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Flushed Away Interview #2: The Supervising Animators

For the second in our triad of interviews with Flushed Away cast and crew, I spoke to Simon Otto and Jason Spencer-Galsworthy, two of the supervising animators on the film. Simon comes from Dreamworks; Jason comes from Aardman. (For what it’s worth, Simon, a native of Switzerland, has the more exotic accent.) Despite their alternating origins of animation alliegance, they made for a great double-act and interview subjects.

Toon Zone News (TZN): As supervising animators on Flushed Away, you obviously had a great deal of control on the physical acting. Did you ever get any input on the voice acting? Did you ever go to any of the recording sessions?

Jason Spencer-Galsworthy (JSG): We were invited to them, but we didn’t give much input there.

Rita from 'Flushed Away'Simon Otto (SO): It’s funny, I don’t think supervising animators have any influence over the casting decisions, but [the directors and Dreamworks] were really open to our suggestions, and I had suggested Kate Winslet before she was cast [as Rita].

TZN: Really?

SO: Yeah, amongst with one or two other actresses, I though Kate Winslet would be great. I kind of developed the character of Rita, and Jason did the Toad and the slugs and…a bunch of other characters…

JSG: Slugs, yes, I became the go-to slug man towards the very end of the film.

TZN: That brings up a good question. In CGI, it’s harder to point to a character and say that this one animator is completely responsible for this character, like Andreas Deja and Scar or Eric Goldberg and the Genie. Was there more of that in this film? Did people specialize in just one character?

SO: The problem with character supervision in CG is that [because of] the way the sequences have to be handled for technical reasons is that they have to go through the pipeline in a chunk. So when you have a sequence that’s going through the pipeline, you assign a team in every department to that sequence, whether it’s in lighting or in animation or in layout. That team is responsible for animating that sequence from beginning to end. Whether it’s this character or that character doesn’t really play a role. That has advantages in terms of efficiency because an animator takes the whole shot and animates everyone in the shot, so you don’t have five animators working on the same shot, trying to steal the show. The downside, of course, is having character-specific style or acting ideas. To supervise that is very difficult if you have fifty animators working on all the characters.

What we did is a kind of hybrid solution. First, we started with very few animators – just Jason, Mark Williams, and myself. [We] developed some of the main characters for the first eight months, deciding how the rigs should work, how they should move, style, things like that. Then we individually developed the three main characters first, like Roddy, Rita, and the Toad, and tried to find specifics of how these characters move. Of course, [we were] always working with the directors; Sam Fell did a fantastic job of preparing these characters, finding references and actors that could give us ideas.

JSG: There were charts and things like that, defining the range of movement.

SO: We basically developed these characters with our own individual approach, which already puts a stamp on whatever everybody else is going to do. And then, once we go into production, we try to keep those teams on those characters. Like for my case or for your case [turns to Jason], I did a lot of the Roddy/Rita sequences, because I knew how Rita should move and we should make it very specific, and you did most of the Toad sequences. That’s how we tried to make a good solution between those two things.

JSG: It worked very much like it does at Aardman, in many respects, with one person focusing mostly on one character at the start. As Simon observed, we could initially produce a body of work that was a good starting point, and then we could get more people working on those characters and spread them out amongst the crew.

TZN: Did you have single animators doing everyone in a shot, or could you say, “Okay, you do Rita in this shot and you do the Toad.”?

Rita and her familyJSG: Generally, foreground characters we could keep with one animator. If there was background stuff, that wasn’t actually influencing the performances of the foreground characters, then we could split them off and give them to other animators.

SO: The fact is that most of the time, except for a very few shots, you have a leading character in a shot. That’s the character that the audience is going to look at. Let’s say that there’s 25 shots in a movie that are not like that, what you have to do is make sure that those scenes get to the best animators. [The ones] that can actually animate the differences, and understand the different styles of the two characters so to not make it generic.

TZN: Essentially, the ones able to animate interaction.

SO: Right. But really, in 85% of the film, you have a leading character. So you make sure that the animator animating that shot is good at that leading character.

TZN: The style of animation in this film is grander and broader than what we’ve seen from Aardman, but also stiller than what we’ve seen from Dreamworks. It’s kind of a happy medium between Madagascar and Wallace & Gromit. How did that come about?

JSG: I don’t think we were ever aiming for a middle ground between two things. I think what we were doing was taking an Aardman style, with Aardman types of characters with Aardman restrictions [and utilizing] the benefits of those restrictions; for example, you can’t stretch arms, which means you have to focus on different areas of performance to emphasize things. So we were looking at taking that, but then applying it to CG and letting it grow and become its own thing. So it did get more fluidity and a bit more energy to it, less stillness as you put it.

SO: Maybe a little complexity also.

JSG: Yeah, bit more finesse to it. I think a lot of that came from the 2-D influence as well. We were aiming for it to be its own thing, really.

SO: What we tried to do is not fight the computer where it wasn’t necessary. For example, in stop-motion, you most of the time animate in twos like in 2-D [an animator's term for extremes in character posing]. You do that for efficiency reasons. But the computer can help you do those in-betweens. Actually animating on twos in the computer is so complicated, with interactions with special effects, that you end up saying, “Okay, why did we do it on twos?” You have to take the medium for its advantages. We took the style of Aardman for its advantages and took the medium of computers for its advantages.

