Tim Granberg

Interview conducted by Eric Scheur

In September of 2007,Bruno Celegão Monteiro beat out the competition with his 2D entry. And then did it again a month later. October of 2007 saw the first time the 11 Second Club had a repeat winner. And it hasn't happened since then...until now!

With his winning entries in the June 2008 and September 2008 competitions, Tim Granberg becomes the 11 Second Club's second double-winner. He is the first double-winner of 2008, the first double-winner with a CG entry, and the first double-winner since we started our Winners Interviews. This means that I now have the opportunity to follow up on some of the territory Tim and I covered in his June interview, in addition to covering some new ground as well.

(note: To recap where we left off, Tim got into animation around 2000 after more than half a decade concentrating on product modeling. In January of 2007, he enrolled in the Animation Mentor program and went through his studies while taking care of his newborn son.)

- Eric

It's a pleasure to be able to speak with you again. Have you been working on any other projects since the last time we talked?

My wife gave birth to my second son in early September. Adjusting to the new member of the family has taken most of my time since then. I have two sons, the oldest is almost 3 1/2, the youngest is about 8 weeks old now. My wife has really been incredible. I get frustrated all of the time because as much as I love raising my kids, I'd rather be working. Because of this I tend to get cranky and depressed, and I know I'm probably not that pleasant during those times. But I know she understands that sometimes I really just need to sit down and animate, and afterwards I feel better.

Last time we talked, you mentioned that you had worked on a short film in China, which you were also directing. Is the short film available online?

The short film was an independently funded production that was created as a way to sell an idea for a feature film. Unfortunately the project ended suddenly without ever seeing a final shot completed, because we simply ran out of money. There were many other issues that caused the project's demise, but the money problem was one that could never be resolved. My biggest regret was that after directing it for over a year, I didn't end up with anything that I could show. I'm not saying that it was ever going to my finest masterpiece, but there were quite a few things about it that was very proud of, and at almost 8 minutes long (including hundreds of characters and a wide variety of special effects), it was larger than any project I would ever do myself.

From your experiences getting into the industry so far, what advice would you offer a potential job-seeker?

Keep working. I think it's too easy to finally get a reel done and sit back and wait for a phone call. While you're waiting, keep making animation. The truth is that you can get only so good sitting at home and working in seclusion. You can show your work to other animators to get some help, but I don't believe anyone can ever reach their full potential until they actually start working side-by-side with professionals and get daily input to your work. To some extent, AnimationMentor tries to give you that experience, but it is still is not the same as real world experience. However, what you can improve on is the ability to work faster, and that is one skill that will always be a to benefit you. What's so great about the 11 Second Club is that you only have 30 days to finish a shot, and since I believe most of the people who compete each month do so using their free time, that's a fairly good amount of animation to do. At that pace, you're almost making a new reel twice a year. I know quality of the work on your reel is important, but the best way to get better, is to sit down and animate... a lot.

You mentioned that you don't necessarily draw your inspiration from animation as much as from live action television of film. In particular, you mentioned The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits as favorites for their storytelling. If you could suggest just one episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits to someone who has never seen either show, which would you suggest and why?

You don't really learn that much from either of those shows by watching just one episode, but if you watch about 10 episodes of "The Twilight Zone," you'll start to get a fairly good idea of how to successfully structure a story. The reason I believe the show is so great is that all the episodes were made with strong characters, uncomplicated cameras set-ups, and very limited special effects (if they have any at all). These are the same components you'll find in animated short films. And with each episode being less than 30 minutes long, it doesn't take long to assimilate a wide variety of stories. Like my answer to the previous question, the best way to learn about the craft of storytelling is to watch/listen/read a lot of good stories. "The Twilight Zone" is just a quick way to do it. "The Outer Limits," however, is a little more difficult to watch. I'm a fan of the show and even I admit that a lot of it just isn't very good. There's something about the show though, that makes me want to fix what's wrong, because the premise for each episode has so much unused potential. It's easy to watch something and say it bad, it's other thing to be able to identify why it's bad, and it's still another to be able to suggest ways to improve it. Only when you find yourself trying to fix story problems in the things you watch, do you start to improve your own story ideas. "The Outer Limits" is a great show to exercise that ability.

