October 15, 2014

A Conversation with Legendary Animator, Tom Sito

Animation is in the midst of a revolution, and legendary animator and incoming Chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, Tom Sito, has seen it the whole way through. Having learned directly from some of the most well-known names in the industry – from the famed 9 Old Men at Disney to William Hanna and Joseph Barbera – and witnessing first-hand the growth and development of digital animation, Sito is the ideal historiographer of the field. With his significant animation credits including beloved classics such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, he is one of the most influential voices in animation today.

His latest work, A History of Computer Animation, takes an in-depth look at the infancy of the art form through to its modern-day prominence.

Your newest book, A History of Computer Animation, came out recently. A lot of people might hear that and assume “computer animation” means Pixar and Toy Story how would you describe the scope and intention of the book? I enjoy searching out the origins of things related to my field of animation and in particular I like to know the stories of the people involved, their motivation, and their passions. Computer animation evolved out of experimental film, military flight simulators, motion picture special effects, and involved a fascinating cast of characters – research scientists, beatniks, hippies, math nerds, engineers, and eccentric geniuses. Regardless of their background and temperament, they all dreamed a common dream: to create art with computers. It took decades for them to build in the public’s mind the idea that you could entertain and inform with a computer, a device originally thought to be only good for dry calculations.

Computer animation has significantly altered the landscape of animation. What are some of the pros and cons of this change in technology? The Computer has significantly extended our ability to visualize what we imagine. In 1989 Walt Disney Studios first digital paint system gave artists the color palette of Disney’s most visually sophisticated movie (Pinocchio) to the ninth Power. Today animation systems are much more advanced than even that. What we are in danger of losing is the delightful plasticity of hand-drawn graphics, a heightened reality that the old Disney animator Ollie Johnston said was not copying life, but caricature of life. Life-plus.

What were some of the images or works that first got you interested in Animation? Like many, I grew up watching cartoons as a child. I particularly enjoyed the work of Walt Disney and the master animators of the Warner Bros Studio like Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. We all begin as fans, then move on to learn how these performances were made, and who the people were who made them happen. I remember I first met Chuck Jones at the men’s room of the Motion Picture Academy. I got all excited. “I’m peeing next to Chuck Jones!” Chuck enjoyed our mutual interest in history and we became good friends. I also learned a lot from Art Babbitt, who created the character Goofy, and Shamus Culhane, who animated the Heigh-Ho March in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

In your opinion, is animation currently in the midst of a new revolution? Where do you see animation going in the future? Forty years ago when I was first starting, animation was considered only good for kiddie shows, nothing more. Today, animation is central to the way we experience media. The armies of Lord of the Rings could not march without animation; the Titanic could not sink; we could not have films like Gravity, or Avatar, or play games without animation.  As synthetic characters become more believable alongside their flesh and blood counterparts, we may one day see an animated character win and Oscar. Or experience films not on a flat screen, but all around us, like the Holodeck in Star Trek the Next Generation.

In teaching Animation, what are a few older techniques that you still emphasize as being essential to an animator’s skillset? Young animators still need to master the arts of timing and creating a sense of weight and textures with their work. The speed of an object and how it reacts with other solids will tell an audience whether the object is a stone, a soap bubble, or a balloon. They need to master the arts of drawing, theater, and cinematic storytelling to make a good animation. Years ago scientists felt all they had to do was digitize a skeleton, and then digitize the muscle systems, and "voila," you can create a realistic human. And you know what they got? An unrealistic statue that moved like a suit of armor. Humans are mushy, squishy, and imperfect. And showing imperfection is human. And no two humans move alike. Giving animals human traits have been entertaining people since Aesop.

As your work makes evident, Animation isn’t just about technical artistic skill; you’re creating a character. How do you animate a personality into your characters? How does that process begin? Once you master the arts of illustrating motion and gesture, a lot of it is observation and creativity. Just like real actors do. When Bill Tytla created the adorable little elephant Dumbo, he studied his baby son’s movements. You do a lot of drawings and tests until the character starts to come together. No one artist created Bugs Bunny, it was Bugs Hardaway’s design, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery’s direction, Ken Anderson’s animation and Mel Blanc's voice. Still, it took several cartoons for him to become the Bugs we all know.

How do animators and voice actors work together? To what extent does one affect the other? Actors really enjoy working with animators. They like seeing their voices coming out of a fantastic creature like a dragon or a panda. We study them not just to do a caricature, but to capture the essence of how they move. Robin Williams had a lot of upper body strength and short legs. Chris Rock has a way of smiling and frowning at the same time. Ellen DeGeneres has wild eyes that slightly cross and strong dimples.  I was very flattered when, after seeing our production of Osmosis Jones, actor David Hyde-Pierce told us we had created the same kind of acting choices he would have done had it been a live action performance. At the same time, the actor feels the challenge of having to create a character without visuals, but just with their voice. William Shatner was great at that because he began his career in radio. The animation director works with them like a live action director to mold the performance out of them.

Have you animated any sequences that you’re particularly proud of? I animated the scene in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast is first learning to eat properly at the table with Belle. We see him at first slopping his face into his oatmeal bowl like an animal. Shortly after the film came out, they brought a class of pre-school children to visit the studio and had me address them. When I asked them if they remembered the scene of the Beast eating his breakfast, the children didn’t say yes, they just all began to make moving gestures like they were slopping their faces into their oatmeal bowls. That was very gratifying to me to touch children on that level.

And finally, do you have any advice for young, aspiring animators? There is more to learning animation than merely downloading a tutorial for certain software. Animating a character is very close to an acting performance. The same thing an actor does by using their body as a means of expression, you are creating in a drawn medium. To an audience it is all about the performance, they look to Bart Simpson to be entertained the same as a flesh and blood actor. You must learn the fundamentals of animation, then draw on your own background and tastes as a live actor would.