Rebecca Pérez – The Emoji Movie

July 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the new animated film “The Emoji Movie,” senior animator Rebecca Pérez gets creative by giving life to the various emojis one would find in his or her cell phone. Actor T.J. Miller lends his voice to Gene, a “multi-expressive” emoji who sets off on an adventure to become a “Meh” emoji like his parents.

During an interview with me late last week, Pérez, who has also animated films like “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Turbo” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” talked about the challenging aspects of animating the digital images found in smartphones, and how creative she was able to get on a project like “The Emoji Movie.”

What was your initial thought when you found out someone wanted to make a film about emojis?

My first thought was, “How are we going to make a film about emojis?” But I think the way it turned out is very relevant. I think so many people use emojis on their phone to communicate and tell stories. They sort of created a whole film around the personalities that the emojis have. They make it relevant and heartwarming. By the end of the film, you really feel for these characters.

Were you part of the decision-making process on which emojis were going to be included in the film?

As an animator, we take the existing characters and designs [the studio] has chosen. My assumption is that they chose the characters that were most common and most popular that people use – for example, the Meh character and Poop and High Five. They made a story around the relevancy of those particular characters. It’s really humorous and funny. I think a lot of people are going to relate.

What specific characters did you animate for this film?

I worked on the main characters for this film, so High Five and Meh, the Gene character, and Jailbreak. I think my favorite character was High Five, who is voiced by James Corden. He is super funny and over the top. You’re going to laugh every time you see him on screen.

So, after you get the designs of these characters, what’s the next step as an animator? I mean, you’re not animating something like pandas or snails, so you can’t go study the movements of real-life pandas and snails, so what do you do?

Well, when you have a design of the character and he’s a circle and has a mouth and he has two legs and two arms, you think, “How does that character move?” Those are the discussions you have as an animator. You think, “OK, well, this is a character that is a hand (High Five) with two legs. How do you make that expressive?” So, you start looking at your own hand and creating the expressions and the emotions of the character. There’s a dancing scene in the film, so you have to think, “How would you do that with your hand?” High Five is so cartoony and over-the-top, it’s super fun as an animator to able to be able to do that with a character like him. It’s sort of once in a lifetime opportunity.

As you got into it, were you surprised at how much creativity you could have with these characters?

Yes! I think that’s the challenging part for an animator. It’s more fun and you get your juices flowing more when you have a limited character that you have to do more with. It gets you thinking outside the box. I had to make these characters walk and fight and dance. You have to think outside of the norm as an animator. These are the type of projects that make you creative as an animator.

Were their opportunities to use other emojis that weren’t the main characters?

There were a lot of those opportunities. Part of the story takes place inside a phone app where you can select your emojis. Think of “Hollywood Squares” where each square has its own emoji. You may have a scene primarily about two of the main characters, but in the background you have a variety of characters. They’re all emojis that you don’t necessarily use on a day-to-day basis, but they are in the background, so you have opportunities to jump in there and animate them. When you see the movie, look in the background and see where the animators throw in a joke or something fun.

You bring up a good point. I have hundreds of emojis in my phone, and I don’t think I’m ever going to use something like the flag of Norway anytime soon.

Yeah, they’ve added all these new emojis you wouldn’t even think you would ever use. They exist in the background of the film. So if you see it, you’ll be able to catch animations in the background that were driven by the animators to add an extra level of laughs and jokes.

Can you give us an example of something in the background audiences should look out for?

There’s one scene where the shot pans across and you can see in the background the devil character and the angel character having a moment together. They’re dancing, and you can tell there’s an attraction.

In your everyday life, which emoji do you wish you  used more?

I wish I could use the Meh emoji more. I rarely use it. I mostly use the laughing or winking emoji. I’m used to those two primarily because I’m always telling jokes.

I think some people use emojis too much – like they have a whole conversation with only emojis. Do you think were at that point in society where technology has taken over the way we communicate?

I don’t think technology has taken over, but I do think technology has made it easier to communicate. Say for instance, you’re busy running an errand or you’re in the middle of something, it’s much quicker just to show an emotion with an emoji then to type out a full conversation. Technology has made us all a little more lazy, but at the same time, it’s sort of fun to be able to show a picture to describe your feelings.

So, if my wife texts me today and asks if I liked last night’s dinner and I didn’t, would you advise me to use the vomit face emoji?

(Laughs) If it was your wife, I’d tell her that her meal was delicious and that you appreciate she cooks for you.

Are you ever going to be able to look at the emojis in your phone and not think about this movie?

No. I don’t think I will. Now, every time I look at an emoji, I remember what I did with this film. It’s funny because my girls, every time they see an emoji at the store or on my phone or wherever, they say, “Hey, you worked on that film!” I don’t think any of us will look at emojis ever the same again.

Dan Segarra – Ice Age 4

July 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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.

Inigo Quilez – Brave

June 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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.

Carlos Cabral – Tangled

November 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Carlos Cabral, a character supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios, says there is a fine line between art and technology when it comes to today’s animated films.

“I’ve been interested in the intersection of art and technology all my life,” Cabral told me during a phone interview last week. “My mom is an artist and my dad is an engineer. I’ve always been equally drawn to both.”

