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An Insider's Guide to an Animation Career
What is it like working for one of the biggest studios in the world? We asked an insider to share their journey.
The journey of an artist is never really over. After school, you might find success at a small studio, or freelancing with a wild variety of clients, or working to become an in-house permalancer. But what if you wanted to work with the big dogs? What if you landed a role at the most legendary animation studio in the world?
Hello, my name is Christopher Hendryx and I’m an Effects Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. The Effects department traces its heritage back to the traditional hand-drawn days of Disney, breathing life and motion into phenomena of all scales and sizes: from the mighty, roiling ocean in Pinocchio to the simple and delicate magic of Tinker Bell’s pixie dust as she flies over Cinderella’s castle before every film.
In the current era of CG, things are much the same, generating miles of ocean waves for Elsa to run across, or rigging hundreds of set and prop assets for Vanellope to glitch, down to doing keyframe animation for a single, autumn leaf. I like to say that we are responsible for bringing life to everything on screen that doesn’t have a face.
Today, I want to walk through the process of getting an effect into a film.
- Where does the idea for an animated effect come from
- How it becomes someone’s responsibility to develop over days or months
- The gauntlet of approvals it runs through before you see it in theaters
Where do effect ideas come from?
The genesis of an effect is generally borne from one of three needs: either it is a core component of the story, it will make the world feel more believable for the audience and the characters, or it will help plus a performance or shot.
Those three needs also generally dictate how much lead time there is to develop an effect, and the seniority level of the artist assigned to tackle it (but not always the case).
When an effect is core to the story, such as the microbots in Big Hero 6 - which are an important part of Hiro’s emotional journey - or Elsa’s magic in Frozen and Frozen 2- which is almost an extension of her personality - the Head of Effects (the head honcho for the Effects department on that particular show) will start discussions with the directors and other department leads during pre-production, or about two years before the film is slated to reach theaters.
It’s incredibly important to start iterating on and nail these effects down as early as possible, because the story hinges upon them being impressive and clear to the audience.
An example of a core effect that almost everyone is familiar with is Elsa’s magic.
Design discussions regarding the look and feel of her magic began very early on, in collaboration with the Production Designer (the individual responsible for coming up with the overall visual look of the entire film) and the Animation Department (the team that brings life to everything with a face, including Elsa).
This collaboration was necessary because so much of the film uses the ice magic as the medium through which Elsa expresses her feelings, so the character performance and the magic had to be symbiotic.
There was a long period of exploration and iteration where we had to consider such things as:
- Are there particular gestures or motions Elsa must engage in when using magic?
- What shape language should we use for the ephemeral and the permanent artifacts she generates?
- How can we use that to differentiate magic bourne from joy or strength, versus fear or anger?
- How can we show her growing mastery of the magic over time, from her naive use of it as a child, to the self empowered architect and artist she is seen to be at the end?
Nigh-philosophical discussions like these happen for every major effect on our films because they are closely related to the emotional beats of the plot, and if they don’t land, then the audience won’t emotionally connect with the characters and their struggles or jubilations.
The second category of effects may be just as visually impressive and take as much time to R&D as the first group, but they don’t have any impact on the emotional threads or character’s arcs. You could lose them, and the plot would be the same. But without the addition of effects that make the environment more believable, the world the characters occupy would feel less lively and real.
Films that really encapsulate this idea are the first Wreck- It Ralph, and Zootopia. On Ralph, the effects team spent several months in pre-production making sure the designs for every game-world felt like they belonged: for Fix-It Felix, every effect was designed and animated so that it felt like it was plausible in an ostensibly 8-bit world, which included making most designs as blocky as possible, and animating in stepped keys.
You can see examples of this in little dust poofs that appear throughout the world (they’re volumetric, but blocky). When Ralph smashes the cake, it breaks up into rectilinear splats on the floor and walls. The same went for Hero’s Duty, where everything was made to look as realistic and high-detail as one would expect in a gritty sci-fi shooter.
We made all of the effects in Sugar Rush as saturated and saccharine as possible, crafting the effects to look like they are made of real food-stuffs (note: in some shots of the karts, the dust trails they leave behind look like decorative icing swirls you’d see on a cake).
Similar approaches were taken in Zootopia, which was separated into several unique districts, each with their own microbiome to accommodate their citizens. Falling snow, frosted surfaces, and “cold breath” were added by Effects to almost every shot in Tundra Town. Months were spent coming up with an automated system for adding rain, rivulets, puddles, ripples, and streams to the Rainforest District, and a subtle but very important heat distortion effect was used liberally in Sahara Square.
Without an investment in these types of effects, it would be more difficult to sell the idea to an audience that each of these areas is exceedingly cold, wet, or hot, as the only other way to do so would be via character performance. A character can only do so much to pantomime the weather without it dipping into parody, and so we take the time to consider what can be added to the world—other than the regular fare of props, set pieces, and crowds—that could make it feel real to the characters that occupy it.
