Interview with Colin Brady, Animation Director

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Colin Brady, Animation Director

Colin Brady, professional animator and graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), has worked as lead animator, animation director, supervising animator and co-director with animated film powerhouses Pixar and ILM (Industrial Light + Magic, a George Lucas company).

His credits have included Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Men in Black 2, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and many others.

Education Information & Advice

When did your interest in animation and filmmaking first develop?

The movie Star Wars came out when I was 7 years old; I saw it, and I said this is what I want to do. In third grade, I made my first animated film with clay figures, all in Super-8 film; I’d show my class my progress for show and tell. I did that type of thing all through junior high, and then in high school, I got involved in the theater program, working on the lighting and effects for our theater program’s stage productions.

Tell us about your film industry education. How did you decide to pursue an education in filmmaking? How did you find a school?

I always wanted to get into the film industry, but I didn’t know a lot about how to get there. When I was looking into the industry in high school, there wasn’t any Internet, and there was not a lot of information available. But I knew had to get out of the Midwest and go to California.

I read George Lucas’ bio, and I learned he attended University of Southern California, so I thought that would be a good place to go to school. I visited USC when I was 16, and thought the film program was really cool, but also that it seemed kind of tough to get a job. I was kind of brainwashed that it wasn’t real or something. So as a compromise with my parents, I went to USC on a Mechanical Engineering scholarship, knowing I would be able to take classes in film, too. I went there for two years. I loved my animation courses, and that’s all I wanted to do; I was going nuts because I couldn’t stand engineering. My animation instructor told me about the animation and film programs at Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). I went there to visit, checked out a catalog and I fell in love with the school .That week, without even having been accepted, I dropped all my USC courses. My parents thought I had freaked out.

I got my admittance interview set up, and I brought in the pictures of the creature sculptures I had done through high school. I was very fortunate to be accepted on the spot, which was wonderful and the most pivotal moment in my desire to get into cinematography!

I had to wait until the next CalArts semester started, and then I was finally in school.

I just loved it, especially the creative atmosphere and the give and take atmosphere. CalArts puts all of the arts disciplines together – film, theatre, dance – it was like going to the school in Fame! In high school, I was always creating stuff, and I’d come up with these ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I had great friends in high school, but I’d say, “Hey, I came up with this idea,” and I’d tell them about it, and they’d be like, “That’s nice…you’re so weird!”

Anyway, only a few of my credits from two years of engineering at USC transferred, so I went to CalArts for three and a half years and earned my Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in 1992. I took animation and film classes, made some student films, and took a lot of art history classes. For a while, I was drawing nudes eight hours a week. I started taking dance and dance history classes as electives because that’s where the cute girls were, and by the end, I found that animation and dance are kind of one and the same.

The whole time I was at CalArts, my parents were still skeptical.

What did you enjoy about your education in film animation?

One of the cool things about CalArts was that the instructors were almost all professionals from the industry. CalArts is the No. 1 school for animation. A lot of companies go there to recruit, and most of the Pixar people come from there.

Quite often, after one year of school, you’d have the contacts you needed to get started in the industry. You don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to get in this field if you have talent. I knew a 17-year-old CalArts student from Detroit who was going to school, and left after one year to design for Saturday morning cartoons. He was making $1,000 a week and sending money back home to Detroit. The same guy later designed characters for Madagascar.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the film industry?

Having a video camera and a computer are the most important things you can do to get into the film industry. Don’t get caught up in having to take a class, or even going to art school. In film classes, a teacher will say watch the film, now watch it without sound, and you’ll keep breaking the movie down into things like “how many frames per shot.”

Start making movies now. If you make one movie a week, as a high school kid you can essentially teach yourself how to create films.

Each week, you should try a different style, such as kung fu, comedy or drama. Study films of each style. There’s no shame in borrowing ideas from them, because they borrowed many of their techniques from those that came before them.

The editing and animation software you can get on computers today is incredible. If you’ve got a $300 video camera and a $500 computer program, you can make whatever film you want. Don’t get too caught up with all the bells and whistles, like fancy cross dissolves, fire effects, tornados, etc.

Practice setting shots, making the idea of the film clear to the viewer. Peter Jackson, who directed Lord of the Rings, said, "Every shot tells one idea, you as director decide how to tell that point of view."

Shooting a character from a low angle makes them appear dominant or powerful; high angles make the character look submissive; horizontal is passive. Lighting and color also are very important; for instance, reds will make a scene more active. When regular people shoot video, they don’t care about lighting. Shooting video of people on a sunny day is generally not very successful unless you have a strong fill light to reduce the harsh shadows.

Chuck Jones, who drew Bugs Bunny, once said that, "Everyone has 200,000 bad drawings in them, the sooner you get them out the better." It’s the same thing with film and animation.

What tips can you offer to novice animators?

Oftentimes, first films are too ambitious. As a director, what I look for is someone who can take a stick figure man and animate him and make him look realistic. You can make the stick figure man do anything, change a bicycle tire or chase a butterfly. Take the stick figure man, have him walk to the counter, pour himself a drink of milk, then, "uh-oh, it’s spoiled." One shot, done well, will get you a job as an animator.

Recently there was a contest, and I was really impressed with what a high school student did with animating Legos. It was crude, but it had clever dialogue; this kid was thinking like a film director with staging and timing of simple Lego people.

The trick to good animation is good acting. Act it out yourself. Often I’d act a scene 50 times in a row until the choreography became second nature; animation is all a careful study of real life. Videotape yourself acting, and don’t overact. In real life, if you’re sad, your eyes don’t droop. My job is to make sure the animated characters look real, not like something out of vaudeville.

Part II: Colin Brady's Career >>

Part III: Colin Brady on Animation and Filmmaking >>

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