Saturday 7 January 2012

Andrew Chesworth Interview

Character Design Hello guys and gals,
Andrew Chesworth won November's competition with his thrilling stand-off between Beckett and his nemesis! At the same time, Andrew is also studying upon Disney's Talent Development Program, being mentored by a personal favorite animator of mine, Malcon Pierce. Both could truely be names to remember. 

Therefore, I am greatly excited to bring you words from Andrew himself. Hope you all enjoy the read!

Firstly, may I wish you a Happy New Year. Do you have a resolution for the year ahead?
Thanks, and Happy New Year to you, too! My three main resolutions are:

- Enhance the depth and subtlety of my animation.
- Try something I've stylistically never done before.
- Finish up a one minute opening sequence as a pitch for the eight-minute animated short I'm seeking additional funding for.

Please talk a bit about your early aspirations to become an animator.
My mother was especially enamored with Disney animation at a young age in the 1950s and 1960s (she was named after Wendy from the 1953 Peter Pan feature), and so my parents exposed me to animation essentially from the crib. Some of my earliest memories are watching Dumbo and the old Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts repackaged on the 1980s Disney Channel programs Good Morning Mickey and Donald Duck Presents. I inherited the animator trait of being enamored with trains as well, and that was almost all I drew in my formative years. I loved to draw as soon as I figured out how to, which was when I was three.

Calvin and Hobbess
I was intellectual about animation at a fairly young age, because my parents did a good job explaining it to me and exposing me to sources where I could learn about it. I remember pausing my Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast VHS tapes to religiously draw still frames of Roger, Cogsworth and Lumiere. It was sort of a given for most of my life that I was going to be involved in animation in some way, shape or form. This may be a bit tangential, but I was exposed to Calvin and Hobbes in 1993 when my aunt gave me The Days Are Just Packed, and I was instantly obsessed with the comic strip and wanted to draw just like Bill Watterson. I give Mr. Watterson a great deal of credit for helping shape my perspective on the world with his ideas, through a visual language I understood.

How does it feel to have landed a place at Disney?
When I got the phone call, it felt like the moment I'd been waiting twenty years for. It was spontaneous, exciting, surreal, and overwhelming. I had a bit of a mini-career in shorts and commercial animation at MAKE for the four years following college, so getting the call at 26 years old was a more practical experience than it would have been had I been scooped up right out of school, but none of the enthusiasm and magic were diminished.

Character Design
Click to view Pre-Disney Malcon Pierce entry
I have grown in leaps and bounds through the Disney Talent Development Program. That is a direct result of the contagious atmosphere of the Animation Department, and the relentlessly dedicated attention and generosity of my assigned mentor, Malcon Pierce. Incidentally, it's very difficult for me to look at my pre-Disney work without being brutally critical in a way that I was previously not.

Disney has a fine history of its established animators passing on their traditions to the new blood. Please talk a bit about those you have met and inspired you so far.
Eric Goldberg, Bert Klein, Bruce Smith and Mark Henn have been very kind with entertaining my desire to learn how they intellectualize and practically execute their animation. Their styles and approaches really are determined by their own ways of thinking. Eric is very didactic and almost scientific in his approach to the principles, and his state of mind is totally consistent with what he puts down on the page. He is also very generous with passing on his knowledge and sense of entertainment. He makes it sounds so simple, but he is clearly a genius who can balance enormous magnitudes of detailed information in his mind while he is animating.

That is true for all of the master animators. Bruce Smith is an incredible draftsman and entertainer, and his dedication to spacing and snappy timing really speaks to my own sensibility. He has Milt Kahl's faithfulness to dimension without sacrificing appeal or communication.

Mark is very modest and leads by example, and as a fellow Midwesterner I completely understand that. The belief that you learn by doing, and doing more, and making practical assessments of where work needs to improve and attacking those weak spots decisively. He is also a very dear, honest man and his drawings are powerful but gentle and inviting.

Bert Klein's talent combined with his independent spirit and sense of humor, and insanely prolific work habits are tremendously inspiring. I wish more animators like him produced independent projects to the degree that he has and does.

In an exchange of emails with myself, you mentioned you were also inspired by the work of your personal friend, BJ Crawford. Please talk a bit about the difference you feel he has made to your animation.
Character Design BJ is a rare gift to the animation industry and a golden human being, and I love that someone as young as him is keeping alive the traditions of the 9 Old Men. I told him once I felt like the John Lounsbery to his Milt Kahl - he's so expert at his craft. I have grown enormously just working to keep up with him and his tremendously accurate and appealing animation.

