Published On: Thu, Jun 20th, 2019

Here’s how animated characters are created

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Pixar Animation Studios modeler and rigger Mara MacMahon lets us in on the character design process of Bo Beep from ‘Toy Story 4’

Published 9:00 AM, June 20, 2019

Updated 9:00 AM, June 20, 2019

CHARACTER DEPARTMENT. Pixar Animation Studios' Mara MacMahon is a character modeler and rigger for Toy Story 4's Bo Beep character. Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

CHARACTER DEPARTMENT. Pixar Animation Studios’ Mara MacMahon is a character modeler and rigger for Toy Story 4’s Bo Beep character. Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

Animated movies are hard work.

Always a long and arduous process, hundreds of people pour their time, effort, and dedication in creating a story from start to finish – spending hours on just one frame, months on one scene, and even several years to get everything just right.

There’s so much that goes on behind an animated film – and it’s not just the work of its directors, scriptwriters, voice actors, or animators that deserve the credit. Have you ever thought about the people who design these animated characters from scratch to 3D glory and get them to move so realistically and seamlessly?

In the animation world, this role is called a character modeler and rigger, and this is exactly the job Toy Story 4’s Mara MacMahon diligently takes on every day at Pixar Animation Studios.

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

What Mara does is to translate the art department’s design into a 3D model, adding controls to fully animate the character, while also taking part in designing the character, as she previously did with Cars 3 and the Academy Award-winning short film, Bao.

For Toy Story 4, she took charge in modeling and rigging Bo Beep’s redesigned character, ensuring that the porcelain figure came to life via vivid expressions and realistic movements.

With such an important job at one of the world’s most prestigious animation studios, one may wonder: How did she get to where she is now? Funnily enough, not by studying animation at school.

More about Mara: Detours and hard work

“I didn’t go to an animation school or take any animation course actually,” Mara said during an interview with Rappler. “I ended up studying pre-med and illustration!”

It was towards the end of university when Mara went for an internship at Pixar that required no previous experience. Initially for educational purposes, Mara completed the summer program, learning about the production process for an animated film during her stay and then eventually falling in love with it.

“It was the first time I got exposed to it, and it was so cool,” she said. From there, she took on different projects in between classes to teach herself the basics of modeling and rigging. Over time, she had built enough works for her own reel, which got her into various jobs at video game studios, mobile gaming apps, Dreamworks, and finally at Pixar yet again in February 2016.

It took her 6 years of self-knowledge and hands-on experience to re-enter Pixar Animation, now as a full-time employee.

Working in animation: Takes a lot of ‘character’

Truly, being in in any animated film’s character department takes a lot of hard work and character (pun intended).

The life cycle of any animated character involves the hands and brains of several people, plus constant cooperation between teams.

“It starts in the art department, where the director, based on the story/script, comes up with a description of the character. That’s where the drawings and sketches come in,” Mara explained.

FIRST SKETCH. This is a first look on Bo Beep's character design by the team. Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

FIRST SKETCH. This is a first look on Bo Beep’s character design by the team. Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

Once the director is happy with how the character is set to look like, the final sketches are then passed on to the modeler, the artist who creates the digital sculpture of the character. This final digital model is what we end up seeing in the film.

“The rigging step comes after the sculpting. Rigging is basically putting in a skeleton and all its controls, like putting strings on a puppet. These controls include anything – from bending the fingers, the arms, the legs, to opening the mouth, to the nostrils, raising an eyebrow – it’s everything imaginable. There are thousands of controls on a character,” Mara added.

At this stage, the animation department then works closely with the character department, giving the riggers feedback on how their controls are working for their animations.

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

And yes, a rigger’s job is tedious, meticulous, and very time-consuming. Simply put: what’s a rigger without some rigor?

“It’s a consistent attention to detail,” Mara shared. “Sometimes you get really zoomed in and spend weeks on just Bo Beep’s eyebrows!”

Bo Beep proved to be a challenging character to work on, being that she was a delicate porcelain figure; almost like an antique.

“A lot of the antiques’ eyebrows are painted on,” Mara said.

“We wanted her eyebrows to feel like they were just painted with one single stroke, which meant that it had to be smooth and fluid, no matter what expression. We had a lot of back and forths, just getting those details right.”

On the flipside…

“On the flipside, it’s about getting to work on the details and being very detail-oriented.”

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Philippines

For Mara, the intricacy of her tasks can get difficult – however, this challenge is what she ultimately loves the most about her job, alongside being able to work with the many skilled, hardworking, and passionate talents at Pixar.

“Everybody that touched Bo Beep and worked on her together – the animators, fellow riggers – has a different skill set each. One works on her shading, or the painting of her brows, the texture of the porcelain, posing, design, digital clothes – anything you can think of! Everybody brought their all – that’s the most fun part.”

On a more personal level, Mara said that “diving into the subject matter that changes with every project” is what also makes the job really “exciting and fun.”

“It’s really about trying to become an ‘expert’ on whatever you’re working on. Cars 3 was my first movie at Pixar, and I had to suddenly learn about cars and car engines! I wasn’t a car person at all, but I walked out of that movie knowing so much more – not just about modeling cars, but learning about how they worked. It’s really cool.”

The same thing happened for Mara during Toy Story 4 – she left the movie with new knowledge on porcelain figures and the inner workings of different toys.

What to expect from Toy Story 4

Where do you go from that ending in Toy Story 3?” Mara said when asked about what viewers can expect from the latest Toy Story installment.

“We already know about Woody – he has a specific personality. He likes to make plans, make sure things work just right, making sure all toys are safe in the bedroom, and that they all stay loyal to one kid – and then he runs into Bo, who is a lost toy because she wanted to be, which is Woody’s worst nightmare,” Mara added.

In this movie, Bo Beep has been a “lost toy” for the last 7 years, enjoying her freedom to play with different kids at playgrounds and improvising. “Plans dont have to go just right, because she’ll roll with the punches. It’s such a contrast to Woody’s life and how he’s learned to live,” Mara said.

And this struggle in personality differences is what Toy Story 4 explores – one of Mara’s favorite parts about the upcoming film.

“He thinks he’s got everything figured out, and then he runs into an old, dear friend. We will see Bo and Woody figuring out these two different approaches to the toy life.”

And that we can’t wait for!

Toy Story 4 premieres in Philippine cinemas on June 20. – Rappler.com

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