April 4 – Animating Character Performance – 3 animators from Dreamworks Animation *THIS CLASS WILL BE HELD IN SCA 112*

Dreamworks character animators Jacob Gardner, Tyler Phillips, and Luke Randall will discuss character performance from the point of view of the character animator. Each artist will screen a sequence that they’ve animated and discuss in detail their strategy for bringing the characters to life and telling the story. In addition, they will all bring a clip of animation from their most inspirational film.

JACOB GARDENER was on the winning team of the FJORG Iron Animator competition at Siggraph 2007, which got him noticed by DreamWorks Animation. He has been working at the studio ever since on films such as Shrek Forever After, Megamind, Puss in Boots, and Rise of the Guardians. Jacob is also an instructor at iAnimate.net, and is the cofounder of the animation podcast website SpeakingOfAnimation.com.

TYLER PHILLIPS is an animator who studied at Platt College and Animation Mentor. Tyler got his start in Prague working as a 3D generalist. As an animator, Tyler has worked on such films as, Ice Age 3 (Blue Sky), God of War 3 (sony Games), and How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, and Puss in Boots with DreamWorks Animation.

LUKE RANDALL is an animator originally from Australia. Luke studied at Animation Mentor and got his start in TV and games before moving into features where he has completed work on Open Season 2, Shrek Forever After, Megamind, Puss in Boots, and Rocky and Bullwinkle.


32 comments on “April 4 – Animating Character Performance – 3 animators from Dreamworks Animation *THIS CLASS WILL BE HELD IN SCA 112*

  1. Dan Wilson says:

    What struck me most about our guests’ experience was how many similarities I found with my own. They all seemed to downplay the importance of being able to demonstrate skills in 2D, something I have always heard is important. Jacob even said specifically that he can’t do figure drawing or still lifes, and Luke mentioned needing to use stick figures at least once. I will admit to placing drawing skills low on my priorities,,, Though drawing is arguably important for concept art and character design that will be used for 3D, as a specialist animator, that’s not a necessary part of the job.

    Another thing that was a relief was that two of our guests talked about not watching too much animation outside of work. Though Jacob’s original inspiration to get into animation was Aladdin (followed by Toy Story), he mentioned how he finds inspiration in any TV, even “crap TV” like Real Housewives. My favorite films are all live-action, and while I enjoy some animated films, I don’t go out of my way to like them. Though I want to get into animated TV series, my biggest influences and inspirations come from games and live-action film. I imagine that a lot of animators will cite a Disney film — even any animated film — as their favorite thing ever, so it was nice to hear that these professionals don’t live in a vacuum of tastes and interests.

  2. Tristan Dyer says:

    It was great to hear about the process of animation at the professional level at a high visibility place. The nuts and bolts type of stuff that I usually wonder about was addressed. I have always been curious how long it takes for an animator to finish a shot and the process of how they receive feedback.
    I wish they had spoke a little bit more about what got them hired at Dreamworks and what type of stuff they did in school. I often find that people who sort of “make it” and work at the type of place that I would consider ideal are just like “oh yeah, I went to a school and then worked here and then a couple years late I got hired.” These statements make it seem like what I am doing, trying to cram as much knowledge and skill in to my time here as possible is all for naught. When the path to success is put so simply it reinforces the idea of “talent” and that some people are good and if you aren’t one of them then too bad for you. Overall it was a great talk though. I think it was another vote in the box for specialization rather than generalization.

