What’s a typical day like for you?
During film production, the animators get together every morning in a small screening room with the director in what’s called “dailies.” It’s a chance for the director to see where we’re at in the shots that have been assigned to us, and for the animators to find out if they’re going in the right direction. It’s also a chance to become inspired by the other animators’ work. The director is looking at whether a shot is feeling the way it should, and the action is doing what it should. After that, I start working. Sometimes I call other animators in to get feedback on my work. We also have walkthroughs when the director comes around to see what we’ve worked on during the day.
How are shots assigned to you?
Sometimes we get one or two shots, or a sequence of five to seven shots. The supervising animators usually assign a shot by matching the kind of animation called for in the shot with an animator’s strengths. But sometimes we’ll be allowed to select what shots we want to animate, and our choice might be motivated by the type of shot: action, slow-moving, emotional moments, or just by a particular character. Then there are the shots that the director wants assigned to a particular animator.
And what do you start with?
The way it usually works is after a movie has been scripted and storyboarded and approved, they make layouts of the shots. The shot contains the sound, models and props that are needed for the acting. You have the storyboards as a guide to what needs to happen in a scene.
How do you begin animating?
We begin by blocking out, which is when we roughly put in the key poses to tell the story of what’s happening in the shot. So at this point we’re not doing much facial expression or dialogue. Sometimes the director will tell you it’s not feeling the way he wants it to, and you go back. Or you might have one of those days where he says, “keep going.” An animator always likes to hear that! We go back and work more on it-that’s called IP (in progress). We put in more acting. More details. Some lip dialogue. You show the director this IP version, where you have a pretty good sense what it’s going to look like toward the end. He might say, “It looks great-keep going.” Or he might say, “We’re losing something here.” Animators show the shot again close to final, where everything is mouthed out, and the details of the face are there. It’s one last chance for director to make changes. Once a shot is finaled it gets a render check and then it goes to lighting and shading.
How do you animate characters in the computer?
The characters are built on the computer as models. These models are then given avars. Avars are the controls assigned to each part of the model. There’s avars in the face, the limbs, etc. We use these avars as a puppeteer would use the strings on a puppet to get the desired movement. The movement of each avar on a character model gets recorded on the computer in distance and time. Adjustments are made accordingly until we are satisfied with the motion of the model.
How long does it take to animate a shot?
There’s a formula the animation team uses. Generally, an animator will average about a hundred frames a week (that’s 4 seconds of actual screen time). But it also depends on how many characters are in a shot. They also take into consideration the difficulty of the shot. If it’s a character interacting with a prop-where he might be pushing or holding things-or special effects are involved, it might take longer.
It sounds fast-paced.
We try to be creative but also work within the schedule of the shot. A shot sheet says how many frames a shot has and how much time you have to work on it. It’s important to work within the schedule allotted because the shot usually has to go through other aspects of film production, such as special effects, lighting and shading. In order for us to be able to put our movie out in time, we have to allow for time in each aspect of the production process but sometimes there are technical difficulties that happen that we can’t anticipate.
What do you do to put yourself in the mindset of your characters?
More often than not, the nice thing about animation is we get to animate characters we’re drawn to. We film ourselves acting a scene, but sometimes that’s not enough. The team has a list of films that were used as reference when the script was written, which helps us get the feel of the characters. Animators also tend to be people-watchers. The stranger the person, the more we’re hooked. We pull from that when we animate. It’s not unusual for animators to be talking in the hallway and one of them is saying, “There was this guy at the park and he did the weirdest thing…” We’re fascinated by what motivates peoples’ little ticks. There are a lot of interesting, unusual nuances that we’re able to take in from real life for characters we might animate in the future.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Being able to animate a character and convey that the character is alive, truly thinking and driven by something. In real life, you meet people and know they have a history you don’t necessarily know about. An animator has to be able to convey this with a character. That it existed beyond this movie and is driven by many things. That’s the biggest challenge. That’s the core of what I get caught up in. It’s easy to do the more difficult action, but when it comes to true acting-that this character is alive and breathing and thinking and has a past-that’s the most challenging.
What sequences are you most proud of?
Whatever I’m most proud of is always my biggest downfall. I always think, “Ugh, it could have been better.” Mostly recently, I’d say it was probably the cave sequence in The Incredibles, when Helen gets down with the kids and tells them they need to use their powers to save themselves after years of her telling them not to use their powers. She loses it and then gains control and nurtures them. It was a meaty scene as far as acting goes. There was a lot going on there-a duality of emotions. One was internal and one external; trying to act one way while feeling something else. To convey that through animation is difficult. I went back and forth on that with the director, Brad Bird. It was the sequence I was most proud of, but I feel like it was my weakest. You do your best, but sometimes you’re still not satisfied with it.
There seem to be very few female animators in the industry-do you find that to be the case?
It’s true. In ratio, we’re still not as many as there are men, but nowadays I see more and more women in the field. I remember someone advising me that it was “such a man’s world, you have to elbow your way in.” But for me, what got me through was that I wanted to animate and keep learning. My experience at Pixar was that if you do good work, you are recognized. I haven’t had to elbow my way into anything here. All I want is to animate. I suck in as much as possible, and we have a good collaborative environment here. What they care most about is that you have a solid art background.
Speaking of which, what’s your background?
For college, my parents sent me back to the Philippines to study. My dad was a banker and wanted me to take commerce. I told him no, that I had to be an artist. So we agreed on advertising, which I studied at the University of Santo Tomas. After graduating I went into advertising for about five years in Guam. It was great, because I was a big fish in a small pond. I was able to work with big clients, like Nestle, that I would never have been able to work with at my age here in the United States. After a while I burnt out and wanted to go back to school. There was a course in computer animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. For our thesis we had to make a short animated film and then send it out to the companies you wanted to work for. I sent mine to Blue Sky, Disney, Pixar and PDI. I actually got job offers from Blue Sky and PDI. Pixar was the last one to call me, but told me they couldn’t do the interview me for a whole month. I had to take a big leap of faith when PDI and Blue Sky said they didn’t know if they could wait that long. But I knew if was going to learn anything, it’d be at Pixar.
When did you know you wanted to be an animator?
Well, it’s funny, because I can tell you when I knew I didn’t want to be an animator. In college I took a side subject called 2-D animation. I’ve always been more of an illustrator, putting everything into one image. In this 2-D class I had to do all these images. I remember hating the assignments-it was too many drawings! For the longest time I wasn’t drawn to it, but I knew I loved watching animation as a kid.
So what changed your mind?
When I discovered 3-D animation and realized the computer can do the in-between drawings. But you’re still wrestling with the computer to do exactly what you want it to do. Mainly, that one pose that should tell you what is happening in that moment. And that goes back to my love of detail-that one image that tells a story.