Igor Stefanovic

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What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Igor Stefanovic, I am Character Technical Director / Rigger at DreamWorks Animation. My job is to build internal skeletons, animation controls, face expressions and body deformations for digital characters. I create something like a digital marionette, which animators move around in shots. It is a job that is both artistic and technical. I have a good understanding of anatomy so I make sure that face and skin of character look good in every pose, just like real actor. I also work on hair and cloth, which are more on the technical side. Animators then take my work and breathe life into it. You could say, if animation department is the heart of animation process, then rigging is its brain.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Well I grew up in Belgrade, in Serbia. I started drawing very young. So in my teen years I started doing some simple marketing designs. First it was business cards, then larger prints and billboards, and finally I started doing tv commercials. One freelance job always led to another, so I ended up working every summer break during high school. Those were fun days, I got in contact with various people and learned a lot about life. So most of the stuff about computer graphics I learned on the go, through work. This continued through my college years, and finally I decided to make my own animated short. I wanted to have very good characters, so I ended up making detailed face and body setups for two characters, an old fisherman and a raccoon. By that point I realized I could make demo reel just out of these setups, so I postponed my short for some better days, put together demo reel, and applied for rigging position in several companies. I was lucky to get a job at Framestore in London. First really big company, working on Hollywood projects. I stayed there for two years, then got a job at DreamWorks Animation in Los Angeles. I am here for three years now. I have worked on four animated movies for them so far, including Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots. But still those early beginnings are great memories. Those were days when future seemed distant and anything seemed possible.

 

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
There are two types of projects that can make someone in this business proud. There are big projects with famous names, that everybody has seen in cinemas or on tv. I guess for me, those are Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots. And there are those, which don’t necessarily have to be famous, but where I had greater responsibility and got more personally invested. In London I was working for over a year on Universal Studios animation The Tale Of Despereaux. It was smaller team than on DreamWorks productions, plus my first Hollywood movie so I put a lot of effort in it. In the end it was ok movie, it did so so in the cinemas, but for me it opened doors to other things.
How did you become interested in animation? 
As I mentioned, I was drawing since I was a kid. At one point I realized that computers are the future, so I started learning computer graphics on my own. I come from a small country which doesn’t have that big of market, so I was able to get work for some modest but decent advertizing projects. From there, when I saw results, I pushed further in that direction, it is a good feeling when you realize you could be good at something. At that time, back in the late nineties, CGI was having a boom, so I was impressed with all the movies that were coming out, and I was hooked on.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business? 
It seems I covered most of this in previous questions, so I can tell you about one of the funniest projects I worked early on as generalist. So there was a guy back in Belgrade who owned a trade company for importing and selling agricultural products from Japan, to protect crops and plants from incests. Pesticides and stuff. Anyway although it was a serious company, he was big fan of animation, and wanted to make an animated commercial to advertize one of his products against incests who attack and feed on potatoes. So I ended up making 25 seconds animation about potatoes with arms and legs and sunglasses, running away from huge red and golden bugs, and this pesticide would roll in like a bowling ball and blast evil insects away. It was hilarious. Everybody loved it, so next year we made another one, with several vegetables with faces and legs running into medieval castle, screaming for help from box of pesticides, from which a genie would appear like from the lamp, then go outside of castle and blow some more bugs and caterpillars away. We ended up making several commercials in total, and I learned so much about characters and animation. Of course, from this perspective it is nowhere close to quality of big budget productions, but it was great fun.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job? 
Production of feature length animation takes a while, a few years to finish. So rigging work starts in preproduction, with early character concepts and tests, and lasts until animating shots is finished. Of course, size of rigging team changes significantly, but there are three main phases. First phase is in preproduction, before animation of actual shots starts. Here we get modeled characters, rig them and test them in various poses, walk cycles and simple acting. In this phase character design is still changing. One reason is that changes in character personality are driven by changes in story, which reflects its physical look as well. Another reason for design changes to happen is after seeing character in action in test shots, where we decide to tweak character to make it more appealing. So all of this is development phase where we make face expressions, animation controls and body deformations, while going back and forth due to design changes. Second phase is when animators start heavily testing the characters and when full production starts. Then it comes down to fixing the bugs which animators come upon, polishing up deformations in some extreme poses that weren’t anticipated, and in parallel working on secondary less important characters which were left for later. The third phase is when all characters are done on our side, animation production is well under way, and we just provide support to animators and fix bugs.

What part of your job do you like best? Why? 
I like character rigging because it is both artistic and technical, so for me it is a good balance. However, our work is kind of invisible; what is visible on screen are good model, good animation and good lighting. So modelers and animators take pride in good model or beautifully animated shot. While riggers take pride in development, in finding technical solutions for some custom requests or behaviors. For me it was very fun when when I was working on Humpty Dumpty for Puss In Boots, which is not a standard humanoid character, but a giant egg with face, arms and legs. Although it seems like a simple character, there was a bunch of technical requirements, like subtle squash and stretch, arms and legs sliding on eggshell, and character rolling on ground, not sideways like a wheel, but face forward, which is more technically difficult. Another fun project was Kung Fu Panda 2, where all characters are animals, and each one was different. Some of them were very large and fat, which made their deformations more challenging.