In Disney’s newest animation, “Tangled,” a modern version of the classic fairy tale “Rapunzel,” Cabral helped design and implement a new system called Facial Rigging where his team of technical directors were able to add special interfaces into characters’ faces. This allowed the animated characters (Cabral calls them “virtual puppets”) to move in more specific ways.

During our interview, Cabral, who has also worked on animated films such as “Flushed Away,” “Shark Tale,” and “Bolt,” talked about Disney’s goals as a leader in the animation industry and how he sees his profession advancing in the next few years.

What kinds of cartoons do you remember watching as a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic?

Well, when the electricity was working we’d get to watch TV. They played a lot of cartoons from the U.S – a lot of Warner Bros. stuff. When we first got cable in the early 80s, the Disney Channel used to show all the Disney cartoons back to back, which was amazing.

Did you know animation was something you wanted to do back then or were you just like any other kid watching cartoons?

It was always just entertainment for me. The rest came later. I started getting into computers when I was 13. I started reading more books on computer graphics. I remember in the early 80s reading an article in the New York Times about this new company called Pixar that made the first computer animation. That’s what really made me want to start learning about it.

How much more advanced is the Facial Rigging system you helped develop for “Tangled” in comparison to other animated films?

This is cutting edge. I feel this is a huge step in the right direction. It’s very innovative and helps us give the characters’ faces more movement. Our goal was to develop the best computer-generated human performance. It’s stylized realism. We gave these characters life and emotion. Working together as a team we wanted to bring a classic Disney feel to the film as well. It was a huge challenge from an artistic and technical point of view to maintain those types of performances from all sorts of different angles.

As realistic as animation is getting, will we get to a point in the industry where animated characters won’t look like they were computer-generated anymore? Is that something animators are striving for?

I think a movie like “Avatar” really pushed that look to a pinnacle. I think what we are trying to do is different than that. Our goal isn’t ultra-realism. We’re still trying to keep it stylized and transport the characters to an imaginary world.

What was it about the story that resonated with you specifically?

I really like the way the directors re-imagined the story. They took this classic story and turned it into a comedy/action/adventure movie. It was a fresh take. It’s a movie that has a heart. I was completely blown away with what they did with the story and what they wanted to achieve in terms of character animation. We have so many characters in this movie that have to perform at such a high level. They’re not just background characters. We were trying to push it as much as we could.

Is there still room in the animation industry for 2-D? I know Disney was fairly successful last year with “The Princess and the Frog,” so is that something that we’re still going to see from time to time?

I think the goal at Disney is to let the story and the director dictate the medium. What ever way the story can be told best is the direction it should go.

Where does animation go from here in the next few years?

I think we raised the bar pretty high with hair and cloth, but even that has a lot more room to grow. We’re going to see a lot more muscles and skin advancements. The interaction of all these things is also very important. We’re going to see more and more of that as techniques improve.

Carlos Baena – Toy Story 3

June 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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 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.

Monsters vs. Aliens

March 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie
Directed by: Rob Letterman (“Shark Tale”) and Conrad Vernon (“Shrek 2”)
Written by: Maya Forbes (“The Rocker”), Wallace Wolodarsky (“The Rocker”), Rob Letterman (“Shark Tale”), Jonathan Aibel (“Kung Fu Panda”), Glenn Berger (“Kung Fu Panda”) 

As 3-D technology becomes more and more visually satisfying with each retina it deceives, screenwriters are still kicking up dust trying to keep up.

I’m not talking about gimmicky offerings like the “Hannah Montana” concert movie or “My Bloody Valentine in 3-D,” which were a waste of perfectly good pairs of custom shades. Instead, it’s the animated family film that has been getting majorly digitized over the last couple of years. The latest of the bunch, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” is reasonably elaborate but falls under the same rating system all 3-D films should be judged. Ask yourself this: If you take away the 3-D graphics, can the movie carry itself on its own?

While “MvA” doesn’t fail as terribly as other recent 3-D animations like “Chicken Little” or “Fly Me to the Moon,” there’s quite a bit lacking in original ideas and overall story to make it anywhere close to out of this world. Think of this as a less-interesting version of what Guillermo del Toro was probably dreaming of when he was in pre-K.

In “MvA,” human existence as we know it is threatened by a ruthless alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), who plans to take over the globe with countless clones. To defeat Gallaxhar, the U.S. government recruits a band of monsters they have imprisoned over the years and sends them out as Earth’s last hope. The group is led by Susan AKA Ginormica (Reese Witherspoon), the newest of the monster clan who is transformed from a mild-mannered bride-to-be to a woman the size of a skyscraper.

Coming along for the epic battle: Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and last but definitely not least B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a one-eyed shapeless mass of blue goop who, along with the voice work of Stephen Colbert as the U.S. President, keep the laughs from dying out altogether.

Taking classic films like “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “The Blob,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and churning them out for kids who thought Pixar’s “Monster’s Inc.” was scary, “MvA” is harmless fantasy sci-fi with a few attention-grabbing graphics wasted on some joyless (excluding B.O.B.) characters.