For Kristof Serrand, the ideal configuration to target when developing animation characters is:
- Adapting the characters created by the designers, to make them more "animatable";
- Exploring the character acting with the director;
- Establishing sturdy references for the animators;
- Generating materials for the work stations upstream and downstream along the pipe;
- Testing the voices of the actors or ideal cast.
Head of Character Animation
Kristof Serrand has been a supervising animator at DreamWorks for 18 years. He has taken part in the development and animation of many characters over the last 30 years, with diverse artists including Albert Uderzo, Paul Grimault or Steven Spielberg. He recently worked on The Croods, released in April 2013.
Co-Head of Editorial Content (conferences 2013), Consultant
René Broca is a freelance consultant who has been looking after the editorial concept of the Annecy professional conferences since 2005. He is also Co-Head of editorial content for the Forum Blanc.
As a freelance consultant he works particularly in the fields of animation and digital pictures, dividing these activities between preparing and coordinating conferences and professional events and writing studies about the sector. He is also Managing Director of the French Network of Animation Schools (Reca).
Kristof Serrand, DreamWorks, character design, acting, design, character development, rigging, Balto, Eldorado, Croods.
"Why is the final design of animated characters at times so far from the initial concept art?", wonders Kristof Serrand, in his introductory remarks. Serrand helped develop and animate many animation characters in France and the USA. A look back through several decades of learnings.
"The first thing to take into account is the adaptation of characters created by the design team to make them more 'animatable'. Next, it's a question of exchanging with the director to explore the character acting from a shared viewpoint. Then solid references must be established so as to firm up the concept art for the animators. And you must also generate plenty of material for the teams who will be working on your designs, upstream and downstream in the production, such as storyboard, rigging, color models, surfacing and the CFX. Doing the voices or testing the ones available is also crucial. But, on the other hand, you can also start from the script and imagine an actor/actress to fit his/her acting to your character. As such, for the feature film The Prince of Egypt, I'd imagined several actors to play the role of the Pharaoh: Paul Newman, Charlton Heston or Patrick McGoohan. So I instinctively integrated elements of these actors' voices and then designed some animation loops. This was both to test the design of my character and to see if it corresponded, once animated, to the 'image' I had in mind. It was also a good way to try and convince these actors to actually participate in the film."
As an anecdote, the role finally went to… Patrick Stewart, the British actor who played in the Star Trek or X-Men sagas.
According to an ironic quote bandied about by Kristof Serrand, "there are only two ways to do animation: the right way… and my way."
So there are really no 'good practices' in the matter but rather case-by-case dealings which – from time to time – endure. "The ideal situation is to be able to begin animating with a finalized design, do character-based casting, have a tight-knit team and a long production period, without forgetting a budget big enough to let you get the best artists in every field," the DreamWorks animation head explains. He ends by acknowledging "of course this never happens."
The more realistic configuration advocated by Kristof Serrand is to have one supervisor per character with his/her own team in order to retain coherence of the concept art until the end. "A script is handed to the graphic artists, and the supervisor gives them a vision, details what is targeted and explains where the director is headed. And, at length, a design necessarily must be 'blocked'. Next, the long process of roll-out begins. Afterwards, there's the phase where this design is animated in the form of attitudes, generally with a single animator to work on this."
Modeling and rigging complete the work: dozens of tests are carried out on body language, character acting, and especially, numerous walk cycles. Using The Croods' Grug character as an example, Kristof Serrand specifies the requisite steps to obtain cycles as a biped and quadruped.
At the same time, a library of expressions, attitudes and gazes is organized to feed into the design. "During this phase, the design does not change, except for rigging controls if necessary."
Having worked in both traditional and digital animation, Kristof Serrand presented some items from older productions, such as Boris the goose from the 1993 feature film Balto, designed by Nico Marlet (character designer at DreamWorks since 1998). "In this instance, I used the concept green-lit by the director to explore the body language of this character with his broken wing that keeps him from flying. I added plenty of poses to really get into the character. In the case of an animal, even in 2D, you often have to start from the skeletal anatomy, or the wings in this example. The character should be able to use his wings like hands with fingers but – likewise – to be able to return quickly to wings when the use of 'hands' is no longer necessary."
Already, Kristof Serrand multiplied the walk cycles, little by little revealing the model sheet, without altering it at all. "That is one trap with 2D: it's so easy to move away from an approved initial design because of adjustments. Then, little by little the character loses its initial identity and this has repercussions on the work of the animators who no longer know which reference is which."
Sometimes a character changes during the animation process (such as Tullio in The Road to Eldorado or Sinbad whose neck grows stronger and who needs long trousers and shoes to be added). Some characters can also disappear totally (the prehistoric horse in The Croods even though his rigging served as a basis for all of the other animals in the film). "That's the problem with Hollywood: films change as they're being made, and this impacts not only the writing but also the storyboard, the characters' roles… and therefore the character design."
By moving from traditional 2D animation to CGI, did you believe you'd free things up more?
Before, in front of my office door there was a line-up of people asking me to change this or that detail of a character. With the onset of digital, I thought that this was over. But we ran into the same pitfalls again because of the huge deformation capacity that software can provide. Above all, it's important to maintain the consistency and coherence of the character.
In your personal opinion, wasn't this switch-over too complex?
3D or CGI is easier when you prefer the acting to the drawing. This is the case for me. So it was easy to switch over.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
The Annecy 2013 Conferences Summaries are produced with the support of:
under the editorial direction of René Broca and Christian Jacquemart