Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be an animator. Your training and some things about you in general.
My name is Brad Lincoln, I’m a senior animator at Digital Domain in Vancouver. I grew up on a farm in a small town called Paraparaumu, about an hour North of Wellington, New Zealand.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be an animator but I knew fairly early on that I wanted to work in film. I was always drawn to films with great spectacle, things that I’d never seen before or films that had great world building. Star Wars and Jurassic Park were pretty influential to me. Other than making my own silly shorts with my cousins when I was younger, I never knew it would be a possibility to work on movies like this in New Zealand. Then it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to adapt The Lord of the Rings and that he was doing it in NZ. That got me moving, I had to get into the industry but in what capacity?
I was always a fairly good artist and loved to draw so I figured I could go down that route and visual effects seemed to be the way to go. Still there were so many fields within VFX and I had no idea which one was for me. I was initially drawn to 3d modeling but eventually that lead me to animation, I figured that animation was the closest discipline to film making itself, if I could animate, I could potentially make a film using those skills.
The biggest problem for me was that back then there wasn’t much in the way of animation schools in New Zealand. I did a couple of short courses in Wellington, but they were really very broad multimedia courses and only taught a very rudimentary introduction to animation, in hindsight they were a waste of time. I then did a 9-month course in Auckland at a school specialising in Animation and VFX which was much better but still taught all the disciplines so animation only made up a small part of it. It did give me a good base to start from though and I learned how to use Maya.
Once I graduated the reel I had to show for it was pretty awful. I then spent 3 months teaching myself how to animate using tutorials from the internet and just practicing by animating using reference video. At the end of it I had a fairly decent reel that landed me my first job as an animator at a small video game company in Wellington called Sidhe Interactive.
Your most recent credits include films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Beauty and the Beast, and Deadpool. When taking on large scale assignments for big films like this, how do you approach breaking scenes down and planning things out?
Every shot is different so they all require slightly different approaches. The only constant is that you will start with getting your direction from your supervisor. You’ll discuss any ideas you have and when you leave dailies you should be on the same page as to what you’re going to do.
With something like the Ferry sequence on Spider-man I was essentially previsualizing the shot and taking it to final, this meant that the first step was to quickly rough in a few ideas. This evolved quite a bit over the duration of the shot. I had to make the animation good enough to read what was happening, keep it clean so that I could easily take it to final once the blocking was approved but also do it fast and loose enough so that we could try out new ideas.
Keeping a scene tidy is vital with something like this, you need to be light on your feet so to speak. I like to keep my keys sparse and know exactly what every curve is doing so that it can be changed without too much hassle. Since Spider-man flips and spins a lot I had to make sure all of my spaces and rotation orders were ideal for the shot, having the hierarchies of the rig all working in the right direction to keep it simple and avoid gimbal problems was very important. This often meant splitting rotations between various controls.
With something like Beauty and the beast this is a little more straight ahead. With Beast for instance you are trying to capture the actor’s performance as best you can so you just start there and refine as you go.
With a movie like Beauty and the Beast or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, non-human characters need to have a believability that tells the audience this character truly lives along-side human characters. As an animator, how does your job contribute to that aspect of the pipeline and what steps do you take to work towards that believability?
With the planet of the apes films it was a combination of honoring the actor’s performance and also making the character’s move like apes. It’s up to the animators and our supervisors to walk that line between realistic ape motion and the slightly more human but still ape like performance of the actors. We’ll try to capture every subtle nuance of the performance of the actors, sometimes amping things up, toning things down or changing something slightly to make it read on an ape. At the end of the day the performance has to look good on an ape, it’s never a 1 to 1 transfer. It’s up to the animator’s discretion and with the help of the animation supervisor we massage the performance into something believable, hopefully keeping the spirit of the actor’s performance and the more ape like mannerisms intact.
This is similar to working on something like Beauty and the Beast, although I’d say in Beast’s case his face was slightly more human looking so in most cases there was less room for interpretation, although sometimes it was necessary.
Animation tools are constantly evolving. With developments in things like motion capture being utilized more often, how do you see the job of film animators evolving?
I think with body capture, even though it will get more sophisticated, an animator will always be needed to tweak and massage it for the shot’s needs. The real advancements now are in facial capture, more and more of the subtleties and nuances are now coming through in the facial capture. I was very impressed with how much of Josh Brolin’s performance came through in the facial capture. We still had to do a lot of work on it to make the performance work, but I see that lessening as the tech improves. In the case of something like Apes however there will still be a need for the artist to interpret the performance purely because of the disparity between the actor and the character it’s being mapped onto.
What was it like to go from an animator to senior animator? How did your responsibilities change?
The roles aren’t too dissimilar. The main differences are that I will often be given more challenging shots and I will often be booked on a show from the start. On Avengers Infinity war and Spider-man homecoming for example My lead and I would be the only animators for the first month or two. We’d test the rigs, do animation tests, cycles etc. We’d maybe even start on some shots if any have been turned over. We’d basically help make sure everything is ready to go when the rest of the team starts.
Any other thoughts you would like to share with budding animators?
Once you’re done with school keep practicing. Just keep animating, find some video reference you like and try to replicate it with all the subtleties intact. If you’re animating a horse for example look at every part of that horse, notice the angles of the legs, the limits, how far or how little they bend or extend, is your horse doing anything the real horse isn’t? Learn to notice these small things, when in doubt reference is your friend.
Find animators you admire and learn from them. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best and some of them are generous enough to share their wisdom at work and online whether it’s blogs or teaching, seek it all out and soak it all in. Your first, 2nd, 3rd reel might not be very good, just keep at it, my first 3 or 4 were just awful. Also try out different workflows, it can be handy to have a few different methods in your back pocket depending on the shot you’re working on.