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An Interview with Disney Supervising Animator Clay Kaytis

Clay Kaytis, a 16 year veteran of Walt Disney Animation,talks about the production of Tangled, meeting the challenge of creating the studio's 50th animated feature, and how Glen Keane's consistent and skilled leadership challenged the CG artists to bring realistic motion, acting and feeling to the film.

Disney's Clay Kaytis talks with journalist Johannes Wolters and Stuttgart Media University (HdM) student production crew.

Clay Kaytis, a 16 year veteran of Walt Disney Animation, was one of 3 animation supervisors on TangledHis FMX 2011 presentation centered around how after several years of development, the animation team went back to basics, simplified their approach, learned valuable lessons on a daily basis from Glen Keane, and in a ridiculously short 8 months, completed work on the film.  As he explained, Tangled allowed Disney’s visual development artists, modelers, riggers, animators, and engineers to advance the art form and raise the bar for portraying subtlety and expression in CG human characters.  Clay walked the capacity crowd through the creative steps of bringing the characters to life, the iterative process that relied heavily on Glen’s original drawings and feedback, feedback that constantly challenged the CG artists to bring realistic motion, acting and feeling to the film.

Though the film took 6 years to complete, Tangled was a critical and financial success.  Clay spoke about the team’s motivation to make Tangled stand on equal footing alongside any of Disney’s classic animated features.  As the studio’s 50th full-length animated feature, Tangled seems assured a rightful spot within the Disney feature film legacy.

Clay’s presentation was more story than lecture.  He punctuated the talk with caricatures of all the team members he discussed – it gave the session a personal touch that seemed more like someone showing you pictures of a great trip they just took, rather than someone droning on about how they handled a particular shot on a film. I’ve never seen anyone do that in such a presentation and the effect on the audience was palpable.

During his interview for AWNtv, Clay gave great insight into the atmosphere of collaboration and team effort that has made work at Disney so rewarding and fulfilling.  This approach to animated filmmaking, he said, has raised the level of achievement considerably.  Some of the highlights of his interview:

“This is a classic Disney type of story – it’s a fairytale, it’s a princess, it’s a musical.  For us, having our work stand up to the stuff that had come before…Cinderella, Peter Pan, that level of quality of animation, I felt Tangled should stand alongside those films.  You’d want to buy it and put it up on a shelf alongside those films.  So it [the challenge] was developing a system that would allow us to do a level of animation that you see in the classic Disney films.  It was something we really hadn’t seen in CG.  It was basically figuring out how to build rigs that the animators could use to achieve that goal.  A big part of it was having Glen, with his guidance, with his 35 years of experience of doing amazing 2D animation, basically showing us the fundamentals of what he does, how he thinks, the aesthetics that he values, and figuring out how to apply that to the animation.“

“In CG, you can do so much, you have so much control, people tend to throw everything they can into the scenes.  A lot of what we did was go back to the 2D fundamentals of pulling things out, simplifying, making poses really read clearly, making the idea the most important thing, not trying to put a bunch of flash into every shot.  Something we talked to animators a lot about was just that fact that they don’t have to sell everything in their one shot.  The movie is telling its story and the audience knows what’s gone on all before this.  They don’t have to hit a home run every time because they’re just helping to build the story, so if they simplify their shot, the basic story points, the story development is actually allowed to do its job and we’re just accentuating that.”

“It’s all about teaching the next generation how to animate.  The history of Disney is apprenticeship.  So if you look at Byron [Howard], he directed Tangled, he was mentored by Aaron Blaise, and Aaron Blaise was taught by Glen Keane.  Glen Keane was taught by Ollie Johnston, who was taught by Freddy Moore, who was probably taught by Norm Ferguson or Bill Tyler or someone before him.  So our director is in this lineage of animation apprenticeship that goes back 80 years.  Just being part of that is the legacy of Disney.  We learn from the people before us.  Working with Glen, he was doing that for this CG generation, and we expect to do that for the next generation.  It’s really a special thing.  It’s something no other place has.”

You can find both of Clay’s interview segments here.  Visit the FMX Channel on AWNtv to find dozens of interviews and session videos with top industry professionals such as Ken Ralston, Dave Sproxton, Jeff Okun, John Bruno, Alex McDowell, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, Richard Edlund, Harrison Ellenshaw and many others. 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.