How did you break into film animation on a professional basis?
My first job out of school was with Rhythm and Hues in Hollywood. They are probably best known for their commercial work, especially the Coca-Cola polar bears. Mostly they taught me how to use the computers, because at the time the programs were really expensive and the schools couldn’t afford them. I did a lot of 3-D modeling, texturing. It was really like graduate school for me; basically, the first six months, I was being trained in all aspects of computer animation. I worked on commercials, and mostly on an awful film called Hocus Pocus, and I was the lead animator for a motion-based ride called SeaFari.
I was at Rhythm and Hues not a quite a year when I heard Disney’s Pixar was hiring animators to develop Toy Story, which was the first fully computer animated film. Basically, the whole Pixar operation was located in small warehouse; it was a fun time to be there. I was a lead animator on Toy Story, and worked on it for about two years. I animated a lot on that film and gained a good reputation.
Once the movie was done, I told them I had an interest in supervising others, so I became the animation director for the CD-ROM/Shorts Division at Pixar; it was basically stuff connected with the Toy Story movie, the interactive CD-ROM activity center, animated story book ,etc.
After that A Bug’s Life (1998) came around, I was offered the job of supervising animator. During that film, Pixar started working on a direct to video of Toy Story 2, and I was asked to co-direct that project. I couldn’t say no to such a great opportunity. After a year and a half of successful screenings, the film was green-lighted for a theatrical release. Shortly after, John Lasseter, the original director of Toy Story, came aboard to direct the film for the last eight months of production.
How did your career unfold from there? Tell us about some of the film projects you’ve worked on.
I really began to miss the days of when Pixar was small and we were the underdog. At that time, I heard ILM (Industrial Light + Magic, Lucasfilm Ltd.), wanted to start it’s own animation division. George Lucas had been my hero since Star Wars came out when I was 7, so I thought this was a good time to work for the man who was my original inspiration.
ILM never really did get their act together doing animation like Pixar; so mainly I did special effects there. In 1999, I worked on Magnolia, a live action film with Tom Cruise. The film was filled with heavy drama and at the end, frogs fall from the sky. They started with rubber frogs and it looked so bad, they came to ILM for effects. I did an animated test recreating real frogs, which was cool because most of the stuff I had worked on before that were computer generated cartoons. I worked in the ILM features group, on some short digital films, and on some effects for The Mummy Returns; I don’t really like those kinds of movies, they’re sort of popcorn films that pay the bills.
But right after that is when the exciting stuff started happening. I heard that Steven Spielberg wanted to redo E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and replace the animatronics puppet performance, which at first I thought was silly, because it was perfect already, right?
So I flew to Los Angeles, and sat down with Spielberg. He initially said he wanted to re-do about 20 shots. We watched all of the original E.T. together; he’d stop it once in while. As we watched, he was telling me all of these great stories, like ‘that was the best dog we ever worked with.’ It was the best director’s commentary ever, because I was sitting right next to him. I saw sequences that were cut from the original – and the reasons why they were cut. By the time we were done reviewing the original E.T., the original 20 or shots grew to something like 100 to 120 shots.
It was hard, because we’d watch a classic scene like E.T. and Elliot first meeting, screaming at each other, and we had to look with a critical eye, forgetting it was a classic. It was a great experience, as the supervising animator, I got to direct all of the new animation. The most important thing was to keep the flavor of the original; the great thing about real world puppets is that they always moved with a gritty kind of motion which we didn’t want to completely remove.
It was very rewarding to have Mr. Spielberg say, “This is great idea or expression.” We made stark (and hopefully transparent) improvements to the original; it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. After E.T., I worked as the supervising animator on Men in Black 2, but my work on it was deemed ‘too Pixar’ and I got booted.
Then I was asked to work as animation director on The Hulk, under director Ang Lee (from Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragon) and the visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren, who is the one of the biggest names in special effects. In the film world, visual effects supervisors are in charge of lighting, shadows and making effects look real; the animation director is in charge of how the characters move and act.
I got wonderful experience with motion capture technology on The Hulk. The hardest 3-D animation I have ever done was on the The Hulk, particularly the fight between the Hulk and the mutant dogs. The computer-generated Hulk wasn't created until the filming sequences were over, and director Ang Lee wanted us to motion capture athletes. In motion capturing, sensors are placed on a human body wearing a black skin suit, then you sample and record how a human moves in 3-D; you can then map the movements and transfer them to any computer character. Ang wasn’t happy with what we captured from any of the athletes or actors, so we put him in the suit and he acted it out for us. It was a great personal experience working with him; he’s a wonderful human being with gentle kind of soul. The Hulk ended up being a moodier, darker film than people expected.
