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So You Want to Be in Pixels: Glenn McQueen

NOVA: How does the animation process happen?

GM: First, the art department and director design the models, first on paper, then in the computer—think of them as being puppets in the computer. You can look at this character from any point of view. There's sort of a virtual camera that lives in the computer, and you can position that anywhere around the character and look at it from any point of view. One of the first things we do as animators is test these models to make sure that they have the flexibility to make them act. Whether the character is a grasshopper or a spaceman, you're probably going to want the elbow to bend and the wrist to bend. You want the head to twist and move up and down. It's the visual and the technical people working together, every now and then having to compromise a little bit, but to come up with the best character solution for what we're going to need in the film.

NOVA: How do you make a character move?

GM: That's the fun part. Woody [from "Toy Story"] has over 200 articulated facial muscles in his face alone. He's got over 700 different controls in his body that let you rotate his arm at the elbow or the wrist, bend and rotate his hat and so forth. We use those animation controls to set poses at different frames. It's called key-frame animation. Twenty-four frames make up one second of film. So if you wanted to have Woody do a double take and look over at somebody, you could set a pose like this at say Frame 10 and set a pose like this at Frame 50. And what the computer would do with a lot of coaxing from an animator is give you all of the in-betweens. And where the animator really comes in is not only creating those poses, but also manipulating the timing.

NOVA: What part of a film do you contribute?

GM: Each animator is given a series of shots in the film. Every time the camera changes, it's a different shot. Hopefully, they're consecutive shots so you can keep the continuity going from one shot to the next. All the dialogue is pre-recorded before the animators ever get the shots. So we listen to the dialogue again and again. We act it out. We do thumbnail sketches. We videotape ourselves acting it out. Essentially the animator is sort of a mute actor. We have to use someone else's line, but what the body does, how the character moves during that line, how many gestures, what the facial expression is, is entirely up to the animator.

Aside from our own explorations, we also videotape the actors as they read the lines, so that when Kevin Spacey is delivering his line as Harper, the main bad guy in "A Bug's Life," [Pixar's latest film with Disney, to be released Thanksgiving 1998] we can see what choices he made. What are his eyebrows doing? What's he doing with his hands? Is he moving his head a lot? Another cool thing is that the director usually asks the actor to read the lines five, six, seven times. And each time it's slightly different. So you can say, I really like the eyebrows in the first take, but he's doing something great with his hands in the third take. So you can get inspiration from all the different takes that the actor does.

NOVA: Are animators really closet actors at heart?

GM: Absolutely. You have to be. You certainly don't have to be a classically trained actor, but you have to know what looks good. It's almost more pantomime than anything else. What we try and do is communicate the idea of the shot or the dialogue without using the face at all. If a character is saying, "Boy, I'm really fed up," before we go into the face and actually move the lips, we want to get the body, the hands and the overall pose of the character. So if you looked at it without hearing any dialogue, you'd say wow, that guy is really fed up. Then once we add the face and the mouth it just pluses something that's already working and communicating well.

NOVA: How is the appearance of a character created?

GM: Once the animation is as polished as it can be, we send it off to the lighting department and they apply shaders, which add textures and shadows, the visual complexity to the shot. It could be dirt. It's called a texture map or a displacement map, and it's like a kind of 2-D painting that is wrapped onto the 3-D model. Like a label wrapped around a paint can.

It's as if we're animating in black and white. And when we send it to the lighting people, that's when you get color and shadows and things that are far more painterly. We don't want a big, complex model to animate, we want something that is fairly streamlined so when we move from one frame to the next it will update quickly.

NOVA: How does the image get from the computer to film?

GM: The last step is rendering at a fairly high resolution. Rendering means the computer "draws" the final picture that will be put on film. And then from there it's actually output to a piece of film. That's the only time we're actually creating something physical for a film. That's one thing that hasn't really changed that much. We're still putting our images onto 35mm film. The camera and the equipment that we use to do that is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be, but we're still putting it onto film stock.

NOVA: What aspect of animation do you find conveys character or personality best?

GM: I think the eyes are really important. If the audience is looking at a character, 90% of the time, they're looking at the eyes. If you and I were talking, we'd be looking in each other's eye. But the posture of the character and the silhouette of the character will be pretty important too. For example, in "A Bug's Life," the ant hero Flik has been beaten up by the bad guy Harper. But at one point he realizes the fatal flaw, or weakness, in Harper. And the animator doing the shot had to show the change in Flik from being physically in pain to being pained but realizing that he actually had the upper hand over Harper. So that required a lot of subtle acting in terms of realization washing across his face. A little something with the eyebrows. Straighten the posture up just a little bit. But you still want him to look hurt. That was challenging, but I think it ended up being really effective.

NOVA: Do you have a favorite "Toy Story" character?

