Dan Segarra is an animator with Blue Sky Studios. During an interview with me, he talked about his work on the new animated film “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”
To see more of Segarra’s work, visit his website here.
I was just on your website today. I love the film you have posted there called “Sheep.” I really got a sense of who you are as an animator from that piece. Is storytelling just as important to you as your work as an animator?
Definitely. I think the idea and story comes before any animation you do. In school we’re trained and taught to think about the character and their emotions and their intention behind their actions. I’ve been taught that it’s important to tell my own stories so when you get into the industry you understand that animation is not just about moving controls around.
Tell us about the work you did on “Ice Age 4.”
I worked as a character animator. My responsibilities were to evoke emotion from the characters. Some of the characters I worked with were Gutt (Peter Dinklage), who is the villain, Manny (Ray Romano) and Granny (Wanda Sykes), who is one of the new characters in the movie.
Do you have to follow certain animation rules to keep certain character consistent?
We definitely do. That’s actually something that makes these films so great. We have these booklets on how to keep a character consistent with the personality they already have established. Each character also has a go-to animator in case you have specific questions.
What was it like the first time you saw one of your animations on the big screen?
I remember when I worked on “Alvinand the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” I was able to see it with my family when it came out around Thanksgiving. When my name came out [in the credits] my sisters jumped out of their chairs and started screaming, “That’s my brother up there!” We’re all Puerto Rican, so we can get a little rowdy.
Why is animation so inspiring to you?
Animation is not real, so to look a single frame and realize all of it is created by somebody is unbelievable. There is so much that goes into making an animated film that is taken for granted. It’s great that it’s for granted because it means what people are looking at is so believable they can forget about how it is created and watch it in its simplicity and believe it exists.
Although his background is in engineering and not in animation, Inigo Quilez has found a home at Pixar.
In “Brave,” the studio’s new animated film about a young Scottish princess who must undo a curse that has been placed on her kingdom, Quilez was placed on an animation team in charge of creating the grass, trees, forests and all the other greenery seen in the film’s background.
During an interview with me, Quilez talked about his work with Pixar and what it takes to make an animated film come to life.
What has your experience been like working on your very first film with an industry giant like Pixar?
I have been working on “Brave” for three years. It’s amazing to work and make movies. I am an electrical engineer, actually, but I always wanted to do something a little more artistic. It was a dream to come to Pixar. It’s a really unique place where I can use my technical skills and help make something very beautiful.
As an animator on “Brave,” you have a very specialized job. Tell us more about what you do.
I am responsible for making everything that looks like plants or vegetation. I worked with a small team of three people. Normally, for a movie like this you would have to go to a computer and create every flower, but instead we approached it in a different way and used more mathematics. We taught the computer to create all these things for us. We developed a lot of new techniques to help with that.
In terms of research, did Pixar send you out to roll around in the grass?
(Laughs) Well, I joined the team a bit late, so I didn’t get to go with them to Scotland. They brought back a lot of images and real plants. We didn’t want to create reality, but we wanted something inspired by reality.
Over the years in animation, it seems like plants and trees and other objects in nature like water have gotten a lot more realistic. But that’s not what Pixar is trying to do?
Well, you have movies like “Avatar” where things look completely real. But that doesn’t really work for us because are characters don’t look realistic. They look more like toys. So, our backgrounds have to match with the characters. We want things to look complex and organic, but not really real.
As a character animator with Disney Pixar, Juan Carlos Navarro was given the opportunity to work on the sequel “Cars 2,” the first feature-length animated film of his career.
“It’s been a wonderful experience being a part of Pixar,” Navarro said during an exclusive interview with me. “You feel like you are doing something special. The artistic and emotional depth of the films we make is something I am very proud of.”
In “Cars 2,” Navarro gave life to a number of returning main characters, including Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). He also got the chance to animate new characters like Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), an arrogant, Italian Formula One race car with attitude.
During our interview, Navarro, who is of Spanish descent, discussed the challenges behind animating inanimate objects and what he learned when he got behind the wheel of a racecar himself as part of his research.
What were your responsibilities as a character animator on the film?
Basically, I am bringing the characters to life. It’s our job to make sure that when audiences go to the movie theater and see “Cars 2” they believe all the emotions the characters are going through.
What specific characters did you help come to life?
I feel very fortunate because I had the chance to animate all the main characters. From an artistic standpoint it is very fulfilling because it gives you the chance to get in the skin of these different personalities and these different situations. I enjoyed animating all the characters. I really enjoyed animating Francesco. I was one of the first ones that got to animate him, so I helped create some of his unique personality. I loved animating Mater as well. He carries the heart of a lot of the movie.
Was getting into the skin of these characters difficult since we’re not dealing with human characters?
