Sunday 18 September 2011

Michael Parks Stop Motion Interview

Hello guys and gals,
For me, Michael Parks provided the perfect opportunity to interview somebody with a balanced perspective on different animation disciplines. Michael has previously entered the 11 Second Club as a stop motion artist, landing second place in January's competiton. He has also set up the Xsheet Blog to assist artists gain the skills and confidence to work in stop motion. What has often gone unnoticed, he has also worked many years as a Pixar 3D animator!

Michael now works at the Academy of Arts, teaching several subjects including Experimental Animation. Here, he has granted me his time, in which I have attempted to challenge him on many sensitive subjects. I wish to thank him for answering with both honesty and wisdom. Really hope you guys enjoy the read.

John Clark Matthew
How did your career begin?
I started out providing stop motion animation for children’s films by John Clark Matthews I was horribly inexperienced and struggled for a while to keep the job while making stupid mistakes like running over an extension cord with the camera dolly during animation. But I gradually got my act together and got the hang of studio work. Some of the projects were pretty low budget with high footage quotas, but they were also opportunities to experiment and develop a style.

You spent many years working upon some of Pixar's feature films. Please talk about this experience.
This was like getting a masters in animation, being taught by some of the great geniuses of animation. I joined in as Bug’s Life was ramping up and the studio was growing (I was employee #194). It was exciting to see the studio develop its pipeline as it balanced business with creativity. Working with each director was different experience, as each had a different approach to directing animation. I learned a lot about how to adapt to different workflows and personalities.

Monsters Inc director Pete Doctor wrote:  
"No one turns around notes quicker than Michael-he is an example to the rest of the crew in his ability to address comments quickly. Michael finishes most of his assignments early, too, and his communication regarding his progress and expected completion on shots is top notch." 
Please share some advice on speed of production. 
That was a quote from a performance review that I use in my resume. Let’s just say there are other quotes from the same review that I wouldn’t put in my resume. You will make producers very happy by getting work done on schedule. But quality has to be there as well or the job won’t last long (note that I’m not there anymore). Moral of the story: Don’t get carried away with efficiency.

That said, I think speed is achieved by staying focused on the work, budgeting time properly (i.e. limiting your own internet use and water cooler chats), and getting feedback before heading too far in what could be the wrong direction. This even applies to student work, as I have had students who present what was supposed to be blocking in a more advanced state but with problems in their basic posing. They then have trouble making simple adjustments in those poses.

I understand you have recently taken up a position at Academy of Art, teaching various subjects including Experimental Animation. Please talk about a bit about this subject. (Experimental Animation).
Experimental animation is basically stop motion applied to various mediums like found objects, toys, clay, sand, paper cutouts, and whatever else a creative mind can place in front of a camera and move one frame at a time. The class is a chance for students to be creative and explore the art of animation while learning the basic principles.

Timothy Hittle's Canhead
There have been many beautiful stop motion works, such as Corpse Bride, Coraline and Suzie Templeton's Peter and the Wolf. Which lesser known productions do you recommend to the community as musts to check out?
The film that inspired me to make clay animation film was this documentary on Will Vinton and Claymation. I also recommend Timothy Hittle’s Potato Hunter and Canhead.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. 
''You see, imperfection is the key. Imperfections make us individuals, that's what makes us unique.'' 
How valid do you believe this quote applies to stop motion?
Perhaps it is the human touch evident in stop motion that makes it appealing. Some say that the novelty of CG has run its course and audiences are just after creativity, regardless of the medium. A viewer is aware at some level that the characters and settings were created out of raw materials and exist in real space. This adds to the believability and appeal of the characters and settings.

During the history of 11 Second Club, various stop motion's have come close to the golden first place. Do you believe we shall ever see a winner?
It’ll be tough because voters look for smooth animation regardless of medium, and it takes a lot of time and experience to achieve that in stop motion. But it can happen if a stop motion animator can deliver that with a good dose of creativity and “wow” factor.

In January you came second with your animation 'Pet project'. Please tell us a bit about its story and where the idea came from.
I don’t remember were the pet-pod idea came from. I brainstormed environments and situations that would fit the dialogue as well as the limitations of my resources and shooting space. Growing pets came to mind at some point, and it seemed to fit while also being unlikely to be duplicated in another submission.

Would you like to talk about its production process?
I made this video of the piece that steps through the process.

I wanted to plan things out as much as possible before going under the camera for the final animation. This involved creating an animatic, shooting reference, animating the lip sync in Maya, and shooting a pop-through, which is basically blocking for stop motion.

How much time do you spend on producing the puppets and sets? 
The Man in the Yellow Hat
The set took less than a day because almost everything was found objects. Furniture and plants were from the craft store. Many of the props were from previous projects. I wanted to spend the bulk of the time on the animation itself, and got pretty lucky finding the set pieces.
The two puppets had ball-and-socket armatures left over from previous stop motion productions. The tall guy, for example, was once The Man in the Yellow Hat from a production of Curious George. The clothes were from dolls like GI Joe and Ken. I made the heads out of clay so I could achieve a full range of emotions and mouth shapes. 

What was the most challenging aspect of producing the clip?
Probably the second shot in the clip when the guy stands up and you can see the whole room. In order to focus on just one performance at a time, I animated each character in their own pass and composited the shot in post. The challenging part was not to bump anything after the first few passes, which would trash a day’s work in an instant. I shot this in the back room of a church and found myself animating while listening to a very emotional funeral.

I love the dog's snatch of the treat at the start of the clip. Can you talk a bit about adding these kinds of exaggerations into your work?
There was a pause in the dialogue and that just seemed like a bit of business that would fit in and give the dog a bit of action. I think it’s good to look for little bits of fun that can be added to a scene without detracting from the focus of the shot. 

The Pirates
Animation company Meinbender produce 3d animation in the style of stop motion. With computer artists being able to produce these results, what future do you foresee for puppet animation.
Meinbender’s work is impressive and very appealing, but it still looks CG to me. I think there will always be a place for puppet animation because the audience can feel the difference still going to stop motion movies. Notice, for example, that while Aardman duplicated their style in CG for Flushed Away, they have returned to stop motion for The Pirates.

Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone wishing to chase a career in stop motion.
A stop motion animator has the advantage of offering their services in a less saturated market (there are an awful lot more CG animators than anything else), but with fewer work opportunities. I’m told, though, that one can make a pretty good living jumping from project to project in L.A. if they have the right contacts. Learning both stop motion and CG animation would also open a few more doors.

Education would follow the same advice given for anyone pursuing animation: Learn from a good school and/or mentor, get lots of feedback, and don’t stop animating. One should always have a project in the works. Which reminds me, I had best get back to mine.
Interview by Steven Hawthorne