Supervising Animator Scott Clark Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Challenges of Animating an Entire Campus Full of Monsters, New Characters, & More

     April 27, 2013


During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios for their upcoming film Monsters University, supervising animator Scott Clark took time out of his busy schedule to participate in this one-on-one interview.  Clark talked about what exactly it means to be a supervising animator, his favorite scenes to work on, the film’s biggest technical challenge, believability vs realism and his favorite characters.

Monsters University features the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day and many more.  The film opens in 2D and 3D starting June 21st.  Hit the jump for the full interview.

monsters-university-supervising-animator-scott-clarkQuestion: Forgive my naivete, but I have you listed as a supervising animator.  Could you give me a brief explanation of what that entails?

Scott Clark: As the supervising animator, that means I am the lead animator, the head animator on a show.  I help the director with the dailies; I might have opinions on acting ideas or notes.  He has the final say because he knows the whole story, the whole arc of the story, but I’m kind of the expert on animation.  I also help my crew, I’ll do anything I can to help my performers or animators come up with the choices they need to do to present to the animator.  I’m in charge of doling out all the work, like casting it, as a casting director might do. 

How many people would you say are in that crew?  How many people are you responsible for?

Clark: Over 70.  We have about 100 people total in our department at the peak.

Earlier today you treated our group to a little presentation, and we got to see a little bit of dance scenes between those two.  What were your favorite scenes or sequences to work on, and what was one of the most challenging that you had to keep revisiting?

Clark: I didn’t animate much, I should say that.  Some of my favorite scenes were ones I didn’t animate, but an example of one I really enjoyed would be Curran Giddens, he made some shots where Mike and Sulley are competing with each other in a montage.  There’s this really funny push scene, I think it’s in the trailer, of Mike on a treadmill — and I love subtle acting, but that was just pure cartooniness.  It was fun to see, and it was a challenging shot for anyone, but I think Curran really struggled with it.  It was fun to see him succeed, and to see the arc of his struggle with it as an artist and finally get to something that is really fun.

Was there a challenging sequence you had to keep revisiting because it wasn’t working right or you had to keep sending it back to get more work done on it?

Clark: The biggest challenge on the film was the amount of characters and sheer scope of how many characters and the different species.  It wasn’t just cars or rats or fish. Toy Story had different toys, but they were simpler.  These are organic creatures with tentacles and multiple arms.  There was one sequence that we don’t  want to give away, spoiler, but there was this one sequence that has a lot of characters competing in it.  At one point there was just so much going on, you have twenty characters on screen, not background characters, but twenty lead characters running along.  Wow.  How do we get this done?

monsters-university-greek-councilEarlier today, I wrote down a quick quote that you had mentioned offhand, that of just Sulley in particular, because he’s this ponderous, heavy character that’s not quite built to human proportions, you said, “We need to make this believable, not realistic.”  I thought that was interesting because, like you said, you have so many different characters and they’re all built in so many different ways that they don’t move like humans.  So is that challenging, or is that more fun to just work out their particular mechanics and how they’re going to work in a scene?

Clark: To me, that’s why I animate, and that’s why people enjoy animation.  I enjoy live action films with special effects.  We can make these amazing and realistic creatures and things that exist in live action, and you can use motion capture for that sometimes.  It looks awesome, like the world of Avatar for instance.  What we’re doing is caricaturing humanity through these characters that we do.  So that’s what’s fun.  This guy looks like an egg-shape, and this guy’s a block-shape, it’s simple, and it’s like looking at an Al Hirschfeld illustration.  The illustration looks more like the person than the person almost, because he captured, in just a few lines, the essence of that person.  That’s almost what animation is.

I think you mentioned earlier, did you start on Monsters, Inc.? 

Clark: A Bug’s Life.  That was the first film I animated.

What was your position with Monster’s, Inc. then?

Clark: Directing animators, so I was one of the leads.

Could you compare experiences as far as creative freedoms versus technical limitations on both of those?

