An Interview with...
Scott Johnston - Artistic Coordinator
for The Iron Giant
Scott F. Johnston joined Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1989 during the production of The Little Mermaid. He continued his work with Disney on other films, including The Prince and the Pauper (1990), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Aladdin (1992), and was the principle designer of the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast (1991). He also did work on The Lion King (1994), where he oversaw the development and producton of all the 3D computer-generated effects, including the climatic wildebeest stampede that kills young Simba's father, Mufasa. In 1997 Johnston founded his own studio, Fleeting Image Animation, Inc. to develop and produce animation, integrating traditional and computer generated techniques.
involvement with The Iron Giant started in early 1997.
Max Howard, then President
of Warner Bros. Feature Animation, and Producer Allison Abbate were assembling
the team for the show and thought I might be able to help with the challenge
of bringing the director's vision to the screen." - Scott Johnston
Animation Artist: What were your job duties as the Artistic Coordinator for The Iron Giant?
Johnston: Director Brad Bird
and Art Director Alan Bodner would say what they wanted,
and I would work with the artistic staff and production management to
figure out how to accomplish it. As the production pragmatist,
I worked with management to weigh creative possibilities against resource
limitations (budget, time... the usual suspects) and then suggest alternate
ways of achieving as much of what we wanted as possible. I often
had to translate semi-abstract ideas into a coherent sequence of steps
for the crew. I'd take care of the details, freeing Brad to focus on
the performances.I tried to keep "the big picture" in mind.
Artists often work on very specific pieces of the puzzle; explaining
the broader context of a problem would often help solve it.
Animation Artist: What elements of The Iron Giant contained Computer Graphics Imagery? Also, what program did you use for the CGI?
Johnston: The Giant and an assortment
of animating props--tanks, planes, trucks, and bikes--were done
in CGI. In addition, artists created
and modified artwork digitally for a wide array of effects. Allen
Foster and his crew did an exceptional job of integrating the traditional
and digital effects work. The majority of the CG work was done
with Alias|Wavefront's Maya software package, with many in-house enhancements.
The CG levels were rendered with a modified version of Pixar's RenderMan
and transferred into Cambridge Animation's Animo alongside the scanned
pencil animation and painted BG's. We also used Alias' older PowerAnimator,
Avid's Elastic Reality, Adobe's Photoshop plus a smattering of other
programs here and there.
Animation Artist: You did a lot of CGI work for Disney's The Lion King. How do the two films (The Lion King and The Iron Giant) differ in the area of CGI and what aspects of your experience with The Lion King helped in your work with The Iron Giant?
Johnston: CGI was used throughout
The Lion King, but the focus of the CG work involved the
wildebeest stampede, which only takes about two and a half minutes of
screen time. While the behavior of the animals in the stampede
needed to be believable, the range of acting and emotions never approached
the complexity of the Giant. The Giant appears in much more of the film,
and the animators needed to make him act with much more subtlety.
The appearance of the wildebeests had to blend seamlessly with the environment
and traditional characters so the emotion of the sequence would work
without a jarring alien presence. The Giant IS an alien in Rockwell.
He needed to be a believable character, but the villain decries him
as an outsider — something that doesn't belong in the human world.
He's a fifty foot-high metal character. He can't help being "different."
Animation Artist: Please describe for us a typical day in the life of Scott Johnston as it relates to your work with The Iron Giant.
Johnston: My schedule changed
dramatically during production. Early on, we spent a lot of time
planning the design of the character, building tools that we would need,
creating workbooks for the sequences and trying to ascertain what we
could and couldn't do. Later, a lot of time was spent adapting to the
changes that inevitably occur as a movie starts coming together. The
crew worked hard to give Brad what he wanted--and then some, but as
with any project of this scale, the creators' original intentions can
get lost in pages of notes and changes. I often had to help clarify
these situations. If something was completely unknown, I'd ask Brad,
or make something up—and apologize later if it was wrong. Solving problems
often just amounted to understanding them and bringing the right people
together: knowing who has the answer can be more useful than knowing
the answer. Some days I acted more like a therapist. Artists usually
know how to solve the problems that come up in the course of their work,
but they may need to bounce the idea around or get someone to help them
organize their thoughts. We also had to deal with the whims of technology
and had a crew of engineers continuously improving an overburdened system.
