We are super proud to welcome new animation supervisor Neil Glasbey to Cinesite. Neil has worked in visual effects for over twenty years and during that time, he’s gained valuable experience and insight into the pivotal and changing role of an animation supervisor.
We caught up with him to find out more about his career and ask him more about what it takes to be a great supervisor.
YOU’VE ONLY RECENTLY JOINED CINESITE. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN?
I had worked with Cinesite’s Director of Animation Eamonn Butler while he was with DNeg and really enjoyed that experience. The fact that he has stayed with Cinesite for so long speaks volumes and I wanted a piece of that! I liked the idea of joining a company where I would be closer to the team and get to work on a range of interesting projects.
DESCRIBE YOUR ROLE AS AN ANIMATION SUPERVISOR, ALONG WITH YOUR MAIN RESPONSIBILITIES.
My main responsibility is to deliver clients with the animation performance they’re after, the best performance possible according to the style, needs and budget of the production. Sometimes they want something which isn’t really the best approach or solution, so it’s my job to understand what they want for their character, and create various options and performances to find a way forward which works across the board.
Other important aspects of my role include making sure the right shots are cast to the right people, keeping performances consistent from sequence to sequence as shots pass through multiple animators’ hands, maintaining performance quality and keeping to the schedule. It’s very important to keep to the schedule because if enough time hasn’t been allocated and shots are rushed, the performance will suffer.
I am also there to keep the pressure away from the artists as much as possible. I absorb that pressure, both internal and external, because it’s not conducive to a creative environment for the animators. I form an umbrella above them.
HOW HAS THE ROLE OF ANIMATION SUPERVISOR CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? HAS IT BROADENED IN SCOPE?
The role of Animation Supervisor has certainly broadened. Back when I started it tended to be the VFX Supervisor and CG Supervisor who communicated directly with the clients, but now the role is far more client facing. Clients want that direct contact with animation, so I’m often presenting to them.
You are the conduit for creating what the client wants, you’re there to interpret their requirements. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and have prepared detailed references to illustrate it. At other times, they really don’t know and are looking to you for guidance; then the role can be far more creative.
You work very closely with other departments when you’re passing work down the pipeline, from layout to creatures and FX, so you need to be knowledgeable and sympathetic that you’re providing them with useable and high-quality content. We’re all working in harmony and you need to provide them the best opportunity to do their own work as well as possible. I think the scope of knowledge and the technical proficiency of animation supervisors has needed to increase in recent years to accommodate this.
WHAT’S THE SECRET TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL ANIMATION SUPERVISOR?
I bridge the gap between clients and animators. It’s often about feeling empathy and understanding both ways; to the client and the team. I read the client and see what they want, then translate that to the team as closely as possible, in a way that doesn’t put too much of myself forward. That is a very important requirement in performing the role well; if you get it wrong, it can become like Chinese whispers.
Sometimes you try something they have asked for and it doesn’t work, but you show them that anyway, along with other suggested approaches. You need to provide certainty; you’re there to build their trust and confidence in your experience.
HOW DID YOU START OUT IN YOUR CAREER?
In the late 1980’s I studied Technical Illustration at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. After that I was creating Haynes car manual technical illustrations; I am proud to have created the illustrations for the Jaguar E type engine. But I had a desire to turn the illustrations around, to shift things around into new perspectives, but obviously that flexibility wasn’t there with traditional techniques.
As video games began to emerge I picked up a few CAD programs and an early copy of Lightwave in the early 90s. I became fascinated with things like the movement of bouncing spheres and motion in the world around me. I loved seeing things come alive in the computer and I became hooked. In 1999 I completed an MA in Computer Animation at Bournemouth’s NCCA and joined Peppers Ghost directly from there, then on to Framestore in 2000. That was a pretty prodigious time for me in terms of advancing my knowledge and credits; I worked on everything from Walking with Beasts for the BBC to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I also delivered the long airing BBC ident of the underwater swimming hippos.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY HAVE BEEN THE MOST STAND-OUT MOMENTS OF THE EARLY YEARS OF YOUR CAREER?