Now, on to your winning 11 Second Club entry. Actually, both of your winning entries contain a very clear story. You mentioned that short films helped you learn to be concise and tell a quick story. Can you go into a little more detail about this?

I start with an idea and try to strip away everything that isn't necessary. I think a really good skill to have is the ability to analyze how something impacts a scene. Every time you remove or add something, the scene will change, and you have to know if that change gets you closer to what you want to communicate. Ideally you would eventually end up with one thing that symbolizes the idea you're going for. If you can do that, a lot of your animation decisions will be made for you. In the case of this month's clip, I wanted to show the old woman poisoning the pie. Initially I was going to give her a box that said "poison" or had a skull and crossbones on the side, but when I stripped the box of its graphics (I hate labeling things), the box could have contained anything. So without the type, the box was just confusing, with the type it was too easy for the viewer. I started looking at other ways poison could be packaged and found an old glass bottle with an eyedropper. What excited me about that idea, was not only would it be interesting to animate a character with an eyedropper, but because you don't usually find eyedroppers around pie, her actions were automatically suspicious (which was the point). It's a very simple idea, and that one decision really guided her animation.

I really like how you describe the evolution of the poison from a box into the eyedropper it eventually became. There's a common bit of wisdom in animation (and many other creative endeavors) that says to not necessarily go with your first idea. What are some other story or acting ideas you explored in this piece, and what made you decide against them?

When you come up with a piece that is heavy in story, you have a lot of necessary animation "business" that has to happen. Unfortunately, this doesn't give you much freedom to explore. Most of my early exploration was more in the area of staging because I wanted the audience to know she poisoned the pie before the trooper does.

Here's how I envisioned the scene in the beginning:

  • Shot 1: Trooper is sitting at a table examining the dead guy, behind him we see an old woman with her back turned to us. She is shaking a box of something onto a piece of pie.

  • Shot 02 - Close up of woman's face, men sitting at table behind her. We see her give a final shake of the box labeled "poison." She sets the box down out of frame and turns around.

  • Shot 03 - Trooper turns around to accept the piece of pie, unaware of the box sitting on the counter behind the woman.

    The scene stills works this way, but it has a couple peculiarities. First of all, why would the trooper be sitting at the table with a dead guy? and why is he oblivious to the actions of the woman behind him? Why is this trooper so unaware? I'm not a fan of making my characters act so stupid, so after a couple of iterations, I changed the scene so the trooper could be more sincere. In the end I think that really makes the scene stronger.

    All of my scenes go through this kind of thought process.

    You have several very successful "takes" in this piece; for example, when the detective reacts to "I killed him" as he's about to put the cherry filling in his mouth, and then again at the end of the piece when he realizes that the pie has been poisoned. What do you think goes into making a take work well?

    Timing. I don't know if there's a set rule to follow, but if the character doesn't react at the right time, the animation really feels wrong. The fun part about "takes" is that you can really have a lot of fun with them. I think good animators are always looking for important moments where they can really flex their animation muscles. "Takes" are great examples where this can be done.

    The other important thing to remember is the character is thinking during "takes," but the thought happens so close to the physical reaction that sometimes the thought part gets neglected. I would always favor the thought process of the character over the physical reaction.

    I really like your decision to keep the old woman focused on the pie when she says "oh yes" rather than focusing her response directly towards the detective. Talk a little bit about this acting choice.

    I like to structure my animation so information is revealed slowly throughout the scene, and let the pieces of information add up into something larger. In this case, the woman isn't blatantly doing anything suspicious. She is simply dispensing some liquid from an eyedropper (it's not clear what the liquid is), she says "I killed him, " and she picks up a piece of pie (notice the pie and eyedropper are never seen together).

    Click to Play

    Even when those three things are juxtaposed, there really isn't any reason to believe she's doing anything wrong. The strangest thing she does, is not look at the trooper when she talks to him. That's the action that makes everything else seem suspicious. It's not until she says "oh yes" while fixating on the pie that you definitively know the pie was used to kill her husband. If I would have had her turn to face the trooper, there still would have been some question as to what she was doing with the pie, and in that case, the trooper's following response wouldn't have made as much sense. The idea was more clearly stated by just having her continue to face forward.

    In our last interview, you talked about an "incubation period" where you peoplewatch in order to find gestures or personal moments that relate to the piece you're animating. What were some of the things you observed in people that made it into this piece, and where did you observe them?

