Hans Dastrup interview: animating Ice Age 3, working with 3D, and computer trouble

Ice Age 3 lead animator Hans Dastrup on the challenges of making the film, the hectic last four months on the film, and making a THX trailer...

Hans Dastrup has just finished work on Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs. A lead animator on the film, and in charge of the character of Buck, Dastrup’s time with Blue Sky Digital, the creators of the Ice Age films, has seen him working on Robots, Ice Age 2 and Horton Hears A Who!.

And just days after he’d seen the completed Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs, he spared us some time for a chat.

Firstly, congratulations on finishing Ice Age 3! Do you ever get used to the feeling of something you’ve worked on for so many years being on the side of buses and on billboards, with families talking about going to see it?

I don’t know. The first time I ever worked on a film for Blue Sky, Robots, it was definitely something that felt very surreal. To all of a sudden be a part of a project that millions of people are seeing all around the world, at that time it was mind-blowing. Then after that first shock wears off it’s still very exciting. It’s not quite like the first time, but every single time we finish a project, there is no better feeling than seeing your work up and out there for everybody to see. I think that excitement and the anticipation of that never wears off, and never will.

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The Ice Age franchise specifically, each film has been spectacularly successful, and there was this assumption when the second film became a big hit that we were going to get a third. How was that assumption from your side of the fence, and what key challenges did you see in doing a third film?

I guess first off, after we animated Ice Age 2, we went on to animate Horton [Hears A Who!], and that was a very different style of animation that we explored. It was all about trying to make it feel like the world of Dr Seuss. The challenge of then going back to the Ice Age style, we had to adjust. We had to re-learn some of the things that we did with Ice Age characters that we had to do again with Ice Age 3, so it felt like the same characters, and it felt consistent.

But on the positive side we learned a lot of things on Horton, and we brought some of those things with us, which I think improved the Ice Age 3 animation. We all learned and went through a lot as a team. One of the challenges that comes into play whenever you’re doing characters that everyone is familiar with is they expect to see the characters in a certain way. It’s not just in the style of motion, but in posing and making sure Sid still feels like Sid, Scrat still feels like the same old Scrat, getting beat up all the time. That takes a lot of honing in: why is this shot not feeling like Sid, and what can we do to make it feel right? That sort of thing.

People certainly warmly respond to Scrat. He captures the spirit of old cartoons really well. Do you find when you’re animating him that it really is down to the fact that a split second change can make all the difference?

Oh, yeah. Scrat, we can move him around so quickly and have things happen to him so fast so that in the blink of an eye he’s all of a sudden flat against a rock. And that’s what’s fun about Scrat. The animation is very spontaneous. It’s a very straight-ahead animation style. You never really know what’s going to happen to him, and when we animate him, we really think that way as well. It’s an active brainstorming session as you’re animating the character. As there’s no dialogue, it allows us to do whatever we feel inspired to do. So it’s fun!

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Computer animation is perceived as an exhaustive, time-consuming process. When you get a spontaneous, spur of the moment idea, doesn’t that take quite a lot of time still to realise?

In some ways. We have a way of working that we can roughly block in an idea that can be done pretty quickly. I can rough an idea in a couple of hours, or less sometimes. As you know, we’re animating 24 frames a second, so we have 24 images every second that we’re paying attention to. But in order to get an idea in there, we don’t necessarily need to put that many images in. Sometimes we might put two or three images for every second, just to sell an idea and get the directors to buy off on it.

And there are other things you can do. A lot of animators will draw out and sketch the ideas. We have tools that we can 2D animate a shot in a digital program that we have, where we draw using a Wacom tablet. And we can 2D animate an idea, show the directors, and they can then go to the computer and animate it digitally in 3D.

You worked on Robots, which looked a very visually intense film, and on several other projects since. How has the animation software evolved, and has it ever constrained your ideas in any way? Have you had to push it to do things that it wasn’t designed to do?

The software itself hasn’t necessarily changed a whole lot for us in animation. In regards to character animation that I do specifically, it hasn’t changed a lot. Even though we do use software packages, the bulk of what we do is still very heavily the creative aspect of the art form. But I will say over the years that the rigs that are built for these characters have got more complex, in a way that allows us to sculpt and push and mould the shapes on these characters much more than we ever could before.