It was serendipitous that he was staying in and working out of Minneapolis independently while I was living there. One of my favorite times spent with BJ was when he brought his dog over to my apartment, and we step-framed scenes from Disney's Ichabod Crane and watched Buster Keaton. He's got such reverence for legacy work, and his eye is so sharp that he can ascertain the important elements to bring to his own work. I think the most liquid ways in which BJ directly affected my work show in my planning and thumbnailing. I figure out choices in posing and spacing much more concretely before blindly executing. He also made me a better draftsman with his notes about construction and form - and just plain studying his work.

In traditional 2D animation, it was common place for each character in a scene to be worked upon by a different animator. If you had had the opportunity to work a scene with any key figure from the world of animation (past or present), who would you choose and why?
I would choose Milt Kahl, because no one understood the craft or invested more time in it than he did, and to my own personal taste he made the most entertaining versions of the characters. I also like the challenge of working with someone that intense who you know is going to deliver the goods. Sharing a scene with someone that skilled forces you to improve your game.

Character DesignGlen Keane did that for the animation crew on Tangled, and they have a whole new perspective going forward that is very rich and extremely informed. I wasn't there and I haven't met Glen, but it shows in how they are mentoring this new group. I love when Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas worked together on Madame Mim and Merlin in The Sword and the Stone, because they really complemented each other's strengths as animators. That film is so dense with rich character animation it's almost an intellectual overload.

Heading back to Disney talk, I understand you applied for a 3d position using mostly a 2D reel. Please talk a bit about the challenges of now switching to 3d at such a high level.
It's extremely hard, but it's a welcome challenge with its own joys and rewards. I made a Maya CG film in college for my thesis, but in the five years since then I've almost exclusively nurtured my skills as a 2D animator, with some notable exceptions. They knew I had fundamental technical knowledge, and there were no workflow obstacles regarding using the interface, the graph editor, or the additional tools like deformers and the like. I was a character rigger and animator at MAKE and used Jason Schleifer's system as my basic workflow model, so I feel like I've seen under the hood enough to have a dense appreciation for the CG medium beyond its surface quality.

I have been a longtime fan of Doug Sweetland's approach to CG, and intellectually I identify with his respect for the beauty of the curve editor and what it can do for your animation.

The hardest thing about CG for me is getting things to look good on ones. The stepped poses and rough blocking of a scene always look so satisfying, but are much farther removed from the end result than a pencil test is from a 2D scene. Bad splining can absolutely murder a scene beyond belief, and it's relentlessly hard to find that balance of preserving an initial pose while getting it to move through space in a satisfying way. But I love that feeling of good, clean curves giving you nice arcs and favors. It's like a golf swing - when it's on, it's really on.

The first part of your reel, reads like a small story, with many shots taken from your film Palm Springs. Please talk a bit about its selection in your reel.
At the time I applied to Disney I felt like it was my strongest work, and showing an abridged version of the short cut down to only shots I animated felt like the right choice. I think the storytelling and staging in it is much more solid and entertaining than anything I'd worked on previously. It's also the project that represents the most emotional and laborious investment from me personally. It's a world and style I love existing in, so in a way it was advertising the kind of artist I want to be right out of the gate.

I really like the characters and story in Palm Springs. It looks to be heavily influenced by the detective stories of Sin City and Roger Rabbit. With your winning entry also based upon the crime, please talk a bit about your interests in this genre?
I like seeing the harsher aspects of the real world through an entertaining and approachable lens. Animation has tremendous potential to do for other genres what Disney did for fairy tales. We see its ability to do this in films like Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback, Mulan, and Lilo and Stitch, to name a few that kind of step into darker or more mature human subject matter.

I think all three of Brad Bird's films represent the pinnacle of American animation's ability to step outside the box and grow up a little, while still retaining a gentle heart and soul, and an approachable appeal that keeps the medium a pleasant place to be. It probably rather goes without saying that Iron Giant is my favorite animated film, followed closely by The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Pinocchio is my favorite classic Disney film, because it really takes you on an emotional roller coaster of joy, humor, warmth, and absolute fear, without sacrificing any of the Disney magic.

Jessica Rabbit
That said, my love of film noir and detective stories began with Roger Rabbit as a kid because it was through the lens of fun cartoons. However, I always loved, even as a kid, that it had this scary underbelly to it. Sex, murder, and political dynamics of a real kind existed in this world. And that's the world we live in. So it's fun and pleasurable to me to see more elements of the real world caricatured in animation. And crime noir is just a juicy all-around subject; it's like the ultimate "real world" escapism subject for a film-goer.

You also seem to have thrown a curveball with your reel's inclusion of the Banana shot. I believe it adds another great dimension to your reel. Please talk a bit about the clip and your choice for including it.
I love non sequitur humor, and this is an insider joke of the guiltiest kind. The idea is that Barky (the tree) hates Banana because they have the same face, and so he must be destroyed - I think. My friend Aaron Quist came up with the story and characters for that short, and I was the character modeller / rigger / lead animator on that project.

