Special Guest Interview: Thomas Grummt

ThomasGrummt_AnimatorDreamWorks

Animator Thomas Grummt was recently profiled in Variety Magazine as one of the industry’s “Ten Animators to Watch” (check out the article here).

Today we are privileged to have Dreamworks Lead Animator, Thomas Grummt join us at the Animated Spirit. I’ve known Thomas since he was a student of mine almost five years ago. Already gifted with a great sense of timing and feeling in his animation, Thomas has since gone on to become one of the rising young stars in the animation industry, having worked on hits like Kung Fu Panda 2, The Croods, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 for which he received an Annie nomination for best character animation in 2014.

One of the most complicated yet loveliest shots from Dreamworks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2. Beautifully choreographed, acted and animated by Thomas Grummt.

Welcome Thomas, and thanks for joining us!

“Hi James, thanks for having me! I’m excited that you’ve started an animation blog!”

Can you share a little about yourself, as to where you’re from and what your early interests were before becoming an animator?

“I was born and raised in Germany, and lived there until 5 years ago. I’m from Eastern Germany and I was 10 when the country was reunited. As a kid I certainly never imagined I’d end up up living in the US! Growing up I loved drawing and building things from wood or cardboard. I also remember tracing duck tales cartoons or masters of the universe characters using wax paper from the kitchen. I was outside all the time, since we lived in a tiny town. If I hadn’t discovered animation, I might have ended up as a graphic designer, or building miniatures and props for movies. As a teenager I was much more into music and sports, and stopped drawing almost entirely – something I regret nowadays. My real interest in animation as a profession started around age 18 or 19, shortly before college.”

A nice compilation of emotions, movements and reveal by Thomas Grummt from the 2013 Dreamworks release, The Croods.

What inspired you to do animation, and ultimately, move to America?

“I think animation was a combination of many of my interests as a kid. I loved movies, drawing, music, computer games and science, so I felt like I wouldn’t have to give up any of those. Also, some movies had a big influence on me, for example Aladdin, Jurassic Park, Roger Rabbit, Tarzan or Neverending Story. I was always fascinated by movie magic and effects, and animation was a big part of that. I didn’t know anything about how it was done at the time.

Moving to California was more of a happy accident, my wife and I were not really planning that. After working in Germany for 4 years, and then going through Animation Mentor, we wanted to try living in a different country. We had our minds set on Canada, New Zealand, Australia or the UK, the US just seemed like an unlikely option because of the visa difficulties and high caliber studios.

However, I met Simon Otto, the head of animation on the “How To Train Your Dragon” movies, at a conference in Germany where he gave a talk about the first movie. He was kind enough to talk to me and a few others afterwards, and also watched my demo reel. He liked what he saw and about five months later I started at the company.”

Croods_Ref

Video reference and preparation (see insert) by Thomas Grummt and his Dreamworks colleague, Jakob Jensen. The rough rig/model look is typical of how feature animators see and work with their characters during the character animation phase of production. (Dreamwork’s currently uses Premo, an updated real-time, hi-resolution system.)

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Final shot as seen from the movie, complete with background animation, sets and full lighting.

What were the first steps you took to make it all happen, and what was that like?

“The first step for me to become an animator was college. I didn’t really animate before that, I was interested in animated movies, drawing, and games, but I didn’t know how that stuff was made. The college education was pretty generic in the beginning, math, physics, some design foundations. The fun part was making shorts, and I created three of them with a few fellow students. The first was motion capture, cause we figured it would be easier, as none of us knew how to animate. It wasn’t really easier… The second short was keyframe animation and the third involved set building, filming and visual effects. It was an awesome time for experimentation and I learned a lot by working on those films. While I wasn’t a very good animator at the end of college, I think it was valuable to get a broad overview of what’s out there, before specializing in one field.”

A simple and clearly presented scene from Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2. Thomas’ animation proves you don’t need to be fancy to be good.

Tell us a bit about your work day. What is your favorite part?

“I usually start around nine o’clock, with a cup of coffee and emails. Our meetings are spread throughout the week, so I check if there is something on the calendar, like dailies, team meetings or screenings. I spend most of the day animating, obviously, or sometimes planning, shooting reference, and looking at work from colleagues to get inspired (and intimidated!) I used to worry a lot about the weekly quota, but nowadays we often get cast a chunk of shots that we have to finish until a certain deadline, which I prefer. There are days when I can concentrate and get a lot done, and there are the other days! I think as an animator it’s normal to have uninspired days where you feel not a single key is in the right place. My favorite part is getting a good reaction when I show my shot to colleagues, or in dailies! And lunch.”

