Monday, October 1, 2012

From the Sketchbook #3: Chinese Zodiac Part I

I've been wanting to draw animals recently and I decided to draw from the Chinese zodiac. I didn't think about the attributes of each zodiac sign, I just thought about what I thought the animal might look like if they were expected to put on clothes and act like people. I ended up with some really fun drawings that are nothing I've really done before.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Interview with BYU's Cynthia Hogan

A year ago I took an intro 2D Animation class at BYU with Cynthia Hogan, who animated for Disney and also animated for Warner Bros' Quest for Camelot (1998). I remember her saying she did character animation for Disney's Aladdin and I thought I'd get a hold of her again since we've just worked on an episode for Aladdin on the podcast. She was really nice and we had ourselves a little interview. Most of this stuff is basic information, but she had some cool experiences and behind-the-scenes info to share. Enjoy!


CH: I attended California Institute of the Arts for three years. In my third year, Glen Keane came and taught my animation class. I learned more in that year from him than I did the rest of the time I spent at CalArts. I'd say that I can attribute my getting my first job at Disney to the miracle of having him as a teacher that year. I started in clean-up on The Little Mermaid and worked my way up to animator on Beauty and the Beast.

Disney's Aladdin

MS: Our latest podcast episode focuses on Disney's Aladdin (1992). Which characters/scenes did you animate in Aladdin?

CH: Back in those days animators were split into teams that would work on a certain character. The amount of footage a character had in a film would determine the size of the team. On Aladdin, I was assigned to the Sultan team working under Dave Pruiksma. He was a great animator and I learned a lot from him. The scenes I was given to animate start from the point Jafar comes in announcing that he's found a solution to the problem with the sultans daughter and end with the Sultan repeating "Desperate times…". There's a couple other scenes that I animated (When the sultan greets Prince Ali, and when the sultan starts to float away at the end). At that point I had only been a full-fledged animator for about a year.

MS: How did the different teams work together for scenes that involved multiple characters?

CH: Mostly we had a model sheet and then we would talk personally with our head animator about each scene as we were planning the animation and show it to him throughout the animation process. Sometimes the head animator would go over a drawing or two to help the animator get the right expression or the right feel in the action of the character. Then we'd take it to the director, get his notes and once he was able to approve it, the scene would go to clean up and the animator would move on to the next scene.

MS: What kind of deadlines did you have for the scenes you animated?

CH: At Disney, at that time, we were to get out 5 feet of animation a week. Some were able to do that much, others couldn't, some got out a lot more footage than that.

MS: I've read the character design/animation standards for shows such as Kind of the Hill and the guidelines for animating characters' motions/expressions are very specific. What guidelines did your team have to follow for the sultan?

CH: There was usually a head animator (or lead) who would work with the director to set the model of the character and figure out any specific character traits that might affect the characters movement. Then that lead would work with their team. We would talk about the characters personality, idiosyncrasies (the sultan LOVED small things like toys and things that could be hidden away easily), the actions the character might use or the things he definitely wouldn't do. We would also talk about the do's and don'ts of drawing the character in order to have some consistency in how the character looked.

MS: How did the increased use of CGI affect the deadlines/expectations for hand-drawn scenes?

CH: CGI really didn't affect the deadlines of animation especially back then. It may have added some time to the overall process of filmmaking but it didn't mean we had to get the scene done faster on the 2D end. Yes, the process of working 2D and 3D together was a bit of work, sometimes requiring printouts of 3D backgrounds to be sure that the character would register correctly in the scene. When it comes to 3D props: those were generally animated to fit the 2D animation … It was just easier that way.

MS: I saw how in Aladdin the characters' designs could be broken down to basic geometric shapes. Can you tell me more about that type of character design?

CH: The process of breaking characters down to simple shapes goes back as far as Mickey and perhaps beyond. Yes, some shapes work better for expressing certain character types (triangle shapes have a tendency to work for evil characters for instance) The thing that was our guide on Aladdin was an artist named Al Hirschfeld. If you look at his work, you'll see how it influenced our drawing and our animation. So Basic geometric shapes were and still are very important in character design to achieve appeal and unity in the look of the film. Also, for the animator, breaking the character down to its simplest shapes makes it much easier to move around. (End)
So the Sultan wasn't modeled after Richard Attenborough.

Don't forget to check out the Rotoscopers' latest episode: Aladdin - Take off your Clothes?

The skin of an Arabian. The body of a European. The voice of a white guy.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lego Mech in Maya 2012

These renders have been finished for a while; I was bored so I thought I'd post them.

