Turbo, the new animated film from Dreamworks Animation premiered this week. We talk to Milana Huang, its Character Technical Director, about her work and inspiration.
Novedge: Tell us about yourself and what you do.
Milana Huang: As a kid I loved to draw. I wanted to illustrate books and poems. Fast forward a bit and I realized I enjoyed art, math, science, and computers. Where could I combine these interests? Computer animation!
From graduate school, where I worked on virtual reality and scientific visualization, I made my way to Dreamworks Animation. I work as a Character Technical Director, or Rigger. We take a 3D character model and create a skeleton and system inside of it so that the animators can pose it in any way they choose. It's like we are building a puppet in the computer so the animators can use the controls to create a desired performance. We work closely with the animators and production designers to make sure the rig is easy to pose and creates the desired shapes, movement, and aesthetic for a given film.
Our work is artistic and technical, a fun combination. I've had the pleasure of taking on the roles of rigger and supervisor on various films including Shrek, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Madagascar Escape 2 Africa, and Turbo.
Novedge: What is it like to work as a Technical Director at Dreamworks Animation? What is your typical day like?
Milana Huang: A typical day depends on where we are on the timeline of an animated movie production. At the beginning we do more development, working with animators and production designers to make sure we have the right techniques and animation controls to hit the desired aesthetic movement and look. Middle of production is applying agreed upon templates to the many characters, clothing, and props we rig for a film. The later part of production is support and troubleshooting.
Novedge: What inspires you?
Milana Huang: There is so much inspiration all around. Independent and student animated shorts have great stories to tell in a myriad array of styles and mediums. At galleries and museums I recently enjoyed illuminated manuscripts from the 1400's, urban art, and custom toys. My colleagues at Dreamworks Animation are multitalented artists, tinkerers, gardeners, cooks, musicians, and comedians.
Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?
Milana Huang: For our latest movie release, Turbo, I helped supervise a great team of riggers. We worked with the animators to answer questions of how should a snail walk, what kind of path system should it follow, how should a snail body always avoid intersecting ground objects it passes over, and how should a face with eyeballs on stalks on the top of its head have shapes and animation controls to be most expressive and appealing. You'll have to go see the movie to see how we did!
Before Turbo, I was on the crew of Rise of the Guardians, a beautiful film about Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Toothfairy, Sandman and Jack Frost: they are guardians of children's hopes and imagination. I rigged Jack Frost's face and had fun crafting the many shapes that animators use to make him express mischief, fun, and contemplation.
After Turbo, I worked on Mr. Peabody & Sherman, about a genius dog, his adopted boy, and time travel. It comes out in 2014. I helped supervise the rigging team where we setup a large cast of characters with huge differences in shape and proportion to perform in places around the world in many different time periods. We continued development of our face setup system first deployed on Turbo. I architected the system to allow automation, flexible display, and a guided user interface through steps of setup.
Novedge: How important is team work in your field? When working with large teams, how do you handle coordinating and supervising everybody's work? What about working with multiple software, file formats, etc.?
Milana Huang: Team work is extremely important! A feature film requires hundreds of people working in symphony to create the final movie we enjoy up on the screen. Add to that our studio works on many movies in various stages of completion at the same time. Collaboration and standards are key to make this work successfully and efficiently. We don't want to reinvent the wheel for each movie. For example, after working with animators we agree upon a standard human leg system. This is used across all shows. If there's a fix or an improvement all shows benefit. New shows can spend more of their time developing what's unique for their show, for example, how does a cartoony snail walk?
Novedge: What software do you use?
Milana Huang: We use proprietary software for our character rigs. This allows us to get under the hood for customization, optimization, and flexibility in developing rigs for the animators and for integration into the whole production pipeline. Also, we can work directly with the R&D department for fixes and features.
Novedge: What advice do you have for young people who would like to follow in your footsteps and work in animation? What skills, both technical and personal, are in demand at Dreamworks Animation and more broadly in the animation industry?
Milana Huang: If you'd like to work at a large studio like Dreamworks Animation, choose a specialty. You'll be asked which department you want to join, like rigging, animation, fx, lighting, etc. Focus on learning the fundamentals. For example, for rigging, acquire skills to understand how things move, anatomy, develop an artistic eye to know when something looks great, what shapes makes a smile look appealing. Knowing some math and programming will help you better understand how joints and points move under the hood so you can better control and customize how they move. These principles can be applied with any software tool you'll use. Personal skills of collaboration, communication, and being a problem solver are always in demand.
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