Interview - Virgil Tanasa
Senior Animator Lionhead Studios
Born: Romania Contact: United Kingdon
Tell us a bit about yourself...When did you discover 3D? What programs do you use?
If I remember correct, I think I’ve started 3D when I was still in college, somewhere around 1997-1998. I’ve started with 3DStudio 4, which was the predecessor of 3DStudio Max and it had such limited power and possibilities that artists nowadays wouldn’t even believe but it was an amazing tool which allowed you to build objects, add materials to them and render out images, or even better, image sequences! Therefore, animation!
Currently, I still use 3DSMax for my personal projects, since I know it best and have been working with it for most of my time - at my current job I use Softimage and Motion Builder. I’m also familiar with Maya as well, though mostly on the animation side.
What are, according to you, the weaknesses of Autodesk compared to other packages?
Are we referring to a certain package from Autodesk or Autodesk on the whole?
If on the whole, then I can’t really say much about that, because most of the 3d animation programs that I used or I’m using are now owned by Autodesk, so it’s harder to answer… but differences in Autodesk packages (like 3dsmax, Maya, Softimage) can still be spotted and for example, I like animating in Maya more than I do in 3dsmax, but I love 3dsmax modeling and rendering tools … it’s up to each artist, I guess, and what you feel most comfortable with.
How involved was the interview process at Lionhead Studios?
The interview was actually a very cool experience, slightly different than what I was expecting, but on the good side. Jamie Galipeau and Andrew Lindsay are very nice people and they easily make you feel comfortable and forget you’re at an interview. I talked a lot about my work and my past employment but frankly it was like talking to my friends on a day out, they were very interested on knowing as much as they can about you and your work and skills, but I never felt there was any blocking moment or awkward questions. Maybe preparation and experience play a role as well, I don’t know… I always tend to make myself as ready as possible for this kind of situations and maybe I “over-prepare”, but that’s a plus, I think .
Your experience covers advertising, the games industry and animation. Is animation that rewarding to make it your current career?
Yes, and this is a very big YES. Nothing I’ve done so far in my career has been as fascinating and as interesting as animation. I remember that pretty much all I’ve done since I started working in 3D was building my path to become an animator. Modeling and texturing, rendering and everything else is to me an accessory to help me create my own worlds where I can transpose my ideas and stories through movement, through animation.
Even though my experience includes adverts and the games industry, they’ve always been connected with animation, for the most part of my past projects, I’ve been an animator AND an artist. Animation was always there.
Do you recognize differences between animators, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen?
Yes, if the animators have a strong personality as well, that always reflects in their work. I remember a Spanish animator I met in Liverpool, at a company I worked for and he was totally crazy outside work, loud and bursting with energy. But this internal energy and personality were also reflecting in his work, all the accents and poses he was doing were pushed to extreme, sometimes over the top, and the animation had a great amount of energy. He almost couldn’t tone it down enough to get build-ups to specific moments, to get more texture in his pieces.
I think I could say that I have certain things that make my animation “recognizable” as some people said. I also don’t know if my style is aimed to become something I’ve seen and really liked. I think my main focus, when animating, is not really to make it look in a certain way, but rather make it feel alive, believable and interesting. My thinking is that if I can apply all I know about animation (principles and methods) to make a character move and feel organic and believable, then it doesn’t matter if I do it the Warner Bros style or Pixar style… or even completely realistic. Depends what the character requirements are and what the project demands. Maybe later on, when I’ll be 10 times as good as I am now, I will think about animating in a certain way, different than the others… but something that comes to mind now is that you DO animate in a different way than the others anyway. You use the same set of principles, but how each of us applies it in his work is pretty much personal feeling and choice. The way each of us does timing, spacing, acting choices, is very personal and it’s probably good to be that way, otherwise you’d probably be copying too much or inspiring too much from something you like.
How do you start the mechanics of an animation? Do you use exact references (like a movie) or just imagine the movement?
It depends a lot on the requirements. References always help, regardless if you do a realistic shot or a cartoon one. If you look on the internet, many of the top animators out there have been posting “progression reels” which show the stages of creating a piece of animation, from acting choices (video reference of the animator itself, playing the line and acting it out) to the finished CG shot. It’s amazing to see what they can come up with sometimes, very inspiring!
If I don’t have access to reference or I can’t act it out, I at least do some thumbnails of the specific motion to see the main poses and lines of action, to see how it should flow. One thing about the references is that you are never supposed to copy them 100%, as in cloning the motion from a video reference frame by frame. Instead, it’s the best to understand the motion, understand what is happening in terms of weight, poses, balance - and tweak those poses and timing, so they become more than that copy of the reality (which is a bad idea anyway). Animation involves exaggeration, clarity, silhouette – you need to look for ways to show those.
