So You Wanna Be An…Expert Animator

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So You Wanna Be An…Expert Animator

November 7, 2014

When we watch our favorite animated movies, we’re usually too busy laughing to think about how the movie was made. But animation takes an enormous amount of work, and some serious math skills too. Andy Hendrickson is the Chief Technical Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which means he works to create the wonderful worlds we enjoy on the big screen. Andy sat down to tell us about all the fun he had building San Fransokyo, the setting of Disney’s new movie Big Hero 6.

Interview with Andy Hendrickson

“Chief Technical Officer” is a pretty long job title – how would you explain what you do at Disney?

I’d say that we create worlds that live inside computers. For example, we built the world for Big Hero 6 by creating complex computer programs that perform calculations of solid geometry. So it’s sort of like building blocks, except we’re building with thousands and thousands of lines of programming code. Animation is where art and technology come together, and our artists and programmers inspire each other. We’ve made programs that allow artists to create scenes that have never been possible to animate before, and our artists have also dreamed up incredible places and things that require us to build new programs.

How did you get into animation?

I was always interested in math, science, and computer science. When I was a kid, computers were so new that I had to join a computer club to learn how to use one – so I did, and that’s where I learned how to program. After graduating from college, where I studied physics, Skywalker Ranch asked me to help change their facility over to digital audio, and I jumped at the opportunity – I would have done any kind of work for Star Wars! That was the beginning of my movie career, and I’ve been having fun ever since.

A common theme among people with cool jobs is that there is no “typical day” at work. Is that true for for you? Do you have a favorite part of your work?

I love days when we have screenings to see how the story is coming along, especially since we have brainstorming sessions afterwards. We all get to throw ideas out there about the world we’re building, how we’re going to build this world, and how people will move through this world. Obviously not all the ideas work, but each thought does bring us closer to making that imagined world come true on the screen, and making it come alive for our audience.

What kind of programs do you need to build a world?

It always depends on the story. For example, the city in which Big Hero 6 takes place, San Fransokyo, is a pretty green city – it has 1/4 million trees. So we built a program called Bonsai that can grow different styles of tree, and that program allowed our artists to practice some landscaping architecture without having to draw thousands upon thousands of trees – and they didn’t have to get their hands dirty, either. We did something similar to help create large crowds quickly, and the people in the crowds can be very detailed and very realistic. So of course the artists made their movie selves and hid them in the crowds – it’s fun to play “Where’s Waldo?” with your cartoon self as you watch a movie!

We bet it is! So if kids want to grow up to work in animation, what sort of math skills will they need?

Matrix math is very important – by matrix I mean a 3-dimensional coordinate grid, like the width, height, and depth of a room that a character is in. A character’s movement through that grid is determined by tens of thousands of points on that graph, with a calculation for each point in each frame of animation. There are 24 frames per second, so you can see why you’d want to do the math correctly the first time. Geometry in general is very important because representing surfaces is incredibly complex, especially when you add in light and shadows. Algebra and logical thinking are always important, for programming and many other things in life. I’d also recommend taking a course in photography or painting to practice composing a scene. I think it’s important to have a balance of artistic and technical skills, no matter what work you’re doing!

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

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About the Author

Derek Stump

Derek Stump

As Staff Writer, Derek strives to bring you exciting Bedtime Math content and keep commas in their rightful place. Previously he helped manage a film studio in the Philadelphia area. Derek holds a B.A. in Communication- Media Production from Villanova University.

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