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Animating Musical Shots: A Student Showcase Behind-the-Scenes

by | Jan 24, 2018


We’re taking a deep dive on the 2017 Animation Mentor Student Showcase! Meet the animators, find out where they’re working, and learn more about what it takes for students to create showcase-ready animation. First off, we take a closer look at the three fantastic musical shots featured this year by Laura Han, SunHee Montenegro, and Tony D’Aurio.

When we’re going about finding great shots for the annual Animation Mentor Student Showcase, there are a few things we look for. Skill is obviously important, but we also look for originality—what haven’t we seen before? In the case of this year’s showcase, we were surprised and excited to see some great variety of musical scenes—something we haven’t really seen much from students in years past.

It’s interesting to think about the unique challenges that go along with animating a musical scene too. With a typical piece of spoken dialogue, there’s usually some useful information an animator can sense just by listening—tone of voice can indicate emotional state, pauses can suggest through process, etc.

Animating a musical scene, however, can be more challenging because less of that information comes through in terms of each character’s individual disposition. These clues might not be present at all or might just be more subtle via song. In these cases, the animator is tasked with creating those subtle ideas without relying on the usual audio clues. While this can be more challenging, it can also mean more room to be creative! Clearly that was the case with these shots by Laura Han, SunHee Montenegro, and Tony D’Aurio.

Laura Han

New York, USA

Laura’s is a fast and complex shot with lots of simultaneous ideas and emotions, yet everything is presented in such a clear way to the audience! There’s nice clear posing, strong staging, and a great sense of timing that really helps this piece to shine.

Animation Mentor: Tell us about your process for creating your showcase shot.

Laura Han: I’ve always loved musicals and knew from class 1 that I’d really wanted to do a musical shot one day. There’s something about musicals that has always resonated stronger with me—there are so many nuances that you can’t find in regular dialogue acting.

With that in mind, I’d begun compiling a playlist with all of my favorite and potentially shot-worthy musical numbers and continued to add to this playlist until I finally reached a point where I was actually going to be able to animate a musical number! I’d been really inspired by past alumni reels where I’d seen a few musical shots, for example AM alum Blair McNaughton did an incredible piece with music from Bonnie and Clyde. I remember being absolutely blown away by the way he chose to use the camera and transform the lyrics into something you could only do in the animation medium. I think that’s something that really drives me in animation—creating something that only makes sense and is more feasible in this medium. I love seeing work that showcases this.

The hardest part for me was finding the exact lyrics to use and the right idea to really take the lyrics up a notch. I remember listening through my “animation musicals” playlists for the umpteenth time before having a eureka moment to one of the numbers from Legally Blonde: the Musical. It was one of those, “Wait, there is definitely something here…I just need to put my finger on it” moments. I spent a full day brainstorming various ideas, making sure to jot down all the really mundane ones so I could free up my brain to think of really creative twists. When I came up with the “dream proposal” idea, the next challenge was how to sell it within the timeframe of the shot. Fortunately, my mentor, Sean Sexton, was awesome about helping me figure out the next little bits, and we worked together on making it start to come together.

Since this was a fairly body-mechanics-heavy shot, I shot reference of myself acting out both characters. For me, this was the easiest and most fun part. I love acting, and I used to act in musical productions back in high school, so this part felt really natural. I dove into the mindset of both characters and just did what felt natural. It took a few takes, changing up the camera angles and deciding what would read best (body-language wise), but I finally arrived at the reference that ultimately became the baseline for my final animation.

This “dream proposal” shot was a really fun and challenging shot to work on. I love where it pushed me and how it inspired me to work harder to create more pieces like this. You’d also think I’d be sick of listening to the musical number by now…but I still love it. I can’t wait to work on my next one!

AM: What made you want to become an animator?

Laura: I had a bit of a more unusual track into becoming an animator as I’d studied engineering in college before switching into business and marketing, where I worked for various tech startups for roughly 4 years. I found myself feeling really unfulfilled with my day-to-day, and I ultimately had to take time off work to really figure out what inspired me and what I truly enjoyed doing enough to make a career out of it. I always believed in doing work that brought enjoyment not just to myself, but to others as well.

Oddly enough, I’d stumbled onto animation online and jokingly brought it up to a friend, but that friend took it very seriously and said “Why not? You should do it.” I’d always enjoyed making things and was always a very hands-on person, so I began playing with the idea more—but it still felt like a really far fetched idea. I started making some test animations at home, really terrible rough animations but just to see if I liked it…and I loved it.

One day, not long after, I distinctly remember, I was watching Cars for the first time and the three-minute opening sequence to that movie was the ultimate catalyst. I was so unbelievably inspired by the sequence. How could it be, I thought to myself, that someone took these regular racecars, gave them personalities, and made them these vivid lifelike characters with enough spunk to knock your door down? Every second of that sequence gave me goosebumps, and I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do, and I absolutely had to do it no matter what it took.

