Computer Animation Student
A former SF State student finds passion in his work as an animator at Pixar studios
by Valeria De Napoli
The animation department inside the Pixar Animation Studios has very few things in common with the usual ensemble of cubicles and desks found in an office space. It looks more like a wonderland. Two giant mice wearing eye-glasses and playing musical instruments stay near a small fish tank in the hallway leading to the office where Dylan Brown is working on his computer.
The office walls are painted in red, matching the color of the carpeted floor. On the left side of the room there is a white blackboard with doodles scribbled all over it.
Dylan, a tall, lean and young-looking man, is sitting on a black chair in front of his desk. He is wearing a gray T-shirt and a pair of faded denim blue jeans.
He is surrounded by three computer screens where images of colorful talking fish pop up.
"This is Dory," Dylan explains while showing the image of a digitally animated Regal Blue Tang fish on a computer screen. The fish, Dory, is one of the main characters in the upcoming new Pixar and Disney movie Finding Nemo.
The movie is set in the colorful underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef, and it tells the story of an overprotective father, a Clownfish named Marlin. Marlin struggles to keep his son Nemo safe from the unpredictable risks of the ocean. Nemo, like all young fish, is eager to explore the mysteries of the reef. When Nemo is accidently taken from home and thrust into a fish tank in a dentist's office, Marlin finds himself the reluctant hero of an eventful and epic quest to rescue his son. Marlin is soon joined by a delightful and forgetful Regal Blue Tang fish named Dory who, with her optimism, tries to help him find the courage to take risks and overcome his fears.
As supervising animator, Dylan oversaw Finding Nemo's animation process and headed a team of 50 animators.
"We (the animators) have been working two years and a half on Nemo," he says. "It was fun and very hard."
Dylan has worked at Pixar since October 1995, a couple of months before Pixar's first movie Toy Story was released. At that time, he was a computer animation student at SF State when, thanks to one of his professors, he learned that Pixar's Interactive Department was working on the Toy Story videogame CD-ROM and needed to hire extra people for help.
"I called them and after a phone interview and a half-day of personal interviews, they hired me to do image compression and color-mapping for the CD-ROM, doing technical stuff," recalls Dylan. "The whole time I was thinking that those guys were going to catch onto me and discover that I didn't know anything of programming. I mean I was surrounded by guys who had Masters' [degrees] from Cornell and other prestigious universities and I felt like an idiot."
Working during the day at Pixar and studying at night, Dylan soon learned how to do animation. Roughly after one year and a half at SF State, he decided to quit school in order to dedicate himself to working at Pixar.
"At SF State, they taught me great fundamentals of computer graphics, but what I was learning here was more than I was learning in school..." he says. "Here I learned so much, so fast. I never soaked in anything like a sponge before, but then I found animation and my brain latched onto it."
In 1996 Pixar University, designed for internal firm employees to further their education in animation, offered an animation course to animators working on the second animated feature released by Pixar, A Bug's Life. Colin Brady, who was the supervising animator for A Bug's Life and afterwards the co-director of Toy Story 2, recognized potential and talent in Dylan and made him attend the class.
"They started teaching us from scratch basic animation, and then we began animating a bouncing ball and then we started animating the junior lamp--the character in the Jonh Lasseter's short animated movie Luxo Jr.," he remembers.
At the end of the course, Dylan worked as an animator for A Bug's Life, as one of the two directing animators in the movie Toy Story 2, and as an animator in the animated feature Monsters Inc. With Finding Nemo, he had the chance to be the supervising animator for the first time.
"While supervising, you learn that it's not about you. It's about your team and about making them successful by giving them the tools, the help and the creative environment. Sometimes you have to support or criticize other people's work," explains Dylan. "But retaining the respect of my peers is very important to me. They are so talented and much smarter than me."
Although he enjoyed the experience as a supervising animator, Dylan simply loves to animate, and in Finding Nemo he found the time to animate some scenes of the movie.
"I did a very emotional scene at the beginning of the movie, when Marlin, the father, discovers Nemo for the first time," he says. "Then, among other things, I did stuff with the seagulls and the whale. It was very fun."
While he explains the process of animation, his blue eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. The animation process is an essential stage for the making of the movie. The acting is basically up to the animators.
"The animators try to figure out what the physical representations are for the emotional states. We want to match the body language with the voices and the expressions in a way that you evoke emotions from the audience. We want to make the acting smooth," says Dylan.
One of the most difficult scenes to animate in the movie was the jellyfish sequence.
Because the jellyfish are always in movement, the set was never static, and always moving and chaotic. The jellyfish interact with the two main characters in the scene, Marlin and Dory. Because most of the movie is set underwater among fish, it was a challenge for the animators to recreate the movements of the fish while they swim.
"In order to understand better the way fish swim, we got some fish in a real fish tank," says Dylan, while showing a videotaped image of a real fish next to an image of the character of Dory. "We wanted to caricature reality. So we did some tests where we would animate side-by-side live action. That's how we captured the subtle nuances of how the fish, when they swim, use their fins or tails."
By doing these tests, the animators were able to replicate the natural movements of fish.
"There is a point where you have to embrace what people generally believe about how fish swim. So we ended up using for Dory more tail movements than a fish like her normally uses, because that's the fundamental language of how fish swim for people in general," says Dylan.
Although the animator process is always superb in the Pixar's movies, Dylan says it is really about telling a story.
"The story is what keeps people in their seats and the animation has to be mechanically good enough that it doesn't pull people out of the film, and artistically the story has to be entertaining. Animation is where the story comes to life. Animation should make the story more entertaining," says Dylan. "That's what makes Pixar movies successful. We know that always the story and the animation have to be great. We are always raising the bar and pushing ourselves 110 percent."
Dylan feels that as an artist at Pixar, the sky is the limit. He is constantly challenged to improve and to figure out where digital animation can be pushed.
For the future at Pixar, Dylan dreams of interactive speed with real-time models.
"The longer it takes for you to see what you have in your mind on screen, the more difficult it is. If we could do it faster, we could do it better," he says.
After a long summer break, Dylan will start working on a new, still top-secret animated movie for Pixar. He cannot give out any information about it, but given the exquisite techniques used for "Finding Nemo," we have to expect another wonderfully magical movie.