Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What Makes a Great Animator? Mike Nguyen Explains


Korean Goshawk - animation by Mike Nguyen
Mike Nguyen is a veteran animator who has worked on many classic Hollywood feature films such as "Beauty and The Beast" and "Space Jam".  He was a lead animator on Brad Bird's classic "The Iron Giant" and also on "Osmosis Jones", and has been working for a number of years on his own independent animated feature film  "My Little World".  Here he talks to Bucks about what makes a great animator.

CalArts. Image: Wikipedia
Bucks: Where did you learn animation?

MN: I began with self-taught animation when I was in junior high school but properly approached animation learning when I came to CalArts in 1984. My very first animation instructors were Hal Ambro and Bob McCrea. Both were veteran Disney animators from the Golden Era. It definitely was very inspiring to be spending time learning animation in their presence.

However, my most influential mentor was Bob Winquist and he happened to be a design instructor. Animation to me has a much larger picture that belongs to the film language, encompassing the animating process, and also colors, designs, film editing - all to communicate stories through the moving imagery with certain sense of style. In time, I became aware of this unity through the guidance of Bob Winquist.

Fantasia

Bucks: What animators most influenced you when you were learning?

MN: Walt Disney’s Fantasia had a giant influence in my early study, especially the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ sequence. I didn’t know which animator did what and still don’t know off-hand. I sort of preferred to embrace the inspirational influence collectively as an entity to a piece-of-work. But then there is~ Bill Tytla, the one animator that stand out the most to me and whom I most admired.

When speaking of the admirable qualities of the many master animators, one might say one is wonderful at character performance, impeccable comedy or amazing command of draftsmanship… But for Bill Tytla, his works just simply ~ ‘life’ (with all the dramas, humors, splendors, grace and beauty encompassed).



Bucks: What is it that makes a great animator?

MN: A great animator brings life to his or her animated movements. It sounded rather a cliché to say this, but so much of modern animation truly lacks this fundamental quality. I think this has to do with one being incredibly sensitive to life’s energy and then trying to reflect them without being trapped in showcasing the technical constructions.

To me, a great animator is able to express the living experience in compelling and unassuming ways, with sincerity, honesty, conviction and inventiveness, avoid highlighting the technical expertise and rather engage the viewers directly into the emotional intent of the performance.

For a ‘good’ piece of work, the initial respond may begin in how well something is drawn, interesting character poses, great acting choice or fluid movement mechanics. But for a ‘timeless’ piece of work, the first respond might just be- ‘…awe!’

Among the modern living masters that I truly admired are-

Richard Williams

Richard Williams, while possessing an incredible and bedazzled wealth of technical showmanship, the critical ‘feel’ of life is always at heart of all his expressions.



Yuri Norstein, his works command very intimate and magical qualities, very difficult to analyze from a technical standpoint.




And Hayao Miyazaki, whose works emanates in very bold theatrical expressiveness but yet very delicate and never feels embellished.


Interestingly, the 3 masters are not just animators, but very well-rounded filmmakers. I feel a great animator would also have to be very well aware of the overall film language.



Bucks: What is the most important thing - technical skill or the ability to entertain?


MN: The great animators are truly a very rare breed. I feel not because they command such extraordinary talents that many animators can’t possess, but rather they have the insights and sensibilities to look and concentrate their energy into the essential places, that is ~ ‘having something relevant to say’.

To me, the ability to breathe life, to entertain, to communicate emotion in compelling ways are most important. Because of this quest, one will naturally accumulate the necessary techniques to enabling such expressions. With this approach, one is not trapped to the rules of established techniques, but using the rules accordingly and automatically invents new ones as demanded on every specific creative case.

Technical skill is hard work and has little meaning by itself. Highlighting the technical expertise is only impressive and well-appreciated by other professionals and might not be equally appreciated by the general public, for whom we mainly made our works for.

Stallion of the Cimarron
My good friend Alex Williams once shared a thought while he was working on DreamWorks’ ‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron’ some years ago... The film’s style was closer to realism and demanding a very high technical draftsmanship to properly animate. He mentioned it took an incredible amount of skill and effort to animate a scene of man mounting onto a horse, with all the proper perspective and getting the motion mechanics right. The animators could marvel at how technically fluent, difficult and beautiful the movement in the film is - but to the general public - ‘it’s just a man mounting onto a horse’. This story is a wonderful reminder that the ability to entertain will always be more important than the technical skill.


Bucks: What advice would you give to anyone seeking to learn the craft of animation?

MN: It’s good to stay incredible sensitive, very curious and fascinated to all things that constitute this living experience from a personal perspective, away from the given animation topics or entertainment arts.

Make reaching out to discovering new and interesting general topics a habit, perhaps simply out of curiosity or through a possible creative assignment. For example, a curiosity about trees and plants and why do trees go through the trouble to generate such sweet fruits? Taking interests in the many documentaries with a wide range of topics is very nurturing to the creative mind. They’re raw materials, food sources for new and relevant creative ideas.



It’s good to understand trends, following its style if needs be but not to become a copy. It’s better to interpret trends and reflect them with fresh qualities, and best just to be~ trend setter.

It’s also good to admire the works of the masters, but not to develop after a certain master’s style and be in their shadows. It’s resourceful to learn of a master’s thinking process and understand how the final texture of his work came to be, rather than the final outcome.

It’s always best to search, identify and strengthen one’s given original style and find ways to present it in most appealing manners.

Lastly~ ‘to be the very best animator, one must strive to be the very best human being first’.


My Little World

Bucks: When can we see "My Little World?" !!

MN: Unfortunately I’m not as lucky with connecting to funding with ‘My Little World’. I’m terrible at self-promotion and talking in grander commercial values to attract a business entity. As of this moment, I’m aiming for 2020 completion without the need of business investors.



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