Barky and Banana
It was all done in Maya using joint-bound NURBs shapes to give it that clean vector feel. The character was a traditional rig but it existed in very limited Z-space with set-driven presets for things like head-rotation (moving the facial elements together using one slider while still keeping them independently keyable.) I thought it was a fun way to demonstrate my knowledge of Maya through an extremely specific context.

One of my personal criticisms of your shot was the lack of reaction by Beckett when he spots the gun. This is something that I am pleased was mentioned in your eCritique provided by John Nguyen. Please may you share your thoughts on this.
It was a critique that I fully anticipated, and lost the bet on. There were several reasons for this. I blocked in an early version where he showed a scared face, and I sort of hated it unconditionally - it felt cliche to me, and so I decided to just keep him cool and steady.

However, I absolutely should have made some slight indication of a reaction through a few additional subtle drawings. I mean, the guy pulled a gun on him. I suppose I ran out of time and decided because I wanted him to stay cool, I would just let the moment end on the antagonist and not give that up. But the scene is clearly favoring Beckett's point of view through his visual prominence so that was a mistake. I make no excuses for the lack of reaction.

Talk about how the eCritique enhanced or expanded on the ideas you had originally set out to animate.
The notes that I didn't anticipate and was most enriched by were the graphic ones, like adjusting the contrast in the size of the characters in the frame, fixing Beckett's shoulder and elbow to look more comfortable in their poses, and making that last expression less sleepy. That also includes the feedback on the antagonist's facial expressions - letting him grow in intensity a bit more gradually, instead of peaking at the same time he pulls the gun out. The slow-out into the hold of him holding the gun was a time issue, and I plan on adding more frames to several of the small motions throughout the piece.

Character Design I was aware that there was awkwardness in the timing when both characters were moving at once, and I had five or six people I really respect give some pointers on negotiating that. It leveled off where it did through a lot of little shifting and eventually I just committed. John Nguyen made a great suggestion about that, and I truly agreed with all of his notes. I think he did a superb job dissecting the work and bee-lining for the most guilty culprit elements. In due time I plan on addressing as many of his notes as I can before I cut it together into a new show reel.

Please talk a bit about your animation process.
The way I approached the 11 Second Club was like doing a character test for a larger film. The design goes through some quick drafts, a very limited model sheet is drawn up, but then it's immediately animated once there is enough to go on. I sort of finalize the character within the animation test, because that's where issues of clarity and volume control announce themselves. The way a nose gets simplified, or a hand, or a shoulder, or layer of detail, becomes very apparent when you move the character around relative to itself. You will notice that Beckett sort of had his corners sanded down a bit in the final animation, sort of 'averaged out' in a way that was easier to draw and control. And the antagonist in the background became even more angular and shape-based than the model sheet (though still very close to it), because it was the easiest way to control and turn his form in the time frame I had.

I thumbnailed some basic ideas for Beckett's performance in my sketchbook, in the red graphite. The checks indicated the pose ideas that I was going to commit to in some way, shape or form.

Beckett Sketches
But those drawings were done after I had some reservations about my first-pass idea of the more uppity-looking Beckett in the clean model sheet I did.
Initially Beckett was a more upright, prissy hoodlum. I thought it made for interesting contrast and it seemed to fit the slightly nasally voice. I blocked in an entire thumbnail pass of this character, but was unsatisfied with the performance and tone, and scrapped it. was my discarded Beckett performance. It looked a bit hammy, a bit bland, and a bit uninspired, and lacking in business that I found interesting.

You can see I also had more a cowboy-reveal of the gun in the background, that seemed a bit too showy as well, so I ended up taking some feedback from another animator (Malcon Pierce, at Disney), who suggested the pulling of the gun out of the front of the jacket.

What advice would you give to others who wish to learn to develop their 2d workflow in this way?
Don't be afraid of the Cintiq as a production tool. I indeed still thumbnail ideas and sketch on paper for its immediacy and its quality of thought and expression, but as far as actually doing the final animation once you've made your creative choices, the Cintiq combined with programs like Photoshop, TVPaint, Flash, and others is a tremendous advantage in almost every conceivable way.

I think paperless animation is the future of 2D. The tablets will only get better, more receptive and more tactile, and paper as a drawing tool in sketch form won't go away anytime soon, either. 2D is more interactive and real-time than it's ever been, and that keeps it fresh and viable as a form of production in this fast-paced, high-detail CG world we live in. I don't think 2D should apologize for being 2D. I think as things get more digital and sophisticated, the 2D craft should try to remain a physical-looking medium, a hand-made medium, even if the tools to augment it are digital. I think that's what will keep people wanting to look at it. At least, that's why I like to look at it. There's an intimacy, texture and uniqueness about it that you don't get with CG, just like how in CG you get a level of detail and accuracy that 2D doesn't give you. The mediums need to play the cards they are dealt, and play them confidently.
Interview by Steven Hawthorne