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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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