GM: I'd say Woody was my favorite, because I loved working with Tom Hank's voice. He's such a fantastic actor. For an animator it makes all the difference in the world to have a really great line reading to work on. If a line delivery is flat and lifeless, it's kind of difficult to wring really great animation out of it. But if a line is really well delivered, and there's a lot of life in it, the possibilities for an animator are almost endless. For me a really great line reading is one where you hear it and you just go bang, I know exactly what this character is doing. I know exactly what this character is thinking while he's saying this line.

NOVA: Why don't you use motion capture?

GM: Well, this is only my personal opinion, but motion capture is not animation. To me animation is an art. It's putting a little bit of yourself into the character. With motion capture, you're capturing a live action performance. And, I think, the difference in the quality of motion between a live action performance and good key frame is huge. Motion capture has a very realistic look. For example, if someone is clapping their hands, motion capture will give you a very accurate recreation of someone clapping. But, when you actually look at it, I think it would feel kind of stiff and lifeless, even though it's an exact replica of how a human claps. I think that to really sell the idea of someone clapping, you want to exaggerate it a little bit. You want to dilate the motion, so you really feel the contact of the hands slapping together.

NOVA: What was the weirdest assignment you've ever worked on?

GM: The weirdest thing I had to do was put dents on Andy's bed in "Toy Story." Whenever the characters walked along Andy's bed, someone had to go in and make bed dents, creating dents in Andy's bed. If a character ever fell down or something, I was the one who was lucky enough to go in and dent the bed under a character's elbow, or under a character's face or something like that.

NOVA: What are the classics of computer animation for you?


Still from Luxo Jr. Still from "Luxo Jr."

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GM: All of John Lasseter's films. John Lasseter is the director of "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life." He did a whole series of short films at Pixar: "The Adventures of André and Wally B.," "Tin Toy," "Luxo Junior." They didn't just raise the standards of computer animation, they set the standards. He was the first person who really brought the quality of traditional animation into the computer-animated world. Up until then, computer animation was stiff, lifeless. You didn't get any sense that the characters were thinking about what they were doing. On the computer, it's very easy to make things move. It's difficult to make things look like they're alive and that they're thinking about what they're doing.

I love films like "Terminator 2" and "Titanic." I have all kinds of admiration for people who do that stuff. I know how much work goes into crafting one effects shot. But, there's really not a correlation between what I do and the special effects in "Titanic." We're trying to do two different things. For one thing, they're just trying to make it as absolutely life-like as possible. Whereas we are less concerned with our character actually moving like an actual ladybug. We're more concerned with the character being appealing and his acting being good.

NOVA: When did you decide to pursue animation?

GM: I'd always been interested in character animation and special effects. I loved the Warner Brothers cartoons. I went to Sheridan College in Toronto, which has a really good animation program. I though it would be a lot of fun. And I couldn't see spending my life doing something that I didn't really enjoy. I think only recently, in the last seven years or so, it's gotten to the point where animators actually make a decent living. When I graduated, I didn't have much hope of making enough money where I'd ever be able to buy a house or something like that. But I thought it was far more important to do something that I enjoyed rather than doing something to make a big sack full of money. The first place I worked was the Computer Graphics Lab at New York Tech starting in 1985. I was there for about six years, doing animation, commercials. A lot of people there did scientific visualization. It was a great place to learn and get a broad base of knowledge.

NOVA: Has computer animation changed since you've been in the business?

GM: Oh, it's become far more intuitive, far more interactive and a lot faster. Because the CPUs per dollar has shot through the roof. Years ago, the way most places worked, there would be one big computer buried away in the basement with ten huge air conditioning units. It would be like a meat locker down there. The computer would cost $2 million dollars and it would probably be about as powerful as the computer you've got in your watch. The whole building would be working off this one computer and if it went down, everything stopped. Whereas now, the machines that we have cost a lot less. They're hundreds of times faster. You can animate characters with far greater complexity quickly and easily. It's just night and day.

NOVA: What kind of skills or abilities would a would-be animator want to cultivate?

GM: I think the best thing to do, whether she wanted to be a computer animator or a traditional animator or a stop motion animator—would be to watch a lot of animated films. Watch old Warner Brothers cartoons, Tom and Jerry cartoons, Disney cartoons, Ren and Stimpy. Watch Batman after school. Watch as much animation as you can, and see what stuff impresses you and figure out why. And try and look at it critically. I like the way Batman's cape moves in that shot. Or, I really like the way Bugs Bunny jumps down the rabbit hole. Take drama or improv or dance. It's all timing and gesture and subtlety and acting. The next step would be to find a school with a good animation program, and take that. The computer should be the very last thing you think about. Your performance should be the first thing.

There's a really great book, "Illusion of Life" by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston [Hyperion, 1995]. It reviews the fundamental skills of being an animator. That would be a fabulous book for someone to read.

Images/footage: (1) NOVA/WGBH; (2) ©1986 Pixar.

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