Monday, 9 April 2018

Aaron Hartline on Animating Woody and Buzz

Aaron Hartline was visiting us this recently from Pixar, mentoring our animators, and helping to make sure we're reaching for Pixar standards with character animation.  Aaron was the lead animator on the team that animated the Buzz and Woody intro at the Oscars in 2016, presenting the award for Best Character Animation. As part of his visit, Aaron walked us through the process of delivering a piece of character animation featuring two of the best loved characters in animation in front of an audience of 900 million people - quite an intimidating job. So, how did he pull it off?

Aaron (second from right, front row) with our students at Escape
Aaron explained that, as the lead animator on the project, he had to run the show - meaning that he would be responsible for success - and for failure.  There were plenty of special problems associated with the project, not the least of which being that they had to animate multiple versions of the shot - because they didn't know who would win the Oscar (the results are a closely guarded secret, even on the night).

Aaron described the animation job as a kind of "passing the baton" shot, between the two characters.

Another problem was that the actor Tom Hanks - who does the voice of Woody - had a cold, so they had to do the whole job much faster, because the voice recording had to be delayed until Hanks recovered.

Aaron quoted Pixar animator Dave Tart as saying: "My goal is to stay away from the computer as long as possible; I better know what the hell I'm gonna do before I sit down at the box". In other words, the secret with a project like this was always going to be great planning and preparation.

Another problem for the team was that Buzz and Woody had been at the Ocsars before, in 1995 and 2000, so Aaron's team had to first match that standard - and then raise it.

Aaron first pinned up the storyboards at his desk, showing what the main poses will be. Then, with the storyboards in mind, the team had to create "the hero pose". This is because the audience will have expectations about what the hero pose of their character will be. Superman, Batman, Spiderman - they all have their poses that make them who they are. With Woody, we need to remind the audience that he's basically a rag doll, with funny bends in his arms and legs.

Aaron did tons of research to find the very best Buzz and Woody shots. Woody actually does a lot of twinning (meaning that his body is symmetrical) when he poses, often with his hands on his hips, or with dangling arms - to show he's a rag doll. 

The team studied the animation from Toy Story 1 and 2 - animator Doug Sweetland did some of the best shots of Woody in Toy Story 2. The team also looked at the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, for reference.  But the shot is basically Buzz pretending to be Woody, and then Woody pretending to be Buzz, so the acting had to be deliberately stiff; a kind of bad imitation of the characters themselves.

And, of course, the team had to take a lot of notes, because you "always get notes on your shot". Aaron's advice to our animators was to "make sure you write the notes down, so you have a list of fixes". Because, "if you don't write down the notes, the director isn't really sure you're really getting it".

Then, finally, Aaron had to pitch the shots to John Lasseter, the head (and founder) of Pixar. This presentation came with just two weeks left to deliver, so the timing was very tight. And John Lasseter did a voice recording of his notes.

"It looks fantastic" said Lasseter. "No notes!"

The Escape Studios Animation Blog is a personal view on the art of animation and visual effects. To apply for our BA/MArt in 3D Animation, follow this link.  To apply for our storyboarding evening class, visit this page here.  For the next 12 week animation course, click here. And to apply for the next evening class in Producing Animation, see this page.

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