Saturday 24 November 2012

Michael Amos Interview

Hello 11 Second Club community,

Its been a little quiet around the blog lately. Which will hopefully mean this interview makes a loud splash, as we catch up with Dreamworks animator Michael Amos. Michael's work was featured in Animation Mentor's showcase for 2011. Michael's theatrical approach to animation features a colourful host of characters and beautiful rendering. I hope you all enjoy reading about his work and influences.

Thank you Michael for your time,

Character Design
 (Please click to watch Michael's Animation Reel)

Please tell us a bit about your passion for musicals, theatre and film.
Firstly, thanks so much Steven for asking to interview me and talk about my work. I am a big fan of the 11 second club and often vote in the monthly competition and read the forum and blog.

Film has always been a passion of mine. For me, seeing a movie is about the feeling you get when watching it. The films that really inspire and stay with me are the ones that effected me the most in the cinema.

The first film I saw was ET when it was released, I was 4. It was probably a bit of a bad choice that my Dad made to take me to see it, but the terror I felt during the end sequence with the white tubes and doctors at their house was also a feeling I loved. I also remember leaving the cinema and just sitting down at the curb on the street unable to speak! It is this feeling that keeps me going to the cinema to search for films that really effect me.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a favourite as well. Again, my Dad took me along, with my younger brother (who again was much too young to see it and was scarred for life... me chasing him around the house trying to pull out his heart did not help!)

Amadeus would be my favourite film of all time. It is the perfect film with the most amazing score, acting, casting, costumes and story. I can frame through F. Murray Abraham's acting as Salieri over-and-over and constantly be blown away by the emotion behind that performance.

And more recently Hugo and The Artist. These film had a real nostalgic feeling to them for me. The sense of wonder that you felt in childhood and something that I think people felt more often in the early 20th century is something that drives me to animation. This feeling is something I am always trying to recapture both for myself, and when I animate, in my audience.

Which brings me to animation. The ability to breath life and a believable performance into a character is a talent that never stops amazing me. I am always surprised and so excited to see my animation come to life. I loved Loony Tunes and Disney animation as a kid. I watched Pinocchio, The Rescuers, Peter Pan and Sword in the Stone over and over and over again. And I still do! Medusa scarred me so much I couldn't watch that film for years (I seem to like being frightened in films!)

Do you have a favourite musical performance?
To be honest, musicals have only recently become a genre that I enjoy. This is totally attributed to my wife. She loves them and introduced me to many great ones like My Fair Lady, Wizard of Oz, Oklahoma! and many more.

My favorites are Meet Me in St. Louis, The Producers (both versions) and The Court Jester (anything with Danny Kaye is awesome).

As for an actual performance in a film / animated movie I would say Danny Kaye in The Court Jester when he sings about being a jester. I also love all the songs and performances in The Producers (the most recent one). You could pick any from that film and I would be happy!
And for an animated performance would be the Genie in Aladdin when he sings Friend Like Me . Eric Goldberg's animation is amazing. 

I love your choice to animate Dustin Hoffman's vocals from the film Hook. I like how the twist in character plays with the direction expectations of the audience. How does the finished animation reflect on your original ideas for the audio?
Concept art - Lie, Me NEVER
This shot was a hard one. I wanted to animate something a little more over the top and crazy. I felt like I only scratched the surface with a previous shot that I had tried as a project as part of the Animation Mentor course. I did this animation in the 2 week break between classes as just a personal side project to see if I could do a better job.

I filmed a lot of video reference where I had him sitting down, standing, walking around, pacing etc etc. I liked though the idea of him starting the shot not even looking at the viewer or the person he is talking to in the scene. I also felt like him standing AND not looking at them raised his status and made him a doubly arrogant!

I blocked out the shot and showed some people whose work inspires me (both students and mentors) and didn't get the best reaction. So I scrapped it, reshot the reference and started again. This shot was the only one where I almost gave up on it completely.

Most of it though was really the idea of trying to push the intensity and the personality of the character. The way he walked, his turn, the laugh etc I redid a few times to really try and get more ideas into how he moved telling us more about his character. The stiffness in the upper chest - his whole body, neck and head feeling more connected / fused together. The limp at the start (I wore a big ski boot while doing the reference to make this feel right).

