Tim Granberg

Interview conducted by Eric Scheur

There was a lot of discussion in the forums this month about subtle sarcasm in June's audio clip. Some animators went for a gag involving misunderstanding and irony, while other animators chose a more literal interpretation of the text. I think that this is one of the great things that a competition offers, which you hardly ever get in a studio: the opportunity to direct your own shot from beginning to end.

This month's winner, Tim Granberg, put a lot of thought into the direction and the backstory of his entry. It never ceases to surprise me: every time I think "ah, backstory and thinking too much about things doesn't matter that much, along comes a bit of animation that really shows how much a piece of animation can spring to life with the proper planning.

Congratulations to Tim for coming up with a compelling story and planning his characters so that we really empathize with them. Read more below to hear about Tim's thought-process and method for approaching a new piece of dialog.

-Eric Scheur

When did you start animating?

I started tinkering in 1992, but at that point I was more interested in using the computer for product modeling because animation back then was difficult. As the software eventually became more user-friendly, my interest in animation grew. I often wonder how many animators would be around if the software hadn't evolved into what it is today, and what all of today's "animation lovers" would be doing if hand-drawn animation was all there was. I know I wouldn't be doing it. My actual animation pursuit started in 2000.

My first real animation test was of tiny mechanical insects that walked and flew around. I still think they are kind of cool looking, and taking into account when I made them, they're not all bad. I called the piece "B-Movie" because the machines were all viewed from the perspective of a mechanical bee. Ten years later Jerry Seinfeld gets a similar idea and makes millions of dollars. I can't even afford to purchase the DVD.

Where do you find inspiration as an animator?  Or inspiration outside of animation?

I am reluctant to say (especially in front of the demographic that will be reading this) that I'm not really that much of a fan of animation. What I am a fan of is the medium of film and how it can be used to communicate ideas through strong storytelling. I especially love TV shows and movies, from the 1960's to early 1970's. They don't have much in the way of realistic effects or acting, but they sure make up for it with strong writing. When I need inspiration, I reach for a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode. As far as movies go, any H.G Welles adaptation is good with me.

You're a graduate of Animation Mentor.   Tell me a bit about your decision to enter the school--where you were in your life at the time.

I didn't really think about animation as a career until I moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Previously I had been rejected by a number of schools for animation and film studies, so back then, the only thing rejected animator wannabes like me could do was read what was available and struggle - a lot. Animation Mentor is a great place for anyone who doesn't have easy access to someone willing to help them learn. Enrolling was a pretty easy choice to make (and best of all, they accept anyone).

My decision to start AM when I did was made because I had also taken a couple of years off to be a stay-at-home dad, and felt any lapse on my resume would only be considered a negative. I also believed that it would be more difficult to compete in the industry without having some kind of formal education behind me, regardless of the quality of my work.

Your website (www.nubbinwood.com) shows some bits of the short film you've been working on.   How is that going?

About 10 years ago I watched some awful movie and thought to myself "I could make a piece of crap like that!" So I sat down a started to do just that. The story contained a beaver, some evil ducks, and a time machine made from wood. I learned animation, started a short film, pitched the idea to some people in "the biz" and was urged to pursue making it into a feature film. That is where I am today. It's a slow progress, especially when you're outside the Hollywood system, but if there is one thing I have learned by watching thousands of Hollywood-produced movies, it is that anything is possible.

Talk about your professional experiences in the animation industry.

I worked for a brief time at Nickelodeon on a Jimmy Neutron motion-based ride for Universal Studios. Then a couple of years later, I worked at Omation on the feature film Barnyard. Last year I was also part of a short film project that was being produced in China. That project eventually ran out of funding and was never completed, but it was a great experience to see how animation is done in other countries.

I feel I'm still trying [to get into the industry].  When taking into consideration the amount of time I have been unemployed for the past years, I clearly am not doing something right. I stay pretty focused on becoming a better animator and I think that often gets in the way of actually looking for a job.

Were you able to bring any of the experiences with your short film into your entry for the 11 Second Club?  (animation method, or staging, planning, gags, etc.)

People don't talk very much about being concise when they animate, but I think it is extremely important, especially when you only have 11 seconds to tell a story. That's what I learned by doing short films. Since animation is timely and expensive it is important that you can communicate an idea quickly and clearly. It is an area that I am constantly working on to improve.

This month's entries seemed to be divided between stories where the male character was genuinely helpful to the female character, and stories where the male character was more sly and underhanded.   What influenced your decision to interpret the audio in the direction you took it?

