Tips and tricks from Big Hero 6 animation sup Jason Figliozzi

If you're looking for an animation artist to model your career path after, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Jason Figliozzi. For one, Jason's resume is studded with some major animated features like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen. He's also a proven leader, having animated on the Oscar®-winning film Paperman and supervising on Big Hero 6. However, one of Jason's most imitable qualities may be his determination and love for animation. We talked with Jason about his personal and professional journey. Too often, we assume that an incredibly technical knowledge of 3D software or a savant-like talent is a pre-requisite to rising to the ranks of a top animation studio. However, Jason's story is one that teaches how hard work, self-discipline, and humility are some of the best tools one needs to move up in a competitive industry. horse tangled From a young age, Jason enjoyed watching early 90's animation series like Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. Older cartoon series and films from Disney and Warner Bros also helped facilitate a love for drawing. "I was always interested in copying cartoons from TV. I would re-draw Dopey from Snow White and Yosemite Sam from Loony Toons." Eventually, Jason would begin experimenting with basic animation techniques. "As a kid I suddenly realized that there were actually people making these cartoons. Then I begin to make flip books." Jason's curiosity and love of animation continued into high school with after school art classes. His instructor built a wheel-like device that held student-illustrated cards that could be rotated and filmed. "It was really primitive, but it was amazing to see the images move on the screen." Later on Jason's interest in animation would give way to the VFX splendor of popular movies Jurassic Park and The Matrix. "Again, I began to realize that there were different paths you could take within an animation. "I suddenly understood that you could go into special FX, or you can go into animated feature films and work for animation studios. At that time, I still wasn't quite sure if I wanted to take the path of hand drawn or computer animation." wreckitralph Jason's uncertainty continued even later after he was accepted into the Ringling School of Art and Design. Like most schools and universities, however, Ringling offered a broad range of classes for freshmen. The variety of classes helped exposed Jason to even more forms of artistic media along with a larger culture of talented artists. "I saw how enthusiastic everyone was. It was all artists. They were groups of insanely talented people doing all sorts of art. You were surrounded by it nonstop. I fell in love with the idea." However, Jason's enthusiasm and fidelity to animation was tested after running head-on into the reality of working with 3D software. "There was a time when I thought I might not be interested in pursuing animation. It was my second year when I started getting into 3D animation. The class was hands on, which I liked, but also really tedious. I got flustered and concerned that I was headed down a path I didn't want to take." The frustration that Jason was feeling can be a common experience among 2D artists making the switch to 3D. Exchanging paper and charcoal pencil for the screen and mouse, can be a challenge for many artists, and Jason began to feel the pressure. "I grew up drawing and I grew up with computers. But I hadn't done anything up to that point that had to do with computer graphics, hardware, or animation. The XYZ axis was just oblivious to me." Even the basic "ball bounce" animation was hard for Jason to master at first. paperman Along with the frustration of 3D animation Jason also felt a lack of confidence as his peers seemed to excel. "Here are all of these other students around me. Some of them had experimented with CG in middle school and high school. Some of them had been professionals already but wanted to get a better education. These people were flying by me. They're doing amazing stuff, and it was very discouraging. That year was one of the most difficult times I had, and one of the most difficult decisions I had to make going forward with animation." Jason continued in the 3D animation program, eventually becoming more experience with 3D animation and overcoming his feeling of intimidation. "Finally something clicked. I suddenly began to understand the software, to understand the gGraph Editor. I'm happy I stuck with it because it's such a great medium." For other 2D artists and students who may be having the same experience with inexperience, Jason provides some inspiration advice and examples: "I'm sure they're tons of 2D artists who want to turn out some great 3D work, but they're scared and nervous because they don't have any experience. That's totally okay. We have people at Disney who've been hand drawing animation their entire 20 or 30-year career and suddenly jumped into Maya. This is hard to do because the two forms are so entirely different. But now these same artists are doing amazing work." frozen