The choices of audio seems highly appreciative to the theatrical qualities found in your work. What do you look for when selecting audio to animate?
I really look for character - something that sounds like it has a lot of personality. I also look for highs and lows in the dialogue and pacing. Something that has pauses or break is great too so that I can show the character thinking. I look for things that are not too recognisable so that I can put my own spin on it and not have the audience comparing it to the original performance. I also look for changes in emotion and tone. But most of all, something that is entertaining.

The entertainment factor to me is most important. Every shot in the film is in there for a reason - to tell the story, to tell us about the character, and to entertain us. I also try and keep the clips fairly short. Having pieces that you can really spend the time polishing and pushing to get it to feature quality I think is much harder with 500-600 frame shots than 200-300 frame ones.

Finally, I look for things that will complement my reel if that is the purpose of the piece. Something that is not too similar to other things I have on there, but also challenges me to work in a different style.

Your Action Analysis blog pays many wonderful tributes to the work of Disney's Nine Old Men. Please talk about their influence on your work.
The Nine Old Men are a huge influence I think to anyone that aspires to become a feature animator. They shaped our childhood and are a huge inspiration on our work. I was lucky enough to meet Frank and Ollie when they visited Australia and stay in touch with Ollie afterwards and that played a big part in how I thought about animation.

For me I think I see them as a quality bar and something to try to achieve. I also love watching their animation because I feel like 2D animation is much more free to push the poses and the graphic nature of the shapes and be more inventive with the timing/spacing. These are qualities I would like to try and get more into my work as I feel that the video reference approach is of course great for acting and subtle details, but can be too grounded in reality. I would like to see animation continue to push more into why it is animated - inventive poses, timing and spacing.

You have celebrated the works of many different American studios. What influence has your home country of Australia had on your creative practice?
The two main influences for me in Australia were Peter Viska and Chris Kennett. Peter is an animator and illustrator who has worked on a huge number of animated TV series and children's books. He was incredibly helpful and kind - he let me punch my animation paper, he gave me an animation desk, he answered a lot of questions and he ended up becoming a co-worker on a number of projects.

Chris Kennett was someone that I originally hired at my studio to work on a TV series pilot that I had co-created and was doing with Cartoon Network. He ended up becoming a good friend and is a constant inspiration as a character designer, animator and children's book author. 

As a fan of traditional animation, you mentioned your delight in watching the 2D pencil tests for DreamWorks, Me and My Shadow. What role do you believe 2D animation will play in your future career?
I am extremely lucky to be working at DreamWorks on the film, Me and My Shadow as both a 2D and CG animator. There is so much amazing talent on this film. Going to dailies is a blast to see the amazing pencil tests and CG animation being done. Its also so exciting to be drawing and doing 2D animation again.

I think 2D will continue to play a very big part in my animation workflow. Many of the supervisors and HOCA's (Head's of Character Animation) on the films come from a 2D background. The new software at DreamWorks requires you to work on a Wacom Cintiq and drawing poses for both yourself and to share with other animators is built in. It also allows you to pencil test directly into your CG scene and show as a blocking pass for your CG animation (a workflow I used a lot at Animation Mentor).

Whats great about Me and My Shadow is that it is an idea that is perfect for animation and specifically the mixture of 2D and CG animation. The studio seems very open to pursuing more ideas like this (like we have seen in the past with the 2D sequences in Kung Fu Panda) and along with projects like Disney's Paperman, I find the future of 2D and CG working closer together to be really exciting.

Such details as the spots of colour in the window flowers for The Trolley Song really add an extra quality to the presentation of your reel. Please talk us through some of the artwork that inspired your reel's environments.
The backgrounds in my reel where all done based on one sad fact... I have absolutely no idea how to model anything, not even a cube, in CG! So I did the only thing I know, I drew them all.

The main thing was I wanted to present the work in the best way, but also wanted to add to the feeling and tone of each peice. So I designed settings that helped set up and tell you a little more about the character in the shot or their backstory. The lighting and mood for me was really the most important thing as I didn't want detailed or complex backgrounds distracting from the animation (that was the job I wanted, not a BG artist!)

I also tried to look at my reel a bit like a film overall. I tried to think of it in the terms of a colour script. I wanted there to be emotional highs and lows and the different shots to be really distinct from one another. So I made sure that the colours felt like they all came from a similar tonal palette (ie. I didn't suddenly introduce really bright candy colours for example), but changed enough from each shot so that there was not all blue or all red etc shots together.