There is a mantra we have here at Pixar: Truth to materials. That means if you have a human character that is made of flesh and bone you are going to move the character in a particular way. As humans, we can obviously connect to that. But if you’re animating a car, you have to stay true to the material of that car. I basically had to look at the car and imagine it was a big, heavy metal box.
Did you have to do any research on real cars?
Yes, the studio took us to do some driving on a racetrack. We had a chance to drive the cars pretty fast. We wanted to understand what it feels like to be a car. It was extremely helpful to understand what we were animating. We also had professional drivers come into the studio and look at our animation to make sure it felt real. In addition, we needed to bring emotion into it. We had to understand what materials the cars were made of, but also layer it to convey those most important emotions.
How did you decide what emotions a car could show when it was taking a sharp turn or driving fast?
You talk to the director about what the character is feeling at that moment. I had to internalize that emotion, position myself with the character, and connect. How is my face reacting when I say dialogue? How do I reproduce that reaction in the car? That’s the challenge.
Was there room for you to be creative with the characters since this is a sequel and audiences have expectations based on the first film?
We are working with established characters people love. You’re expected to keep them “on model” and consistent with their personalities from the first movie. But since these characters are in different environments and different situation we were able to explore new levels of their personality. There were plenty of opportunities to bring new things to these characters.
Do you have kids?
Yes, my son David is four and my daughter Valentina is six. They love the movie.
Do they understand their daddy helped make the movie their watching?
Absolutely. It’s so awesome especially when they come and visit me at the studio and I can show them the work I’m doing. Watching the movie with them is a lot of fun.
Working as an animator for DreamWorks Animation Studios since 2010, Rebecca Pérez has been part of the creative team known for making such well-received films as “Megamind” and the Oscar-nominated fantasy adventure “How to Train Your Dragon.”
In her third animated film with DreamWorks, Pérez, who has also worked as an animator during her four-year career with Walt Disney, Sony Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox, takes on a new challenge in “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the sequel to the highly-entertaining 2008 animation about a chubby panda bear named Po (Jack Black) who learns a prophecy has identified him as the Dragon Warrior.
In the “Panda 2,” Po must lead the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) – to defeat a villainous peacock known as Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Along with showing off his martial arts prowess, Po is given the opportunity find out more about his family roots.
During an interview with me, Pérez, who is Cuban-American, talked about the character she grew most attached to in “Kung Fu Panda 2” and the moment in her life when she knew she wanted to be an animator.
What was your specific role as an animator on “Kung Fu Panda 2?”
I had the opportunity to work on most of the characters – Tigress and the rest of the five [main characters] as well as some of the others like the sheep.
Is it easy to get attached to these characters after working on them for so long?
You definitely get attached especially if you get to work on one particular character more than the others. I actually got attached to the sheep character, which is interesting because I don’t think she even has a name.
What was it about the character that you liked so much?
I think it was because I just got to work with her so much. The majority of her scenes were all my shots. I also felt for her because she has so much innocence. There was a lot of emotion in her character.
What kinds of cartoons did you grow up watching as a kid?
I watched all sorts of Saturday morning cartoons like “The Smurfs.” I really like the short animations that were funny and whimsical.
Did you watch cartoons like any other kid would or did you feel there was more to them on an artistic level?
I don’t think it was until later in life when I saw “The Little Mermaid” when I realized there was more to it like storytelling and performance. I knew right away I wanted to be part of that.
So, was that the moment you knew you wanted to be an animator?
Actually, the point in my life where I knew that was when I saw an animated TV commercial for Listerine that I would later find out was made by Pixar before they were know for making films. When I saw it at the time, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at. When I saw that animated bottle of mouthwash it transformed animation into something I had never seen before. I wanted to know how they did it.
What does it feel like when you finally get to see all your hard work as a final product on the big screen?
It’s very moving especially when you have kids around you laughing. Seeing it with an audience is so refreshing. It definitely enriches the whole experience.
It didn’t take long for Carlos Baena to decide what he wanted to do with his life after he moved to the U.S. from Spain at the age of 18 in the early 90s. All he had to do was watch a couple of animated films.
“The first movie was ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and the second was ‘Toy Story,’” Baena, 35, told me during a phone interview. “It was then when I knew I at least wanted to try animation. Those two movies really hit me hard.”
Today, Baena isn’t simply trying to make a name for himself in the animated industry. He’s a major player working for one of the most well-respected production studios – Pixar Animation. To top it off, Baena’s career seems to have gone full circle. He is part of the animation department that created “Toy Story 3.”
Since joining Pixar in 2002, Baena has worked on the films “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille” and “WALL-E.” In “Toy Story 3,” he helped to animate the character Buzz Lightyear during scenes when the space ranger is accidentally reset to Spanish mode.