  3. Lisa Chung says:

    One thing that really struck me about the character performance seminar was how much video reference they shoot and use at DreamWorks. I love it! I wished it was a technique that was implemented more in our program. It’s talked about but I would love to have a 2 part lesson dedicated to shooting video reference and translating it to your animation. Ideally, we would learn about acting choices and how it can vary depending on the character’s mindset. Similar to when Jacob asked his supervisor about Megamind’s past experience. This allowed him to make the right acting choices so the audience could empathize with the character. Also I would love to learn about the different types of shot we should keep in mind when we are filming our self or our friends. For example in Luke’s reference, he would shoot a whole body one for the action and mouth close up for lip sync. I would also appreciate tips and tricks for shooting certain character body types like when Luke wore a trashcan bin to mimic the movements of Humpty Dumpty. I thought it was very clever. The reason why I am pro video reference is because it allows people, naturally talented or not, to tackle most character animation without being discouraged. There’s been so many times when I wanted to animate a shot but felt unsure how to pose my character. With the video, the reference is there and you can scrub through it, study it frame by frame and translate it. Personally, I am still figuring the right way to use the reference such as do I look at it every 4 frames, what parts do I exaggerate or leave out, etc. Therefore, it would be valuable to learn that actual process. Jacob, Luke and Tyler: Would you be up for running a workshop? :)

  4. I think it is really interesting how much emphasis Dreamsworks seems to put on the animator to act out their shots, and I think it can be said that these guys have a lot of skill to add to and improve the acting of the CG characters in comparison to the footage they shot of themselves. But at the same time, I find that encouraging for me since I have always been afraid of acting and tend to overact rather than act naturally. I think if you are aware of your own faults but can recognize what good acting is, then maybe that is good enough to be an animator.
    But I do like how collaborative and supportive the people around them sounded. They mentioned that they get feedback on their reference videos as well as their animation takes. And they also talked about having a group of friends that they rely on for feedback and to aid with their weaknesses. It seems it’s really on your own efforts to improve at animating, but you have a good support group to help you along the way. It seems that they are surrounded by fun people—at least that’s what that Footage Loose video tells me.
    I think it would have been nice if we could have seen more of their earlier animations because they all seemed to come a round about way into animating and they all mentioned being pretty terrible in the beginning. It would be nice to gauge how they improved. Often I’ve thought, “I’ll never really be able to animate well,” but after taking Maya class this semester, it seems a little less impossible.
    It was also reassuring to know that you don’t necessarily get pigeon-holed into certain types of animation moments if you request a different type of shot.

  5. Wednesday’s seminar featured the work of the three young dreamworks animators: Tyler Phillips, Luke Randall, and Jacob Gardener. Their presentation included production clips and video reference footage from some of dreamworks most recent feature films.
    Their presentation spoke to their budding relationship with the feature animation industry. Each guests shared their personal techniques for effective performance animation through behind the scenes footage of their production process. For those about to transition from education to the industry, Tyler Phillips, Luke Randall, and Jacob Gardener provided an illuminating perspective into the near future lives on dreamworks next animators.

  6. Cecilia De Jesus says:

    I agree with Dan that it was nice to see what inspired these Dreamworks animators. I thought their inspirational clips were fabulous examples of performance and acting. I especially liked that except from the French film with the men acting like horses. It was a great example of specificity versus generalization. And the clip where the two men were imitating Michael Caine was a fantastic display of the differences subtlety can create.

    I also enjoyed seeing how the animators record themselves to get the reference they need to create believable acting. Sometimes I find animating complex actions very intimidating and it was cool to see how professionals deal with this problem. Before I felt like using reference is a weakness, but I see now it is a great tool to build a foundation for animation.

  7. Ruthie Williams says:

    This was a really interesting panel, and in comparison to the DADA alums we had a few weeks ago it was interesting to hear from three young animators who work together in the same studio and get a glimpse of their working environment. And like Dan I was also happy to hear and see that there are successful animators who get their inspiration from live action film and television. In general I feel like this group helped alleviate the fear that there are some set of staunch rules that you have to follow to work at a place like Dreamworks, or, to put it another way, that you have to be great at everything. It’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole in school, so I have really appreciated the selection of guests in seminar this semester, especially those that have given specific insights into future working enviroments and been kind enough to share works-in-progress and show how they put it together. It has been a nice balance.