Programs used:
Autodesk Maya 2012, Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8, the Internet

Robot model: 104933 polygon faces.

The other minifigure with the mechanical grabber arm is from my very first assignment from INDES 150 at BYU. 587922 polygon faces in the entire scene.

Meet the minifigures! All colors are taken from the official Lego color palette and I tried to model everything after actual legos. For example, the pilot's helmet is the same shape as the lego Star Wars X-Wing fighter pilot's helmet. I used some lattice deformers on the minifigures' limbs. I've noticed the Lego game/cartoon animations use the same effect.

Wouldn't mind working for Lego's animation dept. Some of the videos on their Minifigures Series web site are really lame.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The King of the Hill Archives

As I very very anxiously await my letter from BYU Animation, I thought I'd share some notes from a recent trip to the Texas State University library. In the Wittliff Gallery I had the chance to look at a collection of production material from one of my favorite shows, King of the Hill directed by Mike Judge.

"Yep. ....Yep. .......Yep. ....Mmm-hmm." Genius.
I had access to 118 boxes of material which were donated to Texas State when the show was in danger of being canceled back in 2007 or so. Contents ranged from character sketches and storyboards to show notes taken from Mike Judge's personal production binders. I was interested in the animation stuff more than the production stuff, but I branched off into other categories because it was really interesting to see how this show was run.

King of the Hill is the third-longest running animated series on American television. Being raised in San Marcos, Texas, I have always demanded respect for this show. But after my experience in the King of the Hill Archives, I demand it even more. Now, I recognize that KOTH relies heavily on the "Texan experience" that most people outside of the Confederacy won't understand. To me KOTH is important because it represents the unique (and oftentimes bizarre) world of the Texas town, celebrating its more redneck qualities. This is a sitcom about middle-aged conservative Southern men struggling against the eccentricity of their neighbors and the government bureaucracy that threatens their peaceful family life. No matter who wins that struggle by the end of the episode, the message remains the same: the Texas Dude abides, and his lifestyle is compatible with the changing world that surrounds him. As a proud Texan, I add my witness that both the struggle and the triumph are real. Maybe this post will help some disillusioned viewers give this amazing show a second chance.

In the research room at the Wittliff Gallery.

Animation and Design
This box was extremely interesting because, besides housing character/prop/background sketches, it contained a few folders explaining how the show was supposed to look. I was surprised by how specific some of the show rules/standards were. But without them, the show would have lost its consistency. The KOTH "Bible" went over each character, describing their personality and telling their back-story. Hank's description called him a "blue collar Everyman". What was funny to me was how in Hank's notes it is stated quite simply that "He sells propane and propane accessories". His notes also included a footnote defining B.C. Powder, a product Hank refers to frequently in the show.

Hank's son Bobby's "Bible" excerpt describes him as "the kind of boy who wears a t-shirt at the public swimming pool". Hank's boss Mr. Strickland was described as "Big, big, big, big. Larger than life." All of these notes are evident in the show itself; obviously the directors wanted these characters to be well-defined from the beginning.

I read the Design/Directing pack and the Animation Standards packet for the show. They put forth a series of dos and don'ts for how things were supposed to be in the show (often with illustrated examples). Some of them got pretty specific:
  • No talking to the camera.
  • DO NOT hold mouth open during drinking. DO NOT hold eyes closed during drinking.
  • When Hank is upset, he doesn't lean forward into people. His tendency is to lean back, standing tall.
  • No High Fives! John Wayne wouldn't do it, neither would Hank.

Others were more general:
  • Make people look realistic. No Disney figures or poses please.
  • Though the characters are from Texas, they are not hillbillies or freaks.
  • Keep beer drinking to a minimum. Keep Dale's cigarette smoking to a minimum.
Those points were all quoted exactly as they appeared in the materials. The Animation Standards packet, prepared in 2002 well into the show's run, referred a lot to the show's animation team in Korea. Apparently little mistakes or inconsistencies made by the U.S. team carried over to the Korean studio and were manifest in the final product. Some of the standards called for an end to some "bad habits" ("Stop using Hank w/hand rubbing neck in every show...INVENT original acting!") from previous seasons.

It was evident that Judge was dedicated to detail. The animation of the show might not be that exciting, but it's consistent (KOTH is, after all, a sitcom). In the character/prop design folder I saw an animator's design for a pair of pliers with a handwritten note that said "This doesn't look like any pair of pliers I've ever seen. Please do more research."

