James Baxter who is a British character animator. He was first known for his work on several Walt Disney Animation Studios films, including various characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rafiki in The Lion King, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
His recent work includes the 2013 animation, The Croods, which today we will be talking mostly about. Hope you enjoy the interview!
For the people who don’t know you, would you like to give a little introduction to yourself and your role in Dreamworks’ The Croods?
I’m James Baxter and I was the Head of Character Animation on The Croods, which means I lead the animation team of about 30 people.
Oh wow, I’m surprised there were so few of you on such a large scale film.
Our numbers swelled to the mid-seventies towards the end of production but it’s not a big number of people that actually do the character animation.
How soon were you brought into the project?
As the head of the department I get brought on fairly early, usually when they’ve finished the first draft of the screen play and they’re doing story boards for the film. At this point they seriously have to start designing the characters and I’m there during this stage to work with the character designers to ensure that we (animators) get what we need from the final model that we have to animate.
How much were you involved with the design of the characters themselves?
I’d sort of just be in the room with the director giving comments on the character design. You usually have a main character designer responsible on the film and I’d say that was probably Takao Noguchi, but I would do sketches as well to make sure the characters were animatable, that way they would come into animation with all the things that we need.
Looking at the concept art for the character design online, it seems really varied, did people have different ideas as to where they wanted to take the characters?
That’s quite normal for the process, when you first start designing a movie you tend to throw up a whole bunch of different things, everything you can think of and then we all take a step back and see what feels like where we want to be with this film. Then, as you get closer and closer to the character, you start doing less of running the gamut of design and do more variations on a theme, so the design gets distilled out of a very broad range of ideas at the beginning, and gets finer and more detailed at the end
What kind of exercises and observations did you and your team do to get into the mood of the prehistoric era?
Well unfortunately we couldn’t go back *laughs* absence of time machine notwithstanding, we did actually do a lot of animal research. We had this brief from the directors that they wanted each of The Croods to feel animalistic in their own unique way. They wanted these cavemen to be a little bit different to the cavemen that you’d seen before. We wanted to make sure that they weren’t just these sluggish creatures, that they were athletic fast and strong, even though they were stupid, they were quick.
We did a fair amount of research trying to find the right walks and putting things in from different animals, gorillas and for example big cats for Eep. Eep is very catlike in the way she moves around. Thunk, he’s based on this baby chimp that we’d found online, he liked to walk up on his hind legs but he swung his arms in this very specific way, he sort of flailed around. We grabbed things from all over and used a mishmash of things to create unique body language.
It was also important to do certain things with their bodies to make sure they felt related to each other. Everyone’s feet turn in, all these little gestural things, all these things that we consciously did not do, like no proper pointing no folding your arms, none of these modern gestures. They were all much less aware of their personal space than modern people so they would just get up in each other’s faces a lot, touch each other a lot, they did things you wouldn’t do now.
Quite a lot like children then?
Yes childlike, exactly. Being unaware of social graces *laughs*
You were the head of character animation, does that mean that your job was mainly looking after the animators underneath you or did you also have a character that you took point on?
I was kind of supervising Grug for a while but mainly my job was to supervise the whole department. I’d spend a lot of time with the animators talking about their work with them and giving them notes. I like to animate as well though, so I would try to carve out as much time as I could in my day for animating myself. I liked to take on some of the little bits and pieces that fell through the cracks, because they’re a lot of fun. I did a lot of Douglas, the little crocodile dog, he was really fun to animate and I left the major tasks of animating Guy or Eep to the people that could concentrate on that 24/7.
Do you have a favourite character or a favourite design that you particularly enjoyed working on?
Hmm I don’t know, they’re all so good. I really like Thunk a lot *laughs* he’s just so ridiculous! And I liked all the creatures; they were a lot of fun.
The designs seemed like a lot of fun to play around with.
It was fun but we had to make sure that it still felt like planet earth and not just a bunch of aliens. All the animals had to at least feel like they belonged to some sort of weird taxonomy ‘is that a bird or a fish?… No that’s a bird, it just looks a little like a fish’ *laughs*. There was a little bit of rationalising that we had to go through so even though they were ridiculous animals, you could kind of buy that they existed.
Did you have any creations that were particularly difficult to get from the sketchbook to the screen?
Hhmmmm who was tricky? I’ll tell you what, the character of Belt was not so much tricky but he did get a promotion half way through the film. Guy used to have another pet… called Pet, which was a little prehistoric horse. He got written out of the movie because Belt started stealing his scenes. This meant that Belt was suddenly required to do things that he wasn’t really designed to do. He started to have to climb around and do crazy stuff, when we were originally designing that character we weren’t thinking that he was going to do anything other than sit around Guy’s waist and occasionally wake up! He just wasn’t designed to do anything else so we had to scramble about a bit. The thing is in CG animation the characters are like puppets, it’s a model with what’s called a rig (the rig is like the joints) we had to go back to the rigging department and ask whether they couldn’t just sort of ‘fix him up’.
So this was happening really late in the process after storyboarding and final designs?
Yeah, it was a bit late for us to be able to go back and do a really proper job on him, in some ways animating Belt felt a bit like driving a clunky car really really fast.
Did animating for 3D have any specific draw backs or any things you really enjoyed doing that were different to 2D animation?
3D doesn’t actually change our jobs too much, we would do a review in the animation department of all the shots we were working on that week where we’d screen them in 3D just to make sure things were working. The trickiest thing to get usually is eye line, making sure that characters are actually looking at each other. You can have a two dimensional image that looks fine, but the minute you pop it into 3D it’s like ‘oh wait, they’re looking two feet to the left! They’re not actually looking directly at the camera anymore.’
Final question, The Croods has been Okayed for a sequel and a TV series has been hinted at, will you be working on that?
I think it’s quite likely that I’ll be working on the second Croods film, it’s not set in stone (pardon the pun) *laughs* I’m just finishing up working on the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon, How To Train Your Dragon 2, right now. So Croods 2 is going to be starting up next year and we’re just starting to talk about the possibility of me working on it.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed our interview with James Baxter.
The Croods releases on DVD & Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on 9 December 2013. Buy online at Amazon.