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There used to be a time in CG animation where we couldn’t shape the character in any way that we wanted. We had more presets, that were predefined before you animate a shot, of what you can and can’t do. But now, since the rigs have gotten much more complex and malleable, we can almost do whatever we want to do, as if we were drawing it out. In the way that a 2D animator is only limited by their imagination, and they have a blank sheet of paper in front of them, we have tools that allow us to do a similar thing.

And are the computers fast enough to keep up with you? It sounds like such a fast flow of ideas you deal with. For most of us, the computer can be as much a restrictive tool….

Oh, yes!

I’m curious, as your production is clearly heavily reliant on computers, whether there is a restrictive element to it?

There is, definitely. Computers can be restrictive. One way that they can be restrictive is that sometimes they don’t allow us to work as fast as we want to work. We have very complex characters and complex rigs, and when we’re animating, we’re animating with a timeline at the bottom so we can scrub back and forth, and we have a play button. So you press the play button and see it in real time, hopefully! But because of the complexity of all the calculations that are going on, you can’t always actually hit that play button and watch it play in real time, or scrub back and forth and see clearly the action. Sometimes, because things are slower than we’d like, it requires a little bit more guesswork. And that can be frustrating.

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As well as stability, that sort of thing. We are not free from computers crashing and not working! We experience the same amount of problems that anyone would have sitting at home and using their computer. The advantage that we have is that we have a team of guys that when we have a problem, they come over and fix it for us.

I bet your Facebook pages load faster than anyone else’s, though…

[Laughs] Yeah! It definitely helps having that team!

With CG movies, there’s surely not a sub-genre that’s developed so fast visually. You see it with putting the first Ice Age against the third Ice Age, with the first Toy Story against Wall-E. You’ve got DreamWorks, Pixar and yourselves pushing, and every time a major computer animated film comes out now, there’s an expectation that it’ll be more visually striking than the last. How much of a pressure is that?

You know honestly, that is the reason why we are all in this art form. That’s the exciting element of it. Without that aspect, I think a lot of us would lose interest. It’s the fact that we’re in it to know that we always want to top what we did last time. And it’s not a pressure, but something we look forward to, that we want to do.

We set a bar really high for ourselves, and we’re always trying to constantly achieve that bar and exceed it. It’s a fun challenge, it puts a lot of pressure on ourselves, but it’s something we want to do and want to embrace.

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I’ve spoken to a few people involved with major computer animated movies over the past years, and they all seem to be in agreement that every production has a ‘dark period’ in the middle, where it almost looks hopeless. I would imagine that’s exasperated further when the project is the entry in one of Fox’s premier franchises?

Yeah, definitely on Ice Age 3 there was a time where we were all very concerned that we weren’t going to be able to finish it on time. I think everybody was concerned. There was a lot to animate, and we came off Horton and we started on Ice Age 3 almost without much delay at all. It was a little bit of a slow start in the beginning, as everything was getting finessed in the story and the art department before us. But once it hit animation, we had to work really fast.

We animated I think most of the movie in the last … I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think it was something like 40% of the movie in the last four months! We really cranked out a lot of footage in the last little bit.

We were working six days a week at the end there for the last several months. We were averaging at least 60 hours a week, and people were doing 70, 80 hours. There was a lot of overtime. A lot of people not seeing their families. And that was unfortunate: this was one of the hardest productions that most of us have experienced. There was a lot of action, a lot of really difficult animation that we enjoyed doing, but we had to do in a very short period of time.

And how do you feel now, looking at the final cut?

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I think we’re very proud of it. We went and saw the film on Monday night, it was our premiere of it. We all were very excited, and we walked out of there feeling very good about what we saw.

It’s an exciting roller coaster road. I think that’s the best way to explain it. It’s just a really exciting movie.

Did you watch it in 3D?

Yes, we did!

Personally, I think the jury is out to an extent on 3D. What do you feel about putting 3D into an Ice Age project, and when was the decision made?

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I think, to be honest, and a lot of artists I think felt this way too, I always think of 3D in some ways as in the past it’s always been a little bit of a novelty. It’s a fun thing, but sometimes it gives me a headache, I don’t know if I like it that much. So a lot of us were not super-excited about doing it in 3D.

