Have you ever thought about what goes on behind the scenes of an animated feature? A cartoon? Your favorite Disney movie? I didn’t give it too much thought until I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the Story Artists on the new movie Tinkerbell and the Legend of the Neverbeast. The interview was enlightening on the process an animated movie goes through to get made. Here is a bit of that interview with Story Artist Ryan Green and Animation Supervisor Mike Greenholt.
Ryan Green: I was a story artist for Tinkerbell and the Legend of the Neverbeast. In case you don’t know what that is- as a story artist, we usually work with the director, the writer, the head of story and we’ll sit in a room and we’ll throw around story ideas and try and figure out where we want to take it.
We get a lot of inspiration for this movie from Diane Fosse who went out to the wilderness to research the gorillas. So with Fawn and Pixie Hollow, we decided that she knows every single animal in Pixie Hollow except for this one guy. And it’s interesting that when we started, we didn’t even really know who “this guy” was. So this — this is the first image we had of him and he had the horns from the beginning, not even a tail. We didn’t know what he looked like from the front or the back.
So, we just had to start asking ourselves things like, “What is he?” and “What’s under that fur?” I got a fun fact about myself. I actually have a degree in biology and so I was able to give a little bit of insight into what might be underneath the fur, so I did a first skeletal overlay. One drawing that we had and what might be muscle and where the bony parts are. And as we were starting to draw, some of the story artists were drawing the hump on his back, kind of like a cat might have, like that arched back.
Others are drawing it more like a bison, so we had to say, “All right, enough with the differentiation.” Let’s just, let’s come up with one solid type of animal that we’re dealing with here.
So we ended up deciding on a herbivore type of group and so from that point on, we decided let’s go to the zoo and let’s research some animals that have similar body types. We looked at like hippos and rhinos, and it’s interesting: if you look at either of those animals from the front, they have a big mass upon top. Then like a wine glass, their legs are kind of underneath the center of gravity and that allows for them to not move around, or not wobble so much when they move around.
So one of the first design changes we did was to move his legs in a little bit more. It’s essentially the way the feet fall of a hippo when it walks so they essentially go left, left, right, right, left, left, right, right. So there’s that little moment at time where both right feet will be off the ground. And then both left feet will be off the ground so essentially it just shows that the animal does kind of swing back and forth. And the farther you have the legs out, the more he’s got to swing so it’s better just to keep those legs underneath as much as possible.
We did a lot of research on what type of legs we wanted for the animal. We started with an elephant leg knowing we wanted a giant enormous type of beast. And you’re probably familiar with the underside of an elephant foot that has that round shape.
But for story reasons again, we needed him to kind of dig into the ground and we thought it might be good to have some toes on there. We did a hybrid and it looked weird so we said let’s just get rid of the fat pad and make him a little bit more agile and we gave him more of like a hippo leg or a cat leg so he could do some running. The tail is another important design element. You know, he’s standing on these 4 legs with all this weight and the tail almost became like another appendage for him. We got a lot of inspiration from a porcupine tail. You know, they can curl up and wrap onto things.
They can grab onto a log and hang on. For a while, we thought we might just keep his tail curled up underneath his body and just reveal it at times. But it looked a little weird and looked more like he was a shamed dog so we just decided to leave it hanging out. It would be kind of like an opossum and he would just drop down as far as he could, and then drop to the ground or he’d use his tail like hanging and just pick up rocks and put them together.
We started with a bunch of shark teeth and then as the story progressed, we realized that he needs to bite off some snog grass sap and chew it up and make a paste to build the towers so we decided to keep it bizarre. Let’s leave them other worldly and give them lots of rows of teeth but we’ll put in some molars in there so he can actually grind up the food. And here’s just a panel of him biting off and then spitting it back out. And this is another little feature we gave him which is kind of like a chameleon tongue. He just opens his mouth and his tongue can shoot out and back in.
So we had a lot of great design and reference from story and design before we went into animation. Um, but the — the big challenge for animation was to make him seem believable. Even though he’s a fantasy creature, he had to feel like he was living and breathing in an animal. Um, so our first challenge was to just make him move like an animal. So you know, we looked at rhinos and buffalo just to, you know, look at big heavy animals, and just see how do they move. What makes them feel heavy? And so we studied that and just applied it to a walk. And we knew he had this big tail that he sort of held in a curl so it’s like how do you make that feel natural? I’ll let Mike take it from here.
MIKE GREENHOLT: So we just did exploration until we got to a walk here that just felt like a very old creature. It’s very heavy. And then from there, we went to how it would run. We looked at the rhinoceros to see how they charge? They’re very heavy, very big but they can move very fast. So we looked at that but then also we knew we had a sequence where he’s chasing Fawn through the Forest and he’s almost like a puppy loping after its master. So we wanted to put just a little bit of that playfulness into this run.
He kind of slaps the ground like a little dog would. Just to put that little bit of playfulness in there. And again, if he’s moving quickly, the tail is not gonna hold its curl anymore but just be almost like a whip like action. We see that again in the chase sequence cause it’s knocking over trees and branches and it just had to feel dangerous also. And so the first big challenges were just to make him move like an animal. From there, we had to make him emote like an animal. Um, the thing we didn’t want to do was make Gruff look like he was a man in a costume or someone wearing makeup.
He had to act but he had to act like an animal. So, we did a test just showing his range of motion for his face. And you know, a person smiles, frowns but animals don’t do that the same way that people do. So we limited his facial expressions and controls to what can an animal do. It can sneer. It could open their mouth. A lot of animals have a lot of muscles in their brow, in their ears, and nose. So we just tried to play up those.
From there, we put a lot of controls around his eyebrows, so we could just move them, subtle nuance to give furrows to it or shifts when he looks back and forth just to try to put some of that emotion that you see in a dog’s brows when they’re confused or looking right and left. you get a lot of movement there. So that helped us just get his face emote more and feel more malleable and alive.
We just continued with Gruff until we got him to what he is in the movie. The whole process (making the movie) is about 3 and a half years. There’s an overlap between the production parts and the design kind of bleeds into the story process. The story process bleeds into animation.
Q : Is Gruff one of the hardest things you’ve had to animate?
RYAN: Yes he was. He was one of the most fun, too because he doesn’t speak, his whole performance is animation, and so the animator can’t rely on a voice to carry the performance which is a challenge but is also a lot of fun.