TZN: Speaking of in-betweens, there are far less in-betweens in terms of the mouth movements because of the nature of the Aardman style, popping from mouth shape to mouth shape. Is that a matter of timing the animation differently, or just removing the twos?

SO: What we tried to was go from A to B. B might stay a little longer, then go to [the next mouth shape]. So, basically, we tried to take the fluidity out to a degree where it still felt clunky and choppy, sort of Aardman-esque.

TZN: Did the nature of the burlesque, of the comedy itself, influence the nature of the animation?

SO: Oh, yeah. The humor in Flushed Away most of the time comes out of the situation, the character comedy. For us character animators, that’s the best. We’d much rather animate a scene that has character comedy than a good line.

JSG: It’s like a performance opportunity.

[Simon is beckoned out of the room for a moment.]

TZN: Did you study acting, and do you recommend to any upcoming animators that they study acting?

JSG: I have studied acting, and I recommend that people do. Not to a great degree; I’ve done some mime things. But I would definitely recommend to animators that they study, because what we do is performance. Pure and simple. As much performance as an actor would perform. We’re just doing it through a different device than our own bodies. We have to have people believe that that thing, that is a shell on the screen, is alive when it isn’t. And if you’re watching and you’re involved in our film, then we’ve done our job.

The Toad and his tadpolesTZN: For working on the Toad, you had Ian McKellan’s sonorous voice to work with, and these long monologues. Did you yourself handle a fair amount of the monologues?

JSG: Yeah, I got the opportunity to do some of the big monologues, a fantastic opportunity. Ian McKellan’s voice is just so sumptuous to work with. He’s got such great range and such great depth, so much great performance opportunity in there like I was talking about. Some of the monologues aren’t in themselves gags, but they’re fantastic performance opportunities.

TZN: Including the scene where he’s going back and forth between angrily expounding on his plot and goo-goo-talking his tadpoles?

JSG: That’s an interesting scene, actually, because I shot that at the start of the film, and it was a bit different. It was more solid, quicker moves between the different poses, hitting them a bit harder. At the end of the film, after the style had kind of developed a bit, I had the opportunity to reshoot it because we had new dialogue. I was very happy about it, because I wanted to bring it up-to-date with the way the style had developed, with slightly more finessing and more fluidity.

TZN: Is that something you don’t get the chance to do much – go back to something you’ve already done?

JSG: You get the chance a lot, but not necessarily by your choice. Usually just dialogue changes and that sort of thing. But this time, dialogue change was a blessing for me. It was better dialogue, anyway. It was explaining better story points and it was a chance to really bring it up-to-date, ’cause it was one of the very first Toad shots.

TZN: So it was an improvement all-around?

JSG: Absolutely.

[Simon reenters.]

TZN: Now how about the slugs? They have so little to work with anatomy-wise, so what did you end up doing for them?

The slugs with RoddyJSG: That’s a great challenge, though. I always find that the less you have, the greater the performance challenge. [With] characters like the slugs, who have no arms or legs, you have to dig deep and put it all in the eyes or all in the pose of the spine and the tentacles. If you can get good performance out of a slug, then you’re golden. It’s a fantastic challenge.

SO: If you look at the Creature Comforts, some of the funniest ones are the most simple, stupid little animal that you have! It’s just in the mouth, the right dialogue…

JSG: A look at the right time off to the side and they’re back and you’re rolling in the aisles.

SO: It’s amazing how much you can do with the eyes and the mouth. And the fact that it’s a simple character doesn’t distract you from the eyes and the mouth.

JSG: It’s just, always be true to your performance. And especially when you’re working with a character which is so simple. You have to really focus on distilling the essence of that performance that you want to get across.

SO: Very good training.

TZN: Wrapping it up here, the animation was done here at Dreamworks but you did bring in Aardman talent as well. How much of the Aardman talent needed to be tutored on the computer?

SO: All of them. Except for you [points to Jason], right?

JSG: What about Jeff?

SO: Jeff? Maybe a little bit. Jeff Newitt’s a very important person to mention. He was head of character animation, and he was sort of our tutor to the Aardman style. He was basically the link between the directors and the Aardman style in terms of the animation. He’s really one of the most established animators I’ve ever worked with. I bet you know his work but not his face, like he did a short film called Loves Me…Loves Me Not [1992 Aardman short], where the guy walks around with the flower and picks the petals off. Just having this animation legend next to you helps you go to the essence of animation so much, in making the right choices. This was a unique experience for all of us, because a lot of really good people came together and basically taught each other things because we were all coming from different backgrounds. Having Aardman animators, not just for what they actually did, but also for the interaction between the different kind of backgrounds, resulted in great atmosphere and ultimately great performances.

And that was all she wrote, so to speak. Next week, I’ll bring you the last of the three interviews, as conducted with the directors David Bowers and Sam Fell. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the workings of a character animator’s occupation and travails as wonderfully revealed by Simon and Jason.

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