Artist Interview: Animator Brian Ferguson

Learning from Experience

I mentioned that every month I plan to conduct an interview with a professional artist.  This month’s interview is with Animator Brian Ferguson, a former Disney animator, and now, college professor.  Brian Ferguson continues to be a major influence in the animated film business. His fingerprints are on several films, and his many credits can be seen on his IMDb page here https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0272387/

Leaf Elf

I recently had the pleasure of asking him some of his thoughts about what up-and-coming artists should be aware of if they were to pursue a career in animation. (His artwork fills this post.)

A Conversation with Animator Brian Ferguson

You’ve been working as an animator for almost 35 years, and worked on many different films and characters.  Are there a few that stand out as your favorites?

To pick a favorite is like picking a favorite son or movie, that’s hard.  There are those that stand out, though.   Timon, for instance, was a huge amount of fun (Lion King).  And Panic, too, was right up my alley (Hercules).  He was my first supervised character.  For Mulan, I supervised the Matchmaker.  I had a cool experience in that movie.  I was given every scene for that character in one stack, rather than piece-meal as in other productions, so I was able to work on that character in chronological order.  It was extraordinary.  I would also say I enjoyed working on Rhino (Bolt).  That movie production was different in that they gave you an entire segment of the film to work on where you would animate everything in it, rather than just being cast on a particular character in a scene.  Sadly, though it was a little bit difficult to work in that environment, because there were too many people not working as a team.  

Panic from Hercules

Teamwork is such an important part of film making.  I think back on the films I worked on and see the differences of success with those which allowed for team collaboration as opposed to those that didn’t. Which stands out to you?

I really enjoyed those movies where the studio was working as a team. For that reason, Lion King was one of my favorites.  I knew coming into it that it was going to be huge just from the early concept sketches.  They generated excitement for all the artists.  I remember wanting to work on every character.  Even though that film had a lot of pain to it (the studio was going through a lot of changes at that time), it was an exciting film, so much fun, with so many opportunities. 

What was your big opportunity that came on Lion King?

I worked under Andreas Deja who had some trepidation about an early scene he didn’t want to animate.  He said, “Hey, Brian took zoology, let’s get him to animate the mouse.” (in Scar’s opening scene)  That was a huge opportunity for me.

The Lion King

You’re now teaching at DePaul University in Chicago.  What are the classes you teach?

I’m teaching different classes on animation.  This quarter it’s Hand-Drawn Character Animation, Animation Mechanics, and Animation Figure Study (gesture drawing), with a live model for online classes.  

Let’s talk about the importance of gesture drawing.  I always say Gesture Study for an artist is like scale work for a musician.  What are your thoughts or advice?

I know you know so much about it.  For me, I treat my class as a drill.  I repeat the same things over and over, so my students start thinking automatically about those things that should be second nature, like what is the story of a pose.  If you just look at the model first, before you jump into drawing, you get a sense of all the angles and relationships of body parts and how it relates to expression and story and the intent of the pose.   You need to take all that in and decide for yourself what this pose is about, so when you make your drawing and refer to the model, you can know what the pose your drawing is about.  Now, when you come back to that drawing later, and the model is not there, you can see ‘oh, this pose was crouching to make an attack’, or something like that.  Gestures should be an exercise to make the story absolutely clear.  That’s the first main idea of my drills.  “What is the pose about?”  Then build upon that with strong Lines of Action and Readable Silhouette, etc..

As far as proportion and anatomy goes, students get that from other classes.  I’m not concerned in a gesture drawing if a student took the entire time to work on getting a correct calf or not.  Coming up with an anatomically viable representation of the model you saw is not really understanding what the pose is about.  Focusing on the parts results in a Frankenstein type drawing without a unified Line of Action, and appears to be uncommitted.  That’s not what a strong gesture drawing is. 

I know exactly what you mean.  I make my students get up and get into the same pose.  “Feel” the pose.  I bring up Kinesthetics and ask them “Where does it hurt?”.  

That’s interesting.  The closest I come to that is making my students pose on days we don’t have a model.  

I think the students learn to respect the model more when they do that, because they realize how hard it is.

Absolutely.  And I love that you are asking your students what hurts when they feel a pose.  Because those areas require bolder lines.  One of the exercises I have my students do is to focus on Lines of Force.  I tell them not to focus on what the drawing looks like (in terms of anatomy), but draw the tension and direction and forces of the body instead.

I’m getting a sense of what you look for from your students.  What are you looking for in a portfolio from an applying artist?

