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Masterclass with Marlon Nowe at Brussels’ Anima Festival

Thursday 26 March 2015, by Alex Widdowson

Brussels’ Anima Festival kicked off with a masterclass presented by Disney 3D animator Marlon Nowe. Nowe was one of the lead animators on Frozen (2013) and created the online animation school Animsquad.

I have found that Frozen’s world of shifting polygons and sophisticated material simulations hold none of the beauty found in the pre-CGI, hand-drawn Disney features. Clearly, a lineage is maintained from some of the more successful productions of the 90’s in terms of narrative, character design and sentimentality. However, my experience of these modern productions is largely underwhelming.

I feel compelled to explain the inescapable bias I have against the 3D medium. As a practicing 2D animator, I grew up coveting the craft and elegance of Disney classics. To my infant mind, the idea that a group of artists could create such a vivid sense of life and vitality through a sequence of drawings seemed nothing short of magic. Comparing these animation classics with the recent spate of CGI children’s flicks -in spite of their luminous, bouncing "gayety"- is like comparing a digital watch to one crafted entirely form springs and cogs. The relationship between the mechanism and the end product seems so disconnected in CGI that it becomes less a subject of wonder than one of meaningless consumerism.

Admittedly, Pixar is the exception to the rule. The studio has created a distinct visual language structured around masterfully constructed character arcs, and inconceivably detailed worlds that play to the strengths of the medium. However, the line between Pixar and Walt Disney Studios is clear. The latter have consistently churned out weak translations of the old wide-eyed, bushy tailed house style.

All this meant that my interest was restricted to the theoretical half of the masterclass. Before walking out thirty minutes into the afternoon session, I experienced some of the most tedious instruction imaginable. We sat and watched for hours as Nowe guided his puppet’s limbs around a landscape that looked like the set of Tron. However much he hammered away at its robotic stiffness, the figure’s motion barely resembled human mannerisms.

Now the bile has been expelled, it might be possible for me to regale you with details of the genuinely enlightening introductory morning session.

Nowe provided great insight into the work culture of the 48 billion-dollar corporation. He described a strict environment of tireless craftsmen, with all the momentum and competition of a fast-paced profit-generating sector and the stimulation and self-satisfaction of a creative environment.

A particular anecdote that stood out concerned the frequent progress assessments at the corporation. After his various failings and successes are checked off, he is given the opportunity to provide comments and input. But, ultimately, he says, "they don’t care. Say nothing and give them a smile." They’ll be reviewing another 20 people after him so he might as well stay silent and keep those "in charge" happy. According to Nowe, Walt Disney Studios seem to be structured around broadly positive notions. For instance, he explains that their mantra of ‘building on success’ isn’t found in other studios he held a residence at. During the weekly production meetings, the team focuses on capitalising on various successes rather than cruelly nitpicking each other’s work.

‘The choices that are made while animating is what makes the artist. [A]nd it’s just as much what they don’t do; never repeating mistakes.’ Wise words...
Other inspirational and blindingly obvious tidbit: "a crucial premise, which many animators and filmmakers alike seem to miss, is that they should only ever depict things that people want to watch." Animators, take note.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YveIFphNcp4

Nowe points to the talking head interview sequences of Pixar’s The Incredibles. Our seasoned insider seems amazed that these scenes ever got past the initial ideas stage; an artist pastiche of a clichéd and under-stimulating visual medium will ultimately, in spite of the benefits of novelty, only replicate those short comings.

I could not help feeling vindicated by the manner with which Nowe lauded the hand-drawn heritage of his industry. Nowe explains that a key distinction between the two methods is that the process of creating an animated sequence in 3D software is basically ugly until the very end when animators remove puppet structures, motion tracking arcs, add texture and lighting whereas classical animation is beautiful in its own right and at every creative stage.

He also states that a good CGI animator has to be able to draw. He used to think that the skill wasn’t a requirement because 3D animation doesn’t seemingly require it and the animators don’t have to put pencil to paper. His experience however has proven otherwise. In fact, one of his colleagues insists on hand-drawing entire sequences before touching any software.

The enthusiasm with which Marlon Nowe discussed his mentors was captivating. Eric Goldberg, the man who could draw Aladdin’s Genie with a single line, was fondly referred to as the ‘printer’. Randy Haycock’s work meanwhile was the subject of an in-depth analysis. The seasoned 2D animator was commissioned to create some of the first test scenes for Frozen. He collected casting tests between the female lead and a supporting cast member, selecting a few snappy scenes to play with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4haFGU-sbk

Seeing how closely the final characters resemble these initial depictions is a testament to Haycock’s skill and influence. Nowe places great emphasis on a particular moment in the test (0:18 sec.); Kris mentions the location where Signiald, his ex, dumped him before briskly moving on. The faltering rhythm of his speech at this point offers a tremendous opportunity for distilling elements of his personality. The tiny expressions offer a glimpse into the character’s resilience and optimism, rooted in immaturity rather than strength.

For his next practical demonstration, Nowe recreates a scene with the hideous Autodesk Maya 3D animation software. The pace of his progress is so tedious that it becomes clear that I am not the right audience for this. It becomes painstakingly obvious just how stilted the process is. It’s a spectator experience I would not wish on anyone. Beyond the tedium, the process of CGI animation seemed to be a desperate balancing act between breathing life into the most wooden of characters and the constant possibility of over-complicating the animation process. Interestingly for us 3D newbies, Nowe explained that it is crucial to only "undertake" an animation process using a small selection of variables. Any more movement or complexity and there is a genuine risk of losing track of how motions are constructed. And secondly, he reminded the gallery of eager 3D animators that in 3D the scenes need to be constantly kept dynamic because when they aren’t in motion, the 3D character seem artificial and stiff -"if you leave a pixel untouched in GCI it dies"- whereas a frame can be "still" in 2D without it affecting the overall look of the picture or the scene.

Gradually, the lecture became a sort of absent-minded, one-way conversation you might have with a colleague, humouring your comments as they continue to work. The more Marlon animated the less he said and the more he talked the less progress was made. I had to leave, but still I think it was money well spent. I know never to become a 3D animator.

Alex Widdowson is a practicing comic artist, writer and animator, a member of Chin-Up Collective and the Kino London team. For the bast two years he as been artist in residence at Sage Community Arts. You can see his illustration and comics at LeadForBrains and his animations at his main blog http://alexwiddowson.tumblr.com/tagged/portfolio

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