Interview with MU’s Supervising Animator Scott Clark

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Pixar continues its long tradition of having its UK Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with this year’s Monsters University. I sat down with the movie’s supervising animator Scott Clark to discuss the unique challenges of bringing this highly anticipated sequel to the screen.


FlickFeast:
I think it’s safe to say that Pixar are the leading innovators in computer animation, and comparing Monsters Inc. to Monsters University you can just see this progression of things getting more and more realistic everytime. Do you think there’s going to be a point when you can create things like garments and fur so realistically that you’ll have to stop because it’s unnerving for the audience?

Scott Clark: Already we can do some pretty realistic things; The Blue Umbrella [the short screened before Monster’s University] was super-photo realistic. But we’re never trying to do realism, we’re trying to use realistic rendering or shading to give you a feeling, but there’s still art direction, there’s still choices as to what not to push into realistic direction, we’re always trying to caricature life. So, you know, I don’t think it could ever be that way. I just think technology could give us more tools in our tool-kit, but the art direction, I thought, on Monsters University was very smart in the way they used that realistic lighting.

FF: Yeah, because there’s the whole thing with motion-capture, those films are sometimes just terrifying…

SC: Well, yeah, it’s called the Uncanny Valley, there’s a name for it. It means that you’ve reached a point where it no longer looks human. Brave was the hardest film for us because animating humans means that we are closer to what we recognise in ourselves, but you still have to caricature it if it’s animated. And I think motion-capture has its place, in live-action, if you’re trying to be realistic it works great for films like Avatar, but that’s not what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to do believability and caricature things. If you put me in a motion-capture suit, animator Scott Clark, you’re going to get Scott Clark motion on Sulley. He’s, like, way heavier than me, he’s got long arms, he’s got stubby legs, he’s got a neck that sticks out, and we need to animate who he is. So we looked at bears and apes and all kinds of weird things.

FF: Actually that leads us, kind of perfectly, on to my next question. Every Pixar movie has its own ground-breaking moment and I think, for me, in Monsters University it was the fact you had so many crowd scenes, so many characters in one shot. But then, on the other hand, you are trying to animate monsters and they’re each so individualistic in the way that they move. Was it quite difficult trying to get that balance of all these different types without it becoming too distracting?

SC: Well you just touched on exactly what was one of the biggest challenges. In the first film we didn’t have the technology, the budget to have hundreds of characters walking in the background. We couldn’t render it, but it also would have just been too expensive to animate. But now we’ve got lots of tricks that we can do. And the other thing, the sheer variety of different monsters, every other film is like, well, we’ve got cars, we’ve got humans, we’ve got rats, we’ve got fish. But they’re all one species mostly, with a few odd characters here and there. In Monsters, well, this guy has five eyes, she has four arms, this monster is a big, blocky square, she’s a little ball. They’re all different shapes and sizes and everytime an animator picks one of those rigs up and has to animate it, he or she has to figure a new model out. That’s the tricky part.

FF: Was it in Monsters you’ve had the most difficult character you’ve ever had to animate? Or was there something else? One of the cars, or fish, or toys?

SC: I think the most difficult characters to animate will always be human. But, if you look at Monsters University, a character like Dean Hardscrabble, Helen Mirren’s character, is very difficult because of the complexity of the design. Her face is pretty typical, it’s like an almost human caricatured face, but she’s got these big dragon wings coming off and these hundreds of centipede legs and a tail that feel insect-like. So we’re combining all these different creatures that are mythical and real. With a performance from Helen Mirren, which, you know, is amazing. So it’s very deep, very rich acting, very textured, and very complex design. So that I would say was the most difficult, challenging character and model on the film.

FF: Yeah, Dean Hardscrabble blew my mind, she was amazing. The first time she appeared I was like…wooaaahhhh…

SC: And the filmmaking’s fun because it’s very dramatic how she sweeps in and lands. It kind of gave me the feeling I had when I was in class and I was a little intimidated by the teacher, the professor I had in college or something.