It’s a lot of fun to just imagine a motion, I used to do practice tests animating quickly, in pencil (or more recently in 2d animation software, cause it’s very fast to see results) and then confront with some reference materials and see how much of the actual action I was catching in my “imagined” animation – how much my intuition helped. If it’s just for fun, that’s good, but if it’s for production, it’s too dangerous. Even in time, if you get more and more experienced, you’ll find out that you still act out different movements to understand how they work and you don’t rely 100% on your knowledge(or assumptions ) about them.
What was the biggest challenge in the “A Cab trip” project?
I think the main character’s fur was the biggest problem. If it wouldn’t have been such an issue, all characters would have had fur, but in the end I chose to only have fur on Griv and let the others be just textured models, plus a velvet-like shader. This kind of made him stand out from the other characters, at least in terms of visual treatment, but on the other hand I never felt like he was totally out of place between them. The fur didn’t came out great in the end and sometimes it used to look totally different when I was rendering the scene from a different angle, though I wasn’t changing anything in the lighting or shaders. Weird…
One of this year’s projects is “Flonzies”. What can we expect?
A very nice story about friendship and how you can find it where you least expect. I’m hoping that the character’s appeal will make it into a very entertaining little film. It may even be a 2d animation film, this is what I’m currently working on, to see if I can deliver it in a reasonable amount of time. If not, 3d models are already started.
What is the typical starting point in a 3D project? How long does it usually take?
If we’re referring to my personal projects, it’s always the story. I’ve read articles about people who just start modeling/animating/etc without a clear idea and they go with the flow, that’s probably ok for spontaneity, for interesting things coming up along the way, ideas, or anything like that.
For me, I always start with thinking about a story and if it’s interesting enough to be out there. Maybe my Cab Trip film isn’t really a great story, it’s actually very simple but I felt that the way my character would behave in those circumstances would make it into an enjoyable experience and I hope I did. The story doesn’t really need to be smashingly original if you tell it in an interesting way and the pacing is good.
Many times I found that coming up with a story and figuring out a way to tell it in an interesting manner are very hard things to do, and they also take a long time! For sure I’m still finding my way out there and learning as we speak about what makes a good story and what doesn’t but the main thing is that not every idea you have is worth a story, or can be transformed into a story.
We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your animator career. Was it an easy ride?
No, of course not. As I was saying, I’m still learning a lot at the moment about animation and I think there’s still a way to go until I can be happy about my animation skills. If there’s one thing I would have liked to be different, it’s having more resources to learn from when I was starting up. There was so little information back then, compared to now. There’s an abundance of animation schools and tutorials and general information about it, I think it’s slightly easier now to start up. But maybe learning the hard way has its benefits, maybe you get better that way. I hope so, at least .
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an animator has in his portfolio or skills?
I think the main requirements for an animator haven’t really changed that much, just the quality bar has been raised sensibly. You need to improve every day and not rely on your skills thinking that it’s enough, even if you’re in business - there’s new tricks and methods that come up to make the performance better and better and I’m talking here about animation purely. Technically, I think there aren’t too many limits anymore… you can create and animate a character pretty much like you want, compared to the times when you had too many constraints imposed by the limitations of the software, rendering engines, etc.
I also think that you need to target your skills towards what you want to do in the future. If you want a job in games, focus on delivering strong pieces showing physical actions, body mechanics, cycles – if you’re thinking about getting a job in film, then you clearly need to add acting, facial animation to the ones above, work with dialogue... Though, it’s not so clear anymore, the line between the two is starting to fade, when you look at the requirements for current animation jobs, even in games you’re doing more and more acting and facial animation. So I would say, be as good as you can be and keep an eye on what everyone else is doing! And learn all the time, because that’s how animation works…
If your child wants to be a 3D artist what would you tell him/her?
I’d offer my support all the way through and would encourage him to do this. I would try to make him see what possibilities exist in this art form, which allows you to make your dreams and ideas come true.
I love teaching or sharing my experience in animation and 3d with everyone else.
Out of all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?
It would have to be my short film, A Cab Trip. It was very challenging, it was hard to make and there were a lot of little things I’ve done in there that maybe can’t be seen unless you look very close; all in all, a huge undertaking but with every shot, it was growing and shaping up into a nice little film. I hope it pleased the viewers as well.
I have invested a lot in it and it was my first experience of this kind, it felt and it still feels very special. And after all this time, I can still look at it without getting bored ;)
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
Difficult to pick, but if I could gather around a few people, it would probably be Jason Ryan, Brad Bird, Chris Sanders, Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg… let’s stop here.
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
I’ve got one film I am working on (not Flonzies) which has a pretty interesting graphic style (it’s the “Street” project – will update it soon with new stuff) and I’d like to see where I can take it. It feels original, from what most people said and I’m happy it does, that was one of my aims.
On a more general note, I’m planning to create a few new short films with interesting stories and hopefully original, distinctive visuals.
What would you like to add to your portfolio?
I’d like to finish the short films that I’m working on at the moment, in my free time and get them out there. I’m sure everyone would like them. I also want to do some concept art and graphic material for a few more short films that I have in my plans. I’ve got the ideas for them and for some I also have the story and characters. I believe they have potential and I’d like to see them completed sometime soon.