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ILM London's Chris Hurtt On Animating for Live Action vs. Animated Films

by | Mar 9, 2017

Chris Hurtt Animator ILM

Ahoy! We wanted to get a better sense of the difference between working on fully animated films and live action film VFX, so naturally we chatted with Chris Hurtt, mentor and Lead Animator at Industrial Light & Magic London who has worked on Beauty and the Beast (2017), The Jungle Book, Spider-man 2, and more! Chris helped us understand what it takes to work in VFX vs. fully-animated films and how important it is do always do your research before working on a shot! Be sure to take notes.

-The Animation Mentor Crew

Animation Mentor: We’re so excited for Beauty and the Beast! What character or creature did you work on and what was the most fun?

Chris Hurtt: I was the Lead Animator for Cogsworth, voiced by Sir Ian McKellen! So cool, as I had seen him perform King Lear in Los Angeles years ago, and now will never watch King Lear again. There can be only one!

The most fun was figuring out how to animate Cogsworth’s face. Since he is a clock, we tried to make it mechanical but at the same time have life and embody Sir Ian’s delivery. A great challenge you don’t get everyday.

Working as an animator means a constant variety of new challenges. You can be a flying whale one day, a talking brain, a super-hero or a cute bear. Here I’ve taken 1 shot from almost every project I’ve worked on a cut them in sequential order. They may not but the best, or longest shots I did, but they in some way encapsulated the spirit of each project for me.

AM: How about for The Jungle Book? What did you work on, and what was your favorite character or shot?

Chris: I worked mainly on Bagherra and a bit on the baby elephant that Mowgli bonds with. Two Disney re-makes in a row! Next, Pocahontas. Hahaha.

For The Jungle Book it was non-stop video reference research 24/7. Before we even starting setting keyframes, you would present an edit of all your takes of video footage taken from the Internet. Usually you would string together several clips to make an edit of the entire performance you were going for. It was a hugely successful approach, as the animation director and director could see your ideas before you had spent any time animating.

Then when you starting keying you knew you were close to the right path and could work with confidence and also be quite fast. Most first passes looked really good because of the attention paid to doing the research up front on a shot-by-shot basis.

AM: What are the major differences for animators working on live action film VFX vs fully-animated films?

Chris: It’s a good question, but I want to start off by saying that the similarities far outweigh the differences. It’s really just a question of style, with obviously VFX being pretty much set in a photo-realistic style. The differences can be more acting and creative freedom with Feature Animation vs. being a bit more tied to either Pre-Vis, Motion Capture, Live-Action Reference, or the live-action plate in VFX—and the technical needs to make it look real.

That being said, I love variety, and probably my favourite type of project is something like Paddington that is full character animation but with the believability of VFX realism.

Here is a favourite shot from G-Force and a string of takes I did for the video reference. See if you can guess which take is used in the end. (Its kinda a trick question as I used two sections of two clips!) One of the things I like about shooting reference is you can get in so many ideas in so little time. Here I was able to see 8 possibilities in 1 min of my time.

AM: What’s the most challenging shot you’ve ever animated, and what did you learn from it?

Chris: Hahaha, I always feel like my current shot is the most challenging one! I can’t really say, I have a killer sequence right now…. but I do have a doozy in Beauty and the Beast, super long with tons of characters. But that’s more a time-management and technical challenge, which is the thing you learn the most from the heavy-lifting shots. Staying organised and focused.

For me in the end, the most challenging shots are the ones where you need to sell a story point that might not quite be working yet in the storyboards or dialogue reading. You’ve got to sell it and save it. Which happens quite often, but when you pull it off it’s like your birthday and Christmas all at once. What you learn from that is that in the end the audience is coming to be entertained and you’ve got to make good on that.

AM: What skills does an aspiring animator need to learn to animate for live action VFX films?

Chris: There are a few unique challenges to VFX. One is, your shot may go until the end of the show. Feature animation shots tend to last a few weeks at most, whereas VFX shots can all stay unfilled until the last month. So having the stamina to keep working on something almost endlessly is a big one.

An eye for realistic timing, weight, and motion is another. It’s probably the biggest thing VFX anim supervisors look for, even above nice acting in a character animation shot, because that final polish on realism can be quite tricky and go on longer than feature work.

Technical skills are a huge bonus, as typically you have many more balls to juggle with your scene to make it happy with other departments. It needs to ‘be real in the computer’ a lot more than feature work, which has more leeway to cheat things. Also making the animation playblast look very pretty is something that’s becoming more and more expected, so some basic modelling, lighting, camera work, and pre-vis type skills can help.

Be sure to check out these related posts!
Top 3 Reasons You Want Creature Animation On Your Demo Reel
6 Animation Tips Every Creature Animator Should Know
The 6 Most Common Mistakes with Creature Animation

Chris Hurtt Animation Mentor

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