I think the standards are going up.  For an animation portfolio, I look for anything that shows an understanding of the arts with creativity. Gesture/ Life Drawings, for example, should demonstrate an understanding of storytelling with the poses.  Pieces with strong tonal values are good to have.  Keeping in mind that light and shade is only good if it’s built on a strong foundation (like solid gestures).  And a knowledge of Perspective.  I see a lot of people coming into the school not really understanding how to draw perspective.  They appreciate it when they see it, but don’t necessarily have the tools to create it themselves.

Ray Evangeline from Princess and the Frog

Does it matter if a student has an animation reel or not?

No.  But if they do have one, they are ahead of the curve…  If it has personality.  As you make a reel, mechanics are good to show, but a character needs personality.  I remember when I applied to Disney, I showed them a collection of life-drawings, and bits of animation.  The animation was a large volume of bits that showed my understanding of mechanics, sections from a film that I worked on, and scenes showing weight.  But I found out from a director that the one small scene that convinced them to hire me was of a blob of slime coming to life next to a pool of water, seeing his own reflection and falling in love with it.  What they liked about that scene was that it showed that the character was thinking and feeling.  So putting personality and thought into your characters is extremely crucial.  Not necessarily to get into a school, but definitely to get hired at a major studio.  You can learn this at a school.  

What’s a good tip for achieving the illusion of “thinking” in an animated character?

I would say, something that is useful is to be bold with your timing.  Allow for a character to hold in a position and think, and to not react instantly at the same time something is happening, but to give a little bit of space for something to register in its mind.  If something in a scene happens that a character reacts to…let it happen, let them have a few frames to let it register in their head, then have it register on their face, then let them come up with some sort of action (a take, solution, or whatever).  Putting that kind of timing in is what really helps show that a character is alive and thinking and feeling.

Mickey Mouse

There are a lot of animation apps available today.  Some students come to me and say they want to be a 3D animator or a stop-motion animator and they don’t have to learn how to draw.  What are thoughts about that?

(Brian laughed.)   That’s funny.  Without question, having the ability to draw is very important because you develop that understanding of what works to make a two-dimensional image exciting, dynamic, understandable, and appealing.  The people who do the best at CG are those who say “I will not let the computer tell me what I can and cannot do”. They’re going to make their image the way that they want it.  

We just recently had a student apply to DePaul with amazing work from one of these apps.  They are capable of producing some nice work.  Our school offers classes in 3D animation, stop-motion animation, effects, and independent filmmaking, and I’ve seen some outstanding work.   The teachers are high up in the industry, and each one can draw well.  They have to.

Ray’s Grandma from Princess and the Frog

Can you be taught appeal? 

Ooh, tough one.  I think it’s like any kind of drawing, it takes practice.  I’ve seen people who want to do it, but they just don’t have what a lot of their classmates have.  So they decide for themselves that this is what I’m going to do, and they practice, and they draw, making a point to draw all the time.  They have their sketchbook with them and draw at every free moment.  They get better.  I know masters who do the same thing.  They’re at the top of everyone’s game, and they are still practicing in the parks, drawing at every free moment.

Matchmaker from Mulan

With practice comes confidence.  Is there any kind of encouragement you can give young artists who feel intimidated about showing their work?

I just recently had a discussion with one of my students about this very issue.  She is a very strong artist who wasn’t turning in her work.  She had it in her mind that she was comparing her work to others, which might have been more polished.  I don’t look for polished, I look for something that’s clear, dynamic and interesting.  My classes are about exercises, not necessarily creating a finished product.  I told her these are exercises for learning basic principles and seeing gestures.  You don’t have to be precious with your drawings, they’re meant to be thrown away, they’re just practice.  My advice is to do the exercise, then move on to the next one, each time with new knowledge.  You can repeat the exercises, but don’t labor on getting things perfect, otherwise you’ll never get through them.  First, you lose a lot of time, and second, you’re only learning about this one little thing that has to be perfect.  You may be missing what’s really important.

If you go through drills, (do one thing, complete it, do another thing, complete it.) you’ll get all this experience under your belt. Each one is not going to be a masterpiece, but after having drilled yourself like that, your ability is going to get better!

It’s the same if you’re doing bigger projects.  To make a little independent film.  Don’t think “OK, I’m going to make this the best thing that’s ever been done because I’m going to put everything into it, and it’s going to win an oscar, and I’ll be recognized…”  No.  What you do is make a little thing and complete it!  Make another little thing, and complete it! Make another thing, complete it!  And the more you do these things the more experience you will have and the better you will get over time because you’re practicing. 

Chaca from Emperor’s New Groove

When it comes down to what is the best medium to pursue, 3D computer animation, Stop-Motion, or traditional hand-drawn animation, I heard you say that it’s the performance of a character that matters, not the medium.  Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, you can have some perfectly entertaining, beautiful animation in any medium.  It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you’re going to be entertained if it’s put together right.