Animation Artist: How did you successfully bring together the classic animation look with CGI in The Iron Giant so that it had the right look?
Johnston: By working with a
great team of people.
There are four principle
areas that need to be addressed to integrate CG effectively into traditional
1. DESIGN 2. CAMERA WORK
AND STAGING 3. ANIMATION
ACTING AND TIMING
2. CAMERA WORK
ACTING AND TIMING
Animation Artist: How difficult was it to animate expressions on the Iron Giant without losing the Giant's appearance of being an all-metal robot?
Johnston: One of the reasons
the Giant was animated in CG was to prevent him from having the
malleable look of a traditionally animated character. A series of illustrations
by Mark Whiting proved that streamlined shapes could be used in a variety
of positions to express the necessary range of emotions. Traditional
animators often use broadly caricatured eyebrows to indicate facial
expressions. We knew this wouldn't work on our Giant because eyebrows
would look like large refrigerator magnets sliding around on his face.
We wanted the logic of the Giant's design to be as evident as possible—Why
would anyone build a giant with eyebrows—other than for expressive reasons?
Instead we concentrated on the varied illumination within the eyes and
flexibility in the eyelids. The animators could control where the giant
looked, and the dilation of an 'iris' and 'pupil'. Because of his height,
we spend a lot of time looking up at the Giant. Not only did the expressions
have to work without making him seem too elastic, they had to work from
some odd camera angles.
Animation Artist: What was your biggest challenge with The Iron Giant and how did you solve that challenge?
Johnston: The scale of the elements
in this movie was a constant challenge. The Giant's very, very
tall, and we shot the movie in Cinemascope, so the screen is very, very
wide. This makes his status as an outsider immediately apparent: he
literally doesn't fit in the world. These scale constraints made it
difficult to establish compositions that conveyed story points effectively
and gave the animators freedom to act. Establishing the relationship
between the CG stage for the Giant and the perspective on the layouts
could be awkward, and often required animator 'cheats' that look okay
on screen, but aren't literally possible. Traditional animators do this
all the time. Because the Giant is so large, a close-up of him is invariably
a long shot of anyone else in the scene. These scale issues also complicated
the layout and background processes.
Animation Artist: A lot of our readers do CGI work and would love to know what steps they would have to take to be able to work on a movie like The Iron Giant. What tips can you give to these aspiring artists?
Scott Johnston: Draw. The stronger
your traditional background, the better you will be with CG tools.
Software changes all the time, but animation fundamentals—timing, staging,
acting—will outlast any new software release. At the beginning of the
show, we ran a training program on the CG tools for the traditional
animators. Some of the best animation in the film was done by animators
with no prior CG experience, who learned how to use the tools and were
able to animate both the Giant and Hogarth in their scenes. A great
example of this is a sequence shortly after Hogarth brings the giant
home called 'Hand under foot' that Richie Baneham animated. Study life,
not film. I learned this one from Brad. It's important to understand
film and how problems have been solved in the past, but it's more important
to see and interpret things yourself. You have to be able to put your
own personality into your work. Animation becomes derivative and uninteresting
if every scene and gag is a quotation from another film.
Animation Artist: As you are well aware, The Iron Giant has received rave reviews everywhere. What, in your opinion, makes the finished product such a success?
Johnston: Story, story, story.
We've heard it before, we'll hear it again. While the specifics
of the story were flexible and evolved over time, we knew the main themes
at the outset and aimed at those goals. What makes a movie a success
is how that story is told. The Iron Giant is a fairly simple story,
but is told in an appealing way. Brad is a very charismatic director,
and I think we got a lot of that quality into the picture. We come to
care about the Giant because Hogarth cares about him. That empathy is
mixed with nostalgia--we remember when an adventure could be found in
our own back yard.
Animation Artist: Now that your work with The Iron Giant is finished, what's next?
I'm taking a little time off to work on some of my own projects. I learned an incredible amount on The Iron Giant, and I want to explore some of these new ideas.
Artist magazine is very grateful for the time Scott Johnston took
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