  8. Interesting insight of what it is to be a character animator inside de 3D animation industry.

    While it was interesting and much appreciated to see the process behind each decision the guests made to complete their shots, what really kept floating in my mind was the way they use reference.

    I’ve been a follower of John K’s blog for a long time now. In there he teaches, among many things, the art of character performance.
    He promotes the use of reference in a very different way. He suggests that animators should submerge in old movies, theater, dance and other performance arts as much as they can. Only by doing this, can the animator know what things work or not, because he has forged his own criteria and archive of movements. Just as painters copy the masters before creating their own masterpieces.

    I don’t reject having a live action reference to help you on your process. But I do believe in a more spontaneous process when doing animation. Trial and error and most of all experimentation.
    Like Lasseter did when he created Andre and Wally B.

    I understand that the industry as it exists right now requires animation based on live action movements, but I hope this mold gets broken eventually so we can see new and interesting stuff.

  9. Louis Morton says:

    I’m taking a break from some animation walk cycles, I think the perfect time to write this post. While the three animators from Dreamworks were clearly experts at their craft and shared many valuable tips and tricks on performance, I’m not sure I can think of animation in quite the same way as was discussed. As an life long rabid drawer, as soon as the three panelists said that they didn’t draw, I felt slightly disconnected from the discussion. Personally it’s hard for me to separate drawing and character design from animation. As soon as I draw a character, or see a character design I want think about how the design will specifically make it move. While I think there is great value in looking at live action for inspiration, I find equal inspiration in how animators find inventive ways to make the movement of their characters different from live action.
    I suppose that animators have always looked at live action for reference, but there has always been an inventiveness inherent to drawing the characters frame by frame, with the ability to make distortions at any frame. With CG animation becoming more and more refined the zaniness of invented movement seems to be lost. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, it certainly brings the characters in CG films closer to reality and makes for a more cinematic experience in the classic sense. And I love a lot of Dreamworks films and the refinement in movement that the animators bring to them. I guess, like Simon said, it would be nice to see the mold broken, to see the rigs broken and to see more exaggerated movements in the coming years. I’m sure it’s already starting to be done and I just don’t know about it (I think in the latest Roadrunner shorts). This aspect of CG animation is what I personally find the most exciting.
    Anyway, I really did appreciate the thoughtful presentations and clips shown, it’s gotten me to really think about how I’d like to approach character performance. Thanks for a thought-provoking seminar!

  10. Yang Liu says:

    I love this seminar because it is soooo helpful for students like me who want to pursue my career in CG animation. I really enjoy that they present the process of their works, and they are taking it every seriously and making the presentation a lot of fun. What I found interesting is that each of them has different personality, and it’s very interesting to see they all working for a studio in the same position. However, when they showed their process of referencing their own acting, they suddenly looked the same. Maybe this is what they call profession in this industry. I am also very impressed how much effort and takes they need to finish just 2 seconds of shot. I knew it was a lot of work, but not this much. Although they did show some stress on their works, they all seem very proud of their job.
    I would also love to see more this type of seminars coming in the future. Especially I found helpful listening to professionals who are not in the highest postion in the industry. Also, it would be very interesting to see texture artist, rigger, lighting artist to come together just to show their process of accomplishing their work, so more students, who may not yet have a goal, would get an idea how much variety there is in the animation world.

  11. I had really good time in seminar this past week. I especially enjoyed seeing the inspirational clips and some of their work before Dreamworks. Knowing that there’s no one path to doing what you want and seeing how they all drew on different influences to get there was great. As someone who doesn’t consider himself a strong 2D artist, I actually did appreciate that they were strong 3D but not so great with drawings. I think every medium has it’s necessities and for the nature of the work that they’re doing, drawing isn’t one of them. Hopefully I’ll have an awesome story about how I broke into the industry some day as well.

