In their work on Big Hero 6, Frozen, and other films, CFA alums are stretching the limits of animation and imagination
By Lara Ehrlich | Photo courtesy of Disney
Banner image: For Big Hero 6, Disney created San Fransokyo (pictured), the largest set piece ever made for an animated feature; it’s populated by hundreds of thousands of citizens.
The man on the computer screen, buried to his shoulders in thick, white goo, strains to move. His shadow looms behind him, breaks apart, and melts into the distance as he slogs inexorably to the edge of the frame. It’s an animated image, or gif, and the artist bringing him to life is Wendy Cong Zhao, who achieves the illusion of strenuous movement in a series of 34 line drawings. In this and other gifs she shares on her blog, the classically trained painter is beginning to experiment with animation.
This experimentation has led her to rethink how she creates art, and to deviate from the idea that a single artwork is the end goal. When studying fine art, she says, “we work for a long time on one drawing or painting. Then, we hang it up and take a long time to study it.” In animation, however, the illusion of movement is achieved by connecting tens, hundreds, thousands—hundreds of thousands—of individual drawings. “When they’re all moving together, each drawing is only seen for a split second,” she says. “Each could be very good, but it’s not about that. On screen, you see the film as a whole.”
The illusion of movement has captivated audiences since the first animated film. J. Stuart Blackton’s Enchanted Drawing (1900) featured a tuxedoed man coaxing chalkboard drawings to life through stop-motion animation. From the costume to the staging, Blackton presents animation as a magic trick, and in the decades since, even as audiences and films have become more sophisticated, the spell holds.
“Animation is one of the most magical art forms you can imagine,” says Roy Conli (’87), a producer for Walt Disney Animation Studios. And today, CFA alums like Conli and Zhao are the ones making the magic. From granting movement to line drawings, to conjuring an entire city on screen, these alums are stretching the limits of animation and imagination.
It starts with a story
Animator Signe Baumane had a story to tell. In her 2014 feature film, Rocks in My Pockets, she traces her struggle with depression through the generations to her grandmother who, in 1920s Latvia, fell in love with a risk-taking entrepreneur prone to jealousy. Baumane plunges into her story of fantasy and madness through stop-motion animation driven by a crisp voice-over.
“The script was the blueprint,” says Zhao (’11, COM’11), who worked with Baumane as a colorist, and then as a compositor and editor from 2011 to 2013. “Signe recorded the voice-over first. We had to cut it up a little bit, but the main structure remained unchanged.” With the story in place, Baumane developed storyboards—thumbnail sketches that illustrate the staging for each scene—and worked with a team of five assistants and interns to animate the piece. Although collaboration was vital to the process, Baumane’s singular vision steered the story and the film’s production.
“Animation is one of the most magical art forms you can imagine.”—Roy Conli (’87)
Collaborative storytelling is central to the process at big studios like Pixar and Disney, where 12 directors each pitch a minimum of 3 ideas to the Story Trust, a team composed of the studio’s directors and chief creative officer. When the Trust considers which stories to pursue, says Peter Del Vecho (’80), producer of Disney’s Academy Award–winning film Frozen and a member of the group, “We ask ourselves: What do we want to see next, as moviegoers?”
Once a film is greenlit, the director, writer, and a team of 8 to 10 story artists spend 2 to 3 years developing the story. “Everybody will be in the room throwing out ideas,” says Christian Roman (’91), a story artist at Pixar who worked on Toy Story 3. “People will have pads of paper and do little gags that may or may not further the story, but will at least be a little funny moment.”
As they sketch from the working script, the story artists consider a variety of questions: “What’s the point of the scene? What do I want the audience to feel about it? How can I make this part of the story better?” says Roman. “A lot of creative freedom is given to the story artists to own their sequence.”
As the story develops, sketches-in-progress are compiled with vocal, music, and effects tracks to create an animatic, or an animated storyboard, which is screened every 12 weeks for the studio’s entire team of directors and writers. “We essentially tear it apart,” says Conli, producer of Disney’s Academy Award–winning film Big Hero 6. “Often, 75 percent of it goes back into development, but the 25 percent that stays is going to be the core of the story you tell.”
Del Vecho points to the last scene of Frozen as an example of the efficacy of this process.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, Frozen is the story of Princess Anna’s epic quest to save her sister, Queen Elsa, who has suspended their kingdom in winter. When Anna falls under a spell that begins to freeze her heart, only an act of true love can save her. “We always knew we wanted to end the movie with the true love being between the sisters, but it wasn’t very clear how to stage the ending to achieve the desired emotional impact,” Del Vecho says. When the team thought they had finally found the ending, one artist disagreed.
“He went off for two weeks and sketched up [a new ending] and pitched it to us,” Del Vecho says. To achieve a compelling climax, the artist “first placed the scene out on the fjord, and second, had Elsa’s emotions manifest a storm that makes it believable that everyone is close to each other, but cannot see each other until the right moment, when the storm suspends—easy in hindsight. It was the clarity of the staging that gave us the impact of the scene we had hoped for. We gave the artist a standing ovation.”
