Can you give us some background about yourself?
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Charleroi, Belgium. Most people probably don't know this, but that city is the home of the comic strips "Dupuis Editions" where "The Smurfs" were born. Then I spent one year in Catskill (NY) as an exchange student. When I came back to Belgium, I attended the Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Luxembourg's Technical School of Crafts and Arts which got me a Degree in Animation.
What inspired you to become Character Animator or take CG as a career?
I grew up with the Disney Classics and watching a ton of European, American and Japanese cartoons on TV. I was always crazy about cinema in general as well. Being born in a place where comic strips are big, I started drawing at a fairly young age. I was always the "kid who drew" in my classroom. But even when I turned 18, I was still a little unsure of what I wanted to do. When I was in Catskill High School, an American student and I became fast friends. We were both into comics and drawings. He already knew he wanted to work in the animation industry and was the first one to give me actual exposure to the craft. That's when it really hit me and I considered it seriously as a career opportunity for the first time. The original love of drawing a character just transfered over to the idea of making it come to life in CG.
How did you get your first job?
Alongside my studies in animation, I became an intern for a couple of months at Oniria Pictures, a studio in Luxembourg founded by Thierry Schiel, who had previously supervised animation while working for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Animation Studio. They liked my work, so when I got my degree they hired me right out of school. It was my first gig and lasted 3 years. I got to work on my first 2 CG movies there.
You have worked on various popular animation films, can you share their names and what your role was on those films?
My first two movie contributions were for "Tristan and Isolde" and "Renart the Fox". I was a 3D animator on each of these movies.
Then I moved to Marseille in France to work on "Doogal, The Magic Roundabout", a CG long-motion feature adaptation of the stop-motion animated TV series from the 1960s. I was layout supervisor and lead animator on that movie. Then I was hired at Blue Sky Studios in New-York as a character animator to work on "Robots", the short film "Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty" and "Ice Age : The Meltdown". After that, I moved to California to work for Dreamworks on "Flushed Away", "Kung-Fu Panda", "Madagascar 2", and "How To Train Your Dragon".
While working on those movies, do you sometimes also have to design the character or give your input in character designing?
Not really. It really is the character designer's job to define the graphic characteristics inherent to the look of the characters such as size, proportions, shape, etc. However, in the development phase of a project, if you are rig-wrecking for instance, you may touch on design issues that may be incompatible with the rig or may need finessing. But overall, my own individual freedom and touch as an animator in terms of graphic design comes with the aesthetic choices for the poses I get to sculpt frame by frame, both for the body and facial expressions.
Generally, what’s the proper workflow when working on any animation film or short film?
Before I get started on a new assignment, and especially on a new production altogether, I will spend a fairly big amount of time doing some research, from life whenever possible. I will watch a lot of live footage frame-by-frame if the characters are animals, or go to the zoo. For a human, I will either act in front of a mirror, video tape myself, or someone else depending on the age, body type or specific requirements of the character. By studying all that, I want to gain an understanding of how things move. And by filming myself, I can progressively get into the “moment” of the shot and get a “plan”. I sometimes invest up to 2 days into this, but on the long run, it saves me a lot of time because I won’t have to redo a bunch of things later.
Obviously, depending on the style of the movie, I may end up going for a very realistic interpretation or for something extremely cartoony. Every movie is different. And you don’t want to “copy” what you study. You just want to understand it. Then, once I’ve gotten a firm grasp on the mechanics of the movement and once I am clear on the acting or motion I am going to chose, I start animating.
I set the major story telling keys first, the extremes of the motion, paying particular attention to their graphic quality and silhouette, I start adding breakdowns to offset the motion of different elements, and finally, when the blocking is solid enough, I start making straight ahead passes one element at a time until I am satisfied.
Does working in 3D create any problems for an animator ? How many things do you need to study before animating anything?
Well, first there is an interface issue : you need to become proficient with the software and the character rig before anything can be done. Then, there are some aspects of CG that can create challenges of their own. Any contacts for instance can quickly become nightmare shots. You can easily generate explosions in 3D, turn the camera around all you want, but if a character has to grab another one by his shirt collar, or run his hand through his hair, or if two characters have to hold or kiss, it quickly becomes a very complex undertaking because of all the colliding geometry that starts to inter-penetrate. In terms of graphic design, it also demands a lot of self-criticism to go deep into the details of a specific pose and make it carefully appealing because your natural instinct is to tend to "accept" the shapes of the model that the computer gives you, but often you can push the shapes much further aesthetically speaking. Finally, I personally feel I am constantly fighting the computer when it comes to timing my animation. A computer motion will always take the most direct and regular direction towards its destination unless you tell it to do otherwise. That's why I usually end up keying my characters every two frames to keep maximum control over the performance. Now the upside of all that is the work / feedback speed that CG offers, along with the ability to go further into some details as well.