  12. Andrew Malek says:

    After seeing the panel of Dreamworks animators I left realizing that traditional forms of animation and CG, while fundamentally connected are diverging to some degree. I like many of the other students in this post was surprised to hear that the animators don’t draw at all, which seems like such a fundamental component to learning timing and other essentials of the animator’s craft. Later when thinking about it I realized that these character animators don’t need to draw because Dreamworks is a large studio wherein each task and job is it own specialty and in the case of CG actual drawing and design is handled by another department. The results of this development are good and bad.

    On one hand the performances generated by animators who fine tune and manipulate characters without drawing are great and very well done, and the the performance can be very refined. It would seem that such specialization is the only way to maintain consistency for a whole feature. However, on the other hand I think that only being responsible for such a narrow area of a production has the potential to be alienating. While I realize that virtually no production is without its division of labor I think that more traditional forms of stop motion and hand drawn animation give more responsibility to the animator. It is my hope that in the future when CG rigs are more intuitive and streamlined the animator will regain his/her role as a performer.

  13. Ryan Gillis says:

    It was nice of these guys to come and talk to us. What surprised me most was how pure their job was. I don’t know much about 3D animation, and even less about the Dreamworks studio pipe-line, but I assumed that all 3D animators have some measure modelling and layout. But their ENTIRE job was just making the character move.
    It also always nice to hear professional animators talk about when they were starting off. I like seeing that you don’t have to have professional quality animation to get a job as a professional animator. I think it was Jacob that was talking about how little he knew when he started. That sort of baptism by fire system is one I can get behind.

  14. megatoe says:

    I really learned a lot during this seminar. I’m glad that the speakers showed us in detail how they plan their animation – acting it out first, drawing simple stick figures to find out the poses, etc. It seems that all the animators are very talented actors, and were able to be their own references. It also struck me that only being in the industry for a few years, they were able to become so professional and create such believable characters and moods. Now I really get the sense of how professional animators work. I also appreciate the ending video they showed us, and it looks like they are really enjoying what they do ☺

  15. Lauren says:

    It was great the three CG Dreamworks animators exposed us to their animating process. There’s nothing better than actually getting a first-hand glimpse on how each animator goes about their procedure and their ‘attitude’ about the process. Luke Randall’s footage of himself was extremely useful to me because I am currently working on a Maya lip-sync dialogue sequence. Seeing how he gets up and ‘becomes the character’ inspires me to do imitate his method (which ended up helping me in the long run). Even though Jacob Gardener explained how it is not entirely necessary for a CG character animator to be able to draw, I still feel that CG animators do need to emphasize drawing more. Understanding human and animal anatomy through drawing is the backbone of animation. I know you it is not absolutely mandatory to master drawing and be able to draw the human torso without mistake, but still, drawing will always be the backbone of character animating regardless…drawing will help aspiring character animators to understand more about what he or she is ‘bringing alive/moving’. I do appreciate Jacob showing us his keyframe drawing poses for that specific Megamind scene. Even though he admits he is not as skilled with a pencil, at least his drawings are readable which shows that he actually understands the key poses of Megamind’s movement.

  16. As much as I appreciated the idea of having character animators talk about their craft, I found their lecture and explanation of their process to be of little value to me. It was generic and seemed more similar to extras on a dvd for the general public than a lecture for animators. Having them over was an excellent idea but I feel these animators lack the experience to convey their ideas to students or were not interested into getting into more complicated ideas or express their opinions on their approach to animation/acting.

    The type of overacting and emphasis on extreme poses that dominates most commercial animation today was also very evident in their clips. “Less is more” is a truth I hope more animators would embrace, particularly when it comes to acting. Once again, I was very happy those three gentlemen took the time to come and see us, but a little disappointed that they did not deliver what I would have liked to see.

  17. Liffany Chen says:

    There isn’t really much for me to say that hasn’t already been said by my classmates. But I guess what I say, while redundant, will mean that it’s super duper important.

    I really like how Dreamworks encourages acting out the scene rather than motion capture (because let’s be real; motion capture is great, but it won’t fully capture every detail of a live performance).

