How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 27, 1990

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Chris Buck is one of the newer breed of animators having begun his career in the late Seventies. He quickly established himself as a top animator and has been in demand ever since. His talent has aided Disney features, commercials, Warner Brothers shorts and now prime time TV series. He has also taught animation at Cal Arts. This interview took place in a trailer on the Amblin' lot at Universal Studios where Chris is currently directing the FAMILY DOG prime time series. Since then, the FAMILY DOG unit has moved to a spacious office building in downtown Glendale.

Q: Please give us a brief description of your varied career.
CB: Well, I guess I'll start with the schooling. I started by going to Cal Arts for two years. At the end of each year, they have a special producers' show for the people at Disney to view the student films. I was hired after the 1978 show, and started at Disney that summer as a trainee.
I began as an inbetweener on THE FOX AND THE HOUND, and worked my way up to assistant during that picture, by doing a personal pencil test. I became an animator to help out with the titles for that picture, doing scenes of the mother running with the baby fox.
After that we did a short, FUN WITH MR. FUTURE, which was originally planned for an EPCOT TV show. They ended up scrapping the whole concept, so we slugged together a lot of animation to make a short. Next, Mike Giaimo, Darrell van Citters and I did some experimental footage and character designs for ROGER RABBIT, with Darrell directing. I worked just briefly on MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, then did one scene on THE BLACK CAULDRON, and then I left Disney. That was in 1984.
During this leave of absence, I did commercials, starting with Film Fair. I worked with Tim Burton, doing boarding on FRANKENWEENIE, a live action featurette, that he's re-editing for Disney right now. From there, I went back to Disney to work with Darrell on SPORT GOOFY.
Then I joined Brad Bird to do the original FAMILY DOG, for AMAZING STORIES, which took me through the end of 1986. I went back to commercials after DOG, at Kurtz and Friends, and eventually did some freelance for Disney. I didn't go back in-house, though. I was still a little leery of them after my last experience there. I did some character designs for THE LITTLE MERMAID then back to Kurtz, and then back to Disney for some experimental animation and character designs on RESCUERS DOWN UNDER.
In early 1989 I joined Darrell and Mike again, over at Warner Brothers Classics, to bring back Bugs Bunny in a short, BOX OFFICE BUNNY. There was also a lot of publicity work for Bugs' fiftieth. After finishing up on that, I came over here to direct the FAMILY DOG series. That'll be 13 episodes for CBS' prime time next spring.

Q: What commercials did you work on?
CB: There were several Keeblers. It was ironic that, during my first stretch at Disney, I had never done their classic characters. On my first commercial at Film Fair I did Mickey, Donald and Goofy for some soft drink. There was a Rocky and Bullwinkle for Hershey's Kisses, several years ago, with Sam Cornell.

Q: What does an animator do?
CB: Well, there's the old cliche of being an actor with a pencil, and bringing the drawings to life. These are both true, but the animator's real challenge is to put something of himself into the character. You hope that character will remain in the audience's head for a while, and not just be forgotten as soon as the credits roll.
There's a lot more to good animation than nice drawings. If you have great drawings and bad timing, you're lost. I've seen a lot of great draftsmen, who lack the timing and acting sense, and their work suffers on the screen. On the other hand, if you have good timing and acting, you could have an entertaining film with stick figure drawings. If you're lucky, you'll have a good assistant, who'll make it look good.

Q: What would you consider examples of good animation?
CB: I really enjoyed THE LITTLE MERMAID. They did a nice job on that. In good animation you see control. The animator has to learn to control himself, to see the big picture and know when to go broad and when to pull back and be more subtle. There needs to be a balance of motion. A lot of animators, myself included, are guilty of going off with a scene, and making it fun to watch all by itself, but when it's added to the rest of the project, it just doesn't fit. There's a lot of new stuff that's very high energy, but it's just over the top all the time, and watching even ten minutes of it drives me nuts. There's so much going on, I don't know what to watch.
Animation also suffers with weak stories. ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN was one of those. There a lot of talented people over at Bluth, and it was sad to see all that talent and hard work go to waste on a story that just wasn't up to their abilities. I love THE SIMPSONS. They're great scripts with some quirky animation to fit.
The old Warner cartoons, and of course a couple of the Disney classics. PINOCCHIO is still my favorite. It was beautifully animated, with a warm story, and lots of heart to the characters. If you're going to invest 70 minutes in watching a feature, you should come away with some lasting feelings... something more than being mildly amused.
BAMBI also works on a visual level more than others. It relies more on visuals than on dialogue, and its animation was flawless. CAULDRON, on the other hand, was a mess. It went through so many hands. That picture had a lot of blood on it and it showed. It showed that there really wasn't a focus at the time. They were searching for something. Disney's found something now. I think they're back on track.

Q: What is an example of poor animation?
CB: ROGER RABBIT. As I was involved at the beginning, it's hard for me to be objective. I envisioned something different; a character with more heart. Roger turned out so obnoxious that I couldn't like him. They were going for a Tex Avery/Warner Brothers look, but the best of Warner's animation is still controlled. They [Warners] knew how to do the zany stuff, and when to pause to let that pay off. Again, that's pacing and timing. ROGER was very hard to watch. Trying to keep up with it literally gave me a headache.
Bluth is guilty of the same thing. His stuff is all over the place, too. Today, people seem to think full animation means animation that's moving all the time. Animation can use holds and still be full.