In tandem with developing story through script-work and sketching, the creative team collaborates to produce memorable characters, like Elsa from Frozen, Woody from Toy Story—and the puffy, white robot, Baymax, who steals every scene in the Disney film Big Hero 6. An inflatable health care robot, Baymax is the brainchild of Tadashi, who dies in an accident, leaving his little brother, Hiro, grief-stricken. Hiro stumbles across Baymax among his brother’s belongings, and the robot interprets the boy’s grief as a wound he must heal.
When developing Baymax, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams aimed to create an original robot, different from anything the audience would have seen before. They filled their story room with pictures of “literally every robot that has ever been in a film,” says Conli. WALL-E, Robby the Robot, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still—“the room was just plastered.”
Hall and Williams visited the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, they met researchers working in the field of soft robotics to develop a health care robot made of inflated vinyl that will tend gently to elderly patients. This project “sparked in Don’s mind the idea of a huggable robot,” says Conli. “This was the beginning of Baymax, and the fact that he was a health care robot made total sense within the structure of our story.”
“We want to make sure we are
dealing with themes
with audiences worldwide, and that means getting to the core fundamental values we all share.”
—Peter Del Vecho
When the team had Baymax’s shape, they drew out his personality through expressions and movement. “Animators are essentially actors with computers—we used to say ‘actors with pencils,’” Conli says. “They do a lot of research, as an actor does, exploring character.” Inspired by Japanese animation, the creative team traveled to Japan, where they stumbled upon a suzu bell at a Shinto shrine. It seemed to be smiling serenely at them, Conli says, and inspired Baymax’s simple, yet expressive features.
Finally, “we recognized that we were going to want a super appealing walk,” he says. The team watched videos to find the “cutest walks” in nature, which they determined were “a human baby in a diaper, a human baby in a loaded diaper, and a baby penguin. The baby penguin won.” They had found Baymax’s distinctive waddle.
Lights, camera, action
Once the story works and the characters are waiting in the wings, it’s time to bring the film to life. The storyboard artists sketch each scene, complete with movement, lighting, and camera angles. “Every little detail should support the direction of the story you want to tell,” Roman says. The storyboards then head to a production team that animates the story.
At Pixar, it’s about a two-year process—beyond the two or three years it takes to develop a story. Modelers create the characters and backgrounds on the computer, then riggers add points of articulation to the models so they can be manipulated. The layout artists use the storyboards to develop rough blocking, placing the “camera” within the scenes and the characters in their key poses. The animators enrich the posing, camera movements, and character expressions, which are all coordinated with the actors’ voice recordings. The lighting team then renders the scenes to add shading, textures, and reflections. “Every step has people who are experts,” Roman says. “We all work together. It is always an amazing bit of alchemy when everybody is firing on all cylinders.” All told, the process of bringing a single film like Toy Story 3, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 to the screen involves the work of anywhere from 350 to 800 people.
Although a small production like Rocks in My Pockets follows a similar process, Baumane did not have the budget for a big team. She hand-drew characters on paper and constructed backgrounds from papier-mâché, painted wooden boards, and other materials. To achieve the illusion that the 2D characters are moving through the 3D sets, she created numerous drawings for each movement, all of which were colored, shaded, textured, and lit. In all, the film required 30,000 drawings.
Zhao worked with Baumane to bring the characters and world together; she edited the scenes, digitally colored each one in Photoshop, composited them in After Effects, and edited the film. This work required Zhao to not only develop new technical skills, but to employ the traditional skills she learned at CFA. “It helped to have taken sculpture classes, to know what it should look like when a character moves through space,” she says, “especially if the background is moving, like if there’s a pan or a zoom.” And the skills she developed as a painter enabled her to shade characters with the knowledge of how different light sources generate shadows.
“The ability to draw well, compose, understand perspective and color theory, and so on, is key to working and creating animation,” Roman adds. “The computer doesn’t compensate for a lack of creativity or artistic ability. It is simply a tool, like a brush or a pencil.”
“We all work together. It is always an amazing bit of alchemy when everybody is firing on all cylinders.”—Christian Roman
The magic makers
“Every once in awhile, you get to work on a film that takes on a life of its own,” Del Vecho says of the film that has inspired Halloween costumes, stuffed animals, jewelry, toys, stamps, sheets—and more than 55 million YouTube videos of fans singing “Let It Go.”
He witnessed the audience’s continuing enchantment with Frozen during BU’s 2014 Alumni Weekend, when he took alums behind the scenes of the film. During the screening of a clip, four little girls sitting at the back of the auditorium shot to their feet to sing along to “For the First Time in Forever.” After the talk, Del Vecho opened the floor to questions, and called on one of the movie’s littlest fans first. She asked, “How does Elsa make snow come out of her hand?”
The producer expounded upon the animation techniques behind the character’s dramatic talent, which Elsa perceives as a curse, and how her struggle to control the power ties into the film’s theme, “love, not fear.”
This wasn’t the answer the young girl was looking for. At the end of Del Vecho’s explanation, she asked, “But how does she do it?” How does Elsa actually make magic?
The spell holds.