Chicken Little trips on a piece of sky

Let me put you on the spot with a fun question.  What great animated performance can you quickly recall that’s worth studying for a young animator or actor in training?  

Each film has a great example of something.  I recall a scene from Zootopia, where there’s a conversation between the fox and the rabbit, where she’s trying to arrest him.  The whole performance is so nicely done and it’s wrapped up with this one remark that’s so natural and her reactions are so well timed.  It finally ends with an on-point gesture.  So powerful!

Zootopia

I can also mention a scene from The Jungle Book.  A dialogue between Shere Kahn and Kaa, where Kaa is about to eat Mogli, but Shere Kahn comes and pulls on his tail, and says, “I’m looking for this man cub.”  And Kaa is like “Are you really?”  Throughout the delivery of the whole scene, there’s such a sense of menacing power in the tiger behind a mask that has kind of a condescending smile which reeks of his total control.  He could destroy the entire jungle, and yet he sits there being courteous. That performance is so powerful for me to this day and it was done over 50 years ago.  Unreal.

The Jungle Book

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.  Your words are very encouraging.  When’s your next Master Class?  I’m sure my students would like to join in on that. 

The date hasn’t been decided, but I’ll keep you posted.

Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to do this interview.

You can check more  of Brian’s artwork on his website www.brianfergusonanimation.com

Send some good vibes his way!

Let me know what you thought of this interview with your comments and likes. Also, follow this blog and share with those you know.  Thank you.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

Art Book Review

Cover

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a book guy, with eclectic tastes.   I’m like an archaeological explorer in a library, and every Sunday I dive into the New York Times Book Section to see what interesting new releases might be coming. When I worked at the Walt Disney Studios, in Feature Animation, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the film “Fantasia 2000”, in the late 90’s.  The building was directly across the street from the Disney Imagineers Library in Glendale, CA..  Twice a week I would be in there on my lunch breaks.  The space had four large areas of books, periodicals, and Disneyland and Disney World Theme Park original art archives.  My Disney ID allowed me access to boxes of original Marc Davis concept drawings for The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean attractions, among countless others. I explored every box, some more than once, as anyone with access would.  It was amazing just to be able to hold these drawings in my hands and study them.  The book collection in this library was equally impressive.  This library contained Walt’s original reference library from the time the Disney Studio opened, with tons of out of print selections.  I was reading and checking out the same books as the artists of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Dumbo.  During this time, I was very interested in character design, animatronics, and puppet making, so that’s what most of my research entailed.

Walt Disney Imagineering Lot in Glendale, CA

Shockingly, after months of using the library on a regular basis, I was turned away by the librarians.  For some reason, they made a new policy that only Imagineers could use this library, I was in the Animation Department.  You would think the company would not be this divided, but it was.  It didn’t make sense to me, for this library originally belonged to the Animation Department and was donated to the Imagineering Department as a gift.  Well, the producers of Fantasia got involved.  We were a close knit group of artists working on the shorts for this film back then, and it was known that I have an enthusiasm for learning, and I was a good worker.  A few phone calls were made on my behalf, and I was allowed back in the Imagineering Library.   I was forever grateful, and continued to take advantage of my new library pass.  I think I got a few dirty looks from the librarians for making a stink, but I never let it bother me.

Since then, nothing’s changed.  I continue to teach myself through books. I’m actually a sucker for Mythology stories.  As for art books, I can’t have enough. My personal library particularly has a growing collection of “Art Of” concept books.  I learned from a digital animator, years ago, to always keep a good concept art book open next to my computer for inspiration while I’m working.  They ooze inspiration.  I’m often flipping through it while my computer program is “thinking”, and there are even a few coffee stains in a few, I’m ashamed to admit (by accident).  There seems to be a new concept book for every animated film made these days.  Some are good and some regurgitate a sameness to them, but overall they each have their own strong points.  Today I’m going to discuss one of the better ones, the 2014 concept art book: “The Art of The Boxtrolls” by Philip Brotherton. (I do not claim any copyrights of this book. All Images below are copyright 2014 Boxtrolls, LLC.)

Since this is my first review, it would be good to know what I look for.  I judge a concept art book on three criteria.  

First, I want to see drawings!  I need to see the evolution of characters, expressions, storyboards, props, and layouts.  The amazing drawing I love to witness most is the initial seed for a film.  The first concept that gets the project moving to me has to have the most energy.  Without that drawing, it would be hard to convince others to get behind the story.  It is refreshing to know that most of the animated movie making process is still drawn by hand.  Whether a movie is hand-drawn, computer generated 3D, or stop motion, it’s the performance by a character that ultimately matters to me, not necessarily the medium.  Getting to that point of a production is the story that this collection of drawings should tell.

