Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that animation is your way of telling stories?
Growing up, I always liked to draw. And I loved reading comic books and MAD Magazine. So for a long time, I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw comics. I went to college at the University of Texas and started drawing comic strips for the college paper. There I met a lot of really talented people telling stories about their art. And a lot of them were drifting towards animation. Then an animation studio opened up in Austin, and we all got jobs there together. While working at this studio, I discovered how much I like telling stories with film and animation in particular.
What does it mean to do animation?
It’s all about illusion; by moving lines and color and tone, you create a world. And all the artistic choices you make affect how well this illusion works. That’s why so many of the basic principles still hold. They’re about creating believability. The more your audience believes in your world, the more invested in it they become.
What exactly is the job of an animation director?
I think the main job is to make sure the story works. The story is king. If the story doesn’t work, then all the pretty animation in the world isn’t going to make it a good film. So the animation director should, of course, work towards getting high-quality visuals, but in the end, it’s the storytelling that needs to be crafted well.
3D animation is becoming essential in the entertainment industry. What are the differences in the various sectors (cinema, games, TV series, advertising)?
It seems to me that 3D is still dominating cinema with a few exceptions. I think this probably has to do with the level of fidelity it offers in the way of texture, lighting, and volume. Likewise, with gaming, 3D characters allow cameras to orbiting the action in real-time without the animator having to reanimate the sequence from multiple angles. But the speed and stark graphic clarity of 2D still makes it a viable option for tv and advertising.
I can see the two evolving together. I predict a lot more cross-pollination.
What are the differences between animating a character with human features and a completely different one, like creatures or robots?
Getting out of your chair and acting out the animation you plan to create is an important step. I try to do that for almost every movement I create. But that can be difficult when the character isn’t bipedal or has extra arms or something. Sometimes it helps to look at the video of animals or insects for reference. The only missing element in those cases is feeling the action happen in your own body.
Let’s speak about the film Scanner Darkly. How did you get involved with the project?
I’d met the art director, Bob Sabiston, through a mutual friend years before and worked with him on a previous project. When pre-production on A Scanner Darkly was starting, I was parting ways with a video game studio and needed work, so the timing was right.
Tell us how the animation process was.
Since it was rotoscoped, the motion was all there, to begin with. The skill involved in creating the visuals was less about crafting movement (as it is in traditional animation) and more about how to break the composition into simple lines, shapes, and color. It makes sense that there were more illustrators on the team than animators.
How would you define the style of this animation?
It was digitally rotoscoped using proprietary software. This particular software required that the artist break the image into elements (lines, color shapes) that could then be interpolated over time. And that what gave it that smooth, floaty, dreamy feeling.
One of the unique things about A Scanner Darkly is that the style bridges the gap between hand-drawn and computer animation. It kind of straddles both worlds, right?
Yes, it creates an interesting, signature look that fits the material while speeding up the production process.
Do you think it would be easier (at least it would take fewer hours of human work) to complete this kind of animation?
Computers are speeding up all forms of animation, and that’s a wonderful thing for the independent artist. More people are able to realize their visions in a shorter time with less money.
You worked as well for Space Jam, Anastasia, Quest for Camelot and Prince of Egypt. Which one is your favorite, and why?
They were all fun for different reasons, but Space Jam is probably the project that still holds the best memories for me. It was my first animation job, and it was very exciting to be working on Bugs Bunny.
We know you are working in the video game industry as well. Can you please tell us a few words about your favorite project?
I’ve worked on many games over the years, but one that sticks out is an old-school 3D puzzle platformer called Vexx. It was one of the first games I ever worked on at a company called Acclaim. The team was so imaginative with their character designs and skilled at creating intriguing gameplay dynamics. Something about its release timing doomed it to obscurity, but I still play that game today.
Tell us a bit about Boxer Story, your latest short film. How the idea came, and when did you realize that you’ve really started to work on the project?
Twomey Martin is a character who’s been with me a long time. He first appeared in 1992 in a locally published comics collection called Moko, created by Jeanette Moreno (Simpsons, Futurama). His only claim to fame was that he had rescued a baby dolphin from an errant steam roller in that first strip. No mention was made of his strangely resonant skull. A few years later, I hatched plans to create a graphic novel starring Twomey as the boxer with the funny head. I only made it through a few pages before landing my first job in animation. And once I started making drawings move, I never looked back. I no longer wanted to draw static comics. And so, the graphic novel idea was scrapped, and I started writing short stories that I could make into 3-5 minute animated shorts. None of them involved Twomey because I always thought his story would take a much longer piece to tell.
