Vlad Vladikoff is one of the funnest characters from Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who.
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” — Dr. Seuss
Blue Sky Studio’s 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is a visually underrated, animated treat. Loaded with beautiful color, sets, characters and delightfully inventive animation, it’s a film that showcases loads of creative fun while remaining faithful to the essence of Dr. Seuss, both thematically and graphically.
Today, we’ll dissect a sequence of shots from Horton Hears A Who performed by then Supervisor Animator, Aaron Hartline (who currently resides at Pixar Animation Studios). Aaron is a tremendously talented and devoted animator whom I had the privilege to sit next to during my time at Blue Sky Studios many years ago. It was one of the most enjoyable working arrangements I’ve ever experienced.
Now, let’s breakdown this beautiful shot and decipher the amount thought, deliberation and creativity that flows from one set of actions to another:
The shot sequence in its entirety. Aaron Hartline’s shot is a marvelous demonstration of careful planning, dynamic staging and sharp timing applied to character animation.
(Note: The following divisions made here are arbitrary and don’t necessarily represent how the artist constructed or executed his shot)
Here you can see how the character sharply pops into position (perfectly staged on thirds) right in front of Sour Kangaroo’s moving position, ending with his swooping wings and cowered vampire-like position before slowly revealing the prop in his hand. The snappy entrance, held pose, and slow reveal give the entrance punch, clarity and texture.
This second section is both more elegant in movement and sophisticated in execution. Here, the artist chooses to showcase some playful action with a prop (a bone). He does so first, with an assertive grip which is confirmed by the attitude of the body language and stern facial expression. Then secondly, he tosses the prop up and catches it before lowering the overall body position in a lovely display of weight transfer. This sets up the big dramatic duo-wing pose and forward head motion as he delivers the words “DEVOUR IT,” which is followed by the final flourish of some chomping jaw action. The balanced yet textured rhythm closes out the sentence that precedes the wild events that are to follow.
This is where the big change of mood and energy occurs in the sequence. The visual comedy begins with a sudden unexpected cackle, which Vlad first contains. He subsequently loses control/comfort — which is depicted by the awful face in the second choking — before a third, monstrous cough forces him to completely abandon his wide-winged stance to one of a more humble position. A series of head/neck gestures and a quick glance of embarrassment then forces him to retreat to far screen left, where he hides behind his cloaked wing. The final choke and smile he delivers as he looks back to Kangaroo re-affirms his embarrassment before we cut to her tepid response.
I love how this new cut starts with him central in the composition, with his back facing the camera. The head peaking out to screen left directs your attention of where to expect subsequent action. The dialogue “HOLY MOLY” reads beautifully in profile after the wonderful shrug of the shoulders. Then comes another cough which is more severe, built up nicely with the exaggerated action of the body first, then anticipating the next major action with the claws flexing in open isolation before a ‘grab the chest’ move leads us to a discharging action reminiscent of a horrible sneeze. The final extra ‘flop’ of the head/jaw gives the scene a wonderful flair before showcasing the stuck bone in his throat which he pulls out in a textured sequence of pause, snap and crackle.
In the concluding action, Vlad regains his composure and gets back into his fiendish pose. He thrusts forward with speed and confidence but then hesitates — his eyes and head shift in search for answers before the light bulbs flash inside and he thrusts upwards in sudden discovery saying proudly “I WILL DEVOUR IT.” The following move forward is another nice touch by the artist. As he says “SECOND TIME” he does so in an expression of self-assertion and persuasion — like when one tries so desperately to convince someone of something that’s in doubt. The final expression — which is preceded by a stupid yet genuine face that all dumb henchmen do when they suddenly figure out the math — is triply stated with a goofy face, forward nodding head and fork-like display of his two claws. It’s a great finish.
Character sketches of Vlad by Sang Jun Lee. Property of Blue Sky Studios.
Photo reference of the iconic Bela Lugosi in his 1930’s role as the immortal Count Dracula. Property of MGM.
Video reference performed by Supervising Animator Aaron Hartline. Notice that his video serves primarily as a base for the acting, as his timing, graphic choices and details all surface later in the process. Creation is often a multi-tiered process. (Thank you Aaron for kindly providing the extra references to this shot. What a most welcome update!)
In conclusion, it’s good to note that complicated shots and sequences like this require a serious knowledge and search for what ‘makes’ the character. Only a detailed exploration via video reference and intensive visual foraging for the best possible layout of the various phrases of action on paper can yield shots like this. Aaron Hartline’s animation, like those of other top flight animators out there, are well worth the time studying in detail. You learn both craft and appreciation. It’s also a reminder of the kind of fun we can have with the job that we do.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” — Dr. Seuss