The value of internships

Between his third and fourth year at Ringling, Jason did a three-month internship with Midway Studios Austin. At the time, the studio was working on BlackSight Area 51. Initially, Jason had applied for an animation job at the studio, but after that didn't pan out, he end up accepting an internship making game assets for destructible using colliders. The internship proved to be just as educational for Jason as his class work by teaching him the value of project collaboration and as a real-world introduction to the studio pipeline. "I didn't know what a pipeline was when I started at Midway. Seeing what happens when one department hands over something to another department was educational. In a way, all pipelines are similar. You're working with all of these people to create something amazing, which is the same thing you do in movies. Just being there was invaluable to see how people collaborate, how different departments work together. I would suggest that any student, even if they don't get a job they really want, take an internship. Any position is valuable for work experience." cloudy

Working at Sony

After Jason graduated in 2008, he went to work at Sony Pictures on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. His role in the film was working on very short animations, but the experience taught him how an actual animation pipeline worked. "You learn so much at school," he states, "but you learn so much more in the first couple of months working in a real animation studio. However, once again Jason was met with a very humbling experience. "It was also terrifying," he explains, "It's very intimidating because everyone around you is amazing. You're straight out of school, and you don't really know anything compared to everyone else. It was nerve-wracking, but it was a blast at the same time." One of the short clips Jason was responsible for animating on the film was an scene that involves three characters falling down a hole into complete darkness. What the viewer sees from that point on are three distinct pair of eyeballs glowing in the darkness. It's a common scene within cartoons to be sure, but it also presents a particularly unique problem for the animator: how to convey emotion without facial expressions, arms, legs, etc. eyes "That was an interesting challenge, but it was a fun one too. I really gravitate to more broad animation. That's what I grew up on. Having that shot was right up my alley. The challenge of trying to communicate emotions with just cartoon eyeballs was difficult for sure."

Animating for realism

Along with telling us the story of his professional path, Jason also shared some of his technical knowledge about animation. One important points he makes concerns creating a realistic character. However, the difference between a character's realistic movements and a realistic character has to be understood he explained. A character's realistic movement is simply how close it resembles movement in reality where as animating a realistic character is about creating an emotional connection with the audience. "You have to get across what the character is thinking," he explains, "That is number one in importance. You want to evoke a response from the audience. You want them to believe that your characters are real. When you first begin watching a cartoon, you're like alright this is animation. But at a certain point in the film, you get so enthralled that these characters are living and breathing that you completely forget it's animated." The type of immersive experience Jason refers to is about making the audience see the character as a living, breathing individual rather than simply a series of movements. This holds true he believes regardless of whether the animation style is cartoony and broad or tighter and more realistic. To this end, Jason gives some great advice for anyone looking to fine tune their animation reel. "Really focus on acting and performance," he states, "Polished animation is definitely important, but we're constantly looking for people who put thought behind the character. Animating what the character is thinking is more important and more challenging than just having nice looking animation. You can always get better at polishing your animation, but animating acting and performances is most important for artists to have in their reels." To get inside a character's head, Jason always makes sure to carefully think through their potential emotional states and thoughts before getting started. "I always have a brain storming session with myself just to gather all my thoughts before beginning to animate, whether its with working with thumbnails or simply thinking." video reference

