VFX/PDX:  Ha!  What gear do you mostly use when you’re art at home, more on the ‘for pleasure’ side of things?

Susanna:  I have a Macbook Pro and a Wacom tablet and I really love Artrage for digital painting.

Artrage Studio Pro screenshot

It’s simple – doesn’t have too many unnecessary bells and whistles – but it performs really well (at least in place of acrylics or oils – watercolor, not so much). When I’m painting digitally, I really want to pare it down.  I use one brush, a couple of blenders and layers of color – I don’t usually want to get into any tricky stuff with filters or masks – I just want to paint!

VFX/PDX:  Cool!  I’ll put that one on my list to check out.  And then on the flip side, when at work – what tools do you use at LAIKA when it comes to FX work?

Toonboom screenshot

Susanna:  I used ToonBoom for ParaNorman. Of the programs I tried, it seemed to have the best drawing tools and animation tools (as opposed to Photoshop, which has great drawing tools, but lacked the animation tools I needed and Flash, which lacked the drawing versatility).  I really just used it as a substitute for paper though – drawing every frame and outputting a digital file of each. I didn’t use it to tween for me.

VFX/PDX:  Yes, interesting to hear you say that, because it seems like it’s just now getting to the point where some of the digital tools are becoming comfortable and replacing animation work that was traditionally done on paper and then digitized.  Your counterpart at LAIKA on Coraline was John Armstrong, and he had a downshooter at his desk and would pull his hand drawn animation into our compositing program (Apple Shake in those days) and manipulate and color the frames from there.

Probably the biggest advantage to going digital is that glorious ‘undo’ button.  Doing what you do (which is labor intensive) but within the typically iterative process of a VFX department, where revisions are common – and expected – how do you try to keep the number of revisions at bay?  Is there a process you’ve developed for roughing things out and then refining from there, or is the animation responsive enough that it’s typically always done at full quality, all or nothing?

Susanna:  Yes, usually I’ll try and keep it fairly rough, just so that I’m not wasting a lot of company time going in the wrong direction.  But there are some situations where you really can’t do that – where you actually need quite a lot of detail to even get the idea across.  But on the whole, I try and rough it in, keeping the detail to a minimum and just showing keyframes until I get that signed off on from the directors – then I’ll go back in and refine and tween it.

VFX/PDX:  Yeah, I love to hear about that because it’s similar to CG animation in Maya or After Effects but I think your workflow is much more precise.  Just the concept of having such clearly defined ‘tween’ and keyframing stages, and the emphasis you put on blocking is interesting to me.  For those not up on animation lingo – keyframing are the “hero” frames of animation that define an important frame or major change in speed, look, or direction…  whereas tweening is filling in the (more or less)  ‘leftover bits’ in between keyframes, where you’re just connecting the dots.  I think in some ways we’ve gotten spoiled by the digital styles of animation that lean so heavily on the computer to take care of the tweening step that it’s almost become subconscious.  I wonder if one of the traits that defines your animation is the extreme attention to detail that an animator who is computer-aided doesn’t have, because they’re not as attached to every frame?  Like, I wonder how many curves are left linear in Maya or AE that you would have some soft ease-in type of move in there.  Subtleties. 

I think it would take a more highly trained eye to sort of imagine the in-between frames and the timing and flow before they happen, rather than letting the computer do it and then tweaking from there.  I think I might fully understand how spoiled we are now!

Some animators talk about reaching a sort of zen state with headphones on, where they animate while listening to music, audiobooks, etc over the course of a day, and sort of allowing their brain to multi-task to help keep things moving.  I know this was certainly true in my previous life as a roto/paint artist.  There were days where I’d go through entire albums.  Catalogs!

Is this something that applies to your world?  Or do you find that certain FX tasks are too cerebral to zen out?

Susanna:  I can tween to my heart’s content and listen to whole books on tape with vivid pictures in my head to accompany them – it seems to require another part of my brain entirely.  But when I’m animating?  Designing keys and movement?  I can’t even listen to music – it requires my full attention.

VFX/PDX:  Gotcha.  Another animation question for you – do you feel any differently when you finish a big illustration or painting than when you complete a tough animation?

Susanna:  Lots of artists talk about how you never really finish something, you just come to a place where you have to walk away.  A writer (I forget who) once said that she finishes her manuscripts when the UPS guy shows up and wrenches them out of her hands!  And I love that.  A lot of the time it’s the same for me – I almost always would do more – tweak it in some way – especially with animation – but there are time constraints, or other people’s opinions I have to adhere to so I really get to a place where I have to stop and hand it over to someone else.  With a painting I’m doing just for fun, though, it’s a little different – when it goes well, there just comes a point where I know I’ve just made the last mark – added the final highlight – or with watercolor, in particular, where overworking will totally destroy a good painting, I know that was the last layer.  Sometimes then there’s a feeling of stepping back from the painting and it’s a bit like waking up – I have had experiences of looking at something I just finished and feeling like it came through me, rather than that I created it.  And that’s pretty cool.

VFX/PDX:  Yes!  I think that’s true of any art, once you have a real mastery of the technique it just flows.  It becomes an expression. What do you find more fulfilling these days – smaller projects that you perhaps create entirely by yourself, or projects where you’re part of a larger crew and specializing in a small slice?


Susanna:  I prefer the collaborative experience. There’s just something more satisfying to me in being part of a team that’s helping bring someone’s dream to life. And there’s nothing quite like the creative tennis of batting an idea back and forth, each person adding a little to it until it’s where it needs to be. And with animation, or movies in general, then you get to show it to a great many people and sometimes, spark something in some of them too.

VFX/PDX:  And did someone spark something in you at some point?  Any films dating way back that got you into the idea of working in animation or VFX?  So many movie theaters in Portland screen vintage classics on a regular basis (I’m talking like, Laurelhurst, Hollywood, etc.) – what movie could you simply not pass up if it were playing this week?

Susanna:  Back to the Future.  Will never forget when I saw that one for the first time.  I had always loved movies, but something about that one just resonated with me all the way down to my toes!  I found out that Industrial Light and Magic had done the FX, which led me to learn more about the other work they’d done…  and then I knew what I wanted to do for a living.

VFX/PDX:  Oh yeah, there are very few perfect movies, but that first Back to the Future ranks as one of them, for sure.  Zemeckis at his finest.