May 1, 2012

What Next?: Animator

We take a teen to see what it would be like to be an animator at Pixar.

Scott: So, Chase, we are here at Pixar. I mean, these are the people who did A Bug’s Life, Ratatouillle, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. Are you excited?

Let’s go, man! Let’s go! Let’s just get in there.

When you walk into Pixar Studios, you quickly realize this is no ordinary office. Check out the six Academy Awards right at the door.

Hi, Oscar!

And our tour guide is sporting a…skirt?

What’s with the kilt?

“It is kilt Friday, as it is every Friday here at Pixar.”

Scott: And everyone here gets to design their own office. So, if you want to work in a castle or a shed, you are in the right place!

What do they actually do in their castle or shed? Animators bring still drawings to life by making them move and talk.

“They do that by lining up a series of pictures, each one slightly different than the one before it, and played all together, they create the illusion of movement.”

Scott: To help animators understand how the story and the characters should look, artists draw out key scenes from the movie and put them together in a storyboard. The pictures from these storyboards may look familiar.

Today, most animation is done using digital models on a computer. Austin Lee specializes in character modeling and built the star of Pixar’s next movie, Brave. She is a Scottish princess named Merida.

Austin Lee: We take a lot of time just making sure every little point on the surface of this character is in exactly the right place. If you take a point and put it in the wrong place, it starts to make her look ugly really quickly. Like you don’t want her to look like that — a horn growing out of her cheek.

Scott: Yeah, exactly. No cheek horns!

Next, Austin prepares Merida for animation in a process called character rigging. Just as a puppet maker puts strings on a marionete’s wrists, elbows and knees to control its movement, Austin creates controls for Merida’s movement.

Austin: An example for a control might be a moving the mouth corner in and out. There might be another control that moves the corner up and down for more sort of frowns versus smiles.

Scott: Merida has more than 3,000 controls to make her move in a realistic way, like this.

Once Austin has all the controls working properly, animators like Bret Parker use them to bring Merida to life.

At first, Merida is bald and she looks slightly awkward. But using the controls Austin created, Bret slowly smooths out Merida’s movements. It’s almost as if you are sculpting something or carving, you have your rough form and then you start to go in for details.

Bret Parker: Exactly.

Scott: Eventually, Merida gets clothes and, finally, hair.

Do you have to go in and do the background for every animation? Or is that a whole different depart?

“I am just working on the characters.”

“One team does background and another, the lighting. None of it happens quickly. In general, they say an animator can animate a second-and-a-half a week, which if you think it is an 86-minute film.”

Scott: Wow!

So, there are so many different animators and they are all chunking their pieces together and it’s working out.


Scott: So, what is next for Chase if he would like to be one of those animators? In high school, aspiring animators should study drawing and film and develop their computer skills. While a degree isn’t required, in college, future animators should study fine art, computer graphics, or animation. Most employers look for people with a good portfolio and strong technical skills. Animators earn between $35,000 and $125,000 a year.

Obviously, Chase was a fan.

Chase: Before we leave, I gotta get your signature.

Oh, Buzz! How could I forget about Buzz?

Scott: Chase asked everyone he met to sign his Buzz Lightyear cup as a momento of his trip.

Scott: So, tell me, was your day here great?

Chase: Dude! It went amazing! I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Scott: Now do you think you have what it takes to continue to pursue animation as a career path?

Chase: Heck yeah! Man, I know I have it.

Scott: I love it. So, this is kind of like your first Academy Award.

Chase: Yeah. It’s my Oscar.

Scott: I love it, I love it. I can’t wait to see what else you do!

Chase: Alright.


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