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The Croods - James Baxter (animator) interview (exclusive)

James Baxter

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Baxter talks about some of the challenges of animating the hit movie The Croods and what it was like to work with Emma Stone in particular.

He also discusses his passion for animation in general and what got him interested in doing it as a career. The Croods is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from DreamWorks Animation.

Q. Could you tell me about some of the challenges that were inherent in the animation on this particular project?
James Baxter: Well, The Croods was interesting for us because our brief from the directors was to do a new kind of caveman, so one that was stupid, yes, but athletic and really physically capable. So, we spent a lot of time to figure out how the characters would move and how they would hold their bodies and to what degree they would put their hands on the ground and if they did how that would work. Would they really be like monkeys or would they be not? What kind of other animal influences can we chuck into the mix to make it interesting? We spent a lot of time sort of figuring that, but what does a Crood move like, how do they move? How does a Crood move?

Q. And once you have arrived at the characters, how much creative licence thereafter do you have in animating the walk cycles or the facial expressions or is everything kind of locked in at the start? Or does the voice performance play into how the characters might look or act?
James Baxter: Especially on this movie, we had a lot of free reign from our directors. They really let us go and enabled us to create whatever we really wanted to as far as acting choices and style of movement that we wanted to create. In some ways there are some characters in the movie that did get a little sort of injection of visuals from their live action counterpart, especially Emma Stone. Her face is just so animated and appealing in live action, so we put some of that into Eep. So, the animator that was animating Eep, you know, had a lot of reference of Emma, studied a lot of reference of Emma when she was animating Eep’s face and stuff like that.

Q. Would that reference be available for the entirety of the voice recording for each of the individual characters or is that just more ad hoc?
James Baxter: It’s more ad hoc. I’m not really talking about reference that was shot while she’s recording, just general Emma Stone reference. Just pictures of Emma Stone on your wall, random pictures of how she does expressions is really what I’m talking about… not so much a copy of any kind of performance that she would do. When they’re voice acting they’re not performing in the way they would in live action. They’re not acting with anybody; their face might do some interesting things but it’s not like they’re performing it for a camera. Emma would make very different choices if she was constantly doing it for a camera. So, any references that we get from those recording sessions were just sort of little bits and pieces, ‘like oh that was an interesting mouth shape that she used there, maybe we could put some of that into it’. Some characters really bear no resemblance physically. I mean Grug really doesn’t have any of Nicolas Cage’s physicality.

Q. What excited you most when you were hearing the voice recording? Did you just cast your mind back to hearing the initial voice records? Does that spur you on to kind of amp up the animation side of things?
James Baxter: As animators you always hope that you get a really good voice. You know, one that you can just close your eyes and picture something ridiculous. For me, one of the best voices that we have on the show was Clark Duke, who did Thunk, the little boy. His delivery was just so interesting and he has such an interesting voice that it just makes our lives as animators so much easier when you have that springboard. I mean all of the voices in the movie are great, but when you have that sort of springboard, such a great voice, you can jump higher.

Q. I guess it’s also what the actors might use. Have they seen any of your visuals? Have they seen any of the cycles, the expressions in the faces, I guess that might feed into their performance also?
James Baxter: We try as soon as we have something that we think is worth showing or we feel is indicative of the character that we want to do, we show it to them. Basically, as soon as we can, we show it to them because there’s usually at least a half dozen recording sessions that these actors do throughout the course of the movie, and so obviously for their first session we won’t have anything done yet. But as we go along, we start to feed things back to them so they can see what we’re doing. It can inform their performance: “Oh I see what you guys are up to.” It helps them to do the voice.

Q. In terms of the production process and some of the animation technology that you’ve been using, has there been anything ground breaking on this project and are you amazed by how fast technology is developing in this sphere?
James Baxter: Yeah, I mean we didn’t use anything that I would call ground-breaking on this movie. There was just a lot of blood, sweat and tears, really more than anything. New software just keeps coming along, which makes things easier or faster, and yeah it’s pretty amazing to be part of that journey. Right now, the software that I’m working on is the first time I felt legitimately faster at animating than at any other time in my career. So, I was like: “Wow, I can go much faster now. This is bizarre!”