    I rented "Lake Placid" because I wanted to know the context of the clip. It's interesting to note in the scene where the clip was taken from, the old woman is trying to cover up something when she says she killed her husband. That was definitely something that I tried to emulate in my animation. There was also a commercial on TV (for yogurt or something) where the person was supposed to feel guilty about eating the product until she saw it was low in calories and then she ravenously ate it. What I took from that is the woman in the commercial was dealing with guilt issues, and I imagined the old woman in my animation would probably feel the same way. Once guilt was chosen as controller of her actions, it was pretty easy to animate the scene as if her guilt was slowly disappearing. And I don't think you can ever animate a police officer without referencing Don Knotts as Barney Fife. If it were up to me, all animated characters would act like Don Knotts, and I would even take it a step further by changing the term "animating" into "Knottsing." I think he's just great.

    During our last interview, you had a great quote: "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 of the obstacles you had to creatively solve for this animation.

    There is a lot going on here (maybe too much) and trying to figure out where everything had to be at a given time, was really a challenge. The final animation I think is fairly simple, but it took a lot of time to make it look that way. The question I asked most was "how much can I NOT show and still make it read." I kept wanting to show the old woman holding the pie and the eyedropper at the same time so her actions would be more easily understandable, but I thought I would be more interesting if the viewer had to put them together themselves. In the end it came down to trusting my gut that it would read. I'm sure if I had pitched this idea to anyone, they would have advised against it.

    eCritique by Kenny Roy

    This is your second eCritique that comes through the 11 Second Club. Did you find that similar issues were addressed in both eCritiques, or were there new issues in this eCritique that you were excited to learn about?

    Some were the same primarily because of the way I work. I think I mentioned before that I usually leave my entries one pass away from completion, which means some things (like stiffness in the spine) are left in a state that makes them easy to change. Loosening parts of the body is something that I am more aware of when I finally finish a shot. The most interesting part of the critique was the extensive talk about lip sync. I had Kenny for a mentor for 12 weeks, but because most of the short films we worked on, didn't contain dialog, lip sync was never really taught in his class. It was very helpful to hear his thoughts in this area. I heard the critique just as I was starting October's competition, and it really changed how I approached the new scene.

    Talk about one or two things from this eCritique that you are excited to go back and re-incorporate into your animation.

    Lip sync, making the mouth more readable to camera.... and making the pie blueberry. Personally I like cherry better, but it is a little too much like the color of blood.

    Is there anything you'd like to add about your thought-process or experience in September's competition?

    Because of having the baby, my workflow was far less structured than I would have liked. I never actually did a full pass during the whole process so I don't really have any planning passes. Instead, I worked entirely straight ahead and hoped for the best. This is the reason that maybe the intended focal point isn't always clear. It's hard to view the scene as a whole when you are focusing on only one second of animation at a time., and it's a weakness of this scene I think.

    Do you plan on trying for the Hat Trick? Winning a third 11 Second Club competition?

    October is already in the works, but it's not turning out that well so far. Some people have mentioned that I have a certain recognizable style, so this month I'm trying to animate like someone else would. Realistically, I think winning October is highly unlikely, but I'll be doing this contest until I get a job, and if the past is an indicator of my future, I have plenty more months ahead to try. The prizes don't get any better if you win 3, do they?

    Looking back at when you started animating eight years ago, what advice would the Tim Granberg of 2008 give to the Tim Granberg of 2000?

    When I compare the last 8 years of successes with failures, I would probably just tell me to just forget about animation completely. It's something I really enjoy doing, but most days I know I would be much happier if I could just stop doing it. Unfortunately it's in me now and I can't stop. I don't think there are any Animation Addiction organizations out there to help either. I attended an AA meeting once, but apparently AA doesn't mean "Animators Anonymous." But at least there were delicious pastries, so the evening wasn't a complete waste. If I could talk to the Bobby Beck of 2000 however, I would like to tell him to start AnimationMentor 3 years earlier. I can't help but feel that my career would be in a much more positive place if he would have told those Pixar people that he had more important things to do than animate a bunch of Monsters. The first couple of years for me were really tough, and it would have been nice to have some help back then when I much more of dreamer.

    - Tim Granberg

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