Lovely facial animation and subtlety, make this a beautiful moment of sincerity in How To Train Your Dragon 2. Animation by Thomas Grummt.

What drives you to keep animating day in, day out? How do you get thru the tough parts?

“Well, first of all, it’s my career so I want to do the job well and feel like I’m not standing still. Depending on the projects you work on, you can’t be inspired and super motivated everyday. After more than ten years of animating, there is a certain routine you follow (and there should be). However, it’s important to keep that feeling alive that you had as a student, the excitement and the ‘want’. That still drives me, and the inspiration is there when I start on an exciting show, work with awesome people, when I see cool shots, or when I work on a fun and challenging character. It can also be motivating to adapt and adjust to a studio that’s constantly changing. New projects with varying styles, new software, tools and rigs mean you have to keep learning. For the tough parts, I usually just whine and complain with my colleagues, haha!”

Dragon2_CloudjumperCloudjumper, the mystery dragon from Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon. Animation by Thomas Grummt.

 

You became a Lead Animator on Dragons 2, what was that experience like and how was it different from just being an animator?

“I’m really thankful for that chance, and I had a great time working on Dragons 2. Being a lead means different things in different studios. At Dreamworks, it usually means you’re responsible for a character. In my case that was the four-winged Cloudjumper, and I was involved in the early testing, rig-feedback and creating the character library. I did animation tests and helped figure out his style of movement with the supervisors and Simon. During production I animated a lot of the key shots, and other animators came to ask feedback when they had the dragon in their scenes. It was different because I had more creative responsibility, and also more interaction with the artists, through critiquing their work. For me, being a lead was a lot of fun and very satisfying.”

Dragon2_Duel

A beautiful and powerful moment during the duel between the mystery rider and Hiccup, from How To Train Your Dragon 2. Animation by Thomas Grummt.

This is a demanding career. How do you keep yourself balanced?

“It is demanding, and currently I am lucky to be in a bigger studio with steady work and fairly regular hours. That makes it easier to have a balanced life! We have an eleven month old son, so that’s pretty much where the rest of my day goes 🙂 Starting a family puts everything in perspective, and priorities shift. It is also a new source of inspiration, especially now that I am working on a movie that has a couple of babies in it! I ride my bike to work which feels weird in LA, but I love it. I like watching crime shows (the wire!!), going for hikes and hanging out in cafes with friends. Nothing special, really! Oh, and I love action RPG games.”

Here, Thomas displays nice timing and choreography of action to give this scene a wonderful sense of humanity and humor. From Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2.

A hypothetical; if you were to choose anyone in history that you could apprentice under, who would it be?

“Five years ago, I would have probably said James Baxter. I worked with him on Croods and Dragons 2, so I was fortunate enough to experience that. There are so many amazing animators in history, and today. I would love to travel back in time to maybe the 30s and 40s, when Disney animation was really being invented and refined. There must have been such an excitement and sense of discovery.”

Bossbaby

DreamWorks’ Boss Baby, due for release in January 2017, will be the next film to feature Thomas’ latest animations.

Thank you so much for your time Thomas. We look forward to seeing more of your awesome work!

“Thanks for having me!”

To see more of Thomas Grummt’s artistry, visit here.

Animation Tip: Rubber Bands

WaltStanchfield

The concept of rubber bands in posing (and anatomy) eluded me until I had my first drawing lessons from the late Walt Stanchfield, a renown animator and drawing teacher at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Now, I can’t think of making a drawing (or 3D pose) without instinctively viewing all the parts together as a whole, each one attached, relating, and influencing the other.

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These recently published books, collecting all of Walt’s notes on drawing based on his Disney master classes, should be on every animator’s shelf.

Like so many before and after, I was very fortunate to be in his drawing class (which, at the time required a rumored two year waiting period just to get in!) He was talented, charming and filled with knowledge. Most of all, he was generous and inspiring. His wisdom was plainly clear in both his words and his art. The message he preached was deceptively simple;  draw the “verbs.” He’d say for instance:

“Instead of naming the parts of the body (nouns) tell what those parts are doing (verbs).”

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Glen Keane’s gorgeous studies for Rapunzel from Walt Disney’s Tangled. Notice how this great master always drew ‘the action’.

He continues:

“When you stretch or twist, the rubber bands in that area stretch and become taut. We call that “tension.” So when a pose is assumed, it is not chiseled in marble, but is still alive and an effort must be made to continually stretch the rubber bands in order to retain the gesture.”

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Bill Tytla’s rough animation drawings from the Night On Bald Mountain sequence from Walt Disney’s 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia.

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Great cohesiveness and design is achieved by invisible rubber bands connecting the solid joints, such as the wing tips, hands, elbows and hips. The physical tension adds to the immense drama of the scene.