But there was something that stuck with me about the plight of this young, talented boxer who wants more than anything to be taken seriously—but just so happens to have this weird physical abnormality whenever Twomey is punched in the face, instead of a smack! sound, we hear a joke instead. That’s right—we literally hear a punch line. His fights turn into over-the-top comedy spectaculars. Something about this dynamic stuck with me. Perhaps there have been times in my life that I have struggled to be taken seriously, and telling this story somehow scratched that itch.
So I finally rewrote the narrative as a screenplay. It was a whopping 23 pages long, and at the time, I figured it was just too big to take on myself. But since then, I have created twelve award-winning shorts—all adding up to over 30 minutes of animation. So I figured it was time to give Twomey his shot.
How many people are involved in creating an animation like yours? And could you tell us a bit about their roles, the flow of the team?
My film is a little odd in that I created almost all of the animation myself. I wrote the script, then hired a fantastic cast of voice actors and a sound designer (Louie Lino) to get the audio all worked out. After drawing all the storyboards, I hired two illustrator friends to help me paint the background images. The only animation help I had was from an artist in London (James Pierson) who did a few incidental characters and walked cycles for me. I then had a composer friend (Graham Reynolds) help me with the music.
What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your animation? How did that lesson happen?
Sometimes I get a little stuck in my ways. When I figure out a workflow that I like, I become very reluctant to change it. But then I started teaching animation classes at the University of Texas. And when I have to teach my work habits, I then have to justify why I do what I do. And many times, the students suggest better ways. Or I’ll have to teach them how to use the latest version of a software package, and there will be all kinds of new features and techniques to figure out. So, I guess I’m still learning how to stay open to new ways of doing things.
What is the process of creating an animated character?
A lot of research. I try to look at a lot of different styles and try new ways of drawing. I never settle for the first image that I draw. It usually takes many iterations before I get even close to what I want. The hard part is sometimes keeping the character from evolving even more once production gets underway. I tend to want to keep refining character designs as the movie comes together, and that can lead to problems.
2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
I gravitate towards 2D for my film projects, but I do a lot of video game development as well– and I use mainly 3D software for games. So I am comfortable in both. And lately, I think the most successful projects are the ones that take advantage of the strengths of each. The latest Spiderman movie took pains to make the 3D look very much like 2D work, and it was beautiful. And Disney’s short, Paperman, did an amazing job of blending the two.
What does your animation workflow look like while animating? Tell us a little about the tools that you are using. What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins? Techniques?
I usually start by recording voices, then editing my audio together in Adobe Premiere. I then export the timed audio and bring that into Animate, where I do my storyboards and animatic. Then I export that image sequence from Animate and bring that back into my Premiere file, and that becomes my master edit file. Then, one by one, I build each scene in Animate using background paintings I’ll do in Photoshop and characters I draw with Animate’s brush tool. Each shot is carefully crafted using mostly Animate, but sometimes After Effects when there’s a complicated camera move or lighting effect. Then I’ll export the shot as a png sequence and bring that into my master Premiere file and drop it into place. So eventually, all the shots from the animatic are replaced by fully animated sequences. Then I’ll get a polished sound file from my sound designer and render the final film from Premiere.
What do audiences want? And is it the animator’s role to worry about that?
I think the role of any artist is to say, “This is how I see the world.” The artist is successful when the audience responds, “Oh! I see what you mean! And I’ve never heard it said quite like that.”
What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?
The only reason I make films is to express myself, so finding an audience for my work is part of the process. It’s like the film isn’t really complete until it has had a screening. And film festivals are the best way to do this. I’ve made many lasting connections through film festivals, both on a personal and on a professional level. I found distribution for three of my films by screening at festivals.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?
I don’t like the fact that the entertainment business can be so unstable. Animation and game development studios come and go based on how well their latest project has sold. Technologies and user habits change so quickly that business models and workflows can become obsolete within just a few years. I support my family as a professional animator, and sometimes it’s hard to feel secure. But Austin has a lot of opportunities, and I’ve been here a long time. So usually, when a project ends or a studio goes under, another pops up, and I don’t go for very long without work. But, still, it can be stressful.
Thanks again for taking your time, and good luck in the future!