The 411 on animation

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

David Tart is an animator with over 20 years of experience. His film credits include “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo.” Tart is also the founder of Rocky Mountain Animation Labs, a nonprofit educational organization in Durango that aims to provide world-class animation education to children, young adults and educators. Tart will be hosting a workshop at the Durango Film Festival this weekend called “How Studio Animation is Made.” We spoke with him about how young people can break into the industry, the fears and doubts Pixar had about “Toy Story” and what his school does differently from other animation programs.

Tell me about the workshop you’ll be teaching during the festival.

My presentation is going to take an audience through each of the steps involved in making a feature CG [computer generated] animated film. We’ll start at the beginning; with the script, concept art, storyboarding, creation of an animatic, modeling, animation rigging, rigging lighting … and we’ll cover the whole process, through final output and release. A lot of people think of animation like, “Oh, it’s just people having fun!” They see DVD extras of animators skateboarding around in the office and playing with toys. It’s a lot more than that.

You’ve worked on some incredible Pixar films. What was the Pixar experience like?

It was pretty fantastic. Pixar was working on “Toy Story” at the time I started. Back then it was a very small company; I think the animation department had 15 animators. And “Toy Story” was the first CG animated film ever made – so there was a lot of worry and doubt. Would we be able to make it? Would people like it? I can remember working on it and thinking, “I don’t know if this is very good.” [Laughs] A lot of people in the industry thought we would never finish. 2-D animators at Disney and other places at the time didn’t want to work in CG at all. Even after “Toy Story” was completed and we were hiring staff for “A Bug’s Life,” people didn’t want to come. They didn’t think it was gonna stick. Pixar’s commitment to traditional storytelling values made it a great place to work; John Lasseter, the director of “Toy Story” and the current president of Pixar, believed you can pretty much train anybody to work on a computer, but you can’t train them to be an artist.

What brought you to Durango?

I worked with Pixar for seven years, on their first five films. Then I struck out and wanted to learn some different styles of animation – so I went to work for Blue Sky Studios in New York, who did the “Ice Age” series. My wife ended up getting a job here in Durango, so that brought us here. It allowed me to shift my focus and start this animation school, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.

Why did you start the school?

Fifteen years ago, there were probably three animation colleges that were really good. Now, there’s 5,000 university-level programs, and they’re not very good. A lot of them just emphasize learning the software and technology – but they don’t teach the traditional aspects of animation. While I do teach computer animation, the main focus here is on hand-drawn, pixilation, cut-out animation, stop-motion, traditional styles. We have all kinds of students, all ages. Primarily what we want to do is train good animators. We’ll also be hosting and developing a summer arts technology camp at FLC, which will be for pre-college, ages 14-20. There are schools like this in California and on the East Coast, but not so much in the Rocky Mountain region. I’ll be bringing friends and associates from Pixar and DreamWorks out to teach classes.

I also work with a school called the Animation Workshop in Denmark, and that was one of the inspirations for my school. Europeans have a lot more funding for the arts than we do. That allows animators to use different mediums, explore different topics – and they’re not tied to making sure what they create will be commercially successful. The films can explore philosophic, social, environmental topics, and they can have a good impact. I want to start that again in the United States.

What should young people who want to break into the animation industry be mindful of?

The most important thing you need to get a job is a show reel. The show reel will have clips of animations you’ve created that demonstrate your skill. I’ve hired thousands of animators, and I’ve never looked at their résumés. I don’t need to know they worked in the service industry or what their grade point average was. Animation is so prolific; it’s not just feature animated films, where the employment is. There’s also scientific visualization, forensic technologies, architecture applications, special effects, motion graphics. It’s a huge industry. There’s more and more of a demand. It’s an amazing art form; to take something that’s not alive and manipulate it in such a way that it appears to have emotions, thoughts, needs and desires. It’s a very painstaking process, as you’re creating 24 images per every one second of animation – and some people can’t handle that. But the people who love it wouldn’t want to do anything else.

— Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff Writer

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