I was so impressed by the consistency of the show's animation that I became interested in the materials from which the KOTH crew drew their inspiration (pun intended). There was a list of books that were used as reference material for the show. I thumbed through one of them, a "Dictionary of Texas Misinformation" by Anne Dingus. It has an entry on most every person, place, and thing from the Texas mythos, identifying all the legends and tall tales that we Texans hold sacred while at the same time correcting any misinformation. It also explained important Texas cultural phenomena such as the Texas-A&M rivalry and John Wayne. Its entry on the Battle of the Alamo was kind of a buzzkill. But I'd rather not talk about that.

I also looked at some photographs from the KOTH crew's research trip to Texas. Among the photos were shots of a Dairy Queen, inside a Home Depot, and Hill Country Middle School.

"Weird. That's where I went to school." - my girlfriend.

Mike Judge's Production Notebooks
The bulk of the collection was material saved from each episode of the show's 10+ seasons. Apparently Judge had a 3-inch notebook for each episode. The notebooks' contents included scripts, revised scripts, twice-revised scripts, storyboards, memos, and handwritten notes taken by Judge himself. The pilot KOTH episode, referred to as "Untitled Mike Judge Pilot" in the production notebooks, was highly interesting to examine.

There seemed to be some fuss over the character Boomhauer. There was a note in the pilot episode notebook requesting that Boomhauer's lines be "more unintelligible". I was surprised to see that Boomhauer's  lines were actually typed out onto the final script, including all the "dang ol"s and "tell you whut"s. In the earlier drafts of the script for Episode 1 there was actually a page with several different takes of Boomhauer's lines. Also, keep in mind that Boomhauer's voice was done by Mike Judge himself. It seems Judge wanted this character to be treated with special care, along with Hank.

Episode 2, entitled "Square Peg", had a few interesting notes. The episode, featuring Hank's wife Peggy being called to teach a sex education class, underwent several draft revisions. I read one fax from Standards and Practices calling for one of Boomhauer's lines to be revised for appropriateness.

The last box I looked at contained new story ideas for the show. They ranged from pitches that were just a single sentence to detailed plot outlines. Still others were a title or a premise followed by bullet points describing situations or scenes that they wanted to see in the episode.

So What's Your Point?
After going through the King of the Hill archives I gained a deep appreciation for the show. Judge and the KOTH animation crew made a tremendous effort to make the show authentic and consistent. The show is more sophisticated than the skeptic might think.

The folks at the Wittliff Gallery were very professional and accommodating. If you've ever visited Texas and found yourself intrigued/fascinated/in love with our unique culture, then check this show out. You might not understand all the jokes at first. Additional trips to Texas will probably be needed.

Hint: All 13 seasons are on Netflix Watch Instantly.

"That is a water-tight seal. I can mow my lawn in a hurricane. Can you mow your lawn in a hurricane, Bill?"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

X-Men Cartoon, Bub!

"Get a load of THESE, Bub!"

You all know my views on the live-action Marvel films. With the exception of The Avengers and maybe two others, they're all attempts to take these amazing fantastic super heroes and villains and bring them down to our level. I don't care from which story arc they took the insecure moody teenager Rogue. It doesn't do anything for me. And Juggernaut is supposed to be bigger than what they offered in X-3. And Sabretooth (from X-1) looked like an Austin hobo on bath salt.

I really don't like the live-action X-Men films.

So I was really excited to see that Netflix was offering the "original" X-Men cartoon series on Watch Instantly. I started watching Fall last year and I finally finished the 5th and final season recently.

This was the X-Men show I'd been waiting for. Oh wait. You should know I never watched the X-Men cartoons as a kid. I was more a Nick/One Saturday Morning kid. Anyway...the show has the more recognizable costumes/personalities of the X-Men and their foes/allies. The bad guys are great. The music has that quirky 80s-90s Saturday morning cartoon vibe. And, surprisingly, lots of cameos by other Marvel characters.

One thing that struck me overall was the depth of some of the episodes. The whole show is about the X-Men struggling against their adversaries (which are oftentimes their own inner demons) while trying to live in peaceful coexistence with Earth's non-mutants. While the rock-'em-sock-'em action is fun, the careless or casual viewer might miss some of the series' deeper themes/issues:
  • Racism
  • Government extremism (both left and right-wing)
  • War and peace
  • Corruption of the justice system
  • Forgiveness and vengeance
  • Poverty
  • Trauma and suppressed memories
  • Slavery
  • Abuse
  • Absolute power
  • Time travel
  • Gang violence
  • Family feuds
  • Time travel
  • Guilt and redemption
  • Unrequited love
  • Exploitation in the entertainment industry
  • Modern genetics and evolution
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Religion and faith
  • Terrorism
  • Freedom of choice
  • Eastern/Western relations
Pretty serious stuff for a Saturday morning cartoon. And yet one of the greatest things about this series is that there's no tender "life lesson" moment where everyone gathers around and blatantly states the moral of the story. The fact is, the characters often don't overcome these issues by the end of the episode. And relationships between characters, for example Charles Xavier and Magneto's relationship, are very complicated. My point? This show has solid, mature depth and has some surprisingly adult themes. Animation is just as effective at telling stories as live action.