The Santa Elf shot I wanted it to feel warm and cosey. I wanted you to feel safe and happy with the festive feeling of Christmas because the whole piece was about contrast to what the girl was going to say. I wanted her line to be as unexpected as possible!

(The Santa Elf  background designs)

The Robin Hood shots were modelled badly in 3D as I needed to have much more complicated camera moves and the character interacting more with the environment.

The Lie Me NEVER shot was inspired by The Godfather and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in style to the colours and lighting. I wanted a more gritty feeling to this shot and added some grain and texture to it to make it feel dirty and dark after the brighter end to Robin Hood.

The Circus Pole shot was inspired by the colours and tones from Moulin Rouge. I wanted to to feel rich in colour to compensate for the more basic rig.

The Trolly Song was all about that first morning light in a city like San Francisco / New York which influenced the designs of the houses and trolly and was set in the late 1800's or early 1900's. After the last two shots I wanted to end the reel on a more upbeat tone.

(The Trolley Song background artwork)

Looking through your blog, I've spotted that you had the opportunity to meet two of your Animation Mentor teachers, Pixar's Chris Chua and Disney's Chad Sellers. Please tell us about this experience.
I've actually been lucky enough to meet with all my mentors from Animation Mentor which has been great. I got to meet Chris Chua and  Victor Navone at Pixar where they gave me a tour and had lunch. It was awesome to talk to them about the projects they were working on and still hear how passionate they are about animation and films. It was also cool to hear about Chris' lunchtime group of friends who play board games at work.

Chad was also very kind to give me a tour of Disney a few weeks after they had wrapped on Tangled. It was great to meet a lot of the team and hear about how Chad had grown up loving Disney film and was living his dream working at the studio surrounded so much history that constantly inspires him.
My other 3 mentors were Drew Adams, David Weatherly and Sean Sexton who all work at DreamWorks. This is the most exciting part for me, being able to work alongside these guys, eat lunch, see films and hangout with them is amazing. Drew and I share a love for Disneyland that boarders upon obsession! We have made a lot of trips down there already!

Tell us a bit about how your mentor's workflows and friendships inspired you.
The mentors at Animation Mentor teach because they all share the same passion for animation and really want to share that knowledge. I have taken something from each of these mentors which is reflected in my workflow constantly:

Chris' ability to simplify and distill a pose so that intention and thought is as clear as possible. Chad's notes on spacing and arcs, Drew's workflow is most similar to mine where I animate in a more straight ahead method. Dave's constant harping on about making it work from all angles (which has since saved my ass many times!) and his nit-picky notes that make me polish my work to a much higher level. Victor's notes on acting and his love of the graph editor which no longer made me scarred of it! And finally Sean who's work ethic and acting notes continues to inspire me at work everyday.

Your Robin Hood animation made it in the Animation Mentor's Student Showcase. How did you plan the environment and the path your character ran through?
I did this animation in class 3 with Drew Adams at DreamWorks. I felt like after class 2 that I had only just started to animate all the different physical actions that I wanted to try in CG. So I made a big list of everything I would like to try and animate including pushing a heavy object, jumping a large gap, catching your balance, climbing etc.

I then worked out a script based on these and how they could work together. I had also recently seen the original Robin Hood at an old cinema where I used to live in Melbourne, Australia on the big screen and loved it. I felt like that would be a good theme that I could use to tie these different body mechanic actions together into a very loose story.

I spent some time drawing out different castle and rooftop locations to work out how the different actions could take place in these settings. The restrictions from Animation Mentor was there had to be 3 shots - so only 2 camera cuts and minor camera moves ie. basic pans only. Each animation was no more than 200 frames, and a single character.

I like having these restrictions as they give you a framework to work within. I also wanted to make sure I didn't spend to much time having the character run from place to place (so the first shot is really the only one that has running) and that each shot didn't repeat itself with the body mechanic actions.

I pencil tested out each of these animations very roughly in Flash to work out the timing as I was worried I was trying to do too much in the frame limit. I also always work with paper in front of my computer as I tend to rough out the poses and push them further with a pencil rather than trying to make them work on the rig.

