Interview - David Nasser

  David Nasser
Character Animator

From: Cologne, Germany

Tell us a bit about yourself... When did you discover animation? What programs/plug-ins do you use?
Well there was almost no escape. My Dad is a cartoonist and artist, my Mom has been a filmmaker and is now a producer and my grand Dad collected super-8 animations since the late 40’s. During my childhood I was surrounded by comic books, animations and movies. My Dad had one of those (old) beta video recorders and trillions of episodes of Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Disney Animations, Star Wars etc. and I watched them over and over again.
I liked drawing since I was a kid and at the age of 15 I got my hands on a Hi-8 camera and started playing around with it. Then in tenth grade a friend of my family helped me to get a two-week internship at a traditional animation studio.(

Three years later, during my mandatory one-year civil service, I managed, in the afternoons, to have a “half-day” internship at a multi-media company. They where developing a real-time character (a “cactus” co-hosting a TV-show) as well as several other projects for TV. There I gained practice in character design, storyboarding, modeling and animation. I worked traditionally, on a 2D paint-box, on “Soft Image” and on their proprietary software.
After that, I continued with a three-year apprenticeship at the same company, in a rotation of two months at work and one month of school. Through school I was also trained in editing, storytelling and film grammar. Even though other classes like camera, sound etc., were quite interesting, I still felt like something was missing.
I wanted to learn animation the proper way. I got a bit closer to this when I met Peter Kaboth, now a very good friend of mine, who was working on his 2D/3D diploma using the company’s facility.

I started to look over his shoulder and whenever there was some spare time at work, I did little animations and drawings and asked him for feedback. For me it was quite an intuitive learning process – I made progress by watching and doing. I also had Preston Blair’s book but the Internet was still at its beginning, so I was pretty much on my own. Anyway, I had tremendous fun in visualizing and telling stories through characters and realized the potential of animation for me as an art form and a career.
Then I decided to make an animated graduation film for my apprenticeship, combining 2D and CG techniques (at the time I used “Soft Image”).
 I started to go to animation festivals while looking for animation schools.
At that time there were three schools in Germany, none of which truly appealed to me. One day, while I was visiting a school in London, I had a faculty member look at my little, character-orientated portfolio and animations. She recommended that I should go to Cal Arts in California instead. I had the chance to visit the school and received advice on tuning up my portfolio. I didn’t hesitate a second: back home I attended figure drawing classes to refine my style. I then applied at Cal Arts for character animation, a few months later I got the letter and opened it (in slow motion): I got accepted! I sold everything I didn’t need, found a scholarship and made my way to Cal Arts. 

I enrolled in character animation, but I also took experimental animation classes, acting and film directing classes. I worked so hard because I was among people who were as motivated as I was. It was very inspiring and one of the best times in my life.
During my study at Cal Arts I did animation jobs over the summer breaks, started to teach at Community Arts Partnership  and was a teaching assistant at California State Summer School for the Arts . This gave me a totally new perspective and unveiled an unexpected side of me: I really enjoy teaching ever since!!

From all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?
It’s difficult to give a simple answer to that. Every project has its own particular way of being a favorite to me.

For instance, feature films have been, so far, fantastic experiences, every single one. I get valuable feedback from great artists, refine my animation skills and meet new and old friends wherever I go. That was the case on Despicable Me, for example.

On the other hand, commercials or bumpers - where I get to animate my own designs – have allowed me the freedom to expand my personal aesthetic, not to mention my own animated projects.
Out of all the countries you’ve been to, which one is your favorite one and why?
I couldn’t really pick a favorite country. Each place is so unique in its ways and culture, and once you meet nice people and make friends, you feel instantly good and kind of at home.
What other supporting departments do you typically involve on an average project? How large does this list grow when you’re working on a 3D movie?

On CG movie projects you have a long list including several departments, such as Concept Art, Storyboard, Modeling, Rigging, Layout, Animation, Dynamic Simulations, Rendering, Compositing... As an animator I usually deal with Layout and Rigging. On specific occasions I may coordinate with Tech Animation and Rendering to sort out particular issues.

Classic traditional productions have a similar list of different departments such as Concept Art and Design, Storyboard, Layout, Animation, Animation Assistant/In-between, Clean-Up, Coloring, Compositing...When I worked on traditional productions, I dealt mostly with Layout, In-between and sometimes with Clean-up and Compositing.
On Flash productions I’ve worked with Storyboard (which kind of replaces the layout, being noticeably more accurate than in feature films) and Compositing, when I wouldn't take care of it myself. 

As a storyboard and concept art supervisor it happened that I worked with the writer and modeling department in order to improve story, character and details during the process.

You worked on short movies, commercials and feature films, 2D and 3D; did you use the same techniques from one project to another? 
It depends on the shot, but generally yes. The principles are the same, but the design and/or requested animation style tells you how far you would take them. Other factors, such as deadlines, budget, complexity etc., may affect my approach to the animation process.
Tools, artistic and technical requirements, are obviously different from one project to another. Breaking this down would probably take too long for this interview. 

Usually I start by blocking out my key poses, maybe using some references that I shot earlier. I then submit my first blocking pass to the director (or supervisor, depending on the project) for  feedback. Then I start adding breakdowns to define timing, spacing and acting choices. In the meantime I receive more feedback and I keep refining until I reach the desired result. However, occasionally I might animate straight ahead or include breakdowns right away, depending on the complexity, action and length etc. of a shot. 

In commercials, TV and short films (with some exceptions) you normally have reduced budgets and different requirements. Story and animation may not be as complex and often a few steps of comments/feedback are skipped.

What challenges did you face in Planet 51?

