Feature Animation – Department Profile

Since its inception in 2014, Cinesite’s Feature Animation division has been working with filmmakers to deliver compelling stories that are created with increasingly complex, and progressively higher quality animation. Our feature animation departments work collaboratively together to breathe life into the characters and places these stories rely on.

In this series, we explore each department through conversations with our crew and dive into the role they play within the production pipeline.

In this edition: Animation with Graham Silva, Animation Director at Cinesite Vancouver

What is animation within the context of feature animation?

Animation is the performance stage of feature animation production – the acting.  It is the process in which we take the brilliant work created in the preceding departments and transform it all into living, breathing, characters.  

 

How do you animate? What are some methodologies?

The animation process can vary from production to production and even between each individual animator, based on their own experiences and preferences.  Even different shot callouts may need to have their own specialized approach.  An animator may tackle a nuanced acting/dialog shot differently than a complex physicality or multi-character interaction shot.  Likewise an animator may approach a physicality shot with a more organic straight ahead approach, vs perhaps taking a more pose to pose approach to a stylized character piece.  At the end of the day, no one particular methodology is right or wrong, as long as we can successfully achieve the Director’s style and vision.  But a typical walk through a shot for myself might look something like this:

    1. Casting: You find out what shot(s) you are cast.  I’d go back to my desk and watch them in the seq over and over, noting down any questions I may have to ask the Director at the KickOff.  I might take a tumble through the Maya scene file and see what I have to work with logistically.  Set space to work in, any props or set pieces I should be aware of etc.  But I don’t start animating anything at this time.
    2. Shot Brief/Kickoff/Launch: The launching-off point. This is where the animator learns from the Director/Supervisor what is needed for the shot/sequence.  It’s our opportunity to ask those all important questions and to delve into the finer details of what we need to deliver on. For instance:  
      • What are the Character’s Motivations / How does this moment fit within the overall character’s arc? 
      • What is the Subtext of the shot? ( this is where the magic truly lies )
      • How does the shot fit contextually within the picture? How did we get here?
      • What are the physical requirements of the shot?
    3. Shot Planning:  With the information learned in the Shot Brief / KickOff, the animator can then really start planning their shots. Here’s my process:
      • At this time I’d usually begin by sitting down again and just listening to the audio file, over and over, to really digest it.  The animator wants to learn that audio file intimately.  The nuance in inflection, rhythms, where the breaths are, pauses etc.  Listen for any natural peaks and valleys.  All of that informs just how our character may perform.  Even mapping out the breaths, knowing when and how your character is breathing can layer-in subtle texture and really add authenticity to a performance.  
      • After I get a firm read on that, I’d then venture into Thumbnailing and/or Shooting Reference.
    4. Live Action Reference: There are many differing schools of thought surrounding using reference, and that brings me back to the “no one way of Animating” we spoke of earlier.  But it’s something for myself I find invaluable!
      • I’ll shoot many many takes trying different acting choices, watch them back and course correct if need be.  I like to also get a couple other people to shoot some takes just to see if they do something maybe I didn’t think of.  Some great surprises can pop up that way.  It’s also a great way to involve others and get to know your fellow teammates, which is an added bonus.  Another thing about reference is, hey, animation is hard enough!  Shooting reference allows you to be free and focus on broader strokes and when you watch it back you may find those tiny details that will add credibility to a performance that you may not have found before if you just dove straight in.  The subtleties of an eye flicker, and a staggered breath, of a simple micro gesture that you did instinctively but may have never thought about.  These little gems may have gone by the wayside without that old friend reference.  You don’t need to use the reference verbatim.  Personally I like to trim and edit different takes together until I have the performance I’m looking for and then bring that into Maya where we can adjust and add more caricatured timing.
    5. Blocking: Now I’ve done my research and planning,and shot my reference, I’m ready to jump back into maya and begin blocking my shot.  This is where we build the strongest possible foundation for our performances.  This is my favorite stage.  
      • Following my planning, I focus on creating strong storytelling key poses and any vital breakdowns needed to accurately describe the actions as well as laying in my timing & spacing. Some people play more fast and loose in this stage, but as I said earlier everyone does things a little differently.
      • My philosophy is I want to build my house on the strongest possible foundation.  The more cavalier up front, I find, the easier it may be for the shot to lose its way down the garden path.  Also, a pitfall some more junior animators may find is that if their blocking is too loose, the director may not get a clear read on their intentions.  This could lead to the director losing confidence in where the shot is headed, and attempting to course correct.  Every animator has been in that place before when the notes and reworks start to fly.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but let’s help ourselves any way we can up front.
    6. Splining: Once blocking is approved, we can start refining the acting. Flavoring in more detail and nuance, and adding in all the extra bells and whistles.  Tracking arcs, adding overlaps, tweaking curves. All that fun stuff. This is where we can really get noodly!  We may show the Director a couple more times throughout this process.
    7. Polish & Final: The Director yells FINAL!  But you are not done yet… HoHooooo No.  For you are an animator, and we are never done until production pries the shot out of our cold, gnarled clutches!  All kidding aside, there is generally a last phase where we tighten up any last minute elements, or do some final technical due diligence before sending the shot down the line where lighting, fx, compositing, etc. get their chance to add their respective pieces of magic to the process.
    8. Rinse and Repeat!