(Below is a glimpse into Michael's planning)

(video ref)

(Selection of planning from shots one and two, (to be editted))

(Shot three)

Since joining DreamWorks has your animation workflow evolved since your studies at Animation Mentor?
The overall workflow has remained very much the same. The only real difference is time and software. I still shoot video reference for all my shots (I usually do this on the weekend so that I am not messing around Monday morning and loosing half a day editing it and getting that right before I start blocking).

I also draw out the poses and test things in drawings first. I then block in stepped mode and show this to the Director in rounds or dailies.

The time difference comes in here - at Animation Mentor there was more steps. You would show blocking, blocking plus, spline, polish etc. At work, I usually show blocking and once I am given the go-ahead and made any revisions from the supervisors etc, I spline and do a first polish pass together.

I then show what is called 'close to final' where I am looking for the Director to approve and say my shot is 'Auto-Final' which means he is happy with the acting and performance and I don't have to show him again. I then do another few polish passes whilst showing the supervisors to get final from them as well.

The other difference is the software. DreamWorks has their own proprietary software called EMO. After 5-6 weeks of training you start on production shots and it is very different to Maya which is what I was using at Animation Mentor. It has some great features and is missing a lot too, so that has changed my workflow in a technical sense.

I am a big fan of your gothic illustrations released in your book, Scary Tales. Do you have plans to continue your practice as an illustrator?
Thanks so much! Scary Tales was something I was working on just before I started at Animation Mentor and through the first 3 classes. I was missing drawing while spending so much time on the computer and wanted to work on things that were only on paper with very little digital components. I used ink and brushes and charcoal etc. It was so nice to have that escape.

I would love to do another book and have been discussing the idea with another animator at work, so who knows!

This gothic theme and dark sense of humour has continued into your Codfish and Graveyard animations. Why were they left off your reel?
They were left off because they were the weakest two pieces on the reel. Codfish was replaced by the Lie, Me NEVER shot as I felt the acting and character was much stronger. Graveyard I felt was the weakest piece on the reel, and through discussion with my mentor at the time, Sean Sexton, we removed it.
We have talked about your many different influences. How much research do you do when commencing a new project or shot?
I do quite a bit. I look at a lot of movies for acting ideas, gestures etc. I look at comics and 2D animation for layout and staging, I read about the time or place the movie or character is from.

For example, the Trolly Song shot I knew I wanted to do something in the late 1800's time wise. So I spent quite a bit of time researching the costumes and women's etiquette of the era to get ideas on how the character would move. Something that I really liked was the idea that women in this time period would wear corsets. This would really restrict the movement, especially the mid section and breathing.

So I deliberately reduced the amount of movement and made the middle section of the torso quite stiff, having most of the bend come from the hips and a little from the shoulders, but none in the centre. I also made the breathing in the upper chest only and not from the belly.

Lastly, is there any advice you would like to share with your fellow animators?
Animation takes a huge commitment in time and passion. You really have to love it and live it to want to get to the point where you make it your career. My three pieces of advice would be:

- If you are going to animate, pour your heart and soul into it. Work as hard as you can and put everything into it. Use your time wisely and efficently. Turn off any distractions. I would disconnect the internet and my phone while in Maya so that while I am at my desk I am only animating, not chatting, surfing or writing emails. If you work hard it will show in your work and people will notice.

- Make real connections and contacts in the industry and animation community. So many of the jobs at the major studios and smaller ones too are from recommendations and referrals. Get to know people working at these studios as your mentors through school or at events like CTN. But don't make it about them helping you or giving you notes on your work. Just get to know them, talk to them, celebrate with them by sending an email when their latest film comes out etc. They will take notice of your work anyway and want to help you if you follow point 1!
Also- find people you admire and trust at school or online and show them your work. Get real feedback all the time. During Animation Mentor a few of us started a study group and got together every week and really tore each others stuff apart. It helped so much.

- Finally, surround yourself with people who believe in you and understand your goals. Many friends you have will think you are crazy... "You don't want to go out, you want to just stay in and animate?!?" My wife Michelle is my biggest supporter and believed in me when I thought the goal of working at DreamWorks was not going to happen. Having someone like that who understands you need to work on Friday night and all weekend and is pushing you to succeed makes all the difference.

She even slept on the floor beside my desk one night to keep me company. She would read to me when I was going from stepped to spline in my shot late at night. She moved across the world so I could work at my dream job. A HUGE part of the reason I have been able to work at DreamWorks and achieve this goal is because of her. Find your Michelle!