Being able to take anything, literally anything, and give it life is something short of being a superhero and who doesn’t want to be a superhero?

AM: What will you remember most about your time at Animation Mentor?

Laura: I hold the mentors at Animation Mentor in absolute respect and truly cannot be more grateful for the time and effort they dedicate every day to the students at the school.

Now that I’m a working professional as well, I’m marveling at the fact that they’re able to spend so much time with students to really help us in our animation careers. To my mentors specifically—Jane Cassidy, Keith Sintay, Drew Adams, Dave Burgess, and Sean Sexton—I cannot thank enough. They would constantly be willing to do whatever was necessary to make sure we were set up for success.

For instance, I distinctly remember, it was toward the end of class 3 when there were just two weeks left in the term, and I was so burned out that I wanted to finish the term out with an easy shot. Drew wasn’t about to let that happen and pushed me to do a much more challenging shot—and he went above and beyond to give me that little bit of ‘oomph’ to finish out the term strong. Subsequently, that resulted in the hardest two weeks of my AM career, but it was unbelievably rewarding to end up with the UPS box shot, now one of my favorite shots on my reel. Thanks Drew! 🙂

AM: Where are you working? What’s your day-to-day like?

Laura: I’m currently working at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver, Canada, animating on Hotel Transylvania 3. I was fortunate enough to land an internship at the studio that began just months after my final AM class, and even more fortunate to be offered a full-time position at the end of the program.

I was even luckier to be on the show since fairly early in production, before animation had even begun on any sequences, so I was able to see the movie go through tons of changes and really study the production process. I went to every single dailies I could so that I could really understand the specific style that this film is animated in.

My day-to-day is pretty simple! I get into work, get some coffee, chat with my podmates (who are all awe-inspiring animators), and then get into my shot! If I have questions or if I just want to run an update by my lead, I’ll show my lead a version. Depending on how that goes, we’ll show it to our animation supervisor, and from there our director. There’s also so many talented animators who’ve worked on the previous Hotel Transylvania movies that I’ll ask them to take a quick peek at my shot sometimes as well.

It’s been a really cool experience having animators whose reels you’ve studied online during school, and suddenly they’re critiquing your shot. It’s been a really incredible experience, and I’m so excited for our movie, and my first feature film, to be released this upcoming July!

AM: Last but not least, what’s your favorite animated movie?

Laura: I think this should be split into two questions! Favorite 2D and 3D animated movies. My favorite 2D animated movie is probably a tie between Aladdin, Hercules, and The Sword in the Stone. My favorite 3D animated movies (sorry I can’t pick just one) are probably, Tangled, Storks, and Cars. I’m positive I’ll look back on this question later and curse myself for forgetting some other wonderful movie.

SunHee Montenegro

Bogotá, Colombia

There are lots of subtle touches to this shot, and we love the way Aia interacts with the railing. It feels very believable and grounds the character within the shot. With Aia’s slower movement, it would be easy for the shot to feel computery, but instead you completely buy that the character is having a moment with the audience. SunHee did a great job of making the Aia really feel like she’s delivering these words.

Animation Mentor: Tell us about your process for creating a showcase-worthy shot.

SunHee Montenegro: I already knew since before starting my last class that I wanted to try doing something with music. I love to sing, and I love musicals. Listening to many Broadway songs while searching for one to animate just made me want to try it out even more. I also wanted to do something with less physicality so I could focus more on the acting and emotion of the character.

My first step after choosing the audio was to create a background story for the character. I thought about the main aspects of her personality, her dreams, the reason and her motivation to be on that ship, and the relationship she had with the person whose photo was in her locket. Even though no one would know about that background story in the end, it definitely helped me understand the character and create a clear image in my mind of what I wanted to convey in this shot. In my opinion, that first step was one of the most—if not the most—important aspect in the making of this shot. I am sure that it wouldn’t have ended up the way it did if I hadn’t put enough time into that planning. I had a clear image and understanding of what I wanted to achieve before even touching Maya.

This shot was also my first time trying out a moving camera, so I made a layout and tried different ways of camera movements. It was with the help of the AM community that I could choose the one that would improve the feeling and atmosphere of the shot. I had a lot of fun animating this shot, and my mentor, Greg Whittaker, guided me along the way with really good advice and feedback.

The hardest part of the shot for me was the head gesture she makes when singing “my life sails on”—I remember spending a lot of time fixing that. And also the facial animation, more specifically the mouth shapes. I’m still not quite happy with how it ended up, but I know I gave it my very best at the time.