I spent four years with Weta, from 2006-2010. During that time, I worked on Tintin, The Waterhorse and Avatar, which was certainly one of my career highlights. That show went incredibly smoothly, partly because James Cameron had such high quality animatics; he knew exactly what he wanted.
One of my shots was the first time we see Neytiri, up on a tree branch. That shot was used as a test to establish the face look and it took over a year.
I also animated many direhorses (a kind of 6-legged horse). I had a head start with those from my days of animating quadrupeds on Walking With Beasts. We designed run and gallop cycles for the direhorses. We even animated the enormous hammerhead rhino creatures for an important stampede sequence. It was all great fun, but I wanted to get back to London and into a more senior role, so I moved to Mill TV in 2010.
The work I created there was very enjoyable indeed. I particularly liked working on the TV show Primeval, especially the little velociraptors. There’s nothing more enjoyable than animating these little, aggressive creatures which move like birds with little twitches but are absolutely deadly.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME FO THE MORE AMBITIOUS VFX AND ANIMATION SEQUENCES YOU’VE CONTRIBUTED TO OVER THE YEARS?
Moving on to DNeg as animation supervisor presented me with an opportunity to create some really ambitious, large-scale work like the final act of the film Man of Steel, particularly the fight between General Zod and Superman in Metropolis, which results in the near total destruction of the city. Very little was actually shot in camera, most shots were almost entirely computer generated and technically, it was very challenging. There were massive destruction FX and the city was huge.
I also delivered a couple of rides for Universal Parks, based around Harry Potter; Escape from Gringotts and Journey to Hogwarts. With the audience sat in train carriages, the environments we surrounded them with included everything from Buckbeak to centaurs running through the forest, dementors and even chocolate frogs jumping up the windows. These were 12K, 60 fps single 8,000 frame shots, surrounding the carriages by 270 degrees. That was a massive and challenging undertaking.
Pacific Rim Uprising was also pretty challenging, with 1500 VFX shots in the film. That involved the creation of massive fighting battle robots, the “Jaegers”. Although the robots are 300 feet tall, we had to make them nimble and athletic. There was also a lot of destruction and FX to work alongside in that production.
WHAT KIND OF WORK DO YOU MOST ENJOY?
Sometimes it’s the sequences which are most fun to watch as an audience that are the most fun to create. I loved working on the Ant-Man Thomas the Tank Engine chase sequence, for example. From the fight inside the briefcase in the helicopter down to the shrinking shots and the action on the train track going around the carpet, the changing scales were a really interesting VFX concept to work with.
We also created an alien character called Calvin for the film Life, for director Daniel Espanosa. That was particularly interesting because he started out as a tiny, single celled organism, but ultimately turned into a large killing machine by the end of the film. The range of the character, from loving and misunderstood to dangerous and terrifying, and establishing types of movement for each stage of his development, was fascinating.
WHAT MAKES YOU PASSIONATE? WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
Bringing a creature to life is at the heart of what animators do. Enabling others to do it is also amazing. It’s not about physically animating movement but understanding what’s in the mind of the creature. How does it feel about walking across the room? Why is it moving? What is its intention or purpose? Once you’ve got inside the mind you can portray the emotion. If you get the thought process right, the animation comes afterwards, it can be finessed; you can’t polish character into something, you have to capture that in the first place. That’s what makes me passionate about what I do; bringing heart and soul into something and bringing it to life.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT YOURSELF. DO YOU HAVE ANY UNIQUE HOBBIES OR INTERESTS?
It may seem odd, but I love driving. I often get up early and just set off driving long distances, exploring the roads and the countryside on my own; it’s a fantastic form of escapism and release. I also love the finesse of cricket and brutality of rugby, although I mostly only watch these days.