When I arrived, I was stunned by the quality of the animation. It was quite tough to meet the level required by director Javier Abad, who had a very clear vision. I landed on the project in an advanced stage of the production and we had to animate quite an amount of footage in a relatively short time span. On top of that, we were using 3D Studio Max, a software package that I didn't have much confidence with, back then. These factors definitely spiced things up, but my colleagues were extremely supportive and friendly.

Your next project is (or I should say “was”) “Despicable Me”. What can we expect?

A movie where everyone gave their best and did an incredible job. I’m very excited and can’t wait to go see it.

What's your favorite scene? Who's your favorite character in the movie?
Since the movie is not out yet and I didn’t see the final edit, anything I’d say could turn out to be a bloody lie. That said, my favorites are Gru, Agnes and the Minions!!!

What did this movie mean to you?
When I saw the style and the animation of Despicable Me I was very impressed and I really liked the humor. Maybe it was also something that reminded me of some comic books I grew up with.
Working on Despicable Me was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed working in that animation team and appreciated the reviews with director Pierre Coffin and animation director Lionel Gallat  ( I learned so much and had a great experience. 
Was it a challenge? Why?
Yes. I had to get into the characters, the animation style, get used to the rigs, understand the pipeline, fit into the new environment, find an apartment, pretend that I’d understand French, try not to get killed making my way to work with my bicycle in a city of one way streets, etc. etc… The usual stuff. 
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
For now I am in London, animating at MPC on Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I would like to animate on a friends short film, get some personal work done and eventually try some writing. That’s about it.
We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your career. Was it an easy ride?
I would say it felt like a rollercoaster ride and still does sometimes. I’ll try to pick a few downers.
At the very beginning job hunting was quite tough. Graduating from Cal Arts a year after the Internet/E-Commerce bubble exploded and a few weeks before 9-11 weren’t the best conditions to start a career. Many of us had to struggle a lot at that time. I was still in the States when I signed a contract to give a two-week animation course in Germany. A few days later I got a job offer from “South Park” which overlapped with the teaching job and I had to let it go.
These odd situations still happen occasionally and probably happen to every freelancer at one time or another. You don’t have a job for a while and suddenly you get two or three offers at “once”.
Then I got a job offer for a Warner Bros. show, but two weeks before I was supposed to start, the show got canceled, or the studio got the job taken away, I don’t remember.
Then the folks from “South Park” showed up again, but my work visa was running out in two weeks and a new one would have taken about six weeks to arrange. They needed someone immediately and couldn’t risk having me work four weeks without the work visa.

My life changed radically five years ago when I had a heavy motorcycle accident and I was almost out of business for about year. I did two or three little jobs, the rest of the time I had to recover and rebuild. I would have had the chance to storyboard for a CG film, but physically I wasn’t fit enough. This was by far the hardest time, in every aspect: no more motorcycles for me!

I’m interested in different things and places and traveling abroad for work can have a great benefit, but has also a downside. It’s not easy to see your family, some friends, or a beloved one who are in a different city or country. It can turn into a crucial test for your relationship, or you may not fully enjoy a great new job and location, because you miss the one to share it with. With every move you’ll have to start a new little life, find an apartment, new friends, things you may need and your ways around in the new environment. You’ll always end up spending extra money for travels, buying supplies etc. and I found it hard to find the energy to focus on personal work.

All together I’ve been very lucky and I can’t say enough in terms of how thankful I am for the support from my family, friends and colleagues.
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
Uff, that sounds heavy. I couldn’t really say that there’s a project, which I personally got such praise for, maybe a few little, personal ones.
Sometimes the smallest projects give you the biggest joys. One was probably a more personally fulfilling project, since it happened soon after my motorcycle accident and I guess I could say, it was also commercially successful. It was a little opener I worked on in 2005 for the karaoke show Shibuya, on “Viva” channel (MTV Europe Channel). I got to do the character design and animation. They still air this little animation and giant prints and puppets of my characters are displayed in the studios across several countries in Europe. It got screened at the “Pictoplasma" Festival in Berlin and I got praise by a friend and colleague of mine that I admire for her work.

I also remember the screening of my first year film at Cal Arts. It was a great atmosphere. Everyone was so excited and in a good mood. We just finished our films and where ready to watch them all to finally see what everyone had been working on so hard for the last few months. When my film started, I had one funny feeling, basically all feelings mixed together and when the laughter started, I thought I’d explode.

What’s your favorite movie?
Hard to tell... there are many, indeed: Tekkonkinkreet, Mulholland Drive, The Emperor’s New Grove, The Party, Star Wars (4, 5 and 6), Amadeus, Totoro, Lilo & Stitch, Laputa, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Sweet and Lowdown, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, The Iron Giant. Just to mention a few I enjoy watching over and over again. 

If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
Oh boy, I know how I should answer this, but I can’t. A few days ago I looked at Chris Sanders work again, so I guess I could mention him, but I just wrote down these movies and I think of Hayao Miyazaki, Brad Bird, Glen Keane etc. While I’ve been writing this interview, lots of memories, experiences and other stuff come to my mind and I’d say Mark Andrews as well. Mark was one of my story teachers at Cal Arts. I had a great time in his class, loads of material and information, breaking down shots and scenes carried through his truckload of energy. I admire his work and the way he does it and he was an inspiring and supportive force for me. And I would like to see Mike Nguyen again, a great animator and another very inspiring person at Cal Arts time. I’d also like to go for Ashley Wood, Woody Allen or David Lynch, even though they don't do animation...

What would you like to add to your portfolio?
I’d like to add new drawings and more personal projects such as animation ideas and styles that I’ve been thinking about. At some point I hope to direct a short/film.

 As I’m always looking for challenges, I would like to continue working on feature films and other projects, get direction from great directors and supervisors, collaborate with colleagues and find further inspiration to add new and improved animations to it.