The Crucible of Transmutationanecdotes about the creative process

Disney's Dinosaur: My Journey

Female Iguanodon Neera from Disney's Dinosaur movie

In 1995, Walt Disney Feature Animation started a small computer character animation division with the goal of creating a proof of concept short film about dinosaurs. The purpose of the project was to test various methods that could be used to make a full-blown CGI feature film. I was hired as an animator for this test project, even though I had not yet worked professionally in computer graphics. Animation director Eric Leighton recommended me for the position based on our previous work together on The Nightmare Before Christmas and my personal experience teaching myself the basics of CGI in my free time. This project marked the most transformative period in my animation career and reflected the changes happening at Disney as well. What began as a small crew of 30 people for the test project ultimately grew into a state-of-the-art digital studio of 350 artists, animators, and technical experts over the next four years. During this expansion, I became an Animation Supervisor and mentor for Disney's feature film Dinosaur!

Learning CGI the Hard Way

My first computer animated shot, 1994.

When I first experienced Jurassic Park at the movie theater in 1993, my mind was blown! The dinosaurs were incredibly realistic - ILM had created a cinematic milestone that would change visual effects forever. Uncertain about my future as a stop-motion animator and truly inspired by what I had seen, I decided to take the challenging step into the realm of computer character animation. But how would I accomplish this goal?

The Evil Within

Back in 2008, game company Namco Bandai decided to update and reimagine their horror-themed video game Splatterhouse (originally from 1988) for the Playstation and Xbox platforms. The game play was extremely gory, as can be surmised by the title, but Splatterhouse also had some great storytelling sequences, known as cinematics or cut-scenes, between game levels. I animated some of those sequences at Brain Zoo, the studio that handled all the cinematics for the production. Fortunately, the cinematics were more along the lines of the horror movie style but without the fighting and gore present in the game play itself - not my kind of thing!

Sea Lion Ballet

Below the busy streets of New York City's Times Square, you could find an unusual tourist attraction called National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. It featured interactive virtual underwater environments created by VFX studio Pixomondo where I was part of their design and animation team in 2016-2017. One of my favorite parts of the project was a pre-show event that visitors would experience while riding an escalator from street level down to an underground lobby. They would pass through a wall of mist onto which was projected an underwater scene starring playful Sea Lions and a menacing Great White Shark.

Lounge Singer

One of the most unusual personalities on television is “The Box” - a walking, talking cardboard box representing the Progressive Corporation. It has been involved in all sorts of amusing scenarios, but in the latest appearance, we discover that The Box can sing. Who knew?

Opening Act

This year is the 30th anniversary of the creation of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, the opening sequence of which I had the honor of animating. It all started with an unexpected phone call from producer/director Prudence Fenton. Production was to start in just a few days and she was inquiring about my availability to shoot the stop-motion animation for the title sequence. Prudence also requested that I sculpt a clay fox and several other animals to animate and have ready immediately. I was more than willing but considering the unusually short notice, I could only create the clay fox puppet ahead of the shoot. Getting right to work, I wondered what I was getting myself into, and the project did have many difficulties, but my efforts paid off in that they resulted in an Emmy nomination!

Motion Mixture

In 2016, VFX company Digital Domain in Playa Vista, California, contacted me about animating some cinematic sequences for the science fiction game Gears of War 4. The project was to use a mix of key-frame and motion capture techniques. Being an animation purist, I normally avoided such gigs that involved motion capture because the process is not artistically satisfying; however, this project was to be different. Not motion captured but rather animated, the faces of the characters required an animator’s touch, and the opportunity to create some emotional facial performances caught my interest. Additionally, the gig was scheduled for only six weeks, so I figured, “Why not?”

Extreme Heroic Poses

Max Steel in flight suit

In 2012, the toy company Mattel embarked on an ambitious reboot of their popular Max Steel franchise. This endeavor included an all-new CGI animated series with a cool graphic look by Canadian company Nerd Corp. Concurrently, promotional still pictures for the web were generated at Brain Zoo studios in Los Angeles where I was tasked with creating and rendering characters in dynamic poses on the computer. Many of the images required exaggerated perspective effects as is typical of comic book art. I had to use some trickery to achieve a superhero comic look with the 3D Max Steel characters!

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