Interview - Mike Stern


Michael Stern
Animator at Dreamworks Animation

Contact: Los Angeles, California
Email: Sternio (at)
Tell us a bit about yourself...When did you discover 3D? What programs do you use?
Well, I grew up in New York and I always had a love for both computers and animation.
I was compelled by the idea of having a animating for a living but I never saw a clear pathway to that profession. I had taken what I considered to be the best approach and studied illustration in college. The advice I kept getting from other artists in NY was that if I wanted to make a living as an artist, I had to get into the advertising industry.

That is exactly what I did. I worked as an Art Director in the advertising industry for three years. A lot of the work I was doing was on the computer and some of it even involved some primitive animation in flash. This really sparked my interest and I once again became fixated on finding a way to animate for a living. The advertising company I worked for covered the cost for employee continued education so I took some 3D animation classes at NYU. After the introductory sessions I realized that if I wanted to really learn this stuff I would need to dedicate myself to it. So I left my job in advertising to pursue animation full time.

I learned 3D animation using Maya. Now that I am at DreamWorks I use their proprietary software.

How involved was the interview process at DreamWorks?
The interview wasn't any more intricate than the interviews that I had at other jobs. The team had seen my work before I came in so I imagine that the interview was to get a feel for my personality and to determine if I was a good fit for the job.
Your experience covers advertising, the games industry and animation. Is animation that rewarding to make it your current career?
Being a film animator is a very rewarding profession. I feel as though my previous professions helped contribute to my success as a film animator. I still utilize the brainstorming and design concepts that I learned as an Art Director in Advertising as well as the technical and mechanics concepts that I learned while working in games.
What are the main differences between being a student versus being an instructor at AnimationMentor experience as a student? Have you discovered any outstanding talent among your pupils?
It's great to be on the other side of the fence and to be able to pass along the things that I've learned. I've had some super talented students that would impress me with their submissions week after week. I've also had number of students that were able to turn a corner during my class and truly start to understand the material. That is the most rewarding aspect of teaching.

Do you recognize differences between animators, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen?
I do recognize a difference in animator's styles. When I look at certain shots I can guess who animated it without seeing the name attached.  There are certain animators that do subtle acting really well and than others that are experts at broad acting and comedy.
As far as my personal style, I try to push my range so that I am available to be cast on whatever is in the pipeline. That said, I feel that my most successful work to this point has been the subtle stuff.
How do you start the mechanics of an animation? Do you use exact references (like a movie) or just imagine the movement?
This depends on the shot. There are some shots where the motion needs to feel natural and absolutely believable. In these shots I will use video reference. On the other hand, if the shot calls for an idea that somewhat defies the natural laws of physics than I will rely more on my imagination and thumbnail drawings.

What other supporting departments (besides animation) do you typically involve on an average project? How large does this list grow when you’re working on a 3D movie?
There are a bunch of departments involved in making an animated movie. The film starts in the story dept, then moves through visual development, modeling, surfacing, rigging, layout, animation, character effects, visual effects, and then lighting. The two departments that animation works with directly are rigging and layout.
You worked on Monster vs. Aliens, Kung Fu Panda and Bee Movie; did you use the same animation techniques from one project to another?
Even though the styles of the movies are quite different, I used a lot of the same techniques while working on each of them. There are times when I switch up the way I work, but this is more dependent on the shot than the show.
The way I usually work through a shot is to start with key poses on every 8-12 frames. These poses communicate the main ideas in the shot. I will show the shot to the directors at this stage. In the next pass I will incorporate any director feedback and continue to add poses that show the transitions between the key poses. These poses are known as breakdown poses. Once I get to the point where I have a pose on at least every 4 frames, I will see what the computer gives me for the in-betweens.
The first pass of computer in-betweening is usually pretty rough, so I will adjust the poses and add more in-betweens manually until i get the animation to where it needs to be. There are some shots where I deviate from this workflow and animate the character straight ahead one body part at a time starting from the center of gravity. This technique is known as layering and is ideal for the more physical shots. It is also the workflow I use for flying shots or shots with a moving camera.

Your next project for DreamWorks is “How to Train Your Dragon”. What can we expect?
I couldn't be more excited about this film. I think that is really all I can say at this point. There have been a few early reviews and so far they all look very positive.

Do you still find time for your own projects? Tell us a little about Distraxion; how did it start? How long did you work on it? What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
I still find time for my own projects. I have a few ideas that I have been working on. I spend a lot of time writing and sketching out ideas. I know the amount effort that it takes to fully realize these ideas so I am waiting for the right opportunity to actually produce one.
Distraxion is two minutes long and took me two years to complete. I started it during the short film class at AnimationMentor. It was about 75% complete at the end of the program and I continued to work on the film at night and on weekends until it was finished. Once I had a finished film I submitted it to a bunch of festivals. It played in over 25 festivals and won awards at 8 of them.

What is the typical starting point in a 3D project? How long does it usually take?
If the project has dialog than the starting point is usually a script, otherwise it all starts with storyboards. As far as the amount of time, it really depends on what type of project you are working on. There are some commercials that go from boards to full production in a matter of days. On the other hand, there are films that spend years in boards.
The farther into the pipeline you go the harder and more expensive it is to make changes so you want to make sure that all of the story kinks are worked out while the project is still in the early stages.

We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your animator career.  Was it an easy ride?
I am so happy with the way things turned out, but there were certainly some downs along the way. I had to put my life on hold for the three years that I studied animation in order to make sure that I was giving it my absolute best shot.
Studying animation takes time and costs money. In order to minimize my debt I decided to work full time while I was in school and in turn. To make a long story short, I ended up stretching myself pretty thin. I worked long hours without sleeping and eventually it started to effect my work, my relationships and even my health. The most important thing that I learned while studying animation was what my own limitations are. There was also a lot of rejection along the way. I would estimate that I sent out about 40 reels before I received any sort of reply. I also had a few close calls in which studios would show some interest and then ultimately decide to pass . At the time it was absolutely heartbreaking. 

If you had unlimited resources (from artists to money) what path would you take?
Ha, I'd set up an animation studio up in the mountains so that I could snowboard during the day and work on a film in the evenings.
If your child wants to be a 3D artist what would you tell him/her?
That would be awesome, I would just make sure that they were into it for the right reasons. This is an awesome job, I could not think of anything else I would rather be doing for a living.
That being said, you really need to love this stuff in order to make it as a professional in this industry.
Despite what they show on the DVD extra features, this job is not very glamorous. It is A LOT of time spent in front of the computer. The only way to believe that it is worthwhile is to truly love the process as well as the results.