As extra notes: The character I used is one of the many Aia mods made by Richard Vant Hul, who very kindly helped me set it up, and even modeled and rigged the necklace she uses in the shot. The original ship I modeled was based on Sinbad’s ship, from Dreamwork’s Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, one of my favorites films. Finally, it was Leo Abarbanel who added the last touches by upgrading the ship, filling it with lights, putting it in the water, and making the final render of the shot for the Student Showcase.

AM: What made you want to become an animator?

SunHee: I only thought about animation as a career in my last year at high school, but I think I unknowingly wanted to become an animator since I was much younger.

I loved watching the behind-the-scenes of my favorite movies and discovering how they were made—it was like watching a whole new movie altogether. I remember I used to pretend play I was being interviewed for making a movie. Sometimes I pretended to be an actress, other times a director, or even a cameraman. I just loved the idea of being part of a movie somehow, and well, animation was a big part of my childhood.

I liked to draw the Looney Toons characters, and for a five year old I wasn’t bad at all. But, regrettably, I did not continue practicing or improving my drawing skills, so traditional animation is something I sadly do not see myself doing, at least not any time soon…

Believe it or not, I also learned English with animated movies. I have a younger brother with down-syndrome who used to pick a few movies every week and watch them every day for the whole week. For some reason most of the movies we had were in English, although we only spoke Spanish. But that constant repetition in the background was a great help to learn English at a young age. I would also frequently sing Disney songs for him to guess what movie they were from.

With time I started noticing the beauty and magic behind making drawings and characters move, come alive, having personalities of their own and acting according to those personalities.

The last factor that made me realize I loved animation and wanted to become an animator was when watching other people’s reactions to the movies we saw together, especially the reactions of my mom. It didn’t matter how many times she had already seen a specific movie, she would always laugh at the funny parts with the same intensity as she had the first time she saw it. Whenever I saw her laugh or react to something in the movie, I would think “I want to make people laugh and react like that.”

AM: What will you remember most about your time studying with Animation Mentor?

SunHee: The overall experience at AM will be very hard to forget. After all, I started my animation career thanks to AM. But the thing I miss the most are the critiques. It was wonderful to receive detailed critiques from my mentors every week, and just as great to receive feedback from my classmates and other people in the AM community. Having more eyes looking at your job and making suggestions on how to make it better, or simply complimenting your animation, was always very helpful and a wonderful source of motivation.

AM: Where are you working? Tell us a little about your job and your day-to-day!

SunHee: I got my first job offer just one week before graduating from AM. It was a one-month on-site project for a music video and a commercial at a small studio here in Bogotá, Colombia. During that time, I was also contacted by the Russian studio Open Alliance Media, and had the chance to work remotely for them on a couple of episodes for the children’s TV series Jingliks.

I am now currently working remotely as a freelance animator for the movie Snow Queen Wonderland, the fourth movie of the series, produced by another Russian studio, Wizart Animation.

As it is a remote job, I unfortunately do not get to work next to other animators with whom I can give and receive feedback. My only contact with the studio is through my supervisor, who assigns me the shots, sends me notes to fix, and lets me know when the shot has been approved by the director. In that sense it can get a bit lonely at times, but nevertheless, I feel extremely fortunate and happy to be able to work on a feature film like this one, especially so soon after graduating from AM.

I try to approach each shot assigned to me the same way as with the musical shot. I first try to understand the reason behind the shot and the characters doing what they are supposed to do. The studio sends me its own video references, but most of the time I try to compliment them with my own references and ideas.

The overall experience with Snow Queen has been really incredible and fun. After working in a commercial, a music video and a TV series, I finally find myself doing what I always wanted, that is, to work for a feature film. I feel like I have climbed the ladder so fast, and I feel very excited and grateful for each experience. I can’t wait to improve my animation skills a lot more and to see what else I will be able to do from now on.

AM: Last but not least, what’s your favorite animated movie?

SunHee: If I had been asked this question a few months ago, I would probably have answered Aladdin, Sinbad and the Legend of the Seven Seas, or The Incredibles … But now the first thing that comes to my mind is Coco—and not because it is the most recent one I have seen and is therefore still fresh in my mind, but because of how much it touched and inspired me on a personal level. Obviously the genius story and the great animation are undeniable, but the message of unity and love in the family and the tradition of remembering your ancestors and the loved ones who passed were things I closely identify myself with. It is a movie that not only made me laugh and want to sing and dance along with the characters, but it also made me cry. Not just because of the incredible story, but mostly with the hope that one day I myself could also be part of the production of a movie that can reach the hearts of people all around the world as I am sure this one did. That thought is what keeps me animating.

Tony D’Aurio

Connecticut, USA

This is a great mix of acting and body mechanics. The shot works really well, from the major acting beats to the subtle eye-darts. Great posing, solid mechanics, and snappy timing are what made Tony’s shot really stand out.