Using reference material

Whether animating for a performance or an action sequence, Jason believes that having reference material is essential to a good animation. "No matter how difficult or long the shot, I always shoot reference material of myself. I'm not by any means a good actor and I hate getting in front of the camera to do this. But shooting video reference is essential." The reason, he believes, is because of the subtleties you can get from watching a performance. The difference between whether something seems real or not can often hinge on the smallest movements. Your more likely to catch these subtleties if you have good video reference. Jason explains, "You might blink in a certain area that you would have never thought of blinking before. That blink might say something about the character in the moment that you never would have thought of. You never would have thought of that if you hadn't shot reference. Even if I have a shot completely thought out in my head, I always shoot reference just to get those sparks that you never would have gotten otherwise." Jason also stresses to all his animators that they get video reference especially for very physical actions. "For physical shots, it's really important to shoot reference. You need to study the mechanics of your video reference to really make the shot convincible to an audience. It's not copying that reference, but studying it how the human character is moving and bringing that movement into your animation to help make it more believable." The tip about never copying your reference is a good one. That's because in animation what you're striving to achieve is an exaggerated realism, something just above and beyond realistic fidelity. Again, there's a balanced between the two that is achieved. Squash and stretch is a good example of this idea. Sure real rubber balls squash and expand when impacting the ground, but not as much as the exaggerated movement of a cartoon ball. Too much realism destroys the illusion, too little makes the objects seem foreign. exaggeration "Even if you're animating a cartoony shot," he explains, "I would still always shoot reference. It always helps to ground movement in reality, but you don't want to make it so whacky that the viewer says 'that's not real.' Even though it's super-broad at times, it still has to be grounded in reality to be believable.,Rotoscoping something from film to animation has a certain look. It tends to look a little off when you watch it. The important thing is to take aspects from it, apply it to your animation, and exaggerate it. You're never just copying a reference. You're studying it." Jason provides a current example from the Disney film Zootopia, on which he's currently animating. "We've gotten references of certain animals just to watch and see what their little quirks are. Just watching how their ears move, for example, can show you how expressive they can be. Even when animating animal characters that walk on two legs, I would still study the actual animal because the characters will still have animal-like qualities even though they've been given human characteristics as well." stepvsspline

Step vs. spline animation

We also talked to Jason about step vs. spline keys while blocking in a shot and learned his preferred method for tackling a new shot. "Everyone's work flow is different, and it's important to try a variety of techniques before settling on your personal choice. What works best for me is to work in steps. I find that posing is one of the most import things in animation. Working with steps, I craft each keyframe and make sure the pose is working really well. I don't really move to spline until I get a buy off on blocking from the directors. I also make sure and keep my step keys organized as well just in case there's a note that blows up the shot entirely. That approach makes it easier to fix things as opposed to working in spline." He continues, "I try to stay in steps all the way through blocking until there's a buy off from the director to move forward and then I move into spline. Keeping my animation in steps keeps my brain a little more organized on what's going on in my graph editor. Keeping my keys stacked is also important. If there's a note in the middle of a shot that blows up 80 frames of a 200 frame shot, I can just take out those 80 frames and re-animate that area. For me it's much easier to do that with stacked stepped keys." blocking

From animator to supervisor

Getting the animation supervisor position on Disney's Big Hero 6 came with both great opportunities and new challenges for Jason. For the film, he supervised approximately 80 other animators who worked together to bring the film's characters to life. Learning to maintain a unified vision among a large team, Jason explains, is one of the biggest challenges to being a supervisor. "I think the most challenging aspect in this transition is guiding our animators to achieve the director's vision and at the same time push them to do the best work they can do, all without changing their own ideas they put into their work. There are countless ways to animate a particular shot and if it's different than what I had originally pictured it to be, it certainly doesn't mean it's wrong. It's about strengthening their ideas and honing their skills. It's important for all of us stay creative and not just be cogs in a machine." frame-by-frame Jason makes  a good point about management strategy. Balancing the goal of the group against the needs of the individuals is important. But keeping look consistency among 80 different artists who all have different perspectives is a daunting task. Essentially, a supervisor must allow individual artists to express themselves while at the same time keeping that individual expression just like everyone else's.

 Tips for beginners

Before our interview was complete, Jason had some final inspirational words of wisdom for those looking to get into the animation business:
  1. Have fun. "One of the most important things is to remember that animation is fun," he explains, "I don't consider animation a "job," but it can be stressful. As soon as it gets stressful and you're not having fun, you need to step back and take a breather. I think it's always important to keep in the back of your head that you're supposed to be having fun.
  2. Accept failure. "As an animator, you will fail. You won't always do amazing work right off the bat. Your first shot might not be awesome the first time you show it. You might get a lot of notes. That's okay. Studios are a collaborative place to be. Everyone wants to create an awesome movie. Just accept the fact that you're going to fail. Don't get discouraged. Keep trying and keep asking your peers and other artists you admire with greater skills. It's always important to keep that in mind so you don't get discourage."
  3. Failure is important. "If you do a test and the director says 'No, that's not the character we're looking for,' that's just as important as doing something they're looking for because now you know and you've shown everyone else on the team that's not what to do in that scenario. Sometimes animating something that's not who the character is can be just as important as nailing it."