Q: How do you approach animating a new character?
CB: When I've gotten a new character to animate. I've usually been lucky enough to have had a hand in designing him. In general, an animator will take the design he's given and adapt it as he gets into it. The design will evolve as the character's personality comes out, and as certain problems with moving him show up.
I start out by researching the character, finding out who he is within the story, what his role is. Should he be broader than the rest? He has to work with the whole picture. Then I'll look for other performances that remind me of the one I'm developing. Not other animation... I look to live action characters, even if its an animal I'm working on. I'll study animal footage for movement, and human performances for personality and acting. Animators ripping off previous animation for these things have made the industry incestuous. The product just becomes a hybrid and ends up looking gross.
I'll also ask other animators how they see the character, to get some more perspective. After the research, before I even get a scene, I just start playing with poses to learn how to draw him. Once the scenes are handed out, I'll listen to the voice. That will dictate a lot about the character, whether his movements are sharp or slow.
Then I just get into the scenes, and it keeps evolving as we go. By the end of the picture, you finally know how to draw the character, and who he is, but then it's over.

Q: What is your daily routine?
CB: My job is to sit down at my desk for eight hours and try to get into the character, into the scene, and bring that character to life. I'll do a lot of tests. I'm up at the video a lot, trying to get my timing to work. First I rough out the main poses, and shoot that on the video. Then, if the scene has a track, I'll play that along with the video to see if the attitudes are working. That gives me a skeleton to work with. I look at animation as sculpting. You start out with a big lump of clay, and you keep taking away and adding bits until you've fine tuned it into an entertaining little piece.

Q: How much freedom are you given on an average production?
CB: That depends on whether you're a directing animator or not. They have the most freedom. Then also, different studios work differently. Disney is fairly open. They'd hand you a blank exposure sheet and say, "Here, you've got a second and a half. Make it funny." Other places you may be given exactly how many frames to do a jump or a hold. That is actually a help sometimes, since its tough to read a director's mind. Commercials are usually pretty tight, because there's so much information to get into a small amount of time.

Q: What have been some of your favorite characters to animate?
CB: I enjoyed Gerta LaStrange. She was an offbeat character in the original FAMILY DOG. I enjoyed almost all the characters in FAMILY DOG. They were fun to do.

Q: You enjoy fun characters?
CB: Basically, yes. It's very hard for me to get into the more human characters that they're doing today. Very hard. It bothers me that animation is getting more realistic. I mean, why do it in animation?

Q: What are characters have you not enjoyed working on?
CB: Sport Goofy. The whole concept of the character was created by merchandising, as a coordinated athletic talent. And the true character of Goofy is dimwitted, clumsy and uncoordinated. That's his whole schtick. That's the fun of him. So we were stuck trying to give the old design a new character it never did work for me.

Q: What project that you were involved with has given you the most professional satisfaction, or enjoyment?
CB: For professional enjoyment, I'd have to say FAMILY DOG. I got to help out in a lot of areas, and I think we achieved something that hadn't been done on television for quite a while. We brought back nice full, character-oriented animation to TV. I liked the fact that the dog didn't talk. In a lot of today's animation all the animals talk and they're up on two legs running around, like humans in animal suits. We tried to keep this dog a *dog*, yet he was still caricatured. He wasn't realistic. The fact that he didn't talk was even more challenging. We had to make the acting tell the story, rather than talking through it in dialogue. Working with Brad [Bird] was very helpful. He pushed me to go a little further, to reach for the performance he wanted. It was really his vision that brought the project together so well. It was a real challenge, but very satisfying.

Q: Is there a project that you worked on that you felt failed?
CB: Besides ROGER RABBIT? MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL. From day one, I thought, "Why do it?" They didn't have a fresh angle on it to make it interesting. They were just slugging in Mickey, Donald and Goofy. I think they only came up with the idea because it had been a story album first. Merchandising again. Anyway, *Christmas Carol* is such a great story, and it's been done well, so many different ways, if you're going to animate it, why not do something original, something really special with it. Mickey, Donald and Goofy just didn't plus it any.

Q: If you were to advise someone on how to get into the industry today, what would you tell them?
CB: Along with the obvious courses, like life drawing, perspective, and basic animation, I'd tell them to be sure to take some art history and film making courses. I'm still playing catch-up on those. The art history gives you a broader perspective, a greater appreciation of other artists, other art forms. It's something to refer to.
The principles of good film making apply to animation, as well. Studying live action films can open an animator up to thinking about a wider variety of camera angles and unique staging. Medium shots, one after another, get boring. It begins to feel like a puppet show with just talking heads. Animation alone can get pretty myopic. It's easy to get caught up in your own scene and lose sight of the whole picture.
I try to stress to the students that they should really enjoy the creative freedom they have while they're at school, and not be just champing at the bit to get out into the business world. Because as soon as they're out, they'll be doing someone else's vision.
It's important to be able to find some personal enjoyment in every stage of the game. A lot of people start off as in- betweeners who moan and groan, and on and on, until they become a director, and still you're doing somebody else's vision. You're doing what the producer sees, what the head of the studio sees, what the distributors want. So, enjoy being your own director while you're in school, and then try to hang on to your love of the art form, your love of entertainment. Hang onto that when you're doing the projects that you don't like, they're inevitable. Then, enjoy the ones you can while you're on them. That's a survival skill in itself.

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