The next project I worked on was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It was very challenging to re-create a human baby. On The Hulk, we motion captured attack dogs, so on Lemony Snicket, we figured, ‘why not babies.’ We built tiny motion capture suits, and we brought in a bunch of babies and sampled their movements. In sampling, you don’t have to follow the motion perfectly; you can edit it in the computer.
My 2-year-old daughter Grace became my best reference. In one scene the baby wrestles a snake. And I thought, hey I’m wrestling with my 2-year old every night when I get home from work, I dangle her by an ankles pretty regularly, why not do it in a motion capture suit? So for a few key baby shots in the film, the motion is modeled on my daughter.
Tell us about your work on Yankee Irving.
Pixar had grown to be a giant by this point. That’s when I got ‘really Hollywood,’ and I got an agent. I used the ton of vacation time I had built up, and I interviewed at every single big studio in LA that had an original digital feature on the boards. I figured something would land, and it did.
I had heard about IDT Entertainment on the East Coast, a start-up that is aggressively trying to be the next Pixar. But the company didn’t have any experience in animated films. It was originally a phone company; the owners bought up the studios that do animated TV like The Simpsons and The Family Guy, and they bought a live action studio. Christopher Reeve was directing an animated feature film called Yankee Irving from his wheelchair before he died. IDT wanted to complete it, and that’s how I got involved as the director. It’s a wholesome, family film with a baseball theme, a blend of action, heart, and comedy. We think our story is as strong as anything out there.
What do you find most rewarding about your career in film animation? Most challenging?
Working on the high school theater program productions kept my sanity throughout high school, and I’ve found the kind of high I got working on a high school production is no different that the feeling I get today. It might be a $100 million film, but there’s no difference in commitment. This is what I love to do.
The negatives are the hours I work, and the time I have to fly around and be away from my family. When I first started with this new job, I was living in San Francisco, and was commuting by plane to LA, New York and Toronto. Then I’d fly home for the weekend. This job was rough initially; it’s a five to six hour flight from Toronto to California. This fall, I moved my whole family to Toronto for a year. It’s more difficult than I ever anticipated, its also more rewarding. I’m at the point now where I feel I’m in the best job ever.
Co-directing for a year and a half on Toy Story 2 was huge, but there were so many masters between Pixar, Disney, and Mattel; I was director, but I felt like a manager. The job I’m doing now gives me more creative hold everywhere, in story, character design, lighting, camera, music and editing. I’ve got input into the whole thing.
Films you have been a part of have been recognized by prestigious film organizations and film critics alike. How important is this recognition (as well as awards and accolades) to you, personally, to your career and to the field of animation?
For the most part, any recognition is more something that my parents are interested in more than I am. Right now I’m not part of Oscar Academy or the Film Society; technically one needs three film credits to get in academy, and then you vote on the films that win the academy awards. I haven’t applied. To me, it’s kind of a minus that box office results have an impact on the awards process.
Lemony Snicket’s and The Hulk were pre-Oscar finalists for visual effects. Every year before films get voted into Oscar, they have what they consider the pre-Oscar bake-off, where they trim eight or nine nominees down to three or four Oscar finalists. You have to pitch your film, give a presentation on the effects to 3,000 industry people. To me, it was an honor to present my work to the 3,000 people who are making all of these films.
It would be cool to get that Oscar someday, but more for my parents than for me. They still call me up to tell me, “We have your high school band letter.”
My reward is to continue to work in the business, make quality films, and put my daughters through school. I can’t picture retiring…I hope to be working on movies like this until I’m an old man. Working in this industry is the real reward.
I was a presenter in at the 2003 SigGraph, an annual computer convention, spoke to 3,000-plus people about special effects in a special session called “Creatures, Critters & Clones: Styles and Techniques Unique to Industrial Light + Magic.” To me, being invited to be a part of SigGraph, recognized as a top person in the profession, is just as important as getting a statue.
What do you consider some of the highlights of your career thus far?
Experiences such as directing major stars like Tom Hanks are definite highlights. Here I am, reading lines with him, and it’s sort of like an out of body experience. Just recently, I was directing Rob Reiner. He’s best known as being the character Meathead on All in the Family, but he’s directed films including The Princess Bride and is tied into the Ron Howard community.
To actually direct a Top 25 player in Hollywood -- those are highlight moments. Finding out they are talented, normal people, not the jerks you might expect is always a pleasant surprise.