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.”
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.)
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!”
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.”
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.”
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!”