    Jacob’s ability to create readable drawings is something to be admired. Even as a relatively skilled 2-D artist, I sometimes find that my work doesn’t read well; clearly, Jacob has a better understanding of key movements than I do. And that is why he’s at Dreamworks. And maybe I’m just biased, but despite what Jacob said about CG animators not needing to have much drawing ability, I think it’s very important to know the structure that drawing brings to CG. Similarly, I think it’s important for animators (and every other type of filmmaker) to understand how acting works. What are the methods and what is reeeeeeaaaal? (I am such a hipster thespian.)

  18. Eric Tortora Pato says:

    This was truly a very cool event, and the great and unique thing about it was getting to see a group of colleagues who are right in the thick of the animation work that everyone sees. These are the guys just a few years into where a lot of us want to go or at very least start. And, I feel, we don’t quite get as much of that angle as I’d like at times.

    It think we could use more panels like this in the future. It gives us a better glance at what it’s actually like to be in the pipeline, and not necessarily running it, and how that work and that performance heavy character animation stuff can still be redeeming and fulfilling in it’s own right.

  19. Brandon Lake says:

    It was really great to have these industry animators come in this week. While I was able to see some of the animators at work when I’ve visited studios, they usually are too far in to show their buildup work. Seeing the original layout angles and poses and seeing how the animators were able to take it on with their own creativity, was truly inspiring. It’s also good to know that I’m not the only one who looks foolish when he’s taking reference footage.

  20. Hearing from animators working in the industry on films was very cool. I never realized before how short a scene an animator would be given and how long they would spend working on that short scene. I also did not realize the amount of dialogue that happened with animators and their supervisor and those above the supervisor, all about the movement in these short scenes.
    I also enjoyed seeing the reference footage they showed. Reference footage like that is definitely something I need to start doing more often for the animation in my own projects. I probably won’t wear a trash can though.

  21. Amy Lee Ketchum says:

    Since I do not really identify as a May or CG artist, what I took away from this seminar was the love of bringing life to something that didn’t exist before and watching one’s creations become more and more alive. The clips that the artists shared were fun to watch and apply to one’s own animation practice. I also really enjoyed the dance party short film that was played at the end.

  22. Joseph Yeh says:

    I was great to see the detail and research these wonderful animators put into their work. I am glad to see that these artists have a solid way of working as well as great inspiration. Furthermore, it seems that their work environment is fun and full of dancing. I am interested in knowing about their higher aspirations. Is Cg animation something that can be done for a lifetime without burning out? I find traditional animation to be more enjoyable than cg animation, but it seems like cg animation is practical and doesn’t require a strong drawing foundation. It looks to be that it is best to master animation in all forms if possible.

  23. LaMar Ford says:

    I enjoy Dreamworks Animators Jacob, Luke, and Tyler’s visit to seminar. It’s great to hear the process that goes into performance. What surprise me is it’s difficult to do cartoon-like CG animation because of the rigs and computer process between the two frames. What I notice is in order to get animation that’s less robotic you have to spend time tweaking keys and create subtle movements. Despite the differences and levels of difficulty, I find CG films enjoyable to watch. However, I do agree that animators must learn animation hands on either by stop-motion or 2d drawing to get the feel and timing. I’m not the best draftsman or artist, but going through the analog process will help me improve my technique.

  24. Javier B says:

    The Dream works presentation was ok. I didn’t really agree with some things they were saying. But they did bring good video references, for character performances.

  25. Meng Chia Chung says:

    It was cool to have the Dream works people here. I think the presentation they gave us are fun and also educate me a lot. It must have lots of fun to work in Dream works. Although people were look so exhausted in the film, but I can see they really like their job. They love what they did and created. I believe If you can work with something you truly believe and totally in love with that will make you become the most lucky people in the world.

