CAREERS: Larger than life

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Animation is more than using tools to create a moving picture, it is about bringing characters to life nurjehan mohamed

WHEN Carlos Baena left his homeland of Spain for tertiary study in the United States, he had no idea what he wanted to pursue as a career.

He only knew what he did not want to do.

“My mother had wanted me to be a lawyer... that wasn’t going to happen.

“Luckily my father had sat me down, told me that we all only have one life and that I had to make my own decision,” he says.
Seventeen years later, he is still based in the US and is happily working as a professional animator at Pixar Animation Studios.

“Leaving home was difficult for me and for my mom but she understands that if I had stayed in Spain doing something I didn’t like, I would have been unhappy.”

Baena and fellow animator Shawn Kelly were in Kuala Lumpur recently to conduct an advanced professional animation seminar.

Organised by The One Academy and MSC Malaysia, the three-day event saw the two sharing their experience and insights with several local professional and budding animators.

Baena and Kelly reveal what it takes to be a successful animator.

“The skills that any animator needs are the three Ps — practice, patience and passion — and not being afraid to fail,” says Baena.

Animation is a very slow art form where the more patient you are and the more practice you have, the better your work would pay off in the end.

“Every time you fail, you learn a little bit and make your next piece of work a little bit better.

“You have to be willing to go through that process,” says Kelly, a senior animator at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

He adds that animators must have the heart of an actor and an interest in observing the world around them.

“Our job is to bring characters to life, to create an exciting action scene, a really sad emotional one or something really funny.

“It comes down to trying to create a performance the same way an actor would except that we’re behind the camera instead of in front of it,” he says.

Animators have to research the characters they want to bring to life.

“You would have to become observers of life; you have to study how people move and talk.

“The greatest teacher for an animator is life itself,” says Baena, adding that though the field is competitive, animators need to work together to better themselves and the art form.

As with any other art, being able to give and accept criticism is an essential part of being in animation.

“Unless you show your work to somebody and ask what they think, you can’t improve yourself,” says Kelly.

To stay inspired, Kelly surrounds himself with things that motivate and excite him.

He watches his favourite movies, has toys on his desk of characters from his favourite films, and reads extensively.

“Seeing the creations of my peers at ILM also excites me and gets me thinking about how I could do stuff like that too,” he says, adding that his work always presents new challenges and that “you can never learn everything about it, you’ll be discovering new things your whole life“.

It would not be weird to see animators acting or trying out martial arts or dance moves in front of a video camera.

This would be part of the research that goes into creating a single shot — be it the movement of a robot in Transformers or Buzz

Lightyear performing a Spanish dance in Toy Story, for instance.

“We go on YouTube, watch movies and record ourselves doing lots of funny dance movements or fighting positions to see how the body works.

“We find good references to embellish to try and create something that’s larger than life but still feels real,” says Kelly.

Baena likens their craft to cooking: “you bring different ingredients — or elements — together and create a kind of dish — or animation — that is your own.”

With the aim of exchanging ideas and building bridges among animators, the two co-founded an online animation school called Animation Mentor with a schoolmate and animator named Bobby Beck.

Since its inception in 2005, the school sees some 800 students from around the world annually being guided by about 100 mentors based in animation studios.

Kelly observes that this mentor-mentee mode of learning is something similar to what is being done at The One Academy (see accompanying story), which he finds encouraging.

He notes that the biggest misconception about learning animation is that it’s about learning the technology and software. “Many schools focus on teaching this, which is like teaching a student how to hold a paintbrush instead of how to be a painter. Animation is the art of breathing life into a character; it’s about creating a performance that is memorable and exciting to watch.”

Animation is the art of bringing characters to life. Films depicted here (clockwise from left), The Incredibles, Star Wars, Rango and Saladin.

Online school Animation Mentor allows animators from around the world to learn from mentors.

Shawn Kelly, animator

Carlos Baena, animator


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