So we fill abandoned science facilities with microscopic dust particles, populate large humid forests with fog and haze, add visible moisture exhaled from frigid characters, gently sway the leaves and branches of thousands of trees in a magical forest, add bioluminescent floating microbes under the ocean surface, and many more types of similar things.
The last group of effects, those that will help plus a shot, generally come about at the last minute, which is the main thing that separates them from the previous category [Side note: At Disney we use the word plus as a way of describing something that could be done to take an image or a performance that extra mile. It’s not strictly necessary, but is a small change that can make a large improvement].
These types of effects are usually small. Like if a character falls in some dirt, that’s something we could plus by adding a dust kickup. If two swords connect, we can add some sparks flying from colliding metal to add some additional oomph to the moment.
I say these come up last minute because they are not always caught in advance - there isn’t an indication of an effect during the storyboard or the layout phase of production, but it becomes clear once we have the character animation, where more specific choices have been made by the animator that now necessitate an effect where one wasn’t there before.
Much like the world-building effects, these aren’t visuals that your general audience member will really notice as they watch the film, they are just little accents that make moments and actions feel better.
A small example of this would be one that I was asked to add last minute on Ralph Breaks the Internet: the moment when Ralph finally comes to peace with the fact that his friendship with Vanellope won’t stay the same forever. In that moment, his gigantic egotistical-clone counterpart (which we called Ralphzilla internally) starts to glow as a way of indicating that they have transcended their jealousy and possessiveness.
This started as just a surface glow, of each individual Ralph clone lighting up, however the directors had a note that the source of change needed to feel like it was a feeling coming from inside Ralphzilla, and not just something that spreads across his exterior surface. So I was tasked with adding some volumetric glow that looks like it’s starting from where his heart would be, that would tie into the existing effect.
This helped sell the idea that this effect comes from an emotional change in the character, like light breaking through his cloudy judgement.
How do effects get assigned?
Now that we have a general idea of the types of work that’s needed, you might be wondering how that work actually gets done. Effects that are important to the story—such as Elsa’s magic—or ones that will be seen in large swaths of the film—such as Moana’s ocean—or those that we know are going to need lots of R&D because it’s unlike anything we’ve done before—like the "portal" space in Big Hero 6—are usually assigned to an Effects Lead.
These are usually senior artists within the department who have been through several shows, and are therefore comfortable and familiar with the studio’s process and have experience communicating with other departments and the directors.
I mentioned earlier that the Head of Effects will start discussions with the Directors and may do some initial R&D for effects significant to the story, but because their responsibility lies in strategic planning for the show and not completing shot work, the development and implementation is always handed off to an artist to complete for the show.
As such, the Head will generally try to get the Directors to buy off on a concept, then hand it off to a Lead as soon as possible, so they can feel like they have ownership over the design and execution of the effect.
A good example of this would be the microbots from Big Hero 6.
The Head of Effects for that show knew that he wanted the tiny bots to be plausible as a real mechanical device, and not just some amorphous techno-magic like how nano-bots are used in a lot of sci-fi films.
He did some initial animation tests to figure out how that might work. The directors settled on the design of a tiny bot with a single joint and magnetic tips, which would allow them to move and recombine/reconfigure in interesting ways. With that design approved, it was then handed off to the Effects Designer to help figure out the visual design language that these microbot structures would use, ultimately ending on the circuit-board themed language for Yokai and the more organic structures for Hiro.
Our Designer partnered with a Lead, who was responsible for solving the technical challenges of actual building and animating all of the various structures and forms that the microbots would take throughout the film, including how they would move across surfaces, form a “Yokai-mobile” that the villain could ride, and how they could believably form structures that could span large gaps and lift heavy objects.
If an effect is not identified early enough to warrant R&D in pre-production, it is handed off to an artist during production in a meeting we call Issuing. This is a meeting where all the artists working on a sequence sit with the Directors, and the Directors talk through all the effects they would expect to see in the shots. They use the current layout pass (somewhat equivalent to a previs pass, in visual effects lingo) and the original storyboards for reference, as character animation has usually not started at this point.
Typically, the artists will not have visuals prepared for this meeting, and it may be the first time they’ve seen the shots they’re going to be working on, but it’s a great opportunity to ask any questions or pitch early concepts about the effect before they start developing it.
On Moana, for example, I was tasked with doing the torch flames in the cave at the beginning of the film when Moana learns about her people’s history, and there’s a moment when a set of torches ignite after she bangs on an ancestral drum.
Chris refused to specify if he influenced Lin-Manuel Miranda's epic soundtrack
The storyboards did not make it clear if we should be overtly magical with the flames, so it was a great opportunity to ask the directors about that. They told me that they didn’t want anything explicitly magical, but did want something theatrical, so we went in the direction of having exaggerated flame, but without them being explicitly magical, like hue-shifting them to some unnatural color.
The Gauntlet of Approval
Once an artist has an idea of what they are working on—whether in pre-production or in production—and has a general idea of the direction to take, the iteration and approval process begins.
