Introducing Animator Cody Lyon! Cody is a gold mine of very insightful animation tips and techniques. His work is a direct reflection of one who makes careful decisions, and he was kind enough to share his intricate thought process when animating! I hope you enjoy and learn as much from this interview as I have.
Start us off by telling us a little about yourself. Are you a student? Do you work in the industry?
Hello! I grew up on an alfalfa farm in a tiny town called Silt, Colorado. I drew a ton as a kid, mostly cowboys and gunfights, which kind of led into a natural respect for cinematography and storytelling. Just when I was starting high school, I stumbled on a documentary called The Pixar Story by Leslie Iwerks. I remember a specific moment from the documentary when Doug Sweetland was shown filming reference and polishing a shot from Woody in Toy Story 2, and my brain exploded. This normal looking human just took an electronic puppet and convinced millions of people that it had thoughts and feelings. You know when you see something, and it just empties your brain because it's so perfect? That's what happened. There was nothing else after that, only animation. As you'd expect, there wasn't a huge computer animation community in a farm town named after dirt, so I left Colorado and moved to San Francisco to study animation at Academy of Art University.
Unexplainably, I managed to get into the Academy's sacred "Pixar Classes" as a puny know-nothing freshman. I have been lucky enough to not only learn a lifetime of information from my Pixar instructors, but to also call many of them my friends. I've learned so much from them, as well as other amazing mentors like Dave Latour, who still thinks my name is Cory, and Jean-Denis Haas (who is an idiot - he'll know what that means). I've also been fortunate enough to do some really fun contract work for companies like Google, Stanford University, and The Walt Disney Family Museum. So that's where I am right now. I'm finishing up my last semester at AAU this Spring, and looking for jobs and internships come Summer. It's a really intimidating time to transfer from student to professional life, but I couldn't think of a challenge I'd enjoy more.
Can you elaborate more on the contract work you
did for Google, Stanford University, and The Walt Disney Family Museum?
Thank you! I've been really fortunate with the opportunities I've had, and I've had a ton of fun hopping around and meeting people in a bunch of different industries. I'm a board member of Tea Time Animation, which started at AAU when I was a freshman. We had a great event with The Walt Disney Animation Museum a couple years ago, and the staff there at the time agreed to have me come in for a couple months and do some demos for museum guests and kids, which was really fun. I basically got to sit down at an old animation desk and do 2D and 3D shots while guests walked by.
Stanford was a bit more official. They have a summer program in which middle schoolers and high schoolers can stay on campus and learn different disciplines in digital media. One of my good friends at Tea Time Animation had worked there and recommended me to the head of the program, so I was lucky enough to spend an entire summer teaching the basics of modeling, rigging, texturing and animation in Maya. I met a lot of inspiring artists, and it was great to see younger kids so excited about this industry.
My incredible girlfriend (who is also an incredible artist herself - www.xofinn.com) is an Administrative Assistant/Visual Designer for Google here in San Francisco. Some of the executives there purchased a 3D printer a couple of years ago and had no idea how it worked, so she mentioned that I worked with Maya and 3D space, and they called me in. After a quick interview, I was basically locked in an empty room with a laptop and a 3D printer for 3 months, and got to design some really intricate tools and architecture models for an event called the "Innovation Lab". I made a lot of friends while I was there and managed to pay the bills these last couple of years on short contracts doing everything from painting murals, graphic design, video editing, and motion graphics for the San Francisco Office.
Can you tell us about your recent shot "I have a question", which is making its rounds around the internet
I've learned so much from that sequence. I knew that I wanted to do a dialogue with a female voice, and I wanted the acting to be as realistic as possible. Not the actual animation, but the choices. I was in a lecture from John Kahrs a couple years ago, and he was annoyed by all these young animators who start out with performance and all they care about are gestures. Sure they come in handy and are the right choice sometimes, but every shot of a movie can't be just a series of gestures, because it looks too presentational, too forced. He referenced his sequence in The Incredibles when Helen and Bob have an argument. He said he's really proud of that sequence, because Helen does nothing. She stays very contained and very still, which is really accurate to how someone would argue in real life.