In 3D animation, we are easily tempted to forget about the push and pull that occurs in the body because we think we’re dealing with a puppet – a virtual one with a multitude of parts and controllers. It’s easy to get lost trying to “manage” all the the various controllers and attributes (such as rotations, translations, and distortions like squash and stretch), never mind the associated graph editor.

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 This memorable scene, from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, animated by Doug Sweetland, displays perfect application of rubber bands to unify the poses as well as excellent choreography of movement.

The key is to forgot all the details of the “nouns” as Walt would say, and pose the “verbs.”

He notes:

“All drawings should communicate the feeling of tension to the viewer… not appear to be frozen in space, but seem as it if were alive and capable of moving farther or releasing the tension and easing off.”

Structure alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to  find a way to make it feel like all those solid parts are relating to each other in time, space and energy.

ChuckJones_CoyoteRoadRunner

Chuck Jones’ drawings of Wile E. Coyote are some of my favorite drawings of all time. He was a master of the rubber band concept — every “thing” belonged with every other “thing.”

You have to, as Walt says:

“… imagine that you are drawing it. With your imaginary pen, within the body but also in the space between the outstretched parts.

He continues:

Your attention should be, not on the lines or details, but on the feeling of movement and tension.”

MarcDavis_Malificent

Here, another master animator, Marc Davis, shows in his drawing of Malificent that great design, line of action and rubber bands all work together to create beautiful compositions.

Pick up Walt Stanchfield’s book (if you haven’t already). It’s a gem on the concept of rubber bands and a whole lot of other things. But most importantly, incorporate this technique into your work to bring strength, force, appeal and cohesiveness to your poses.

Change and Contrast

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In Bill Watterson’s inventive world of Calvin and Hobbes, sudden change and contrast of situations such states of mind, are the basis for fantasy and brilliant comedy.

“If there is a single key ingredient in good design it would have to do with variety.” — Fritz Henning, Illustrator.

Without variation  (i.e. change/contrast), no idea can be presented, for everything you see or feel is relative to what’s around it, both in time and space.

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This common optical illusion shows what happens to your eyes when variation of tones occur. Here the simple grid pattern of surrounding grey and black lead you to see black dots in the white circles, where there are none. (squint your eyes for objectivity)

Something small is only so next to something bigger, nothing looks fast unless it’s compared to something slower or stationary. The most subtle smile looks vibrant next to a sad face, a mid-tone grey looks very dark next to white, and vice versa.

The basics of variation and change come from life – things either grow or deteriorate (or die!) Everything is transient; the future is soon the present, and the present very quickly becomes the past. In life, that concept can be immeasurably challenging, but in art, it grounds the work.

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Every cat looks big next to a normal Tweety Bird, not such much next to a potion-induced one. Directed by of Fritz Freleng, these Dr. Jekyll-Mr.Hyde episodes of Sylvester and Tweety are especially memorable due it’s brilliant use of change and contrast.

Therefore, as artists, you must watch how you present your ideas as things read very differently depending on surrounding shapes, movements, colors and moods. If you change/introduce something, know that the previous expression will take on an entirely different meaning or impression.

DroopyWolf

Contrast is everything here in MGM’s cartoon “I Got Stripes.” Director Tex Avery was a master at generating marvelous energy and humor by creating contrast through design, timing, and characterization.  No two characters could be more different from each other than the Wolf and Droopy.

On a conceptual level, presenting images/ideas to an audience with the background of a preconceived education or exposure can greatly alter any desired effect. History or culture has a huge impress on the perception of ideas, images or objects.

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German Shepherd dogs, for instance, continue to be associated with imperialist regimes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in places like Africa and the Middle East. Political correctness aside, memories die hard.

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The Littlest Hobo, a low budget tv show about a gentle yet heroic stray German Sheppard, was very popular in my home country, gracing the family rooms of many Canadian families throughout the 1970’s — 1980’s.

Sometimes, even common primary colors like red and white can have opposite meanings depending on when and where it’s used. In the west, red is associated with blood and danger, where as white is considered pure and virginal. In Asia, the color red is celebratory, displayed abundantly at anniversaries or weddings, while white is used at funerals, or to depict ghosts and demons on stage and in film.

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A gorgeous, yet frightening “white” image of the ghost, in Masaki Kobayashi’s beautifully directed 1964 supernatural anthology, Kwaidon. The film represents the director’s nod to Japanese Noh theater, where drama is presented in ominous silence allowing imagery and subtle movement to denote powerful ideas and emotion.

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“All my sins have been washed away!” says Delmar after he’s baptized in O’ Brother Where Art Thou, the comedic retelling of Homer’s Odyssey by Joel and Ethan Coen. Here, white symbolizes the purity of heaven and ever-lasting life.