An artist pretty much has free rein to design an effect however they please, as long as it fulfills the purpose required of it.
To make sure it does just that, there is a series of formal and informal review processes. First, if an effect falls under the purview of a Lead, each iteration will be reviewed along with other artists working on the same class of effect.
To use Frozen 2 as an example, we had Leads for the dark ocean, the fire salamander, the Nokk (water horse), Elsa’s magic, a destruction Lead (for the dam breaking among other things), and a Gale lead.
If you were working on a shot of Elsa’s magic, it would generally be shown to other artists (also working on Elsa’s magic) and the Lead, to make sure that the design feels like it fits with everything else related to Elsa’s magic.
When an artist is confident that their work is ready to show, it will go into Dailies, which is an inter-department meeting where every effects artist is invited to join, even if they aren’t on the same project. The artist will present their current work-in-progress, and mention what it is they’re trying to accomplish, which is a combination of the shot’s needs and their own artistic goals.
The show leadership will provide feedback, usually to steer the artist if it seems like their goal may be misaligned with the production’s needs: i.e. if they may have missed or misinterpreted the target, or the art direction has changed since it was issued.
Every other artist is also encouraged to give feedback, but should strive to give constructive feedback: not trying to change the direction that the artist is going in, but to help point out things that are helping our hurting them in achieving their ultimate artist vision.
If too many radical suggestions,—or viable alternatives—are thrown on the table, the department leadership will help cull out options they think might lead down the wrong path, but then it is up to the artist to take their notes and figure out how to best proceed with the next iteration. This is personally one of my favorite meetings throughout a show, as it always feels like the most collaborative and creative part of the process.
After an artist has done a couple of iterations on a shot, and the Effects leadership feels it’s ready, it will be put in front of the Directors and other departments in Director Review.
This meeting happens about once per-week per-department, and all the shots that are ready for review will be shown, which could span many artists and sequences. The goal of the meeting is to get buyoff from the Directors, but it is an opportunity for other departments to voice questions and concerns: Animation might be worried that some debris is covering a character’s face, or Lighting is excited by the cinematographic opportunities afforded by some new torches, or the Production Designer might be worried that the magical fire is ‘too pink’.
It’s the perfect opportunity for the artist to field, address, or dismiss a lot of those questions and concerns face-to-face with other stakeholders who will be consuming their work, and to get direct feedback from the Directors themselves on how they feel about it.
My understanding is that direct conversations with Directors is a bit of a unique benefit to working in Feature Animation that does not have a corollary in other related fields, such as commercial animation or visual effects. As such, some folks who are new to the studio do not feel comfortable with a direct conversation with the Directors, in particular if they happen to disagree with a Director’s note or suggestion.
That’s why the responsibility for this communication is never fully on the artists shoulders - the Effects leadership is always present to help facilitate conversation, by giving context for design decisions or compromises that had to be made to serve various production or technical requirements.
Additionally, there is an acknowledgement that everyone in the room is an experienced professional in their particular area of expertise, so no one—including the Directors—gets their feathers ruffled if someone refutes their idea, so long as it’s backed by reasonable artistic logic and a more viable alternative. Then, much like Dailies, the artist will take their notes, do another iteration, and come back to show again.
Finally, at the end of all the iterations and reviews, the artist will get the much coveted Director Approved stamp on their work. This is a moment that is so significant in the process that over the years, different departments and shows have developed rituals around it.
On Moana, the Directors had traditional Pacific Islander drums that they would beat and do a gutteral shout (like in a Haka performance) every time a shot or effect got approved. On Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, they had a large bell to ring, which an Animator had fashioned after the one seen in the story.
It is a moment of celebration, as everyone recognizes all the work that goes into every little detail on every shot and image, and it’s a nice morale boost for the artist.
In Effects, starting several shows back, we also wanted to recognize the total effort that someone contributed to a show, and implemented what we have called the “Drop the Mic” moment for each artist. After their final shot is approved, a portable Karaoke speaker is given to the artist to use as a soap box for a couple minutes, to wax poetic about their experiences on the show, and for the Directors to comment and recognize the artist’s contributions to the film.
I love this moment on a project, because it goes to show how important each person on the cast is, and that the work they have done is appreciated and acknowledged, which is truly the spirit of working in Effects at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Now you have an insider's perspective on an animation career
Hopefully that exploration of our process helped you gain a better understanding of how an artist works within the enormous machinery of a big budget animation studio. What can you do with this knowledge now?
If you're operating as a freelance creator, building some of these steps into your workflow might seem extraneous. On the contrary. I think designing a more professional process can only make your projects run smoother and more efficiently.
Knowing what to expect can also prepare you for a career at a studio, no matter what size. Most importantly, I hope you were inspired to see how art is crafted on such a grand scale by some of the best in the business. I love that I am part of a team that brings these dreams to life, and I hope some of that magic rubbed off on you.
"Walt Disney Animation Studio" Image Credit: Gareth Simpson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0