Animated Life: An Interview with Simon Clarke

First published in Screen Education MagazineAll photographs of Simon Clarke were taken by Monique.

As this article is still being sold online by Metro Magazine, please contact Monique for the pdf version.

Animator Simon Clarke moved from London to Sydney three years ago to work on Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006). His decision paid off with Happy Feet winning

Simon Clarke Happy Feet by Monique Hohnberg

Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in 2007. Simon’s impressive career includes work on Quest for Camelot (Frederik Du Chau, 1998), The King and I (Richard Rich, 1999), the 2002 miniseries Dinotopia and the acclaimed 2001 BBC six-part documentary series Walking with Beasts. Now Simon has set his sights firmly on staying and working in Australia – a dramatic change from the lively animation scene in London. I spoke with Simon in between film projects at his apartment in the coastal suburb of Clovelly, Sydney.

MONIQUE HOHNBERG: How did you get into animation?

SIMON CLARKE: I started a systems analysis course after boarding school, but  spent more time drawing rock stars and people’s girlfriends for a pint of beer down at the pub. Consequently, I dropped out of college and spent some time drawing and painting. It was a case of your average nineteen year-old not knowing what to do with their life and being on the dole. I was living in South Wales at the time and there wasn’t much work around. I got a lucky break when an illustrator, Phillip Waite, took me on under a traineeship. It wasn’t until I started my diploma in design that I came across animation. In this course we tried everything, from millinery [hat-making] to photography. Millinery wasn’t really my thing but I gave it a go. The four week animation course was run by a woman from Rolf’s [Rolf Harris] Cartoon Club. I thought animation was fun and that I could do this. From there, I did an honours degree in animation at Farnham, outside London.

‘The reviewer wrote about a beautiful stand-out scene where a deer jumps over a hunter. I thought: “That’s my scene! I created that.”’

Was it difficult to break into the animation scene in London?

It was. I trawled around London with my portfolio and VHS tape. I realized how little I knew and there was a huge pool of experienced talent. I finally got my break and did some assisting work.

What was your first big 2D animation film?

I worked at Warner’s Features Animation on my first big feature job. I was in- betweening and assisting on Space Jam [Joe Pytka, 1996]. That is, I created the cleaned drawings in between the key drawings.

When you’re younger you have more energy, this drive, and desperately want to animate. In the evenings at work, we would produce our own animation based on famous dialogue. I did a Jessica Rabbit scene, which I still have on my show reel. We’d show it to the supervisors and animation leads in the attempt to get a break. That was quite normal.

When did you move into 3D animation?

I was working on The King and I in 2D animation, and the company had some copies of [computer graphics program] LightWave. We played around with it in our spare time and gradually got more serious about it.

My first big project in 3D animation was a BBC TV series called Walking with Beasts. It is the sequel to [1999’s] Walking with Dinosaurs. I built my first rig [the internal skeletal structure and control system that determines how the character/animal will move] for Walking with Beasts. It was a spline-driven iguana and it took me four weeks.

I found a review from the American Time magazine about Walking with Beasts. The reviewer wrote about a beautiful stand-out scene where a deer jumps over a hunter.1 I thought: ‘That’s my scene! I created that.’ That was a special moment.

Editors can find it hard to get work if they don’t know a particular software program. Is that a problem in 3D animation?

No, not really. It’s not seen as a big problem jumping from one platform to another. If you have a technical feel you know what’s under the bonnet – the interface is just different. Of course, it becomes more difficult if you’re scripting or specializing, and getting into the guts of the application.

What is the difference between commercial and feature work?

On feature work you would be working in one department doing character animation, modelling, rigging, lighting or scripting. It is an opportunity to specialize in one area for a long period of time.

If you’re doing commercial work then you need to be a generalist. You need to know how to do set-up work, some modelling, and lighting. You work with a small crew (three or four people) and you need to be able to respond quickly to the brief. You need to be flexible. I appreciate the skills needed for both types of animation.

‘Animators spend all their time hunched over their animation desk working to God knows what hour at every opportunity.’

What is the process of creating a new scene in 3D animation?

A lot of animators like to work straight in the scene and scrub the dialogue [check the animation against the dialogue by moving the pointer in the timeline]. I don’t do this. For a brand-new scene, I tend to go back to 2D animation. I’ll start by doing a breakdown of the dialogue track. I’ll work out what phonemes, what letters and consonants are appearing on what frame. This lets you create an exposure sheet.

Using the exposure sheet, I then think about what accents and what bits/poses of the animation I want to hit. I plan it out on paper and make some sketches. If there is no dialogue, I break down the action. I block everything in with basic poses and basic timing. From there I create a flipbook. Only now do I use the software program and block out my animation accordingly. It is a more traditional approach whereby the scene is created before using the software.

How does the director come into that process?