This of course, makes planning and research absolutely necessary. So select your choices carefully, explore and test things out and then show your work. Feedback is paramount to whether things read or not.

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Elegantly simple and almost geometrically flat shapes play beautifully against the richly decorative organic backgrounds giving the surrounding world depth and richness, while presenting the characters with purity and distinction. This prominent production design, by Eyvind Earle, makes Walt Disney’s Sleepy Beauty one of the most graphically distinct films in animation history.

Things to consider:

shapes (organic vs geometric)

size (big vs small)

Rhythm (even vs irregular)

color (cool vs warms, vibrant vs muted)

weight (heavy vs lite)

timing (fast vs slow)

depth (graphic vs dimensional)

texture (busy vs quiet)

mood (positive vs negative)

The clear domination of one particular direction over the other, will help dictate the impression you wish to give. Evenly placed elements can offset each other and create confusion or boredom (as discussed here). The audience always prefers a distinct idea, and in film/animation, where time progresses, there’s only a limited opportunity to impress. One can ill afford to let the dog wander off the leash so to speak. You’ve got to take it on a fun, varied ride.

Excellent choreography and sharp execution of shapes and timing, make this moment the scene stealer in Pixar’s  Finding Nemo. Animator Doug Sweetland takes you on a marvelous ride, carrying you from one moment of visual joy to another, expressing one distinctive change after another.

Therefore, use change and contrast to set up or deliver the idea. Then present it with absolute clarity,  without excessive complexity or diversion. Your audience will love you for it.

In the words of world-renown painter, Francis Bacon;

Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety.

Talent or Effort?

The great Rembrandt Van Rijn was regarded as a genius early in his career. This “Master of Light,” despite working harder than ever and getting better than ever in old age, was disregarded without much fanfare late in his career. At the end, what the critics say matter little. Only the work does.

In the creative fields, the question of talent is always there. Some view it as a predetermined thing, ordained by heaven. Others prefer to think of it as something that can be acquired, or at least, with enough persistence and sacrifice, earned. Every young artist I’ve ever worked with has had that fear in them, and sometimes I can even see it in their eyes. It’s as if they’re asking me (and themselves at the same time) “do I have what it takes?”

When we think of talent, we all think of the naturally-gifted Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, or more commonly, the musical prodigy, Mozart — whose name is synonymous with the word genius. The movie Amadeus certainly didn’t help break that perception, watching the brilliantly acted performance by Tom Hulce (who also voiced Quasimodo in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) dancing around playfully in life, as he did on the piano, with ease and bravado.

AmadeusTom Hulce, portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus

But in Mozart’s own words, we might have to acknowledge another, perhaps greater truth:

“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I”.

In fact, Mozart’s hands were deformed by the time he reached the age of twenty-eight due to all the endless hours of practice and writing. Then we find out that the wily painting maestro, Pablo Picasso, had been hiding his sketchbooks and preliminary studies for decades. This slight of hand definitely aided in the perception of his god-like genius and most certainly didn’t stop him from becoming the wealthiest living artist of his time.

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Picasso seen here displaying his “spontaneous” genius.

Still not convinced? Well, lets look at who has been called the greatest animator in the world, the marvelous Milt Kahl. In John Canemaker’s wonderful book, the Nine Old Men,  Milt’s counterpart, Frank Thomas revealed how Milt would torment himself in his room during the creative process, where he was often heard muttering to himself, yanking drawings violently off peg bars, and tossing them into the trash, which were also ‘kicked’ for good measure:

“When he blew up and trampled his drawings in the wastebasket, it was real frustration … self-criticism, feeling of being inadequate, pure concentrated torture.”

Milt Kahl at work - filled with intensityMilt Kahl at work on his desk, filled with intensity.

Milt was very proud of his tenacious approach to animation. He often lamented how other animators expected good results without putting in the effort or time to do it right. He states, quite blatantly:

“I think a lot of people are a lot lazier than I am”

Milt Kahl -SwordandTheStoneMilt Kahl’s drawings clearly show an abundance of talent but also serious analysis and hard work. Every single frame of his work was beautifully and painstakingly developed.

Finally,  we come to these words from acclaimed writer, Stephen King:

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful is a lot of hard work.”

stephen-king-books-collectionA small sample of Stephen King’s novels.

I agree — big talent accompanied by tiny effort goes no where.  But a drop of genius attached to a large dose of dedication can lead to amazing results. The most commonly heard lament in the arts is the phrase “what a waste of talent!” Effort, confidence and talent build on top of each other, each one pulling the other higher in a continuous cycle of greater growth.