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Galen Chu Blue Sky Studios Animator Extraordinaire

an emily blunt interview

 

 

 



The animated hit Ice Age has hit like a on of bergs at the local theaters...ever wonder how the wonderfully human animals get to be that way? I did and rang Blue Sky Studios, the fun folks who brought us Ice Age, and asked some questions of one of their top animators, Galen Chu.

So grab a hot toddy and give a read. It's quite interesting stuff!

EB: Hello! So you were involved in the animation of "Ice Age," correct?

GC: Yes, that's right.

EB: All right. And why don't you tell us, if you'll be so kind, a little bit about the animating process.

GC: Sure! Well, there are several steps in the animating process. We start with a script. Then there's storyboarding, modeling, rigging, animation and then lighting. The director will make sure that everyone is on the same page throughout all these departments.

EB: When you say that the director obviously there's not actors there. Are you talking about the models?

GC: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

EB: Let's pretend that you have no idea how this starts, you're bringing your child to work and they're seeing the process for the first time. How it's done from the storyboard on...does it go from storyboard to model?

GC: Actually what happens is while the storyboard artists are storyboarding, we have modelers and designers already designing the characters. Sort of visualizing the character in the computer 3-D. Three dimensionally.

EB: Excellent! I noticed on the site for "Ice Age" they have some behind the scenes peeks.

GC: Uh huh. Yep.

EB: So then, then you take those models and...

GC: We have these things called a rig, sort of like a skeleton. It is an equivalent of our skeleton. This is the point in the process where riggers put bones in so that the animator is able to articulate the 3D model. A little bit like a puppet. Like a 3-D puppet.

EB: And then it has all the different points and you...you make them move by the computer?

GC: We have these, these 3D objects called movers and so it?s like as if you were gonna grab the wrist on the puppet and position it.

EB: Is that done with a keystroke, or is that done with some sort of programmed sequence?

GC: You can use the mouse, you know, as if you would drag something from your window to the trash bin on a Mac.

EB: Fascinating. And how did you, how did you learn how to do this?

GC: I actually went to school for this. Pratt Institute in New York. I also had a really good mentor early on named Chris Gilligan who taught me a good deal about animation.

EB: Very nice. And you've been working on "Ice Age" for how long? How long since the beginning of conception?

GC: I?ve been on it for about 2-½ years. I worked briefly on storyboarding, about 8 months, and then moved into character animation.

EB: Wow!

GC: Yeah. It?s a pretty long process. It's a long cycle.

EB: How long does it take for, say, Scrat.when he's getting the nut, how long would something- that we see that say is two minutes long- how long would that sequence take from beginning to end to actually bring to the screen?

GC: Uh...well, if you include story, you know, the conception of the actual sequence and the gags plus the animation it would take about a two-three weeks on that particular sequence.

EB: Wow.

GC: And then the lighting is another probably two weeks and then the special effects with the snow and all the glaciers tearing apart...

EB: Right.

GC: ....that's probably another week, so it's a pretty long process. I mean each department's contributing about maybe two weeks into...into that two minute sequence. And what happens is we actually get shots in that sequence, so in that sequence I was responsible for one shot.

EB: Really?

GC: Yeah.

EB: Which shot?

GC: Its the shot where the Scrat has found the spot for his acorn and is trying to pound the acorn in twisting and jumping on it. And finally hears a thundering crack. The chaos begins.

EB: Do you draw it?Or how much of the traditional ways of animation is used and how much of it, I believe the term is CGI?

GC: I think there's still a lot of traditional animation in there because the process is the same. We make poses for the character. We create these poses that convey the action or the story of the motion of the scene and then from there the computer can help us a little bit with the in betweening, but still there's a lot of work that you really need to get in there and figure out where the in betweens need to go, so it's still a pretty laborious process. It's not a...you know, click of a button, and it just goes. It's a lot of work.

EB: Right. A lot of people seem to assume that because it's done with computersit's easier! When you'e dealing with anybody's voice, any of the voiceovers, which do you get first? The voiceovers or do they follow the animation?

GC: Actually most often we get the voices first because it's helpful and really inspiring to work from the performance of the actors. They're so great at adding to the character and ad-libbing to what's already on the script. For example, John Leguizamo was able to really get into character and read the lines the way he though Sid should say it. He came up with this lisp that could only have been natural for Sid being that he had these two large teeth in his design. And that's inspiring for us to hear and take his performance and we plus it again in animation.

EB: Yeah, because I did notice that the characters very much so match the voices I figured it had to be like that, but again, you know, I don't know everything as most people think!

GC: Well, sometimes it might work the other way, just depending on the schedule of the actor, but most often than not it...it would happen the way you had first mentioned it.

EB: So you'llbe listening to a tape of let's say John, then you'll go in and take Sid the Sloth, and you might move his shoulder a different way because of an accented word?

