Interview By Tom Remp
About Mark Donald
Mark Donald is a supervising animator for Dreamworks Animation. He has just finished work on Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and is now involved with Rise of the Guardians which comes out later this year.
About DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation creates high-quality entertainment, including CG animated feature films, television specials and series, live entertainment properties and online virtual worlds, meant for audiences around the world. The Company has world-class creative talent, a strong and experienced management team and advanced filmmaking technology and techniques. DreamWorks Animation has been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” by FORTUNE® Magazine for four consecutive years. In 2012, DreamWorks Animation ranks #14 on the list. All of DreamWorks Animation’s feature films are now being produced in 3D. The Company has theatrically released a total of 23 animated feature films, including the franchise properties of Shrek,Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
S.A.L: When did you get into animation? What was your career path like?
M.D: I actually began my career working for a local Scottish architect in Glasgow. After spending several years in what was a very technical orientated industry, I came to the realization that I had to do something more creative and I decided to explore my interest in animation. I got my first break in a small CG studio making cinematic sequences for games and commercials and this was my first real job where I started learning about animation. From there, I went on to work on the games industry for several years, then film and TV studios before landing at PDI DreamWorks.
S.A.L: What previous projects have you been involved in? Which is your favorite?
M.D: Previous projects I've worked on include Lara Croft-Tomb Raider, Everyone's Hero, The Wild, Madagascar - Escape to Africa, Shrek the Third, Bee Movie, MVA- Mutant Pumpkins from Outer-space, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar Europe's Most Wanted. I would say Madagascar 2 was the most fun show to work on, it was a dream come true to be part of something that had such a big impact on me when I first saw it on the big screen. It was hard not to have fun with these characters when they are so appealing to animate.
S.A.L: What does your day-to-day job look like?
M.D: My day to day job consists of getting in about 8 am and starting the day off with a cup of English tea. I'll then take a look at my shot renders from the night before, watch over the sequence I'm working on and take notes. Depending on the show I usually then have a morning dailies session with the animators and director(s). Then mid-morning I will have animation rounds with my team and go over their shots. This usually takes around 1-1/2 hrs.
The afternoon is usually reserved for my own animation time and any other meetings that need attending. We then usually have another review session with the directors late afternoon; this is sometimes at the animators’ desks and called walk-throughs. After all the meetings are over, I can usually squeeze in another hour or two of animation before heading home for the night.
S.A.L: How many people are generally involved with a big animation project?
M.D: There are literally hundreds of people involved in making an animated movie, with many different artistic elements making up the final product. It really is a massive team effort and when the credits roll at the end of a film, it's amazing to see the huge number of people who all contributed towards the 90 minutes of film.
M.D: Could you briefly explain the process of making an animated movie?
M.D: Making a move is a hugely complex and elaborate process, which literally takes years. A movie will typically have a long period of development before eventually getting into production. In this phase, the story and design are the focus, creating characters, their story and the world in which they exist. Once the movie goes into production, every shot and scene goes through a process which involves several different departments such as modeling, pre-vis, layout, animation and lighting. Much groundwork has already been done before a shot arrives on the animators’ desk. From an animation point of view, three seconds of screen time typically takes about a week for one animator to produce. All of the assets needed, the voice recording, editing, environments, props etc., have all been prepared beforehand so the animators are in a position to start their shot and focus purely on creating a unique performance for that specific moment in the film.
S.A.L: What movie originally inspired you to look at becoming an animator?
Like many others I'm sure, it wasn't until I saw Toy Story in the theater that I really knew I wanted to be a CG animator. The depth and sophistication was astounding and the desire to animate and bring characters to life in such an intricate way overwhelmed me. I knew at this point acting and animation was where I wanted my career to head.
S.A.L: What are you working on at the moment?
M.D: I've just finished work on Madagascar Europe's Most Wanted. I was the supervising animator for "Vitaly", the Russian Tiger. He was a really great character to work on and it was a privilege helping define and bring him to life. It's a great feeling to become very connected to the character that I'm helping create. A big part of their personality comes from the actor who is providing the voice and we sometimes watch videos of their voice recording sessions to analyze the acting nuances of their performance.
S.A.L: Who is your favorite animated character that you’ve been involved in creating? Why?
M.D: My favorite character so far has to be Vitaly. What made me enjoy him so much was his strong personality and a quite emotional character arc in the movie. On the face of it he comes across as a very one dimensional and negative character, but as we start to understand what makes him tick and the reasons he acts the way he does, it makes him a much more interesting part of the movie.
S.A.L: If you could animate any existing story, what would it be?
M.D: I'd love to animate the Clive King novel "Stig of the Dump", it's such a charming little story that I've loved since childhood. I think it would appeal to both adults and kids alike.
S.A.L: What do you see as your best accomplishment?
M.D: Being nominated for an Annie award is a great feeling. I think all animators, whether they admit or not, cherish the recognition they get from their peers. It makes all the long hours and hard work worth it if you can feel proud of your contribution when it's all done and on the screen.
S.A.L: Do you think animation is still mainly for kids, or has the appeal shifted?
M.D: These days, animated feature films have to generate such massive numbers in terms of box office and therefore must appeal to a very broad audience. The ideal is when parents actually want to take their kids to the theater because they would really like to see the movie as well. A kids film can be written in a much more sophisticated way, allowing the parents to become immersed in more detailed worlds and more complex characters.
S.A.L: What advice to do you for young people looking to get into this field?
M.D: My advice for young people who would like to get into the animation field would be to become as knowledgeable as they can about the art. This would obviously mean enrolling in schools, online or traditional, and learning as much and as fast as they can. Practicing is key, whilst schools are obviously important, it's good to not underestimate what can be accomplished just by picking up tools and trying out new things, learning can come from any source.
S.A.L: What are some of the misconceptions people have about animation and animators?
M.D: Definitely one of the misconceptions about CG animators in particular is that we just press buttons and the computer does all the work. We've all heard the term "pixel pusher". It couldn't be further from the truth - in reality a feature animator does the job of an actor. In real life the actor will do many takes until he gets what the director wants. In animation the idea is basically the same, the choices, details and nuances are all coming from the animator until the performance is right and it gets the directors approval.
S.A.L: Where do you see animation in five years? Where do you see yourself?
Just now I'm working as a supervising animator on "Rise of the Guardians". Hopefully in five years’ time, I will still be creating believable and entertaining characters on the big screen. DreamWorks Animation is an amazing place to work and the creativity of its employees is astounding, I'm lucky to be able to spend my days collaborating with such amazing talent, doing the job I love.