Second, I want to see artwork from a multitude of different artists (not just a selected few).  Together they create the fun, loose ideas that made the film worth making.  It gives the book more of a studio feel that I am familiar with.  For me, this was one of the thrills of working in a major studio.  All the stuff you see in these books were on the walls of the studio, constantly changing and being added to. It was there to inspire all the artists working on the film.  Some of the directors I worked for even welcomed ideas from anyone who worked there (those are the movies people still talk about).  Sure the final character designs are wonderful to look at, but the journey an artist and studio takes to get there can reveal much of what was going through the minds of the artists at that time.

Third, I’m interested in color and style.  I love the moods of color within backgrounds, character design color choices, and how it is used throughout an entire story by means of a color script.  I like reading about the reason certain colors were chosen or rejected.  Add this to the stylistic “rules” of the design and you can witness how successful the artists were at solving design challenges and creating a believable world.

“The Art of The Boxtrolls” book meets all my criteria.  Being a stop-motion production, this book gains points with me for its puppet making construction photos.  Overall, it just hints at some puppet construction (but they are such wonderful hints for any puppeteer with “eyes to see”).  Generally, all “Art Of” books just hint at how a film is made (they can’t give away all of their secrets), but the greatest thing to take from them is knowing what the industry sees as a standard for professional artists seeking to work in this field.

 The extremely talented sculptor, Kent Melton’s artwork is in almost every concept art book I own, and here again his work is amazing.  He has an incredible talent for turning two dimensional artwork into 3D.  I’ve been admiring his work since my Disney days when I had his sculpted maquette of Bonzai the Hyena on my desk during the making of “The Lion King” (the good one) when I was a clean-up animator. 

When deciding on a style for any film, an art department has to make a choice on what to make the dominant feature.  They could choose LINE as in Disney’s “Aladdin” and “Mulan”, they could choose COLOR as was the case for Disney’s “Pocohontas”, or they could choose SHAPE as was the case in Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch”.  For “The Boxtrolls”, the LAIKA studio chose SHAPE.

The characters were conceived by their shapes before any details were being considered.  This book is dominated by how shape relationships add to the story.  The shape relations between troupes of protagonists, antagonists, and family are well defined.

This book has a tremendous amount of “Embellishment”, as well.  This is what I call all the details that make a world convincing. This particular film had to make everything in it by hand.  Every tiny detail helps make this world come to life, from the doorknobs and clockworks to the plates and silverware.  There are numerous pages of artwork showcasing the locations, vehicles and street signs.  Even alarm clocks are not forgotten.

The most complex sequence to animate for the filmmakers of this film proved to be the ballroom sequence.  There is a nice spread of a section of the storyboard for this sequence.  As for a color script, it is lacking in this presentation.  However, there are many pages with colored mood concepts for specific scenes.  I would say the majority of this book focuses on Character art.  There’s even a section with a group of characters, called the Cabbage Heads, that were cut from the film, as they didn’t advance the story.  This is the stuff I love.

The LAIKA studio has produced some nice films. “Coraline”, “Paranorman”, “The Boxtrolls”, and “Missing Link” are filled with beautiful stop motion animated performances.  The knowledge the LAIKA studio gained from their first two films, allowed their third film to shine.  Of all their movies, I find The Boxtrolls to be at the top, but this is not a movie review. The book itself shows a studio’s mastery in building a believable world with the highest standards of detail in every facet of production.  It inspires in the disciplines of Character Design, Set Design, Prop Design, Puppet Making, Industry Standards, and Style.  More than just “candy for the eyes”.

For these reasons, I recommend this book.  It is a source of inspirational artwork for anyone interested in the filmmaking process. Plus it’s the right size. Some concept art books decide on a new book format so they don’t fit with others on the same shelf.  This one fits in the Goldilocks Zone (It’s just right).  For those who are familiar, it uses the PIXAR studio books as its template.  As a companion to this book I recommend watching the one hour making of the film on youtube, which speaks more on the animation process.  With the knowledge contained in the book , plus the video, you will have yourself all the inside information you’ll need for a behind the scenes look at a fantastic world created by the LAIKA studio.

If you’re looking for how to animate, there are other sources for that type of instruction, including my online classes at kablooiestudios.com

It’s fair to say we are drawn to any “making of” art book by the feelings we have toward a particular movie.  If you can discipline yourself to a criteria and not just say to yourself that you liked a certain movie, you could build yourself a nice inspirational library with timeless selections and save some cash by avoiding spontaneous purchases.

If you liked this post, leave a comment and/or share it with a friend.  I plan to look at an inspirational artbook every four weeks. Next week will be a first look into THE NONSENSE FILES.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

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