Floyd Norman – The Jungle Book (Diam. Ed.)

February 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

He might not have considered himself a trailblazer in the film industry when he first took a job as an animator at Walt Disney in the 1950s, thus becoming one of the first African Americans hired to work at the studio, but no matter how you look at it, Floyd Norman has paved the way for many of his successors over the last five decades.

In celebration of the recent release of the Diamond Edition of the 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book,” a film Norman helped animate, the now 79-year-old artist took some time with me to talk about working at Disney studios and why he never gave a second thought about being one of the very few African American animators employed there. He also talked about collaborating with Bill Cosby on the cartoon special “Fat Albert” and commented on accusations that have sprung up again about his former boss Walt Disney being a racist.

“The Jungle Book” Diamond Edition is currently available everywhere.

Did you have a sense you were doing something groundbreaking in the animation industry when you were hired by Disney or was it just a job you loved doing?

When I first came to Disney [Studios], I never thought of myself as a member of any particular group. I came here as an artist applying for a job. I never saw myself as a trailblazer or breaking ground. I was just another kid looking for a job.

You were born two years before Disney released its first feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” What Disney films from your childhood do you remember making the biggest impression on you?

I think the first film my mother ever took me to was Walt Disney’s “Dumbo.” I saw it at the Fox Theater in Santa Barbara. That film was probably the one that stayed with me for the longest time. I remember seeing the opening sequence with the storks carrying the baby circus animals. I remember one of the storks was voiced by Sterling Holloway. It was weird because years later, I got to work with Sterling Holloway on “The Jungle Book.” (Holloway voiced Kaa, the snake, in “The Jungle Book”).

When you revisit something like “The Jungle Book” again, does it feel the same as the first time you saw it back in 1967?

Not really. I watched the film in 1967 and didn’t watch it again until 20 years later. Then I saw the film fairly recently. As more and more time passes, it’s almost as though somebody else made this film and I’m just another viewer. I have to sometimes remind myself that I worked on the movie. It’s been so long ago. It’s funny how you look at things. It’s strange that so many years have gone by.

Your first job as an animator was working on the “Archie” comic book series. I saw that the first African American character in that specific series wasn’t created until 1971. His name was Chuck Clayton. This was around the same time the show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” debut on TV. Were you conscious during this time that the animation landscape was changing with more characters of color being created?

When I was creating cartoon characters, I never gave any thought to their color. They were just another cartoon character. In the 1960, I did work with Bill Cosby in developing characters for “Fat Albert.” That was the one time when we were focused on characters of color. But ordinarily I really didn’t think about that. When I was working on “Archie,” I was just working on a comic book. They were just funny and interesting characters.

But I’m assuming it had to be a little different working with Bill Cosby on “Fat Albert” and having a sense that creating a cartoon like that was something completely different than anything done before. I mean, specifically creating African American characters was the focus, right?

Yes, but I was only thinking in terms of a cartoonist and an entertainer. I really didn’t think about it in social terms like we were breaking new ground or doing anything special. We were just creating entertainment. That’s how I’ve felt about all of my jobs. At Disney, it was the same way. I know people over the years have wondered why we haven’t had more characters of color, but that’s been changing in recent years. Things do change over time.

Looking back over your career as an animator, what do you miss the most about the way things were done? Do you think we’ve lost some of the magic in animation with technology taking over as much as it has in the last 20 years?

Well, there’s no doubt technology has impacted animation in a very real way, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think what we’re doing today is quite remarkable. I recently saw the Disney film “Frozen,” which is stunning visually. Now, of course, things have changed since the early days when we made everything by hand. Back then it was artists drawing with pencils on paper. So, in a sense, the work felt more intimate. Maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that today with the use of technology, but I still think our films resonate with audiences. I think the Disney magic is still there. I think the heart and the warmth is still present in the films. Although we’re using new tools and new techniques, I think the magic still comes across.

Are you a doodler?

(Laughs) I do that all the time. I think all cartoonists are natural doodlers. Sometimes our doodles end up as a motion picture. We’re continually testing and trying new ideas with new characters and new situations. That’s something that any animation creator is always doing. It’s part of our DNA.

This is a bit of a touchy subject, but over the last few weeks a lot has come out about Walt Disney himself and whether or not he was racist. Actress Meryl Streep made mention of it at an awards show recently as did Disney’s grandniece. What was the environment like at Disney Studios back in the 50s when it came to race and the animators that worked there?

I never gave it much thought because it was never a problem. I think a problem has been created where none existed. We were a bunch of artists. We were writers, artists, dancers, actors. Our main thing was the art. Everybody got along just fine. The issue of color or race never came up. We were just trying to create entertainment. We’ve addressed these accusations time and time again, but they continue to resurface, unfortunately. Walt Disney was certainly one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. He was a man who treated everyone equally and fairly. I can’t think of a better boss that any artist could have had. So, I refute any of those accusations. I worked for Walt and was with him in many story meetings over a 10 year period. He was a man that I can speak highly of. He was a great boss, leader and inspiration.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of Neal Gabler’s 2009 biography on Walt Disney. It’s called “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Yes, I have.

Well, in the book, Gabler says Disney was not racist but he was “racially insensitive like most white Americans of his generation.” Does that, maybe, fit a bit better when looking back? Could that be the reason people think he was racist?

Well, I think that’s Neal opinion. (Laughs) Every author is entitled to their opinion. But that was not the Walt Disney I experienced. I did not work for a man who I thought was racially insensitive at all. I worked for a man who was extremely demanding. He was a tough boss, but he was tough on everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. Walt was a tough guy. But that’s why he got the best work out of his staff. Racially insensitive? I would say no such thing existed. Certainly I didn’t see it.

Did you get a chance to see “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks playing Disney? What did you think?

This was the first film where I can recall Walt being such a central character. I felt Mr. Hanks did a terrific job of portraying the Walt Disney I knew. I was lucky enough to be on the set with Tom Hanks as the film was being shot last year and to be able to pass on a few pointers to a really great actor, who really didn’t need my coaching. But at least I was able to provide some insight on what it was like working with the old maestro – his manner and how he behaved and his optimism and enthusiasm. I was happy to be there with Tom and to pass that along to him. I loved the film. I think it’s a great film. I think Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson gave fantastic performances. I was delighted when I saw the finished film.

I’ve probably been living under a rock, but I recently learned about the similarities in scenes from “The Jungle Book” and “Robin Hood.” There are videos on YouTube that show how some scenes from “Robin Hood” are lifted straight out of “The Jungle Book” and other Disney films. Can you speak about that a bit? How did that happen?

(Laughs) I know what you’re talking about. I think there are a lot of Disney fans out there who know that as well. Our director [on “Robin Hood’], Wolfgang Reitherman, for some reason, loved to go back into the archives and find animation that had been done before and recycle it. This was just a quirk of our director.

So, was it simply to pay homage to past Disney films? Did he love “The Jungle Book” so much that he wanted it to be a part of his film?

That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it in that way before. Some people say it was to save money, but it wasn’t. In many cases, finding those old scenes and trying to modify them would’ve cost more money. It would’ve been cheaper to animate it from scratch. I don’t know exactly why he wanted to do it. It wasn’t about cost savings. It was just the director’s taste. Yeah, we heard a fair amount of complaints about the reuse of material, but it’s just what our directed wanted to do.

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.

Juan Carlos Navarro – Cars 2

July 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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.

Rebecca Pérez – Kung Fu Panda 2

May 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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.

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 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.

Francisco X. DeJesus – G-Force

July 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

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.