 

What role does the animation department have within the overall production pipeline? Where does it come in in relation to everything else? 

In most cases, Animation comes in a little further down the production line, after such departments as Story, Vis Dev (Character & Environment Design, Color Styling etc), Character Development (Modelling, Rigging, Surfacing), Previs/Layout….. then Animation.    

What is the objective of animation?

The main objective is to deliver on the vision of the director.  To give their actors the voices and actions needed to perform what’s necessary to tell their stories.  To bring to life a myriad strong, nuanced, and believable characters.

 

How does animation for a feature differ from a series?

It really depends on the type of series you are working on, as varying artistic styles and of course, varying budgets, will dictate many of those differences. 

A higher budget streaming series may align closer to a feature film than perhaps a preschool  series would. Often the biggest differences overall is time.  On higher budget feature films, you tend to have lengthier run up times for PreProduction.  

In production, your average animation shot quota tends to be lower as there is often a higher premium put on the quality of the acting/performance requirements.

In Feature production, we as animators tend to have more time at the beginning of our shots to invest in the planning stage.  As I mentioned earlier, to me, that is one of the most important parts of our process.  In a series, where quotas are higher, that planning time tends to shrink, to sometimes, non-existence.  But if you can even find 30 minutes to plan, your shots will benefit, and you will learn more.    

That being said, even a series with higher animation quotas can have great performances if they are planned for stylistically and technically, to streamline the process.  

Investing time in PreProduction to develop creative solutions in other departments; such as Creative cutting, layout/staging, Cinematic camera language, and creative uses of light and color can really help enhance a performance.

 

What skills are required to be successful in animation?  

Observation:  Always be learning.  Be curious. Take stock in the world around you.   How do things move? How do people carry themselves?  Watch people interact.  What is their body language when they are chatting with their friend? How does the person listening hold themselves? Are they bored? What is it about that pose or action that gives you that sense?

Study study study.  Study body language and body mechanics. What is leading an action?  Is a character leading with their head when they walk or their chest, or their belly?  How does that read to you?  What do you feel it says about them?  How does a scared run differ from that of a sprint?  Always be learning.  

All this information an animator can store up in their Animation Vault, and call back to it when inevitably a shot calls for it.  

Attitude:  I can’t stress this enough, but having a good attitude is paramount!  A reputation for being a good animator but great teammate can carry you in good stead in this industry much more than someone who may be an absolute rockstar animator, but that no one wants to work with.  It’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. 

Communication:  Don’t be afraid to talk with your leadership.  Keep tabs with Supervisors and coordinators.  Let them know how you are doing and where you are at.  If you are going to be late on a delivery, communicate that.  Struggling silently does not help you or your production.  

 

Resilience:  The business of animation is one of almost constant criticism, and some folks can deliver and receive it better than others.  It’s important for animators to remember that we are all building a vision for the Director, and sometimes our eyes and theirs may not align on a particular shot.  That doesn’t mean your idea isn’t good, but perhaps not good for that particular moment or character.  Don’t let that get you down.  Learn from it and course correct.  Maybe you can bring that idea out of the vault again down the line.  

What is the best thing about being an animator?

For me personally, it’s being able to look up at that big screen at the end of a production, and see my character up there, with all the amazing lights and sound, and hear the audience’s reactions.  When they laugh or even better yet, let out a little sniffle, you walk a little taller the rest of the day!

 

What is the best part of being an animator at Cinesite Feature Animation? 

It’s cliche to say the team, but being around a group of positive, like-minded individuals who  share that same hunger to create wonder and to be better every day, is always incredibly inspiring.