The Croods

Q. I guess with the technology racing on and it always brings it back to the importance of starting off hand drawn. I understand you’re an advocate of hand drawn animation. Perhaps you can talk on the importance of being able to, at the conceptual stage, sketch stuff out..
James Baxter: I just enjoy doing hand drawn animation. It’s what I enjoy doing most; I suppose it’s kind of like playing an acoustic instrument. That’s my first love and I do it whenever I can do it because I just enjoy the process of creating something completely from scratch, from my fingers. You know, rather than working in a computer. I love doing the work in the computer, you can do amazing things… really rich, subtle beautiful things with computer animation, but I still enjoy the immediacy of doing something hand drawn. And I suppose ultimately even if you are doing stuff in a computer, you’re still creating imagery to tell stories. So elements of design and composition, how to create clearly with images, is something that just doesn’t go away just because you are doing something on a computer.

Q. Yeah, I appreciate that. The film was a great success. I understand there’s a sequel in developments. Do you know much about that?
James Baxter: Well yeah, our two directors, Chris and Kirk, are busy right now writing and they are starting to do storyboards, so I think we are going to get stuck into production. It’s not set in stone whether I will be working on it but we’re getting stuck into production next year. So we’ll see how that turns out.

Q. And you don’t have any early indication in what direction the story might go in?
James Baxter: No, I have no idea.

Q. Just on working with Chris and Kirk, you mentioned that they gave you very much free reign as animators to be as crazy as you wanted to on this. What do you think that Chris and Kirk brought to the project that was a unique contribution? Was it good to have directors that gave you the freedom to go and create?
James Baxter: Yeah, absolutely. I talked to them after we finished the movie and they told me that they made a conscious decision to do that with the animation department because they realized that they had a really strong animation department on this movie, so they wanted to concentrate on their story and the storyboards and all that stuff, so they thought, let’s just let them do their thing. We’ll tell them if it’s wrong, if it’s completely not even close, but let’s let them do their thing on this movie. It was a great gift to us, giving us so much trust to do that in the animation department.

Chris especially brings this amazing view on the world which is very unique. He’s an incredibly energetic, creative, sort of fountain of strange, oddball, delightful, charming ideas. Kirk is this funny guy that has a really good, much better sense of how the story is going to come together and structure. They both have a good structural sense of story, but I think they balance each other fairly well, you know in terms of different skills.

Q. When you look back on the project, what was the best part of working on The Croods?
James Baxter: I think when we really started to get rolling, in the last six months when we were really sort of firing on all cylinders. When you’re trying to find your footing at the beginning, it’s trickier sometimes. Once the directors understand what you are doing and you understand what they want and you can start to click and go faster, that’s when it starts to become really fun.

Q. I guess it is also a case of getting to know the characters, getting to learn the characters and understand the technicality of how to deliver…
James Baxter: Right exactly, so the animators get used to the characters and what works and what doesn’t work and the directors get used to what we are going to be doing, so they trust us to do it more. You know they get used to what’s going to happen.

The Croods

Q. Just in terms of one of the earlier answers you said, it doesn’t matter the technology, [animation is] still a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Perhaps you can give me some sort of idea of how much work goes into this? You know the numbers of the teams involved and how long it takes to realize or how many man hours goes into that type of thing?
James Baxter: Well, we have many departments, from stories through modelling through rigging through surfacing, animation, CFX, which is character effects animation that do hair and cloth, visual effects that do all of the water and weather, fire, and then lighting and the people who composite the final imagery. So, there are many many different departments. Our department of animation has probably about 30 people on it, but there are several hundred altogether on a whole movie. A really good idea of what it takes to do, an animator can do maybe one or two seconds a day of stuff. So, if you can do a second a day, you’re doing fine.

Q. So, one has to be patient as well as creative in this industry?
James Baxter: Sure, absolutely, it’s definitely a labour of love.

Q. What drew you to animation and why do you think it’s still such a magical way of communicating, not just with children but with adults?
James Baxter: What drew me to it initially, I suppose, I knew I wanted to make movies when I was a young teenager. You know I had seen Star Wars and stuff and I was just into movies in general. I just loved to draw; it just seemed like a really good way to do both at the same time. I guess that was how I initially got intrigued into doing animation. I think it’s such a great method of making movies because it is so obviously not real. It has an aura of magic about it and it always feels like doing a magic trick. When you’re animating, you’re convincing somebody that something is actually alive, when it’s not. It’s a bit of a magic trick and that’s what’s magical to me about animation. In some ways the more real you make it look, the less impressive it is. You have to watch that you don’t make something so real, that people don’t just go: “Oh yeah, of course. That’s just reality right? That’s not special.”

Q. And for me you can tell the stories that would be unbelievable in any other medium…
James Baxter: Exactly yeah, because you can do things which are beyond reality, you can tell stories that are beyond reality much more, and in a much more easily acceptable way.

The Croods is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from DreamWorks Animation.