Weta Animator Interview Kevin Estey & Craig Young


We catch up with Weta Animators Kevin Estey and Animation College old boy Craig Young to find out more about the motion capture process on The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. 


Can you talk us through the performance capture process and explain how animators use it as tool to help create realistic characters?

KEVIN: The Performance Capture Process is a great additional tool to the already robust arsenal of tools that modern animators have at their disposal. As animators, in many cases, we will be getting performance data from an actor onset where our first priority will be to honour the performance the director was looking for. Many times, however, we are animating from scratch or from previs and we do the capture ourselves. In this case, we are generally working on a shot or sequence, and through the process of previzing and blocking the action, we will take note of what moments would benefit from a performance capture session. Once we have amassed a decent list of actions that need to be captured, we will travel to the motion capture stage for a shoot. There, we will go through the list with the supervisor and the stage manager, and determine the best approach to capturing the motion, whether it be as individual shots, a sequence of action that can be used across a series of connected shots, generic action to be used throughout a scene, and so forth. Then, just like a live action film shoot, we will do takes and review the live reference playback to determine if we have captured the motion we had hoped to. If need be we will perform multiple takes, sometimes upwards of 15-20. It can be quite a workout!

Animators can then use the captured motion in a variety of ways, either as a solid base to make simple adjustments to in order to fit within a given set and action (hand placements, foot contacts, etc), a general foundation to animate on top of, or just a general guideline for speed, weight, and timing to be animated over. There are truly no rules as to how much or how little of the motion capture data is used, because we always need to be flexible and adapt motion in the way that will always achieve the best end result.


When/how is video reference used (adapting or enhancing mo-cap performances) – how closely do animators stick to motion capture performances or are these just used as rough guidelines?

KEVIN: Video Reference is a useful tool with motion capture both for performing and for animating. When performing, video reference might help demonstrate the type of action we want to recreate. Or it might be footage from the live action shoot that we need to create digitally for a wide shot, and digital handoff, or a stunt. Or perhaps the idea of the action has changed since the footage was shot, and we need to perform it differently.

Additional to recording motion capture data on the stage, we also record a live action video reference and a digital character video reference (video from within the motion capture program of the characters we are portraying). These 2 accompanying video references for each take serve not only to help us review in real-time how our performances are looking, but also later when the animator is working with the motion capture data, they have 2 video counterparts to reference for the action as well.


What is a typical day/week in the animation department at Weta like?

KEVIN: A typical day in the animation department, during full production of a film like The Hobbit, would start with a nice hearty breakfast and strong coffee (the coffee machine runs full tilt for the 1st hour of work). Artists will check to see if there may have been any notes on their shots from any Director Review's from the night before. Then, generally the 1st half of the day will have some form of departmental dailies review of the previous days work and director notes. Animation supervisors will review animation work with the artists, and other animation leads will be heading off to attend dailies of the Shots (Lighting) department, in order to catch animation notes and changes that come up down the production line.

If an artist's shot is nearly ready to show, they will generally spend the morning and afternoon getting their shot presentation ready for a Director review, which tends to occur in the later afternoon/evening. Then later in the evening, or next morning after a hearty breakfast and strong coffee, an artist will check for any Director notes (or maybe, finally, a shot approval!) and the day will begin again. Rinse and repeat every day for 3 months :-)

What it’s like working in a department with other animators and artists – do they have a say/input on each other’s work, is it a collaborative environment?

KEVIN:I personally think an environment such as the animation department at Weta, which is comprised of many wildly creative people with many backgrounds and educations, can create one of the most amicable work environments possible. Everyone is here for each other, because we all have been through the hard work to get where we are.

As for individual work, artists take a fair bit of personal ownership for their shots, but collaboration is not uncommon either. Collaboration amongst the animation supervisors and the artists, and amongst artists themselves is a great way to get out of a rut you might be stuck in animation-wise. The people around us at work are often the best source of animation knowledge and advice available.


What advice would they give to budding animation student?

KEVIN: There is no sure fire formula to becoming a professional animator, and "landing" that animation job. But it also isn't complete luck and good fortune. You have the ability to set yourself up for opportunities by being diligent about what you want to do, and being proactive about where you want to go with yourself. Be sure that you have amassed a wide variety of necessary skills so that when such an opportunity does present itself you can jump in without skipping a beat.

Another bit of advice that I don't think people often get told, but is just as vital and skill, talent, and opportunity in getting and keeping a job, is personality. We basically have to live with each other, sometimes more than we live with our families, so someone who is friendly, sincere, and enjoyable to be around will have a much better and longer career than someone who is anything in the realm of unpleasant. Even though animation at the end of the day is a bit of a solo sport, someone who is too focused on oneself and doesn't show care and compassion for the others they work with won't last very long in the industry. The most successful people I have met in the industry are often the most genuinely kind and nice people in the industry as well.

Can you talk us through the performance capture process and explain how animators use it as tool to help create realistic characters?

CRAIG: After we get suited up, we would typically review the previs of the shot or sequence to be captured so that the performers know what action is required. We look at pacing and timing as well as specific actions and also the mood and intensity of the shot.

Once the performances have been captured and approved, the Trackers will take that motion data and apply it to a puppet. Then the Motion Editors will go in and clean up intersections and contacts. From there it is then handed off to the animators who will, if need be, manipulate that motion to make it work in the shot. That could involve constraining it to something, retiming actions or adding in new performance beats.

The advantage of using motion capture is that all the things that make a character realistic often come for free, such as subtle weight shifts, overlaps, etc. Even if you are only using that motion as a reference, you can still use it as a good guide to show what is working and what isn't.


When/how is video reference used (adapting or enhancing mo-cap performances) – how closely do animators stick to motion capture performances or are these just used as rough guidelines?

CRAIG: An animator would typically stick with the motion capture performance as long as they can until they have to significantly alter the performances. This maybe due to a number of reasons, such as, the Director wanting to totally change the characters performance or simply increase the intensity of the shot. Once this happens, the use of other video references either of themselves or from some other reference source becomes an invaluable tool. Reference of any nature is a key aspect in photo-realistic animation.

What it’s like working in a department with other animators and artists – do they have a say/input on each other’s work, is it a collaborative environment?

CRAIG: It is amazingly inspirational to work with like minded talented artists everyday. You definitely feed off the other animators work and strive to make your work the best it can be. In terms of input into other animators work, it's not uncommon for animators to ask their colleagues for their opinions on their work, this could be for creative input, workflow ideas or problem solving questions. There is a high chance that someone else in the room has encountered the same roadblock before.

A big thank you to Kevin & Craig for taking the time to share insights into their work process and a special thanks to Amy for organizing the interview :)


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