tools, but a newer version. As far as animating the characters goes, Brave had different challenges. Animating humans is the hardest thing to do, because we recognize it the most if it doesn’t feel human. If it’s a cartoon caricature version of a human, like a car or a rat or an anthropomorphized character like a monster, we can get away with being more broad and caricatured a little bit. It’s still hard, though.

I think the scope of the film probably shifted it to be almost as hard of Brave, because of the amount of characters we had to do. Brave certainly had a lot, but they were different challenges. In Brave you’ve got one or two species, just humans and horses. In Monsters, you’ve got all these different — this guy has tentacles. She’s got four arms. He’s got five eyes.

VentureBeat: So you pushed ahead and found a way to make monsters as hard as humans.

Clark: Yeah. There’s always something that makes it hard. Animation always takes a lot of work. It always takes a lot of time to make good quality animation, to hand-craft it.

VentureBeat: Relative to games, do you see any sort of crossing that games and movies will make at some point?

Clark: I play games. Not as much as I used to because of being a dad, but games are fascinating to me. We’re kind of going on a side trip here, but I feel like they’re where film was when film started. They’re making the same film over and over again. There are way more possibilities. I enjoy them, but I feel like they’re kind of aiming for a very small demographic of boys or something.

VentureBeat: With BioShock Infinite, everybody’s noting how violent it is. It’s this great artistic story stuck inside a first-person shooter.

Clark: Exactly. It’s like, do we still have to keep playing the same game over and over again? Games are more open-ended in their storytelling, and I really like that. But the thing I like about making a movie is that you have three acts – a beginning, a middle, an end – and the audience is usually along for that ride because it’s only two hours, not 50 hours or something. Most people don’t have the patience or the time to go through the experience of a game. Certainly the graphics are interesting. The late Roger Ebert had a lot to say about whether games are art. It’s an interesting discussion.

VentureBeat: That, maybe, in some ways, is starting to get better, or to catch up. Do you still see a path for how animated films can still push ahead and be the tip of the technology wave?

Clark: Certainly, we can render things that you wouldn’t render in a game. You can have an experience in a movie that’s very controlled. You’re leading the audience with the story. On this movie, one of the examples of that that I was really impressed with was the lighting. There was a whole new model for how we lit things. Every time I saw our animation lit, I was just blown away by how grounded and believable it made the world feel. It’s really fun to see that.

 

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