During our interview, Baena talked about how “Toy Story 3” complements the entire franchise, what kinds of toys he still enjoys buying, and why the online animation school he co-founded, Animation Mentor, is important to aspiring animators.
How has your experience on “Toy Story 3” compared to other films you’ve worked on in the past?
This was one of the most gratifying experiences in my career. This is a beautiful film in so many ways. It has a great balance of adventure, emotion, and humor. I am very proud of the film. I can’t wait for people to see it.
How does “Toy Story 3” complement the franchise?
I think this one wraps up all three films in a beautiful way. There is a lot of attention to detail and character. It all comes together very nicely. I’ve already watched the movie five or six times and it still gets to me emotionally ever single time. I really think it is a powerful film.
I hear Buzz Lightyear speaks a little Spanish in this new film.
Yes, I had a chance to do a lot of Spanish stuff with that. It was an awesome opportunity – especially since I am from originally Spain – to put a little of my own culture into a character I have loved even before I knew I wanted to do animation.
“Toy Story” was groundbreaking in 1995 and Pixar continues to amaze audiences with every new film. Does it ever surprise you anymore what you can do as an animator as the technology advances?
Yeah, we’re at a point where we can basically make anything we want visually. But the thing I enjoy the most about “Toy Story 3” is that the director and the crew thought it was important that the visuals were in a world that still relates to “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.” Things look better, but they don’t look too realistic like “WALL-E.” We have all this technology but we didn’t want any particular effects to take you out of the “Toy Story” world.
Do you still have any of your old toys from when you were a kid?
Oh, yeah. I have a whole box of old “Star Wars” toys I grew up with. Now, I don’t have as many toys as I do collectables. I loved “The Terminator” growing up, so I have figures from that movie and some from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” I like to have toys I know will last me for a very long time. I like to display them but if you have a lot of them it’s not fun cleaning all the dust.
You co-founded an online animation school called animationmentor.com. Tell me why it’s so important to start training the next generation of animators.
Well, my partners and I wanted to start an online school that would teach animation in a way we would have loved to have been taught if we went back to school now. It was important to me because to study animation and learn from the people I wanted to learn from I had to move to an entirely different county and culture. While it has been a great, it was also hard to leave my family. With the online school, students can learn from wherever they are and teachers can teach from wherever they live. All of a sudden, we’ve created an animation community from all over the world.
When Francisco X. DeJesus moved to the U.S. from San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1988 to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, he knew he wanted his career to lead him into the entertainment realm of computer graphics.
“I wanted to leave the nest and explore on my own, so that’s what I did,” DeJesus told me during a phone interview last week.
Twenty-one years later, DeJesus has developed an impressive portfolio in Hollywood where he has worked on such films as “Monster House,” “Charlie’s Angels 2,” “Men in Black 2,” and all three “Spider-Man” movies. He is currently a senior computer graphics supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he has been for the last 10 years.
In his most recent film, “G-Force,” DeJesus leads a team of 50 other animation artists to create a story about a team of guinea pigs trained by the government to be spies. “G-Force,” which is the first 3-D film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), features the voices of Sam Rockwell (“Moon”), Tracy Morgan (“First Sunday”) and Academy Award winners Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”).
What made you first become interested in computer-generated animation?
I became interested because of videogames. This was in the early 80s so I’m talking about the original Atari 2600. I was interested in playing the games, but I also wanted to write games. That led to computer graphics. Movies that made an impact on me were “Tron” and “Terminator 2.”
Is there something specific that you’ve enjoyed the most during the decade you’ve worked with Imageworks?
The thing I enjoyed the most is that every project that I’ve worked on is completely different. Every movie is unique. It’s not a job where you go in and do the same thing year after year.
How did guinea pigs become the next project?
Well, I chose this movie based on who was involved. It’s a Disney movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. I’ve loved all his action movies. Then the director, Hoyt Yeatman, is a legend in the visual effects industry. He won an Oscar for “The Abyss.” So, basically I was like, “Those are the people involved? Great! Oh, by the way, what’s the project?”
Is the first step in creating these computer-generated guinea pigs to study real guinea pigs?
That’s exactly what we did. We got four guinea pigs and we studied them and photographed and videotaped them. We studied everything from their motions to how light reflects on their fur to how they act when they’re nervous. We really got to know them even before we started to build them on computers.
When you think of guinea pigs, you usually don’t think of an animal that could be an action star.
That’s the funny part of it. They’re these tiny little critters and their action heroes.
What did you learn about the animal?
Well, the first thing I learned is that they’re really cute so we had to make them look cute with our graphics. The real ones are very nervous. That’s where we had to take some creative license and deviate from realism. We wanted our guinea pigs to be trained and confident and have attitude. Each one had to have a personality.