FF: Monsters University obviously sees Mike and Sulley in their younger years, I know quite a lot of effort went into the character design to reflect that, but did you also have a lot of challenges in animating the movement to just tweak it slightly?

SC: Yeah, we had to think about what it means to be 18 or 35, or whatever age they were before. John Goodman and Billy Crystal did a good job in amping up their energy in their acting choices, or just acting younger. Sullivan has this very cocky appeal to him, you know, that is also irritating to Mike because he’s just a little too cocky. But I think there’s also an insecurity at that age when you’re trying to figure out who you are. He’s kind of relying on his dad and his name and, you know, maybe he doesn’t quite feel so comfortable getting on the dancefloor, but when he does he’s trying to be cool. This is what it means to be 18 years old versus some other age, and that’s what we’re thinking about when we’re animating these characters. Who were we when we were that age versus who we are now? Who were we when we were kids, when we had dreams of being something? And that was fun, it was fun to go back in time and think about that.

FF: It’s weird how relatable that movie is even though they are monsters.

SC: And that’s why it’s appealing. They are monsters but they have all the same faults that we do as humans and dreams and aspirations, they make mistakes and they have these same emotions and they go through the same arcs that we would. And I think that’s why it’s fun to watch. That’s why we animate these things and don’t just do a live-action movie.

FF: As I understand the process of animation works by creating 8 frames per second to check the scene works, then you do 24 frames per second or more, and then you have to wait like 29 hours to render it. Are you the most patient man in the word?

SC: Well, luckily we don’t have to wait while it renders [laughs]. But, you know, the only reason we do something like 8 frames per second is just because we can’t do multiple takes, it takes so long to do animation, you do have to be patient to sell your idea. It takes weeks to do seconds, but it’s magic. Once it’s done, everybody laughs and we all love bringing it to life, it feels like it’s alive. It’s a trick. But, we have to be very economical in just showing only the poses that sell the idea. So we go, OK, so this is my acting idea. OK, that looks great, go ahead and finish it off. So you just do pose tests, very simple blocking.

FF: So you first joined Pixar as an intern on Toy Story, did you originally train in hand-drawn animation?

SC: I studied drawing and animation in college, yes.

FF: In terms of your day-to-day working experience, was there a big transition going from hand-drawn to computer animation?

SC: It pretty much was my internship with Pixar. Toy Story was in the theatres, they had success with it, and said- hey, we should have an intern in animation. Maybe we could try that. So, I was lucky enough to have the experience on my reel to get a chance to do it and that’s how I learned computer animation. Pixar was my grad school for computer animation.

FF: Did you do voice acting for Cars?

SC: [laughs] How did you know that?

FF: It was on your IMDB page!

SC: Oh cool. I do a voice. I was the voice of the California Governor. It was kind of a caricature of the Governor of California at the time, who used to be an actor…who was really well known…

FF: If you could voice any of the Pixar characters, like, you can do Woody and Tom Hanks doesn’t mind, which one would you choose?

SC: If I could voice the character and not animate them? Oh man, am I that good an actor? I can’t compete with Tom Hanks…hmmm…boy, that’s a tough question. I would love to do a voice but I’m so intimidated by the idea of taking it away from the brilliant acting.

FF: Surely…you’re the animator, you can do what you want, you’re like- I AM KING!

SC: I do do scratch work. Which is before we have an actor come in or even before we know who it’s going to be, I will do the scratch for that character. For instance on Up they brought me in to do scratch for Muntz. I did scratch for Lightning McQueen, just until they got that actor inserted in there with better acting [laughs]. We always have an early version of the reels and I’m doing that, I’m helping work that out. In fact, I’m Dory right now. So it’s hard for me to imagine actually being the actor that’s not scratch.

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Monsters University showed at EIFF on 23rd June, it’s in cinemas 12th July 2013.

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