GW: When did you discover your desire to be an artist? I know you are into motorcycles, that you’re a pretty good football player and that you also play the drums. At what point did animation come into play?
CK: I was a cartoon nut as a small kid: Up at 6 am on Saturday mornings, sitting in front of the TV, cereal in hand, shivering under the blanket in the living room. Bugs Bunny especially. When I was trying to decide on a career, I did some research into animation, found that Cal-Arts was a great school, sent in my portfolio, and lo and behold, I was accepted. I didn’t know if it would lead to a career or not, but I was following something I loved, so i just went for it.
GW: Once hired as a professional what was the workload like?
CK: I’ve never found the workload to be too heavy, but my nature is to work hard. Typically the hours are pretty straight forward until the end of a production when there’s some overtime. After that we usually get a little time off if we want it, so the cadence of work feels pretty natural and good. I like it when we’re slammed; there’s an “all hands on deck” mentality that’s very invigorating.
GW: Animation can be a tricky gig, can you give us an example where you run into problems with character animation?
CK: The hardest thing about character animation, I find, is finishing the shot and wringing all the beautiful details out of the shot that I can. That’s the area I’m striving most for improvement in right now. Having your shots changed (or cut out of the movie) after you’ve put your heart and soul into them can be frustrating. It’s important to not be attached to your work. Be proud of it. Put all you’ve got into it, but once it’s done, let it go out into the universe and hope it sees the big screen. Don’t forget to save a copy of it for yourself!
GW: What defines an animators abilities? In comics this could be defined as a style. Does this apply to animation?
CK: In feature animation, it’s the opposite of style, or I should say it is the adoption of the common style, the style of the character that is already defined. In Animation we need to remove individual style, and incorporate our technical skills into what’s already established for the greater good. When you have 40+ animators working on the same movie, there has to be a homogenous feel to the acting of the characters. This is much harder than it looks! Other defining characteristics of animators: patience, an attention to detail, and a willingness to wrestle a scene to the ground, and to make it as juicy as possible, no matter how long it takes or how frustrating the process is.
GW: You just finished working on “Kung Fu Panda.” What were the challenges of animating a character in a comedy?
CK: Comedy is hard in animation because comedy is hard, period. Humor is so nebulous, especially because it is so often spontaneous, and the process of animation itself is anything but. When you work on a shot, you look at it over and over, and nothing kills comedy faster than repetition. One scene in particular that was challenging but that I had a lot of fun with was Po’s reaction to the news that Tai Lung had escaped prison and was on his way to the Valley of Peace. Jack Black did a great read for that scene, and I had a lot of fun putting many different expressions on Po’s face in a very small amount of time. That was a shot that I felt captured the essence of what Jack was going for.
GW: You are currently working on “Monsters vs. Aliens”. What are some of your personal goals for the next few films? Do you think there is anything new in animation or is it just variations on the fundamental theme?
CK: I don’t know if there’s anything new in animation other than technology. Is there anything new in anything? It’s hard to say. Of course, the biggest news here at Dreamworks is that everything is going 3d. That’s great fun, but again it’s a technological innovation, not a story or an animation one per se. In animation itself, we’re always just trying to become better, more convincing actors. That’s always been the main objective in animation and always will be. As for personal goals, I’m striving to become more involved in the process of filmmaking before it gets to animation. Having a feel for storyboards and story in general is helpful for animators. I want to be more proactive in the feel of the movie instead of just being reactive, you know, being given the shot and doing what the director says. All artists have a point of view and a contribution to make and it’s not always just in the animation itself.
GW: Quick time warp, can you compare the differences you experienced working on a film like “Prince of Egypt” to what you do in today’s pipeline on films like “Monsters vs Aliens”?
CK: The pipeline, like animation in general, has only changed technologically. Because animation is such an assembly line type process, things generally always work the same. In 3d, we always get shots from final layout, and always pass them on to lighting. That probably won’t change. In the 2d “Prince of Egypt” days, lighting was mainly handled by effects, so the shots went from animation to the effects department, then scanning which obviously we don’t do anymore. Otherwise, things are pretty constant: script > story > rough layout > final layout > animation > lighting (first pass) > effects > final lighting > compositing > final.
GW: With traditional art it’s pretty simple to view a stagnant image and re-evaluate what you would do differently, or to see how much you have improved. These things can be knocked down to composition, use of color etc. As an animator do you ever find yourself going back to review old animation in this way? If so, how do you determine growth?
CK: It’s always helpful to go back and look at your old work, whatever line of work you’re in. I like to have my students keep their first projects from a semester so that at the end they can see how far they’ve come. In animation, the main criteria I’ve seen in determining my own progress has been less use of cliche, more use of subtlety, and just generally more believable acting. As you animate more, you learn how to get more genuine performances out of less movement on the screen. That’s particularly gratifying.
GW: In addition to Dreamworks, you also teach animation at Gnomon. Why teach? What impact has teaching had on your own skills?
CK: I teach because I remember how important my teachers were to me. I know how important it is to students to try to break into the industry, and what a difficult code that can be to crack. I just really appreciated the time my teachers took to help me learn about the art and the biz. To a certain extent, I owe my career to them, and feel that the best way to pay that debt is to help the new students coming up. Teaching is incredibly helpful for my skills. After you become proficient and have worked for awhile in a studio, human nature dictates that you become a little more complacent. Teaching keeps me away from that particular devil. It reminds me that fundamentals are crucial, and the passion that the students have for the art form is always inspiring. And, of course, because they’re younger than me, they know WAY more about the technical side of things than I do. I learn as much from them as they do from me. It’s a really beautiful, symbiotic relationship.
GW: What was it about your reel that landed you your first job? Over the years what do you look for in other peoples demo reels?
CK: Again, it goes back to acting. The feedback that I got from the review board was that my characters’ actions were believable and entertaining. If you can put those two elements into your animation, with broad appeal and subtlety, then you’re definitely winning the game. That’s what I look for as well. To sum it up, these are the biggies: acting, first and foremost, believability, entertainment value (and it’s two siblings, appeal and charm), solid mechanics, avoidance of cliches, subtlety, range of acting choices from shot to shot (fast physical action to quiet intense drama, etc.) and lastly, if it looks like the animator was having fun while animating the shot, that is a HUGE plus!
GW: What’s up with animators and bouncing balls?
CK: The bouncing ball tends to be the first assignment for new animators because a bouncing ball encompasses the fundamentals of animation. It’s a relatively simple way to get used to the process, but has a large enough canvas to enable an ambitious animator to really go to town with the concept, if he or she desires. Also, learning how to animate inanimate objects to give them life (the Pixar lamp is a good example of this) is a crucial process in learning how to be a good character animator. A bouncing ball gives students a chance to wrap their heads around that concept without being too difficult.
*All images courtesy of Chris Kirshbaum.