With the Oscars on Sunday we turn our attention to How to Train Your Dragon 2, a nominee for Best Animated Film. In this post we speak with Dave Walvoord, Visual Effects Supervisor at DreamWorks Animation, who oversees the CG work for the series, with the third installment in production. Our very own Jesse Vartanian (MindInMotion) catches up with Dave to discuss his role at Dreamworks, the key to making hit films, and creative inspiration.
JESSE VARTANIAN: Would you mind giving our readers a rundown on your direct responsibilities as the Visual Effects Supervisor?
DAVE WALVOORD: At DreamWorks the Visual Effects Supervisor is responsible for supervising the CG department. This includes modeling, rigging, surfacing, character effects, crowds, FX, lighting and matte painting. In reality though the role is far more nuanced.
As part of the core creative team, I partner with the director, production designer, head of layout, head of character animation, producer, etc. to help the director realize their vision on time and on budget. We all collaborate and our roles are never quite so clearly defined as an org chart might suggest.
One of my biggest responsibilities is working with the producer and director to discover creative ways of achieving a vision that might otherwise be over budget. This was especially true on a film like How to Train Your Dragon 2 which was extremely ambitious in scope.
My favorite part of my responsibilities is contributing to the creative direction for the departments I work with. In pre-production I do a lot of planning, bidding and scheduling. The fun happens in production when we start making the film and finally get to see the pictures.
JV: What is the first month of work going to be like when you start on How to Train Your Dragon 3?
DW: For How to Train Your Dragon 3, it will start slow with a lot of reflection on what parts of our process we were happy with and what parts of our process we found frustrating on How to Train Your Dragon 2. From there, we will plan how we want to run production of the third movie.
Once we have the script, we can break it down and really start to understand what challenges are ahead of us. I can guarantee that our Director, Dean DeBlois, and our Production Designer, Pierre-Olivier Vincent, will dream up new challenges that we do not yet know how to tackle.
(Photo credit to: http://moviepilot.com)
JV: Your professional background is really interesting to me, starting in live action film and switching over to animation. Did you have to drastically change your approach in visual effects from a live action film to an animated film or did you find it to be quite similar?
DW: The last time I did live action work was in 1999 on Fight Club. Back then I was primarily doing character integration into live action plates. So, as Blue Sky did its first animated film, Ice Age, the work was quite a bit different, although the fundamentals were perhaps the same. Mostly it differed in scale and ownership. We were no longer matching to a plate that a cinematographer had shot, we owned the entire frame. That was incredibly liberating and rewarding.
Now though when you look at films like Gravity or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the visual effects are at an enormous scale and there is a lot of close collaboration with the cinematographer, so those dynamics have shifted dramatically during the 15 years I have been away from visual effects.
JV: Over the years you have been a part of incredibly successful animated films such as Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2, Over The Hedge, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and many more. Is there a specific recipe that you follow in hopes to make another hit movie, or techniques you take from past films and apply them to your new project?
DW: The success of the movies that I’ve worked on is mostly because I have been at a company that has a good story process and good storytellers. I have very little input on story, so I will gladly take credit for being part of the visuals, but the box office success is tied much more to making movies with stories that resonate with our audience.
In terms of how we approach our films I believe in something I call “CG Natural Selection.” Good ideas survive and bad ideas go extinct. We carry forward new ideas that work. We also look to the rest of the industry to see what good ideas we can use from other companies. And, we are always pushing for new software and hardware innovations.
One of the rewarding things of being at a company like DreamWorks for 12 years is that I’ve seen our crew’s talent improve dramatically. If I think about where I was as an artist 12 years ago, it is amazing to me how much I’ve been able to grow with the challenges I face daily and the mentors available to me at DreamWorks. Multiply that by hundreds of artists and our entire company has improved in the same way as it has matured. I think that growth shows in a movie like How To Train Your Dragon 2.
(Photo credit to: www.howtotrainyourdragon.com)
JV: We talked about being locked into software when you start a new project for the duration of the film. The reason being of course, films take years to make and you cannot suddenly switch software halfway through if something new happens to come along. When starting HTTYD 3, do you have any influence in what tools you will use, or is everything proprietary for the most part?
DW: At DreamWorks we are producing two to three films a year and probably have something like 10 at various stages of production at any given time. For cost reasons we maintain a consistent pipeline in the studio that evolves over time.
When a new movie starts I have some influence on software, but really it is very limited. Mostly my influence will involve championing a piece of software that I think will make a positive impact on our production and committing the production to ensuring its successful adoption if we get studio buy in. Likewise it goes the other way, where the studio requires adoption of certain software packages by our film because of the strategic direction the company is choosing to pursue.
We maintain a mix of proprietary and commercial software. Our goal is to write software that we think will be able to fill a need that commercial software currently does not and otherwise to use third party tools when they do fit our needs.
JV: Do you prefer creating sequels to movies, or creating something entirely new?
DW: They each have their advantages. It seems that original movies are harder. Defining an animation universe and style is incredibly challenging. It is very rewarding when it all comes together to create something original, but the process can be painful.
For sequels the universe is well defined, so you get to focus on the craft a lot more. When I look at Kung Fu Panda 2 it was so much better executed than the first movie. The style was solidified and more coherent and the images were richer.
It was a fun production and we were proud of the results. However, looking back at Kung Fu Panda, while it was more raw, there is something so original about it. I think the design ideas in Kung Fu Panda hold up really well even if the visuals have already become dated.
The question I usually have is that while I notice these differences, does the audience? We’re very harsh critics of our own work. I think that is a trait you frequently find in artists doing the best work. But, at the same time animation is a commercial product and you want to spend your effort on the areas that matter most to your audience, not just yourself.
(Photo credit to: http://saltypopcorn.com.au/)
JV: I know we discussed the work hours becoming quite chaotic during the last six or so months of a film. Can you take your mind off of work after you finish a two or three year production, or are you already thinking about the next new project?
DW: Everytime I finish a project I’m a mess because of the stress more than the hours. We invest so much of ourselves into our films that we lose perspective. As I look back at How to Train Your Dragon 2, I’m amazed at things that seemed like a huge deal: mistakes I made, problems I wanted to fix but ran out of budget for or shortcuts that we had to take because we were running out of time.
With a little perspective you realize that in most cases no one notices those little things, in fact you may even realize it intellectually during production, but at that point in time you are so wrapped up in the success of the project you can’t see that the little things may not matter. It becomes an emotional attachment that can cloud your judgment. My wife is very understanding and patient while I get back to being myself after a movie wraps, but it can take a toll on the entire family.
JV: Last Question: What inspires you?
DW: I think I’m inspired when a story transports me to a different world. And this is not just with animation or live-action, but with books as well. Of course, when the story is told with pictures that is where it is most relevant to my work.
I love being part of the process of creating an alternate universe where the world comes from our imaginations. I don’t think people realize how difficult that process is. It’s very hard just to come up with a unique vision. But even more than that you have to develop a consistent set of laws that governs how things look, move and behave in your universe. And you can’t just violate those rules for the convenience of the plot. The story and design all have to work together so that it meshes seamlessly, otherwise it won’t ring true to the audience.