I noticed that, too. For most of them I questioned why they were being helpful or underhanded. I think that if you haven't provided a believable reason for the characters to interact with each other, ultimately the scene doesn't work. My approach was to have the characters forced into a situation where they had to interact with each other, and treat them like they wished the other person would just go away. The hard part was I didn't want her to look stupid because that's not really a likable character trait, and I didn't want him to be inherently mean for the same reason. Once I threw the police car into the scene, it made her seem naive (much more likable than stupid) and provided a plausible reason for his actions.

Talk about your animation process.

The first step for me is to do a quick lip sync pass. I know that's contrary to what I've been taught, but I think it's the best way to get to know the audio, and get it stuck into your head. After that I don't touch the animation for as long as I can put if off. During that time, I am thinking about scenarios that could work with the audio and the details that support the scenario. I refer to this time as my incubation period. This period lasts until I start to feel I need to start animating if I am ever to complete the shot.

The incubation period is really the most important time for me because, with the audio burned into my head, I observe actions in other people that I can later introduce into the animation. What I am really doing is watching people for things they might do that I find not only interesting, but applicable to what I am trying to communicate. I act out the scene as well, trying different things to see what feels right. I've tried shooting reference of myself and working from that, but I find my most creative ideas come when I am not in front of the camera and just watching others. It's really a conscious choice to model my character after someone who has the traits I am looking for instead of trying to act it out myself.

Then I block out the shot ( very roughly) to get a sense of  if the idea will work with the time I have.

Click to Play

If all looks good I split the animation into sections of dialog and complete a section at a time. While this isn't really considered a preferred way of working for most people, I like it because it allows a lot of freedom to incorporate creativity throughout the entire process of finishing the shot.

It's always important for the audience to know which character to be looking at during the right moment.   Can you talk a little about how you approached the passing the audience's attention between each character?

Here's how I interpreted what was going on: She appears in the scene to ask a questionable man for help. He turns to face her and she rambles for a while. The man sees a police car coming, gets rid of some evidence and runs. Since there's not really any information that she gives during her rambling that is important, there's no reason to focus on her. That's why I chose to direct the attention to the man. I think it's important to keep in mind that just because she's talking the most, it doesn't mean she's communicating the most. The man here has much more to say without speaking.

Talk a bit about how you approached the female character's personality and acting choices.   She doesn't look at  the burglar very much, which helps sell the gag.  Was this difficult to accomplish while still keeping the acting believable?

I imagined she probably spent the night repeating this same line to everyone she met and always had something bad happen to her. I think after a long night of being treated badly, she was afraid it would happen again, so really she's preparing herself for the next bad thing to come at her. That's why she doesn't look at him. She also is probably a bit intimidated by him. At least that's her rationalization for not looking at him.  Then you simply have to animate her like she still believes that what she is saying might actually help her situation and is, therefore, important keeping in mind that her actions shouldn't take attention away from the man. It sounds more difficult than it is. All it requires is enough time to play with it until you find the right balance.

I really like the burglar's run out of frame.   When I frame through the animation, though, I only see the barest hints of him beginning to run--it doesn't seem like it would read at all, and yet it reads just fine at speed. Is this an area you played around with the frames a lot to get them to be exactly what you needed for that to come out right?

Usually for a full body motion like that I start by animating "in the round" (as opposed to animating to camera). Once it looks right, I look through the camera and inevitably it is always too fast. I'll add some frames to slow it down and add some extra drag to limbs, but the biggest trick is to animate the arcs really well. It's amazing how fast you can make something move and still keep it readable simply by making the action really smooth and fluid. Arcs are always important, but never as much as when the action is fast.

Did you find yourself struggling with any particular part of the animation?

All animation is a struggle, which is why succeeding is so much fun. The best part about obstacles is they force you to rethink the path you're taking. You can't just give up when one arises, you have to work around it. That's where creativity comes from.

Talk about one or two parts of the eCritique that enhanced expanded on the ideas you had originally set out to animate.

eCritique by Bret Parker

I think there are some areas of the animation that are a little "clunky." I think that's what Mrs. Parker was mainly responding to in her critique. Generally, I have to agree with a lot of what she said, but I also think the shot works the way it is. At the time, I thought it was good enough to submit for the contest, but I didn't really think it would win. Now, with her help, I have a chance to make it good enough for my reel.

Do you intend to return to this piece to incorporate the suggestions made in the eCritique?

Yes! I think it's important to note that I considered the animation I turned in to be one pass away from completion, so I always intended to give it one more pass. Getting the critique now gives me the extra benefit of knowing where to focus my attention to make it better.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to get into learning how to animate?

The only way to get better is to spend time producing a lot of animation. I think it's too easy to feel like the animation you're working on is a precious work of art. It's not. Just get through the shot and move on to make something better using what you have just learned.

- Tim Click here to discuss this interview in the forums.
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