I think that's enough for now. Go check out this show on Netflix. You'll be hooked.
"How 'bout THESE hooks, Bub?!"

Sunday, May 20, 2012

From the Sketchbook #2

So back in the Fall I did some storyboards for a 2D Animation class assignment. One of them was this Wild West story that's been "rattling around in my frontal lobe" for years now. So in my current sketchbook I decided to work on the whole Wild West concept a little more. I watched some of the Man With No Name/Dollars Trilogy for inspiration, looked at some old buildings from around where I live, and did some sketches of iconic Western characters.

"I'm thirty years older than you are. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you." #TheCowboys

I saw a great sketch of Lee Van Cleef on another blog by artist Oran Parker and I wanted to try the same technique he used. I used Staedtler pens, a Sharpie pen and my trusty Prisma markers. This was the first time I ever did a sketch like that and I was pleased with the results.

These are silhouettes of various Wild West characters. In last semester's Figure Drawing class my professor showed us The Skillful Huntsman, a concept art book by students from California's Art Center College of Design. It documents the creative process of illustrating a classic fairy tale. I liked how they drew silhouettes to work out the overall shape of the characters.

I think an appealing character needs to have an appealing silhouette, so I took a couple of pages to experiment on balance/appeal etc.

Oh and you should watch more King of the Hill.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Even More Lego Progress

I had to go in and manually increase the available RAM on my wimpy laptop just so that it would render.

It's not 100% finished but it's getting there. Booyah.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fun with legos

Working on a leg-themed project which will be part of my animation portfolio when it's finished. I'm about 90% done with the modeling. Modeling took around 8 hours.

And here's the real-life version:

The trick was to keep all the pieces in "lego" proportions. Next time I sit down and work on this I'll add detail to the modeling to make it look like lego bricks. I may or may not redo the arms.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Rotoscopers Episode 9 Released!

Howdy folks, my fellow Rotoscopers Morgan and Chelsea recorded a new episode while I was moving down to Texas for the summer. The film in question? The Swan Princess (1994).

If you loved watching The Swan Princess as a kid, or if you were waiting for us to do another sing-along 2D animated film, or if you like Morgan and Chelsea (and who doesn't?), then give it a listen!

Just a disclaimer though: I was absent during the recording of this episode, so the feminine side of our podcast  really comes out in this episode. My co-hosts had a lot of fun recording this, and there's lots of singing and giggling and girl talk. If that's not your style, then don't hate. Just wait for the next episode and I'll be there, proudly representing male animation addicts everywhere.

Listen for free on our website:

You can also subscribe to us for free on iTunes!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

From the Sketchbook #1

Character sketches.

Today I went to my old alma mater Navarro High School and did a presentation on animation and my experience as an animation student. The kids were really respectful and there were a few who want to get into game design/animation and I think I helped them know what to expect.
So here are some character sketches I did like a month ago.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Fire and Ice" - We got barbarians! Lots of barbarians!

"Don't hunt for death, boy. It finds us all soon enough."

First of all, I just saw the new trailer for Prometheus. With each trailer they release, the more it seems to resemble Alien, but I'm really, really excited to see it.

I thought I'd post a little review of an animated film I watched a few weeks ago - Fire and Ice, directed by Ralph Bakshi. Just for reference, Bakshi directed a bunch of animated shorts and films starting in the late 1960s. He directed  the 1978 The Lord of the Rings animated movie, but he was also responsible for Fritz the Cat, which was history's first X-rated animated film.

On The Rotoscopers Episode 7 (Rango) Morgan mentioned Bakshi's views on animation (about 50 minutes into the show). Here are a couple of quotes from his IMDB bio:

"The art of cartooning is vulgarity. The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart what they allow you to take apart, you're Disney. Cartooning is a low-class, for-the-public art, just like graffiti art and rap music. Vulgar but believable, that's the line I kept walking."

"None of my pictures were anything I could ever take my mother to see. You know it's working if you're making movies you don't want to your mother to see."

Yeah I understand his view, but I don't agree with it.

