Craig Clark talks to lead animator David Torres about the joys and challenges of creating the lead character in Blue Sky's Horton Hears a Who!
In many ways, the success of an animated film can be judged by how well it brings its characters to life. Casting the right voice actor is key, but finding the right lead animator can be just as important. For the lead character in its fourth animated feature, Horton Hears a Who!, Blue Sky Studios turned to David Torres, who has been with the company since the first Ice Age and helped shape the character of Diego, the saber-toothed tiger.
A graduate of the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, where he majored in computer animation, Torres worked for Disney Imagineering (where he animated animatronic robots), Will Vinton Studios and the game company Retro Studios before joining Blue Sky in 2000. In the week leading up to Horton's release, he talked with AWN about the challenges of bringing one of Dr. Seuss's most beloved creations to the big screen.
Craig J. Clark: How did you come to work for Blue Sky originally?
David Torres: Back in 2000, I applied for a job. I went through the interview process and they brought me on for Ice Age. And when I first got here, I remember it was very interesting because I hadn't done any feature work. The first day I was here it was like, "Okay, set up your computer, your e-mail." You know, all that boring stuff. "If you want, you can do a walkthrough with Sid." And I did that. And the very next day a shot was handed to me with Diego -- the first shot in the film that Diego was in. And they're like, "Well, there's no other shot with Diego in it, so you figure it out." (laughs) Okay!
CJC: Kind of a trial by fire.
DT: Yeah, I came in and just kind of hit the ground running. And we were a very small team then. I think at that time we were 16 and we grew to about 24 by the end of the film, so Ice Age was definitely a smaller crew. Horton is probably the largest crew we've ever had.
CJC: How many people were on this one?
DT: Animation-wise, we topped out at 70 animators and that was because of the scope of the film and the tight schedule that we had. We ended up doing it in about eight months. There are a lot of characters, a lot of background characters, and the style that we tried to achieve on the film was unlike any other film that we have done. So it was definitely a challenge and the rigs were a little heavier so that would cause slowdowns, so we ended up going to about 70 people.
CJC: What did your duties as lead animator entail?
DT: It's kind of like the equivalent of a supervising animator on a character. What I did was shepherd Horton through the film. I helped evolve his personality. I worked closely with the other animators to keep him on model. But I also worked with other departments in the studio to make sure we were getting everything that we needed to accomplish the directors' vision. So it was pretty much my responsibility to make sure that the rigging components and controls that we had to achieve what we needed for the film were there and then pretty much just help him go through the animation department and make sure that everything was on-key.
CJC: Were there particular challenges involved in taking Dr. Seuss's 2D character designs and making them 3D?
DT: Definitely there were challenges there across the board. I can't speak to design as much, only because I wasn't part of the design process, but definitely in bringing the animation to the screen we wanted to preserve what we were seeing in the books. If you look at the books, there's definitely a graphic quality to his posing. A lot of profiles, a lot of groupings. If you notice the groupings in the book, he tends to arrange things from large to small or small to large, or he would stack things up on top of each other in threes. So we're trying to mirror that stuff in the film as much as we can. I think a lot of the animators here would kind of geek out on that stuff, just try to find moments in the film where, "Oh, we could make it like the book."
But as for Horton, he was definitely a challenge. We decided early on that he was going to be both a quadruped and bipedal, so he would go back and forth from being on all fours to just on twos and talking with his hands and being a little more expressive. Cartoony is what I would say.
CJC: How much did you work with the rigging team to get the squash-and-stretch that you needed to pull the project off?
DT: We worked very closely together. I think it was a process of 10 months working back and forth, and what that would entail was the riggers would create the rig for Horton and they would go in and put their first crack at it and then I would get it and I would start testing it. When the first rig came out it was just a quadruped rig, so it was just like a regular elephant. Then halfway through that process the directors decided that we were going to do quadruped and biped, so we had to rethink the whole rig. What we came out with is he is a quadruped most of the time, but then about 40 percent of the time he's a biped. So we had to re-engineer the spine so that it worked like a quadruped would work, but then we had a switch in our rig that would turn his deformation to make his body look like a teardrop, so that would maneuver the fat around a little bit. It also created the illusion that his fat went from hanging in the middle when he's on all fours to down by his belly or his lower legs when he's biped. There was definitely a lot of back and forth between rigging and animation.