That lecture really stuck with me, and I wanted to make sure to reflect that in my own animation. You'll notice that, in my, scene, she rarely does any gestures, and keeps her arms relatively still. The main motion is all with the head, the root, and the eyelids, and that's all I used for blocking. I was also really discouraged with the scene at first. I wasn't sure if the idea was right for the dialogue, or even if I had the right dialogue. I had a lot of trouble with staging and camera, and even with the performance of the thief in the background. I had always seen the school showreels and shot progressions online, and they always looked so seamless. They looked like the animator thought of the perfect idea, blocked it out perfectly, didn't get any major notes, and then spent the rest of the week happily polishing away. Luckily, I've learned since that that is almost never the case. I think that's important for all of us animators to remember: everybody struggles, and everybody has bad days animating. The important thing is to stick with your ideas and see them through to the end.
I'm really grateful for all the attention that it has gotten recently, and I can't wait to show everyone my next piece.
Is there anything you can tells us about your next piece?
I recently got my reel reviewed by a few industry professionals, and they told me that the only thing my reel is missing is an "Oscar Moment". A character with a personality completely different than the ones I'm used to, delivering a solid performance without any of the bells and whistles of lighting, rendering, etc. So I basically have a single 450 frame shot with one character acting within a single pose. It's really tough, because you don't have anything to hide behind. It's like how drummers say that fast and complicated beats are much more preferable to slower simple beats, because if you mess up while playing fast, it gets buried right away. While playing slow, or animating with very few poses, any mistake gets held out there for a while, so you have to make sure it's perfect.
I'm also lucky enough to be in the final Pixar class at AAU this Spring, where we have 15 weeks to animate a 30 second scene with two characters. My scene is about an overworked Igor complaining to an apathetic Dr. Frankenstein. I'm still in the layout phase, but it's going to be a lot of fun to bring to life. (Insert "It's Alive" pun here)
What are you career goals? Short term? Long term?
Like a lot of computer animators, my long term goal is to do feature character animation. As a student, you're more or less on your own as far as your scenes and projects. The idea of building something awesome with a team of professionals is what gets most of us up in the morning. Ideally, in the next couple of years, I'd love to start as a fix animator and work my way up. I've learned so much just from my fellow students in the past four years, I can't imagine how much I would improve working with some of the veterans in the industry.
Short term, an internship would be incredible. I've heard so many great stories from my friends who were Pixar or Disney interns that came back to school with such a passion for their craft, it's hard not to want to be one of them. I'm sending my reel out to all my favorite studios, but my main focus this year is for the Disney or Pixar internship. I just feel that those studios really protect their stories, and they encourage employees to never stop learning and getting better. The truth is, though, I love animation so much I'd be happy doing it for anyone. I'll always work on my own side projects and I feel like I'll never get tired of what I consider to be the best job in the world.
Would you care to share your workflow with us?
It really depends on the shot and the type of performance I want to animate. Some characters and personalities are a lot more foreign to me than others, so those choices take a lot more research and planning.
Usually, I start off by modifying the rigs and putting them in a set. I've met some animators who don't dress up the scene and characters until they're done animating, but it helps me get into character much faster if I can see visually the context of the scene. Typically I don't film reference right away, I just keep a mirror by my desk and block without anything else. I actually animate the lipsync first, or at least spend an hour on a quick blocking pass of the lip-sync. I do it mainly to buy myself time. I figure I'll have to do it eventually, it's not going to change much, and it gives me time to hear the dialogue over and over and think of acting phrases and ideas.
While I'm really grateful that I learned animation using stepped blocking, I found that my brain works a lot faster with layered blocking. A lot of AAU students use layered mainly because of Michal Makarewicz. He's a Pixar animator who would come lecture at the school every once and a while, and he did these amazing demos where he'd animate an entire 100 frame dialogue right in front of us, and it would be polished by the end of the night. After seeing his first demo and trying layered for myself, my workflow has sped up tremendously, and my ideas are better because of how quick you can try something out and get feedback. So I always block using layered, and I start from the biggest motion outward. Usually that means starting with the root, but sometimes it's much easier to start with the head or the arms, depending on the action.