Fire and Ice, released in 1983, is an animated swords-and-sorcery fantasy film not unlike the Conan series. There's an evil sorcerer and his army invading a barbarian nation, a barbarian princess gets kidnapped, a hero sets out to save the world, and a tough-as-nails warrior named Darkwolf (pictured above) helps the hero on his quest. It's got monsters, it's got witches, and it's got a lot of violence.

Yeah this movie isn't for kids. While it's nothing R-rated, there are plenty of killings and the barbarian women don't dress/act very modestly.

What Makes This Film Interesting:

1) Very heavy use of Rotoscoping. First actors were filmed in live-action and later animators traced over their movements as the foundation for their animation. It gives the characters' movements a very naturalistic look. Value and tone (aka shading) on the characters' bodies is mostly nonexistent. I noticed the technique in this film more than any other. Although rotoscoping is cheap and not the most appealing animation technique, I thought it matched the spirit of the film. There's a lot of running, jumping, stabbing, squatting, swimming, etc. in Fire and Ice and you're certainly not going to see the characters line up and burst out into song.

I found this cool behind-the-scenes video on the rotoscope animation in Fire and Ice.

2) Minimal dialogue. Characters only speak if necessary. The film's plot is a story of struggle and survival, you know? So there's no dialogue to up the film's drama.

3) Cool-looking layouts. The background/layouts team mimicked the works of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.

Check out that background. (A knife against a skeleton? Sooo ineffective)
It's a shame the characters don't match the quality of the layouts. This film would have been a lot better.

4) It's barbarians for crying out loud. There aren't a whole lot of animated films like this. For lovers of 80s fantasy adventures, Fire and Ice is a real treat. Darkwolf, your classic slash-first-and-ask-questions-later antihero, is by far the coolest character. If you're craving a campy fantasy film, I highly recommend this one. It's no Disney's Tarzan and will most likely fade away into animation oblivion, but it's still fun.

Check it out on Netflix Watch Instantly. If you enjoyed it and want to see more like it, I recommend Turok: Son of Stone (2008) or gorge yourself on some old He-Man cartoons.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Who Am I? I Could Be Anyone"

Get it? Rango quote. Animation.

Oh well.

Name: Mason Smith
Age: 23
Hometown: San Marcos, Texas
Occupation: Student
School: Brigham Young University
Major: Pre-Animation
Interests/Hobbies: Just read my blog. You'll figure it out.

What I'm up to These Days

I'm a podcast host. I'm a Rotoscoper.

Towards the end of last year my good friend Morgan started filling my head with dreams of being a co-host on an animation podcast. After weeks of brainstorming, researching, and trying to figure out a good show name, the first episode was scheduled for the first week of February. We came, we recorded, we conquered. Now, after 8 episodes, we've got a modest group of fans, and we've caught the attention of a few real-life animators. It's one of the funnest things I've ever done. We focus on one particular animated film for each episode, and we have nerdy discussions, quotes, and lots of random tangents. I love talking about film, especially animation, and Morgan, our other co-host Chelsea, and myself have a blast geeking out on the show.

Listen for free on We're also available on iTunes. I'll try to blog about stuff we talk about on the show, and vice versa.

I Like Animation.

Drawing, cartooning, watching movies, using my imagination. I enjoy it.

Lately I've been watching the X-Men Animated Series on Netflix. What a show! I'm not a big fan of the Marvel super hero movies that have been coming out (notable exception: The Incredible Hulk) mostly because I believe they poorly represent the world of Marvel comics. Download the Rotoscopers Episode 7 to hear a more in-depth opinion on the Marvel flicks.

Also, I just watched this crazy animated movie called Fire and Ice (1983). It's your standard Conan/Krull barbarian-fantasy film, only animated. Review coming soon.

BYU Animation

I'm currently putting together my portfolio to apply to BYU's animation program. The deadline is June 8th. It'll be a lot of figure drawing, some 3D stills, a sketchbook, my final project from 2D Animation, etc. Just to give you an idea of what I'm submitting:
My final project for one of last year's classes. I used Maya and Photoshop. 

 It's taking up a lot of my time and, usually, completely stressing me out. If you didn't already know, BYU Animation is a pretty tough program to get into. They only allow like 20 students into the program each year. To quote my INDES 150 professor Brent Adams, "There are, what, 15 people in this class? Yeah only two of you are going to make it into the program". Yeah. Failure isn't an option for me here; It's not just me being a perfectionist, I honestly don't want to do anything else with my life besides animation.

Lead singer for some kind of rock band would be nice too.

So I've got about a month here to put together an extremely important portfolio, and I should know if I made it into the program before mid-July. At that point my life will either be awesome or be officially over.

Stay tuned!