What part of your job do you like least? Why? 
On every project there are fun tasks and not so fun tasks. In the end the whole movie has to be done, not just the main characters. Everything that animators need to control, has to be rigged first, including hair and cloth for characters, but also a lot of props, including tools, weapons, vehicles, stuff like plants, branches and so on. Very often this includes just putting basic controls, which is routine and repetitive work but it has to be done.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I used to work mainly in Maya before coming to DreamWorks. I used standard Maya tools for rigging, with lots of scripting. Before that, my origins were in 3D Studio Max. DreamWorks, on the other hand, has its own inhouse software. They have been developing it since the early days in PDI and used it for Antz. Then DreamWorks bought PDI and started working on Shrek. The software advanced quite a bit from then. Some of the same people who originally wrote it are still in the company.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business? 
I am not sure, I like this business, I am in it by my own choice. Most of the people I know in this industry have passion and dedication to their work. I guess it depends on whether someone works on commercials, live action movies or feature animation. You fight different battles. In feature animation, it is long productions that are tricky, people stay on one project for over a year. The enthusiasm is great for first three months, then saturation hits in. But when work from animation and lighting starts to come together, and we see rendered sequences, we realize that we are working on a real movie and it feels great. Especially when posters and trailers start coming out, then we can show them to friends as well.In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When I arrived in London, I started meeting people who worked on some very famous projects, like Lord Of The Rings and similar. Animators and CG supervisors might be well respected, but for most character TDs their work is not that known. One of the people who interviewed and hired me in London, David Short, went later on to Weta to rig hero character in Avatar. But then there are all sorts of super talented people in DreamWorks as well. Not just CG people, Hollywood people visit the studio all the time. Actors, directors, producers. It is fun for both us and them. But also, in DreamWorks there are a lot of old school Disney animators, from time of The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast and Lion King. Some of these people who worked at Disney over time moved north to Pixar, and some came to DreamWorks. Animation industry is not that big of a world.Describe a tough situation you had in life. 
It was a tricky situation making the choice of leaving Serbia and setting off into the world. Not in a way just to buy the ticket and leave, I have done a lot of traveling before, but to put my future at stake and go into this kind of work long term. Growing up in Belgrade, I didn’t have much opportunity to meet people from this industry, and there weren’t any schools to go to. I was kind of on my own. I wasn’t sure if I could reach the level of quality that is required, and it takes time and effort to make proper demo reel that can land you a job. I graduated computer science, but after college I decided I was young enough to go for it and if I fail, I would still have a chance to think of Plan B or something. So I spent six months working on my demo reel, without much income. If I started doing small jobs I would never finish what I started. When I finally finished demo reel and applied at several companies, the first offer I got was from Weta Digital. I was ecstatic, it would be a dream come true. They wanted to hire me for production of movie Halo, which was to be directed by Neill Blomkamp. However, start date for production kept postponing, so they put me on hold. I waited for about three months, then applied at Framestore and three weeks later I got the job. In the end, Halo was canceled because Hollywood studios didn’t want to give 200 million dollars to director who hasn’t made any other films before that. So Neill Blomkamp made District 9 instead. And I ended up staying in London for two years, which I am really happy about. It is an amazing city with lots of culture and I had opportunity to develop further as artist, outside of CG as well.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
In last couple of years I got more into traditional painting, oils on canvas. It started as hobby and it got more serious lately. I guess I didn’t get earlier into it because I wanted to understand life better, to mature as person before I decide what is it that I want to say with paintings. Anyway we will see how it goes. At this point it is a good balance with rigging, which is more technical and doesn’t deal with colors much.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Actually, I never tried tying a cherry stem with my tongue, is it difficult? Can you do it? But I try to do as much traveling as possible, to explore the world. It sure is beautiful and crazy world, and each part is crazy in its own way. So the more of it you see, the better you can understand bigger picture. And it helps you find your place in it. I guess this is pretty heavy answer, but when you ask a question about tying a cherry stem or metallurgy, you don’t expect nothing less.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
As far as advice goes, if you want to do art or anything creative, don’t think too much about it, just go into it and do it, do it as much as you can. Best way to discover and enhance your talents is through practical work. Also, listen to other people’s stories. In art, every life story is unique. So hear out different ones, just to be aware how others went through life to become who they are now. After you do that, then you have to believe in yourself and work hard to get what you want. Because there is this very tricky part of your life when you put in a lot of work, but results aren’t there yet. Results come after a while and it is hard to keep going until then. So don’t give up, because reward is worth it. Oh and yes, try to have some fun along the way.
www.igorstefanovic.com

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