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!

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!

Dynamation's Last Stand

During the early Nineties, the animation and visual effects industries transformed rapidly from their traditional old-school techniques to the use of computer generated imagery. One of the lost arts was "Dynamation", invented by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. Once considered the best and most revered method for integrating creatures into live action movies, Dynamation is now long obsolete. Although this Harryhausen-created procedure was generally considered to be a magician's secret, a few other masters such as Jim Danforth, David Allen, Randall William Cook, Jim Aupperle, Phil Tippett, and Doug Beswick all knew and practiced the art. The procedure involves animating a realistic stop-motion puppet in front of a rear-projection of live action footage. Foreground elements are masked out on a glass sheet in front of the camera and then restored by backwinding the film and running a second pass. The result is the illusion that the animated character is in the scene and interacting with the actors in the movie.

While employed by Full Moon Entertainment in 1994-1995, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to animate using the Dynamation technique on five separate movies. One of these productions, Magic Island, had the distinction of being the last feature film released which utilized Harryhausen's legacy process!

Cowboys, Aliens, and Giant Scorpions

The Night Scorps animation sequences!

In 1994, animation legend David Allen (1944-1999) hired me to animate giant scorpions for the feature film Oblivion. The film was a bizarre space-western, the original "Cowboys and Aliens"! It was produced by Full Moon Entertainment, a very busy studio with many movies in production. At that time, David was running the Full Moon visual effects department, but was mostly focused on planning for his dream project, the upcoming movie Primevals. He entrusted his crew to create the work for other films such as Oblivion, under his overall supervision. I worked with Joseph Grossberg, who was responsible for the visual effects camera work and lighting. My task was to bring the giant alien scorpions, called Night Scorps, to life through stop-motion animation.

Stop-Motion Field Trip

In 1987, I was part of a group of dedicated artists hired to animate critters for the ABC weekend special Runaway Ralph. For one particularly successful sequence, director John Clark Matthews came up with the bold idea of shooting the stop-motion animation outdoors. The concept sounded crazy at first because the stop-motion process would exaggerate the changing sunlight, clouds, and wind blowing on the landscape. For “realistic” animation, filming outside should not work, but it did! The sequence in question involved Ralph the mouse running away from home and riding his motorcycle on the highway. Initial tests proved that if the camera shots were animated in large increments, necessary in order to follow Ralph’s motorcycle, the wind and changing sunlight would be imperceptible.

Fairy Tale Surrealism

One of the most unusual projects of my career was Red Riding Hood and the Well-Fed Wolf, an educational film that featured characters representing the various food groups. As Animation Director of the 1989 film, I created and brought to life talking food interacting with live actors who portrayed Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Stop-motion animation was the main technique used, and traditional puppetry was employed for the shots involving the actors and the talking food together.

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