“An animator does not have to animate just according to dialogue, he has to convey the story, the thoughts and the mind of the character”
There’s a saying, “Smell the roses a bit, animation is all about life!” A universe which is as imaginative as can be, where clocks, rocks, locks all come alive!
AnimationXpress.com’s Anand Gurnani was fortunate to meet up and spend time with Kyle Balda, an animator and artist who’s full of life and has worked across US & Europe with leading studios and stalwarts including Pixar, PDI, ILM, Pierre Coffin”
Balda also loves teaching and sharing knowledge and has stepped off production, at regular intervals in his career to pursue his passion for mentoring”.
In a freewheeling interview, Balda gave interesting perspectives on the finer points of animation and also on the joys of teaching.
What drew you to Animation?
Well I drew a lot!
Yes, as a youngster I drew a lot, did a lot of flip books, If I would see a Disney film, it seemed so magical I couldnâ€?t imagine that people actually worked in a studio to make this, until I was 18 when I met Dan Juep. He was an animator at that time with Disney on Little Mermaid, he asked me to send some drawings and put me on the track. He told me to draw and learn drawing in animated poses.
“Don’t spend more than two minutes on the gesture and be done with few details as possible and work really rough” That’s the rule I was given.
Then I did computer animation because I loved the Pixar short films and not because of the computer. When I saw Luxor, I was graduating in high school, and I was at the very small movie theatre at the Spike and Mike animation festival. Luxor came on and the first thing I thought was, “Is that a real lamp?”.
The fact that movement could be given to objects fascinated me no end. John Lasetter did that without changing the materials. It was about body language. I was feeling high after seeing that, when I started to get in CalArts to study hand drawn animation, ILM had donated some computers from Terminator 2, and I worked and practiced on those, I didnâ€?t mind learning the computer because it gave me the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories.
You have worked at leading Animation studios across continents, how has it been?
I studied at Cal Arts in LA and began working with an Internship at Lucas Games. At Lucas I worked on Day of the Tentacle which was a cult hit with hard core games Circa 1992. I came back to Cal Arts, did some 3D animation and went to work at PDI with Tim Johnson and Rex Grignon who are my mentors for 3D.
This was when ILM had just done Jurrasic Park and was exploding with lots of opportunities. I worked on The Mask, Jumanji and Mars Attacks. I also have worked at Weta in New Zealand where I animated on Frighteners.
Then I joined Pixar, worked on A Bugâ€?s Life with Glenn Mc Queen who was the directing animator on ToyStory2.
What’s a directing animator?
You can call it animation director or directing animator, these are just terms depending where you are. Directing animator is the head of animation overall, who works with the director, so in this case Glenn who was working directly with Lasseter. It is kind of the frontlines where the directing animator works with the animators and ensures the director’s vision.
Coming back to your illustrious career in animation…. what after Bugâ€?s Life?
I took a little break and worked as animator on Monsters Inc., that was about six years ago and I felt like I had learned so much from Pixar. I had been curious about living abroad and teaching, so I took about a year and a half, traveled all over Europe, guest lecturing and mentoring. Gave a series of master classes in Madrid at Artsâ€? d Animacion, did nine months stint of teaching at Viborg, Denmark, and then again I wanted to be back into production.
So you got backâ€¦
Yep. I was in Europe and for me London was a bit too similar to the US, so I went to Paris. There I started working with Pierre Coffin, did some commercials with him. We also did a couple of pilots for feature films that are starting production now.
There was a lot of valuable knowledge and experience that could be taught and shared with people. In the two years that I taught, my entire course evolved into a two day Master-Class. The good thing about teaching was, I discovered that I knew quite a lot. It helped refine my concepts too.
What kind of approach to the subject would you advise young animators and students?
I would say, donâ€?t get so seduced by the technology, a lot of students â€“ their first introduction to animation is through how to use a particular software. Try to find original ways to do things. Avoid working with stereotypes and clich?©s, find a more original and natural way to animate. A good way to do that is to record your-self or watch actors. For me, my favorite is Peter Sellers, if you watch him frame by frame I am convinced you will know everything about acting, because he uses all the same principles that Chaplin uses.
Ah, the finer nuances of animationâ€¦.Weâ€?d love to know more about it.
The main thing that new animators really need to focus on is that they have to understand what the story is about. You need to know where the character is coming from and going to? Why is the shot that you are animating, there, in the film? How is it in the chain of the story? The tightest story means you cannot take anything out, the director has to know this, the animator has to be part of the whole storytelling. What is the character not saying with words but saying with his body language? These things are very important to know.
Often characters and people donâ€?t say what they think but people can understand what they are thinking by the expression on their face. Somebody is really nervous and he may say â€?I am alrightâ€? but if he is shivering, that conveys the nervousness. The animator does not have to animate just according to dialogue, he has to convey the story, the thoughts and the mind of the character.
The other thing which is more concrete is physicality. How does the body move? What is the sequence of events happening to make the walk work, the physicality in it is like grammar in language. Body language and physicality express before the dialogue or expressions come in. It sets the tone. Physicality is the grammar of the animation.
I think that dialogue is interesting if it has subtext. If you were to see two people on a first date they might be attracted to each other but they will talk about the weather, and you can still tell they are attracted.
The ultimate thing that you have to do in animation is to make the audience forget they are watching animated characters. They need to think whatâ€?s he going to do next.
Also I don’t like dialogue that explains what the character is thinking. Good dialogue exists only when necessary.
You’ve worked extensively in the US and Europe, whatâ€?s the difference?
The main difference as I see it, has unfortunately been economically driven. US studios have four or five times the budget of French films. Hence in France, they have had to find an animation style that will look good, snappy and pose to pose. But I don’t see much difference culturally.
There is a difference in style, if you look at students’ films from Sup Infocom, Gobelins you will observe angular sharp kind of designs and at the same time go to Florida, Sheridan and you will see the designs are generally much more rounded. American design tends to be rounder and softer. Then thereâ€?s the Japanese animation style which is much more limited. There, the FX are more animated than the faces at times, it works well with their design and style. Their stories are incredible too. It is more difficult to do that style in 3D though.
What are your future plans?
I am developing a short film idea right now, I would just like to continue to direct projects and not only in animation but layout, cinematography, story telling, it doesnâ€?t have to be only huge feature films, I just love the process.
Have you worked with Indian artists?
Not many. I worked with Sanjay Patel though. Actually there is quite a large Indian community in Northern LA, also a lot of Indian students at Berkley, but they are more into the technical side of things. But yes Iâ€?d love to visit India and maybe do a master-class which you folks at AnimationXpress.com could organize.