Once I get good notes on my acting and get things where I want them, then I go back and film reference, mainly for physics' sake. Looking at my reference in IP always helps me figure out what to do with tricky areas like the neck or the shoulders, and to change things that look a bit off. The best thing about layered is that it's very easy to make those changes. I used to be terrified of the graph editor, when I would go in and wonder what the heck I was thinking. With layered, the graph editor always makes sense and is always kept really clean. As long as you practice good spline hygiene, blocking leads seamlessly into IP, which leads seamlessly into polish.
Are there any more cool techniques you'd like to share with our audience?
There's one I always use that's super fast, super easy, and always plusses a facial performance. Once I get the lip sync blocked in, I copy the curve from the up and down rotation of the jaw and paste it throughout the face. Putting it subtly into the nostrils, the cheek "puff" controls, and the lower eyelids make the face really fleshy, and help you move the face as one big mask rather than a hundred individual controls. I typically use it in tandem with Aaron Koressel's "Push-Pull" script (http://aaronkoressel.com/index.php?nav=tools), which allows you to assign a hotkey that scales your curves up or down by small increments without damaging the integrity of the curve. So I copy the curve from the jaw, then paste it onto, say, the nostrils, and then I just use my "Push-Pull" hotkeys to adjust it accordingly. If you need to add any extra cheek or eyelid animation, you can simply add an animation layer on top of your jaw curve. It takes about ten minutes to adjust everything right, and it adds so much to the face.
Tell us what you like about using the Malcolm rig, and what you're looking forward to in the 2.0 upgrade!
Malcolm is incredible. His facial controls are unparalleled by any other free rig, which is awesome practice for animators that need something more than just eyelids and mouth corners. I think the best thing about Malcolm his range of motion. With a lot of rigs, there are only a limited number of appealing poses and shapes you can make, which really limits your acting and makes it tough to be original. With Malcolm, that's never been an issue. It's so easy to get him to look appealing that there are endless possibilities. He looks appealing and has the rigging to back it up, which is what every animator needs.
I'm actually really excited for the different hairstyles. I think hair can say a lot about a character, and for someone like me who is so excited to get into animation that they don't have time to make hair, it's going to be great to have a library to choose from. Also, just the fact that now he has a body underneath is a big deal. I used to have to try to wrap different outfits around Malcolm's existing clothes, but it's going to be so much easier and more appealing having some skin underneath. Let's have him already!
Any hobbies or activities outside of animation?
I love to travel. I think it's not only good for you to get away from your normal routine and get some fresh air, but your animation is never going to get better if you don't go out and see the world. An animator who works for 10 hours six days a week and takes one day off is always going to have better animation than someone who never stops working. It's so important to take an occasional break to observe and be inspired by life. After all, you're rarely animating a character who is sitting at a computer all day. You have to know what the rest of the world is like.
I also really love woodworking. My Dad is a carpenter, and I worked a lot with him growing up. Any chance I get, I love to go and build something tangible. It's really satisfying after working so long with a computer to build something you can hold in your hands.
Thank you for your time, Cody. Is there anything else you'd like to share with our audience?
One of my friends and mentors, Jean-Denis Haas, always stresses this point, and I think it's one of the most important things you can ever remind yourself about animation:
If you have to explain anything, then you failed.
We work in a visual medium, and we're not going to have the luxury of sitting in the theaters and living rooms of people who are watching our content and explaining what the character is thinking or what a certain gesture was. Every single thing that you want to communicate in your shot should be clear from the animation only. Even in blocking, every idea should be present and clear, because blocking is not an excuse for bad animation. Whenever I work on something, I try to watch it from the perspective of someone who's never seen it before. Ever since I learned that, I've never thought about my work the same.