June 30, 2014

Animation Thesis, Art Imitates Life, Part III

To read Part I, please click here.
To read Part II, please click here.
ART IMITATES LIFE: An Exploration on the Advancements in the History of Animation Technology and the Effect on the Final Image is my college thesis submitted as part of the Visual Communication program at the State University of New York (Farmingdale).
The research had me read countless books and visit numerous animation galleries (which were plentiful in the early 1990’s) as well as speak to professionals in the industry. The galleries provided the opportunity to see examples of animation art produced by various studios through the decades and see first-hand the effects of the various technological innovations outlined below.
I also interviewed 2 animators to gain personal accounts of the artists directly involved in the craft. I visited Al Baruch in his Long Beach, NY home and spoke to him about his tenure at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1950’s working on such notable films as Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp as well as his time at Terrytoons Studios working on Mighty Mouse cartoons. I also interviewed Ruben Aquino from his office at the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios in Orlando, FL while he was busy working on Mulan. These two individuals provided an insight to two different periods in animation history. Mr. Baruch’s interview offers a glimpse into the golden era of animation and my conversation with Mr. Aquino revealed the (then) current animation world at the time of his interview which was the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and while films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were making the animators household names.
This thesis lacks coverage of the past 20 or so years in the technological advancements of the medium as it was originally written in 1996. We are now entering a phase in animation where the technology is beginning to exist as a facilitating tool. No longer are we looking at films which share that same generic CG look, but the artists are now pushing the boundaries to produce films which have an inherent style and personality. Disney’s Academy-award winning short ‘Paperman‘ is an excellent example of the marriage of style and technology. 
I’ve decided to break this into 3 postings: The text of the thesis, and the interviews individually.

Interview 2: Ruben Aquino. Conducted, April 08, 1996

On April 08, 1996 I had the pleasure of speaking with current Disney animator Ruben Aquino from his studio at the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios in Florida. The telephone conversation that took place is documented below. Ruben Aquino is a supervising animator for Walt Disney Studios. His work with the company has been instrumental in the rebirth of animated feature film success. Mr. Aquino has worked on many productions with the studio. Recently he animated the character Ursula in The Little Mermaid and Adult Simba from The Lion King. Currently Mr. Aquino and the entire staff at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida are currently working on their first animated feature film that will be released in a few years.

Do you feel that the technology used in animated films today has the greatest impact on the outcome of the project and the general public’s reaction to the film? How so?

No, I don’t think so. I think generally the story and the characters we bring to life, and the songs have a lot to do with it. Technology is a tool, just like a pencil.

How difficult is it to maintain the selected artistic style throughout a particular project when animators are usually working on more than just one project at a time?

It is not easy because we try to vary our styles in each of our pictures, especially now, since we are trying a lot of different things that we have not done before. There used to be a Disney Studio look, a house-style, that we’re trying to break out of. It is difficult, but we are all individuals and we tend to have our own individual styles of drawing and we are trained to draw consistently when there are a few of us working on the same character. We all follow the model sheet for that character and we all work together. Those of us who are supervising characters, during the design stage, will make sure that our characters look consistent with one another. Every step of the way during the creative process, we are checking with each other and the art director. We try to keep a certain consistency within the picture and then we use the same procedure when we go on to the next picture to make sure there is consistency within the next picture as well.

Winsor McCay once said to the Disney artists of the 1940’s, “Animation should be an art, that is how I conceived it. But, what you fellows have done with it is to make it into a trade, not an art.” Is it easy to perceive the task that you do as less of an art and more of a job?

It is one of the dilemmas of commercial art, which is basically what we do. We are not independent fine artists who work on our own and don’t worry about what we do will be commercially successful or not. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, what we do does generate a lot of income for the company and the company tries to make sure that we continue doing what we have done successfully in the past ten years or so to make sure our films are commercial. Part of why it is successful is because it meets high artistic standards. It is tedious and it is a high pressured process, especially towards the crunch because deadlines have to be met. There is always a compromise that we are always making, but it is not too much of a compromise that we are not proud of what we do, we are proud of what we do and the public generally agrees with us that the quality of work that we do here at Disney is very high. Any artist would never completely, at least any good artist, be satisfied. Anytime that I go to a screening of a film once they are done, I always wish that I could go back and do certain things over again to make it better. There has to be a deadline in order for a company to make money and for us to make money off of the company. It is just a hard reality.

 In your opinion, what is the greatest goal that an animator can achieve? What do you as an animator strive for?

We are basically entertainers, but part of what makes our films so entertaining, is that we bring these characters to life and that the audience believes that these characters are actually flesh and blood characters when they are actually drawings. In the case of computer animation, they are just computer models brought to life. That is my biggest challenge—to make my characters believable so the audience believes that they are real living characters. I do all the research that is necessary to make the characters feel as believable and authentic as possible.

 As a supervising animator, how much of the animation do you do as opposed to the direction of the artwork?

I do a fair amount of the animation. I actually do more animation than the other people in my unit. That is largely because I am more experienced and I have been doing it for a long time. Eventually, the other people will get faster. So far, I have been doing the bulk of the animation. I wouldn’t say the majority of the animation, but more than any of the other animators. How much I do depends on the size of the unit, how many people are doing a particular character and what the total footage of the character is, meaning total screen time in the film. In The Little Mermaid, I did almost half of the Ursula footage and in The Lion King, I did about a third of the Adult Simba footage. It varies from picture to picture.


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