Last week, I had the chance to speak with Simon Allen – an Australian born animator who worked on the recent Toy Story 3. He has a long list of other credits too as you’ll soon see.
I’ve always been intrigued as to what goes on behind the scenes of an animated film and this was a chance to find out.
If you want to hear the interview which went to air on 612ABC Brisbane with Spencer Howson, you can listen to it by clicking right here.
If you don’t have the luxury of sound and you’re looking for a transcript, here’s the best I can offer. Enjoy!
Matt: “Simon Allen was born in Australia and he works for Pixar Animation Studios. He worked on films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up – all amazing animated films. Now he’s an animator who worked on Toy Story 3 which is coming out here in Australia on June 24.”
Spencer: “We’re very excited to have you on the show. What a resume, what a CV you have there. You must stand very tall Simon?”
Simon: “Thanks very much guys. It has been a lot of fun. A bit of an adventure.”
Matt: “Now I’d like to ask about what your role is with Toy Story 3. Every time I see an animated film I see hundreds of names listed in the credits. What exactly do you have to do for an animated film?”
Simon: “I am one of the animators and I’m animating a lot of the original characters – Woody, Buzz, Rex, Mr and Mrs Potato Head, Jesse and Slinky.”
Spencer: “Does that mean you do the whole of the film for those characters or is it divided up into a certain number of minutes or scenes? How do you split the work?”
Simon: “We have about 60 to 70 animators working over 6 to 8 months. We normally try to produce around 5 seconds of film a week per animator. It’s normally broken up into chunks so an animator will get a section of the film and they will do up to a dozen shots. If they finish those and there’s time, they can move on to something else or they can help out with another character.”
Spencer: “How do you make sure Woody walks the same way and talks the same way for the whole film if you’re dividing it up like that?”
Simon: “We do a lot of work before the movie is in production and so someone will devise or design the style of the animation for that character. Often we’ll be able to take that animation from our library. So if it’s a walk or something specific like that, we can grab that and put it in our scene. But for the characters, we just feed off each other and also we feed off the voice talent. Luckily for us with Toy Story 3, we’ve grown up with these characters so we know how they act, we know their personas and we have a lot of experience and lot of reference material to draw from.”
Matt: “You say it takes a week to do 5 seconds worth of work as an animator. Is that frustrating? Do computers not help you out in any way?”
Simon: “They’re not that fast, no. It’s a bit of a process. About a second a day is what we get. That’s why we need so many animators. By the end of the week we might have 3% of the movie done so yeah, it does take a long time.”
Matt: “Every time I see an animated film and I’m reviewing it, I keep saying that the animation is getting better and better. How do you keep up with all these changes in technology? Or is been pretty much the same over the years?”
Simon: “No, it’s getting better and better. The computer power is getting better. Also, the demands are becoming higher. People want to see fur, they want to see a lot more characters, they want to see fantastic lighting and so it does take a lot of processing power to produce these images. When Toy Story first came out it took around 4 to 5 hours per frame to render, to actually make that frame. On some of these new movies we’re getting so technical. On Cars, it was taking between 13 and 16 hours just to make one frame so there’s 24 frames per second and for us to make that frame, it takes that long to render.”
Spencer: “There must have been times when someone pulled the cord out of the wall by mistake just before its finished rendering. You must have stories like that?”
Simon: “We have a designated generator just to make sure that if there’s a blackout, we can keep going.”
Spencer: “Back to the technology, with the demand for 3D and high-def, one of my observations is that early on with computer animation there seemed to be a struggle with creating human faces. Maybe that’s why the early movies were about cars and toys and the like. Matthew and I both saw Shrek Forever After the other night and for the first time, I think they nailed it with their witches’ faces. Do you think I’m on to something there? Of all things you animating with a computer, are human faces the most difficult?”
Simon: “They really are very difficult. There is this thing called the ‘uncanny valley’. It’s when you start to try to produce a human character in a computer. It never really looks quite right. It just kind of looks weird. But with the Toy Story, the reason we started it was because of John Lasseter’s passion for toys. When he was first doing animated short films back in the 1980s, one of his first films was Tin Toy and it was about these toys coming to life. He loves toys and I think it was his passion for that which inspired him to do Toy Story. I think that’s also the same with other directors. He loves cars so he also did Cars as well. Brad Bird loved superheroes so he did The Incredibles. Andrew Stanton loves robots so he did WALL-E.”
Matt: “Can I ask about the role of a director on an animated film. They can’t exactly tell the actors what to say and how it say it. How does the director work?”
Simon: “In most cases, they’re the ones that helps write the story. They’re doing this process for about 4 to 5 years so they know this movie through and through. They’ve done all the readings of the script and they know the movie inside out. When it does come time for them to do the voice recordings, they can help the actors give the right information and give them the passion required for those lines. It’s the same for the animators and every department on the film. The director knows the colour of the nut and bolt on that chair. They know the colour of the wall that’s over there. They know how these characters should act. Every minute detail is given by the director.”
Matt: “Is it a really competitive industry. I know Dreamworks also churns out a lot of animation. Do you go along and see the Dreamworks films and think some of that stuff is pretty cool?”
Simon: “Oh we do. Definitely. We also have a lot of friends who work for those other companies so we keep in contact with them. I worked on Happy Feet back in Sydney and I definitely keep in touch with those guys. It also helps drive us. We’re so invigorated by what other people are doing and it helps make us more creative.”
Matt: “What’s it like to actually see it all up there on the big screen for the first time?”
Simon: “It’s pretty amazing. You spend a long time working on these shows but they’re just in small chunks which are out of context and out of order. It’s without editing, it doesn’t have any sound effects and it doesn’t have any music. Once you see it all put together with all the music and it’s all edited, you’re definitely touched by it. I remember the first time that I saw Up on the big screen, even though I had seen that movie 100 times before, when I saw it on the big screen I still cried.”
Spencer: “These films are 3D these days. Some are some of them are done post 3D and some are 3D all along. I remember with Alice In Wonderland that the 3D was an ‘added on’ 3D. What does that throw up for you as an animator having to work in 3D? Does the computer do that for you or does it change what you’re doing as an artisan?
Simon: “I know with some of the movies out there that it definitely changes the way you approach a shot. In most cases, it’s all about the story and creating the best possible film first. Then, the 3D effects are an added feature so we don’t really worry too much. It’s mainly the movie which comes first.”
Spencer: “And the director has worked out what’s going to work as 3D shot presumably and so that’s what you’re given to create?”
Spencer: “We should just ask you before we let you go that you’re an Aussie and you’re there working on what have become modern day classic movies. For anyone listening, whether they’re a graphic artist or a child still at school, how do we get your job?”
Simon: “Haha. It takes a lot of practice and if you’re passionate about it, you need to keep practicing.”
Spencer: “Those software programs used in schools here, is it worthwhile playing with those programs? Is that how you get a start?”
Simon: “Absolutely. Any exposure that you can get to animation software or the process of animation is great. Definitely dive head first into it and if you love it, you’ll just keep doing it and get better at it.”
Spencer: “And there’ll be plenty of jobs in years to come? No sign of it disappearing as a moviemaking skill?”
Simon: “It’s a huge industry. It’s like a $10 billion industry and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Spencer: “Simon, it’s been great having you on the show this morning. Thank you very much and all the best with Toy Story 3 and whatever comes afterwards.”