April 24, 2014

Exclusive: Cars 2 Supervising Animators Shawn Krause and Dave Mullins Talk Pixar Animation (Part 1)

A few months ago, not only did I have the chance to talk to Cars 2 composer Michael Giacchino and story supervisor Nate Stanton – I was lucky to also be able to talk to the supervisors of the animation process on the film. Shawn Krause and Dave Mullins served as supervising animators for years before Cars 2 was released in theaters. I spoke with them about their job, how it is working together, and the intricacies of the animation process at Pixar. Read on to view Part 1 of the interview here!

Pixar Times: Can you walk us through the job of a supervising animator?

Dave Mullins

Dave Mullins: We have multiple aspects to our job. One is getting the show up and running before anyone’s on the show – so setting it up, making sure the characters are working, setting up any sort of model sheets. Things like that help the animators when they come on the show.

We’re also a conduit between the other departments and our department, so that if there’s something going on in FX or there’s something going on in layout, they can come to Shawn and I and say, “Hey you guys. We need this from your department. Can you help us?”. Then, we can go back to our team and talk to them. And we’re also directly responsible to [director] John Lasseter for the quality of the animation on the film. As a group, we’re responsible but it’s really lies with us to make sure that the quality is there and we keep everything on track.

Shawn Krause: I agree.

(They both laugh)

Pixar Times: How is the process of the two of you working together in the supervisory role?

Dave Mullins: Terrible.

Shawn Krause : I hate him.

(We all laugh)

Shawn Krause

Shawn Krause: The biggest challenge – it’s like a marriage – you’re always compromising, you’re always working together discussing every detail and I think that the nice thing is that you can lean on each other too. There are certain things that each one of you will take to more than the other. In so many ways, it’s like – there are meetings overlapping so you can split off and one guy will take this meeting and the other one will take another meeting. It’s just a nice partnership, I think.

Dave Mullins: I’m incredibly grateful to be sharing this role with Shawn. The animation department at Pixar is the best animation department, I think, in the world – these guys, the animators are so creative and they’re so good at what they do and they’re such hard workers and they’re so dedicated to their work that we just want to be as dedicated and as good at giving them everything they need to get their job done. Really, that’s what Shawn and I do. We try to give the animators everything they need so everything’s cleared out of their way and they can just have a good interaction with the director.

Personally, working with Shawn, it’s been amazing. There are these moments [where] it’s like you’re trying to figure this stuff out, you haven’t done it before, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do – we can have a conversation about how we move forward and Shawn’s such a great counter-balance to me and whether how we’re moving forward is right or wrong. [His] appeal and [his] sense of how [he] approaches things – I just love that partnership.

Shawn Krause: It also works well, in that, usually you will understand a large portion of the animation department but not all of it because you just have different work techniques and different ideas. So, bouncing these ideas when you’re setting the show up for like, how do you build a character, or what’s the best tool to get this job done, what’s a good pipeline idea – it’s just nice to have the various decisions made together so you can reflect that in a healthy way that’s going to make it appeal to everybody.

(L-R) Shawn Krause, Dave Mullins

Pixar Times: Looking at the leaps that in the technology that you use to animate these characters, how does that affect the process?

Shawn Krause: It’s funny because I think the technology, the more robust it gets it lets us do more, but the pacing is the same because we push the limitations of that technology more and more. What’s interesting is that it’s the upgrading of the old technology that is more challenging or more interesting of what the new stuff lends to us. It’s almost like getting older – the thing is that it’s so gradual it comes in piecemeal. I think that it’s more stark when you go, “Hey we gotta go back to something we did eight years ago and use that technology”. You’re like, “Oh, how did that work in the first place and how do we make that upgrade without breaking it?

Dave Mullins: A lot of what we did was when setting up the show was making sure that Shawn’s saying that all of the old technology (that was Mindy’s Animation Software, proprietary to Pixar). We had to take all those old models and to bring them up to speed in getting all the technology working we had to dust off the driving system unit – we had to dust off all these old models and plus build new models and new rigs and at a certain point, you want all the technology to move out of the way so you can do what you’ve already done before. That was a lot of the time that we spent with it was just getting updated and going. What we wanted was when the majority of the animators came on the show, they could just hit the ground running (no pun intended) and basically just focus on the performance, focus on the entertainment, the acting, the action, and then let all the tools and stuff be second nature.

Dave Mullins

As it is, the driving system is just something we use to drive the cars around. It is a really weird thing to try and figure out when you’re used to going pose to pose with human physiology and suddenly you have this thing where there’s these five controls and you move one of the controls and the other four controls kind of randomly do something else and you kind of eventually hive-mind with these five controls that actually drives the car around. If we didn’t have that, it would be nearly impossible to make the cars look like they’re actually driving because we’re so acutely attuned to seeing what a car looks like when it does a 3-point turn, when it drives forward, when the wheels turn – it’ll slide like that (motions with his hand). It’s funny how you spot it without the driving system.

Shawn Krause: I did a shot on the first Toy Story where the mother rolls in and drives in with the minivan – it was far away, it wasn’t even close up. It was impossible to get the angle of the wheel to match the turn radius of the car, which matched the body, and then have the wheels match up and slow down honestly and precisely. It always wants to go sliding so to have this was invaluable. You couldn’t have made any of the Cars flicks if we hadn’t had that technology.


I’ll have Part 2 of the interview up later this weekend!

Cars 2 is now in theaters.

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About Samad Rizvi

Samad is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Pixar Times. His favorite films include The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Vertigo, Back to the Future, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and of course, Pixar's Monsters, Inc., WALL-E and Up.