You have a time frame to pull together the first rough of a scene – maybe a day – and this will be in a 3D animated form. The first rough will be at a stage where it is showing my intention and understanding of the director’s brief. Then I present it to the director. She or he will give me feedback about the scene and if it is going in the right direction. I may or may not have achieved the director’s original intention or she/he may want to change parts of it.

Then you work it up in layers. If you have a director who understands animation and wants to learn more, then that is a real advantage. You can show them earlier parts of the first rough plan and ensure it’s going in the right direction.

‘I started a systems analysis course after boarding school, but spent more time drawing rock stars and people’s girlfriends for a pint of beer down at the pub.’

Also, if a director can use their imagination to fill in the gaps this makes it a better process.

That is the ideal situation but it doesn’t always work like that. Technology can sometimes mean you are expected to take it all the way to a very finished level, and then take it all the way back again. So, it can be more demanding and time-consuming.

Simon Clarke: A Brief CV

Award-winning films and series: Happy Feet, Dinotopia, Quest for Camelot, Walking with Beasts.

Salary range: $32,000 to $70,000 per annum. (The higher figure reflects feature film or series work.)

Roles: Character animator, rigger, 2D animation and 3D animation.

Qualifications: BA (Hons) Animation, Surry Institute of Art and Design.

Skills: Range from creating Looney Tunes characters to prehistoric beasts and penguins.

Happy Feet used a different approach to creating characters. Can you elaborate?

Happy Feet was quite an individual thing to work on – especially for an animator. It was a different process and methodology. Rather than using only animation, it used motion capture of humans. [The specific motion of a human body is recorded on the computer and this motion is then used as the basis for the movement of the penguin.]

As well as using this, we also put facial acting on top of motion-capture. In some cases we enhanced the motion capture for technical reasons, in others it was purely animation. It is natural for an animator to think in terms of their strengths. You think everything should be animated. If you work in motion capture and motion edit, you think you can do everything with it. The challenge for Happy Feet was learning to find the best solution. The right thing to do is what is appropriate for that scene. And then you get the best result. Sometimes it should be animated and sometimes it is best to motion capture.

What personal qualities are needed to be in animation?

For me, it’s about maintaining the passion and enthusiasm for what you do. This keeps you fuelled and able to produce your best work. At the same time you have to have some real inner strength and integrity. This allows you to show it to other people and take constructive criticisms. You have to be able to balance those two things.

How important is the balance of computer skills versus artistic ability?

It’s definitely a strange alchemy of abilities. You definitely need both.

In my experience, I’ve seen teams work at their best and produce their best work when there has been a real understanding and embracing of the creative and technical elements. This also means happy teams. The work environment tends to break down and not work so well when these two elements drift apart.

What kinds of people shouldn’t be in animation?

Anyone who wants to have a life. There’s definitely an obsessive-compulsive side to it. I remember talking to a group of animators in a pub and they all had relationships that were completely in tatters. Boyfriends leaving girlfriends. Girlfriends leaving boyfriends. Animators spend all their time hunched over their animation desk working to God knows what hour at every opportunity.

What’s the best thing about the job?

There are those moments that can spontaneously happen out of nowhere. Things start to mesh, you see good work being produced and people working together towards the same goal. The result is fantastic and you think this machinery meshed for a while. That is something really rather special. Also, I really enjoy working with good people.

What’s the worst thing about the job?

People should be appreciated and valued for their work, but there are times when that doesn’t happen. The reality is that is going to happen. So you need to develop some strength and integrity. The value you’re getting from it is internal. It can be very hard on people.

Are there any sacrifices you have had to make?

No, not really. I’m basing myself in Australia so I have left a lot of friends and family in the United Kingdom.

How do you compare the Australian industry to that in the United Kingdom?

I genuinely think there is a huge amount of potential in Australia, especially with Asia right on the doorstep. I have a very strong sense that anything is possible and it is all here to do. I think it is more possible here than in the United Kingdom in some ways. There is less of an establishment in Australia, so there is more room to manoeuvre. However, there is more work available in the United Kingdom. My experience in Australia has been largely limited to Happy Feet and that was all-consuming, so I am still learning about the scene here.

Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?

Can you ask me in a year’s time? At the moment I’m rolling the dice and trying to set all these wheels in motion in Australia. Increasingly, what interests me is the dynamic of working with other people. I’ve seen examples of work situations that work rather well, and those that don’t. I can see the connections and commonalities in these various work environments.
Ultimately, I’d like to be in a position where I can create a dynamic work environment that brings out the best in people and see really great work created.

Endnote

1 James Poniewozik, Review, Time, 10 December 2001. ‘But when the giant deer Megaloceros charges and breathtakingly leaps over a hunter, it’s like watching the ani-Matrix.’

Monique Hohnberg has worked as a digital media specialist for NSWFTO & WIFT Australia. She now works as a professional writer and actor. Her writing includes plays, films, poetry, reviews and feature articles. 

First published in Screen Education Magazine

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