Clark: Sure. On Monsters, I was directing animators, so I was more of like the deputy or the sheriff.  I was helping the animators out, still a very similar role in supporting the crew, but we had a lot more limitations.  We couldn’t put hair on every character, we couldn’t run things in real time.  Just hit the shot and let it loop 24 frames per second.  We had to record it.  We couldn’t have 100 characters walking around in the back of the class.  I think, ten, twelve years ago, we were just younger, and we weren’t as polished in our animation.  We didn’t have model sheets for Mike and Sulley.  This time around we looked at the most appealing shots from Monsters Inc. and thought, “That’s what we want them to look like.  That’s the essence of those characters.”  We can keep them more a model, in a way that feels it’s a Sulley-ness or Mike-ness, but also have fun, cartoony acting.

monsters-university-set-visitWhen you were going through your presentation today, I was just glancing at the screen that you worked with.  Now, to the untrained eye, the number of options you have with that screen, to just select a digit and turn it a certain degree, that’s your tools of the trade.  You obviously probably have a much greater degree of control over the animation now than say twelve years ago.  With all of these characters on screen, is that more of a hindrance at times, or an asset to have and make them more, again, believable and not necessarily realistic?

Clark: The number of characters in animation is just that much more work to do.  The two tools I showed you, the spline editor and the graph sheet, those two tools are the bread and butter.  That existed twenty years ago.  We do have other tools that I didn’t show you.  Other ways to manipulate the animation that would get more technical.  An example would be an x-sheet type tool that is kind of like what they do in 2D.  You have drawings, you do a drawing, and you just hold it for ten frames, and then do another drawing and hold it for ten frames.  It’s kind of like a pose test, so you can get five poses, five drawings that would represent your scene and then time it out.  That’s pretty much what happens.  Then you start in-betweening it.  The computer in-betweens everything, but we do have a tool that allows you to hold a frame or a drawing and think of it in almost a 2D so that you’re not distracted by the in-betweens.  There are other ways, and it helps an animator that comes from 2D animation to think that way and see it that way.  So we do have animators from all different places that use different techniques.

We haven’t talked about this today, but this is being released in 3D, correct?

Clark: Both, 3D and 2D.  Yeah, at the same time.

What’s the impact of the 3D release on your position?  Is there any sort of thing that changes?

Clark: It doesn’t change anything about the way I do the filmmaking.  Up was our first film in 3D, and I was also a supervising animator on Up.  Every once in a while we’ll get a fix from the stereo crew saying, “Because we have 3D glasses on, I can tell Terry’s head is intersecting Terri’s head, the two-headed brother.  Can you guys fix that?”  Oh, yeah!  Didn’t see that.  You know, it was flat.  There’s a lot of cheating we used to do that we can’t get away with, probably.  Because it is 3D, we can see it.  If we’ve done our job correctly, hopefully you get immersed in the story with either version.  They’re both fun. 

monsters-university-dean-hardscrabbleThis time around, we have returning characters, and we have a lot of new characters, like you’ve mentioned.  Did you get to animate the flying characters at all, and even if you didn’t, what was that process figuring out those mechanics as opposed to the swimming, walking, crawling?

Clark: I didn’t animate any flying characters, but the animators that did, I did do some side characters, we look at bats or dragons or insects.  They’re all based on other creatures: slugs, bears, monsters that have horns.  The other characters I animated are side characters, like a guy playing a guitar and a boring teacher that is just barely moving.  It was more personality than movement style or who they were. 

Was that Professor Brandywine?

Clark: Yes!  That was one of mine.  I animated Professor Brandywine, and animated is a very kind term for Professor Brandywine, because he is not an animated character.  He is the opposite of animated.  He’s boring, you don’t want to take his class.  Everyone falls asleep.

You mentioned that even earlier today, you said that animators fall into this trap that everything has to be constantly moving.  You have to be shuffling around with this ADHD.  That, I think, is a great example of where his personality and character comes across because he is not “animated.”

Clark: That’s right.  What’s funny about him, he is recognizable.  Everyone had that teacher in high school or college that just had the personality of a piece of cardboard.  You’re not making this exciting, I am not passionate about math right now or whatever.  Insert topic here with that teacher.  Please bring some personality to Professor Brandywine.  I figure he’s got to have an interesting, passionate life out there somewhere, but who knows.  This other character I did was this character guy who was overly smarmy and gooey and he’s got the girls around him.  You want to hate the guy because he’s just overly sappy and sentimental.  It’s fun to see his guitar get smashed. 

We knew that guy too.

Clark: That guy exists in every dorm room across the land.

Exactly.  Well, I’m getting the wrap up.  Thank you so much.  I’m looking forward to the sordid tales of Professor Brandywine.

Click here for all our Monsters University coverage.


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