  26. Robert Calcagno says:

    There’s an interesting vibe that I’ve gathered through Dreamworks Animation, not just through this panel but from other animators, producers, and directors that have worked through the organization is that I’m surprised that rather than having a gallery of resources to pull from, the crew really has to take it upon themselves to figure out how to develop this characters in interesting ways.

    Like take for example the Kitty Softpaws scene. You would think that in Hollywood of all places you’d be able to, as a major animation studio, find an actual Hispanic lady or actress to use as reference rather than having to use themselves to act as a female. Or from comments that I heard from the co-directors back when Puss in Boots premiered here on campus that they had to reference YouTube videos for cats rather than, you know, having actual cats to work with.

    Now to be fair, it may just be a case of the time schedule considering that Dreamworks Animation has cranked up their production schedule to five features every two years (compared to the more moderate film-a-year format of Pixar) so they have to make the most of what they’re given. But that seems to be somewhat of an inherent flaw: it doesn’t really seem like a singular creative vision but rather the composition of various shots that happens to be put together as a feature film.

  27. Miguel Jiron says:

    It was a treat to have such an in-depth glimpse into these Dreamworks animator’s life and practice. They got right down to detail, making a really vivid portrait of the every day concerns of a contemporary animator. It’s no surprise to see how much importance is placed in taping themselves acting it out, but it was still remarkable to truly reflect that being an animator is essentially an extremely slow-moving and endlessly fussed over form of acting. I really liked how they all admitted how daunting “real life” acting is, where you have to keep generating new ideas and means of expression on the spot, in front of tons of strangers, on command, and with so little control.

    It put things in perspective on how much of their daily life is all about communication, and how this particular mode of communication is so endlessly dissected, studied, and mediated to what we see on the big screen. All of the animators were so generous talking about their process, their limitations, and it was a real treat seeing the shots slowly come together. Just learning Maya myself, its incredibly frustrating to have to animate this way- from super broad strokes slowly twiddling away to the fine tuning. It’s humbling and also refreshing to see that even with the pros, this just part of the process. Patience and determination is the key, and that was the coolest thing about it.

  28. Simo Liu says:

    Animation is not so easy as you think even if it may be made by professional animators from Dreamworks. That was my impression from last seminar. Thanks to invite these three people to talk about what they did and how they did in the seminar.It is very helpful. From their presentation, I know the animation part is not easy even for professional people. They showed their process that how to make the character’s action and facial expression in 2s.And I see, in this 2s, they need to perform and try the actions by themselves and changes the works many times. It’s a lot of works. And it’s not easy for them. However, they showed the perfect action and expression in the end. They got it! .Animation is not easy and the process of making even was with frustration and troubles. I feel like taking my hat off to those animators who delicate themselves to the animation career and preset us these cool animations. I also get ready to become a member of them to delicate myself and focus on animation.

  29. Lanzhu Jian says:

    These guests are very honest and open mind to us, The Character performance seems very fun to make in the animation, they get the chance to acting by themself and imply in the film, the small movement makes big difference. I also like the video reference they bring , I see the method how they use the reference and hoe to absorb the acting though performance. And at the end, I think working in animation very intense. We need to find some balance in our life. And Dreamworks seems a very nice place to work.

  30. chaoqi zhang says:

    So fun to have fellows from Dreamwork to share their experiences in the industry,
    I enjoyed their performance for their characters, feels quite close to see those pieces behind screen, their little storys of working there. Unfogetable, I have great joy from the spoof video that oneday in Dreamwork. Appreciate their devotion of days and nights hard works to the animation industry. Inspired by them that I should work harder to achieve great work.

  31. Laura Cechanowicz says:

    These three Dreamworks animators brought full life to seminar. It was interesting to hear them tell stories of their trials to develop their animation, especially the process of rigorous revision they are consistently expected to undergo. I found it particularly compelling to see their reference footage, as well as to hear how they had to improve it over time. It was also interesting to hear how they worked so hard to develop their skills, and that several of them had been through the animation mentorship program.

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