Animation Mentor: Tell us about your process for creating a showcase-worthy shot!

Tony D’Aurio: Beginning “Polish and Portfolio”, class 6 at Animation Mentor, I immediately knew I had to give it my all. This was the class where I had to use everything I had learned throughout my journey at AM and put it all into this one shot. This was, I felt, a make it or break it moment.

My mentor was Sean Sexton, so I knew I was going to make something great with him. The first week of class, he reviewed my demo reel and suggested I work on lip syncing, adding eye darts, and adding fleshiness to the face as a few examples. He also wanted to see a shot that showed full body mechanics. One of the things I find so difficult in making a shot is finding the right dialogue. After many hours of searching I came upon a clip from Scrubs that really resonated with me—it had humor, singing, and a great opportunity for a dance shot, aka full body mechanics!

This would be a lot of fun. I think it is so very important to be truly excited about what you’re animating, and then you know that it will receive your best efforts. Originally I had the old doctor leave the elevator first and then the young doctor coming in. But then I switched it to make the clip tell a story of unrequited love; much more endearing to the dialogue present. The animation wrote itself from there!

For my shot I did all the reference. Yes, the dance included! I didn’t use any thumbnails, and anything appearing “cartoony” I simply removed frames from my reference video to make movements snappier. This was when those hip hop classes were beginning to pay off. When I started blocking my shot, I would work alongside my reference. I would try to block as close to my reference as possible, because that would make the character’s move more naturally, rather than floaty.

Same goes for the mouth as well—I used separate references just for mouth shapes and lip sync, but I didn’t focus on the mouth until I began breaking down the body mechanics. First thing I work on is the COG, and then the other parts of the body, making sure that the spacing of the character goes along with the spacing in my reference, again, being as close to the reference as possible. I block out the body in 4’s, and when everything feels right, I break down the shot into 2’s.

One of my favorite tools that I cannot work without is the Tween Machine. It definitely makes the workflow go a lot quicker. During my breakdown, I begin thinking about arcs and timing/spacing. That’s when I utilize the grease pencil to check each frame to be sure everything moves smoothly on an arc and not linearly. Before I clock out, I playblast my shot and upload it to Syncsketch. The next morning I see the shot with new eyes and jot down things that feel off. I often run my shots past friends for advice.

After I break down all of my characters, I begin splining. Since going from stepped to spline is a huge step in the process, Sean advised me to spline the first hundred frames. Here I focused a lot on the Graph Editor—making sure that there was nothing linear; that everything continues to go up and down, during the moving holds as well. I also tried to avoid deleting keys and instead adjust them where possible. In the final touches, I refined certain movements such as adding in the eye darts, the fine finger movements and even small nuance movements to the the nostrils and cheeks. I added the shot to my demo reel, and the rest is history.

AM: What made you want to be an animator?

Tony: My love for animating comes from several things. One is that I’ve always loved entertaining people. My whole life, I’ve wanted to put smiles on peoples’ faces because it is such a good feeling making people happy. Another is that I have always enjoyed creating things. Growing up, I would often build models, sculpt pieces, even just making something out of paper, dabbling in origami.

I later discovered I wanted to become an animator when I took an animation elective while I was studying to be a game designer. But I have to say one of my biggest influences would probably be my family. My mother was not only the one from whom I inherited my artistic skills, but she was also the one who inspired me to dream big—and my grandmother was once offered a job to work as an animator for Disney when she was young. Hearing her story motivated me to fulfill that prophecy, and my father fueled my interest in animation by bringing us to Disney annually through most of my childhood and teenage years. We never missed a Disney movie either!

AM: Where are you working? Tell us a little about your job and your day-to-day!

Tony: I’m currently working as a Previs Artist at LightStorm Studios, animating for the upcoming Avatar sequels. This opportunity had been absolutely life-changing. Every morning, I walk into the building and the first thing I see is like a football field of motion capture technology where I get to watch the actors in mocap suits perform under the direction of James Cameron. Not bad right!?

AM: What will you remember most about your time at Animation Mentor?

Tony: The thing I will remember most is the many amazing people I’ve encountered at AM. Animation Mentor encourages us to help with each other’s work. This comradery lead to the development of many friendships, and I was later surprised to discover that after graduating, some of these people wound up working for other big companies like Blizzard, Sony, and even Pixar! It’s a real testament to the phenomenal program and training offered at AM. I have made so many friends and am so proud of them all, and I look forward to working with some of them in the future.

AM: Last but not least, what’s your favorite animated movie?

Tony: My favorite Animated Movie of all time is Toy Story. I grew up with that movie and had the toys, books, costumes, pajamas, and even stickers. My favorite character of course was Buzz Lightyear. “To Infinity and Beyond!”

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