Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Special Evening with Austin Madison

By: René Salazar.
Tea Time Club Member, Spring 2012

Last week I was fortunate enough to make it out to UC Berkeley for a special lecture by Pixar Animator Austin Madison. He talked about animation, but also important story aspects that enriched the much anticipated comedy/action/fantasy/adventure flick: Brave. It took place in one of those classic college classrooms you see in movies, complete with stadium seating and a huge projector screen, but the guy behind the podium was not your typical, sleep-inducing professor. Here are a few insights I was able to chicken scratch during the talk.

“It is really important to do research, not just YouTube.” 

 Brave takes place in the mystical highlands of Scotland, so what did they do? They freakin' went there! They saw what it was like: sunk their fingers into the dirt, breathed the air, spoke with the locals, etc. They wanted to capture a sincere Scottish experience. To give you another idea of how committed they are, I believe Friday at the studio is known as Kilt Day. That’s right, every week these lads are clad in plaid. Here’s a pic of Austin practicing what he preaches:

Relationships are of most importance in a film. 
Anyone can make a “bad-ass” character, but they need something to rebel against. For Merida, this was her mother. It’s not just a story with forests, bows & arrows, magic, and a crazy cool witch (little known character); it’s a story about a girl’s struggle against her family’s wishes. 

Know your character’s motivation. 
Even the most messed up villains (like their righteous counterparts) believe in their cause. He pointed out a quote by one of his favorite actors, Gary Oldman. During an interview, Gary was asked how he plays villains so well, to which the seasoned actor proclaimed, "I never play villains. I play misunderstood characters." Their intentions may seem dubious to us, but in their minds their actions are justified. 

Animators need to embody their characters. 
Madison mentioned how walking around the studio you could tell who was animating which character by the way they would conduct themselves, especially King Fergus. The guy is a mountain of a man, and the artists have to infuse this energy into him, which is why sometimes in the hallway you would walk by someone with a clenched jaw, inflated chest, doing a brutish walk with broad arm swings. It is up to us to personify our characters with their physical personalities. Conversely, the tell tale signs of a Queen Elinor animator would be anyone sitting behind their computer in a graceful upright posture, daintily holding a pencil with their fingertips like you would a champagne flute. Another giveaway would be the manner in which they elegantly flowed through the hallways, gracefully greeting passersbys.


  “That’s a picture of Milt Kahl. What’s he doing? He’s grimacing. Is he doing that because that’s how he draws? No. He’s contorting his face because that’s what his character is doing!”  

You can tell when it’s a good or shitty drawing by looking at the artist’s face. A good artist will be mirroring what their character is emoting. Whether they're behind a sketchpad or a monitor, they are feeling what is going on. 

The most important questions an actor, animator, or any storyteller can ask themselves are: 
What is the character feeling? 
Why does he/she feel that way? 

  “Everything starts with drawings. It is the cheapest way to make a mistake.” 

Draw as often as you can. It’s not about the quality of the drawing, it’s about the quality of the idea. Your sketchbook is your sword. It’s your weapon. It’s good to have it with you at all times, because you never know when you’ll get a flash of inspiration. Ideas are like fresh fruit -- they won’t hang out in your noggin forever, so you gotta jot them down! 

Animators dig restrictions. 
He showed us the clip from Toy Story 3 where Ken puts on that flamboyant fashion show for Barbie and asked us why this is funny. It works because their movements are restricted and specific to their design. Animators find a way to work WITHIN the character’s limitations. Specificity is key. 

 In reference to portraying the characters in Brave, he mentioned that the last thing you want to be is a stereotype:


You don’t want to be Phil Hartman, you want to be Mike Myers. 

He stressed allowing yourself time to find the character. Someone from the crowd asked how long it takes to make a Pixar film. His response was 4 years. You don’t want to take too long with a creative endeavor because at some point you begin to doubt your good ideas. Conversely, if you go too fast, you’re not allowing yourself enough time to play and discover. If you rush an acting choice you might miss a more original idea just because you didn’t give yourself an opportunity or time to explore and be creative. 

He enthusiastically recommended checking out this talk on creativity by comedy legend John Cleese.


He ended his lecture by stressing the importance of enjoying the moment. At the studio they remind him that, “You’re only going to make Brave once.” We all know how stressful animating can be, so it’s easy to forget this.

It was an awesome talk and afterwards he signed autographs and even drew a picture of the dinosaur of your choice! The guy is hilarious and apparently teaches the P2 class here at AAU-- definitely something to strive for. I'd also suggest taking a look at his blog.

Finally, (as if I didn’t already have enough video links) here’s the latest goosebump-inducing trailer Austin showed us for Pixar’s first-ever fairy tale film featuring a female lead. If I know you Tea Timer’s correctly, I know where we’ll be on the evening of June 21st: crisscross applesauce on a filthy, dark-purple, theater lobby floor with a backpack full of yum yums.

“The number one thing you have to remember is… to have fun.” 
-Austin Madison 

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