Thursday, July 11, 2013

Christoffer Andersen reports from the front lines of Despicable Me 2

Christoffer Andersen studied animation at The Animation Workshop in Denmark. He recently landed an internship with Illumination Entertainment on Despicable Me 2, now in release in theatres worldwide. FLIP asked Christoffer to talk about how he engineered such a wonderful opportunity to kick-start his career in animation.

FLIP: You studied animation at the Animation Workshop in Denmark - how was that experience?

Christoffer: As is the case with any school, what you invest in it is what you get out. That said, the environment is perfect for learning. They have amazing equipment, the school itself is open 24/7 to students, and they have great teachers who visit from all over the world.

The Animation Workshop
The best thing about studying animation at The Animation Workshop is that you really get to study to become a character animator. That is your main focus. Of course, your knowledge of animation enables you to branch out into story boarding, character design and other related skills, but, besides a bit of color and design theory, the training is pretty much exclusively focused on character animation.

FLIP: You got an internship at Illumination-Mac Guff in Paris, working on DS2 - how did you swing that gig?

Christoffer: Well, it was quite straightforward, really. The Animation Workshop has a strong connection to Illumination Entertainment and has sent a number of students there for many years. The school makes an application list with each student, setting out where we would ideally like to intern, and then they apply to the studios on our behalf.

One day I got an email saying that Illumination Macguff were interested in taking me and a classmate on for internships. That was a good day, though also a bit terrifying!

FLIP: What did you learn on the film?

Christoffer:  Oh man, I learned so much! One of the biggest hurdles for me when I arrived was the studio's attention to design in the key poses. The animators there have such a strong sense of design, both full body, but particularly in the face. In the end it all comes down to appeal and I feel that Illumination - MacGuff [where Despicable Me 2 was made] is one of the strongest animation studios when it comes to that.

I am pretty comfortable working in computer animation, using spline curves in Maya, but I definitely have a lot to learn when it comes to building strong, individual key poses and expressions. Often it is the small things, such as the flow of the eye brows, simplified and well-designed lip shapes, and details like that which really make a difference.

Although these things might seem like small details, they make a huge difference to the overall appeal of a key pose. And I got that highlighted at Macguff. Which is great; it is always nice to know where to focus and how to improve your work.
Strong key poses are vital

FLIP: What did you do on the film?

Christoffer: Besides doing a few animation tests, to get familiar with their proprietary pipeline and tools, I mainly did cycles for the evil minions as well as some character poses they wanted to use as photographs in the film.

In the last couple of weeks I was moved onto the production, officially, as part of the crowd team. The crowd team handle background characters and shots with many characters, though not necessarily any of the main cast.

That was a great experience, as it was an opportunity to go through the real animation production process. I learned how to progress from a shot briefing, to getting my animation blocking approved by an animation lead and/or supervisor, and then eventually getting the shot approved by the director in an animation dailies session.

FLIP: What is your next project?

Christoffer: Currently I work as an animator at teamTO in Valence, France working on a tv series. The pacing is obviously much different that feature film, but it is very challenging and a great way to improve quickly as you are put through all the stages of a shot every single day.

Teamto Animation

Plus the weather in Valence is fantastic and the food equally so. What is not to like about that?

Christoffer in Valence - it's a tough life
I hope I will find myself in a situation where I can direct a short film, at some point in my life. I don’t think fund raising is a game for me though, with building pitch material, going to conventions and stuff. You know how it is! So for now I just come up with a lot of stories and wait for an opportunity to realize one of them. If that doesn’t happen, at least I had fun writing them down.

FLIP: What advice would you give to students hoping to get an internship on a Hollywood production?

Christoffer: Try and find inspiration in the gap between your current level of skill and the level you want to be at. Because it is in that gap you will have to work hard and find the discipline to go to school every night after working hours are over.

Personal film project by Christoffer Andersen, completed at the Animation Workshop
Don’t be fooled by the thought that just because you attend a great animation school you become a great animator. Make sure you really STUDY animation, because in the end you have to really understand it in order to be able to do it.

Lastly, don’t feel like you need a show reel at the level of a feature film, to get an internship at a feature film studio. My show reel certainly wasn’t at that level. But at the same time, you must be realistic about your own work. The important thing is to show the studio that you have potential, and that, with the right guidance, you can produce work that they can actually use on their productions.

(Editor's note: you can see Christoffer's work at his website here. You can also see other interviews with recent animation graduates, such as Pedro Cabeleira and David Davis from Escape Studios, and Mikkel Brons-Frandsen, who graduated recently from the Animation Workshop in Denmark.)

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