But once we saw the finished product in 3D on Monday, I was really blown away. This is one of the first times I watched a movie and I forgot I had 3D glasses on. I really did. I just got captured in the film, which says a lot about our stereoscopic team. They did a really good job of making the 3D element very effective in a way that’s not in your face or overly done to give you a headache. It’s artfully done, in a way that brings you into the environment and makes you believe that it’s real. I think that’s what 3D needs to do.

When did the stereoscopic team come in?

They came into the project right when it was announced that we were going to do stereoscopic. I can’t remember exactly when, but I want to say that that was a little over a year ago when we brought in our first stereoscopic guys, and then they built up that team to quite a big number. I think I remember hearing that they had, I don’t want to give you the wrong number here, but at least over 10 stereoscopic guys who were in charge of getting all these frames done. And they were some of the last guys on the film, that were really spending a lot of time and a lot of hours to get this done. And they did a great job.

So how long was the production in all? Three years?

I think so, maybe. About two and a half, three years.

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You mentioned Horton Hears A Who before, a film I’m a big fan of. That’s the first animated film that Fox and yourselves have done that’s been based on such strong pre-existing source material. Again, clearly the influence was all over the visuals of the film, but do you again draw a balance between it being inspirational and restrictive?

Yes and no. Often the restrictions, and having to work within a certain set of boundaries in a way, are very liberating. Because you know you have a goal in sight. You can see where you want to go. But then exactly how you get there is really the fun and exciting part of it.

As artists, most artists, we like to have a little bit of creative direction, and then the creative part of it is how we get there in a way that is not expected, that we can surprise people with. So on Horton, the designers first off did an amazing job of translating the very flat two-dimensional drawings that Dr Seuss did, lovely drawings, to a three dimensional atmosphere. I think they just did a beautiful job. Them being so successful gave animators a very clear vision of what we needed to do to get the same feel that you get when you look at the storybook. It was exciting, it really was exciting.

I know it’s not one you’ve been involved with, but Fox is tackling another classic story, Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, for its next project [out this Christmas]. Are there any stories that you personally would love to get the chance to bring to the screen?

I don’t know, that’s hard to say. Personally, I think I enjoy the most doing something that’s new, that nobody has ever heard of before. I think that is the most exciting to me. Even though I really love the challenge involved in bringing something to life like Dr Seuss, new material is always exciting.

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Your THX trailer that you did with the Horton characters. How did that come about?

That was fun. We had myself and two other animators were given a couple of days to work on that, so we came in over the weekend and cranked that thing out real fast. The concept was worked on, I think Jimmy Hayward, the director at the time, he was working on the idea. I don’t know who else was involved in it, but I know he was. We had this idea where we wanted to play around with the sound, the THX thing, and we wanted to make sure that theme was carried through. It was a fun little idea that we used.

There was actually another trailer that we did, a Horton trailer, that never came out. It was a very kind of abstract trailer where it was a split screen and you could see Horton and the Mayor trying to talk to each other, but they can never quite link up. Where one would leave the screen, the other would come on the other side of the screen. And all kinds of funny little things. That ended up never being released I don’t think, at least not in the United States. So some of those elements we used in the THX trailer.

You’ve dabbled with elements of hand drawn animation, and that’s where Disney is now headed back for the first time in a long while. Is that an area you think that Fox and yourselves would ever head back towards?

I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think that Blue Sky is pretty married right now to digital animation.

Which leads to the obvious question – what are you working on next? Is there a fourth Ice Age movie, or a Scrat spin-off?

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I’ve heard people talking about whether there’s going to be a fourth Ice Age, but honestly, I haven’t heard anything official. Who knows? There are several other movies that we’re working on, that are being developed, but honestly I’m not sure what has been announced yet. Our very next movie that we’re working on is called Rio, and I know that’s been announced! But the movies after that I’m just not sure if I’m free to say!

Interview over, Hans then quizzes your interviewer about Simon Pegg. The character that Hans animated in the film, Buck, is voiced by Pegg, and the pair clearly had a blast working on the film. Den Of Geek, therefore, does the only decent thing, and promptly sends Hans the Amazon link for the Spaced boxset…

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