One of the biggest drawbacks was because it was a quadruped and it was a biped, it was a very heavy rig, which made it slow, so we had to come up with solutions to make the rig faster. We created this whole set of "disable sets," is what we called them. That way we could disable parts of the rig. Say you're mainly working on the body, so you just shut the face off so none of those controls are being calculated, so your playback time would be just a bit quicker. He was a really complicated character because he had a trunk, which is like another arm. And then those big ears were really big, so those things were heavy to deal with as well. So there was a lot of talk back and forth to get the rig to the point where we were moving along in animation.
CJC: Could you talk a little bit about the decision to make Horton a little more physically and mentally agile for 3D animation?
DT: When we started off into production, we just wanted to make his character different than a regular elephant. I think because previously we've done Manny [the wooly mammoth] in Ice Age and he was really reserved -- the weight and everything was there. And obviously when Jim Carrey's voice came into the picture, he's a very expressive kind of guy and I think we really wanted to push it towards that. We wanted to capture that fun and appealing side of him. We wanted to make him really entertaining and we felt like he was the main focus of the whole film, the driving force of the film. If we had this guy who was kind of like Manny the whole time, it would come across dull, so we definitely wanted to be a little more entertaining and expressive and I think the team here did a great job of that.
CJC: And obviously Jim Carrey's performance helped bring that out. What did you have to work with in terms of video reference?
DT: His video reference was mainly his face because they can't be very active behind the mike, but Jim still managed to bring a little bit to it. He's a rubber face so he can really emote and have great wacky expressions, so we looked at that stuff for reference. There were a couple times where we would pick up a mouth shape or a certain eye expression or certain eye dart, like the way he was thinking, you could see all that in the face, so we could bring that to Horton.
CJC: How did the "24-hour rule" the directors came up with affect your work?
DT: We implemented that about halfway through production, and it wasn't a law, but it was a guideline. We told all the animators, if you can, turn around some form of idea in 24 hours -- meaning that you could do a blocking in the computer, or a video reference that you shoot yourself acting out what you want to do, or thumbnail sketches -- even a verbal pitch -- just to help us. It was more of a production need only because we had a very short schedule. And so the 24-hour turnaround was just to get the ideas back to the directors to get the feedback necessary so you don't waste time. Sometimes some of these shots can take four to five days to block out in the computer and if you put it in front of the director and he says, "Ooh, that's not what I was thinking," then we just blew four or five days, a week's worth of work.
CJC: Did you use a video camera or storyboards for your own work on the film?
DT: It's funny, I was talking to someone over at the premiere in L.A., and I think we can actually dupe this film with video reference of the animators together and actually have a whole film, because I think almost every shot was referenced by the animator, meaning they acted it themselves. I think I did it with every shot that I did. It just goes right into iMovie and I can edit it on the fly and then see what parts I want to use. Sometimes you videotape yourself for like 10 minutes for a two-second shot or a four-second shot, so you just cut it down to what you really want.
CJC: And what about storyboarding?
DT: I didn't do any storyboarding personally, but I would use them. We have an internal online system here, like Skynet, which is what we call it, and we have all the storyboards there available for every shot, so you can always see the storyboards at any time and there's QuickTimes of the storyboards. We're always using everything that we can to make the best decisions for the shot and obviously to keep the vision of the directors in mind at all times.
CJC: Among all the films you've done at Blue Sky, where does Horton rank?
DT: This one has been my favorite experience so far. It's been a very fun project. Being able to bring Seuss to the screen in an animated way, it was fun because there's like no rules. There are no physical laws that we have to abide by only because it's Seuss. You look at Seuss, he does whatever he wants and it looks great. It was fun to take what he envisioned and put it into our animation, so there are a lot of times where we have really detailed transitions where they'd be very creatively done. Instead of just going from point A to point B we would have this S-shape through it. We would look through each transition and it was almost like drawing them, so it was very fluid. We were pushing the boundaries as much as we could.
CJC: Do you have any ambition to ever do any 2D animation?
DT: Personally, I've always wanted to do 2D, but I don't know whether I would have the proper skills. It's been a while since I've done 2D. I've been trained in 3D and I've done 3D my entire career. I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing, but if the industry switched I would have no problem with that. I wish it would come back more. I'm pretty excited to see what Disney does with The Frog Princess, so hopefully we've got that coming back.
CJC: We can always hope.
DT: We can always hope if the executives don't get ahold of it too much.
CJC: Do you know what your next project is?
DT: I am currently working on Ice Age 3 right now.
CJC: Are you working as lead animator again?
DT: I am possibly moving into a different role. I'm actually in negotiations right now. I'm currently still in charge of Diego only because I did it before, so I'm just kind of reviving that role and making sure that it stays consistent from film to film, but that could possibly change.
Craig J. Clark is an occasional contributor to AWN. He writes an online comic strip called Dada.