GC: Exactly!

EB: Ahhhh! Very interesting.

GC: Yeah.

EB: I'm assuming you'll have a big toy tie-in with this if you don't already. [ I am ready to beg for toys...I move in slowly--like a sloth, yet ferociuos like a sabertooth...]

GC: We do have some toy tie-ins, but it's not done in our studio. I think we hired another studio...a toy company to produce the toys.

EB: Oh, I see. Okay. [BBBUUUMMMMMEEEEERRRRR okay back to him] And do you have another project coming upwith Blur Sky Sudios?

GC: Uh...yeah. We're working on another project.

EB: You can't tell me about it?

GC: Nope. I can't really talk about.

EB: Top secret!! Oh no!!!

GC: It's definitely something good.

EB: Wonderful. Now...um...how many animators did work on "Ice Age?" Everybody in the company and how many would that be?

GC: Yeah, somewhere in the range of maybe 25 to 30 animators.

EB: Wow.

GC: So there's a good amount of people. We also have some specialized animators called lip-sync animators. They help us out with general syncing to the voice performance. You know, the vowels and the consonants....

EB: Oh really?

GC: Yeah. So if John Leguziumo was talking, the lip-sync animator would bring the sound in they would make sure the "o?s," the "a?s", the "b?s" match the audio performance.

EB: Oh how fascinating!

GC: And that helps us a lot - the animators - because then we just grab what they've done import it into our scene and add some expression to the basic phonemes.

EB: So I?m taking this is as not done congruently. You do bits and pieces.

GC: Yes, definitely.

EB: Is that difficult to maintain the structure of the character? I mean do you start to forget who, you know, Manford is because you've been working on the other character so long?

GC: That's the trick with CG animation because traditionally if it was 2-D the way they do that is they have animation leads for each character and so you're responsible for that character throughout the whole movie. In CG it's a little different because we handle all the characters in the scene. So if you have four different characters, you know, the trio Sid, Manny and Diego... Plus Roshan, you have to handle all four characters and you have to keep the character consistent throughout the movie while handling all the different characters.

EB: So you are like directors?

GC: Sort of.

EB: Wow. What a high pressure job.

GC: Yeah, it can be sometimes. Its alot of crazy fun most of the times though.

EB: Honestly, because I mean if you...you know usually nobody has to deal with the entire cast and keep it...

GC: Uh huh.

EB: That...that must be...um...how...how do you keep it in focus? Is there a trick to it?

GC: Um...I think inherently the way the character?s are designed you can see how it can move. In many ways the design dictates the way a certain character moves. And also the directors keep us all on the same page. We have an animation director, Carlos Saldanha and we have Chris Wedge, the overall director who keeps consistency throughout the film....and we also sort of feed off of each other, you know, when we see somebody do something great over here we?ll sort of learn from and incorporate that into our shots. And even timing notes, you know...two frames here, four frames there.

EB: And is any of the animation, especially with Scrat, improv'd, or has that all been scripted out beforehand. In other words, if you come up with a cute little idea in the middle do you add it, do you have the freedom to add it?

GC: Oh yeah. It's totally open for that. I mean, you know, a lot of times we'll open up a shot. You know, a lot of times a shot comes to us with an assigned length of say four seconds long because the sequence director has already timed out the sequence and it's supposed to play this way. But many times we have the freedom to open it up and make it an eight second shot because we added some business here and there, making it an even better shot.

EB: And you said you went to school. How long did you study and did you come out of school knowing how to do this, or was a lot of it still on-the-job training?

GC: I was in school for four years initially studying illustration and then transferring to computer graphics. I graduated, and I knew some things about animation, so I was able to get a job. [laughter] But I think the learning almost never stops. I mean I?ve been here for 2-½ years and I'm still learning. I don't think it ever really stops. And animation is definitely very collaborative. There's a lot of people involved and you sort of have to put your ego aside and work as a team because there's so many people involved in making this one movie...

EB: Uh huh.

GC: ...and we really have to stand behind Chris and follow his vision instead of trying to go off on our own and create something different. That's pretty difficult, but...

EB: You're artistical and...

GC: Yeah.

EB: ...and everybody's opinionated.

GC: It also lends itself to a lot of learning, though. : And he's been in this business for 15-20 years. I mean, he's got that much more on the rest of us.

EB: Sure. Well, Ice Age is great! A fantastic movie! I'll let you get back to creating wonderful whimsical worlds for us!

GC: [laughter] Thanks! Well, bye now...we'll talk at the next film! Bye.

EB: Buh-bye.

What a great job huh? Yeah, but apparently it's not so easy-- even with the computer's aide. Figures! Galen was sweet to stop and chat about the hottest animation film so far this year...hmm, with animation being a new category for the Oscar...maybe he'll be getting one come spring 2003????

 

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