Animating the Galaxy

CR Grad Guide: Brad Silby, lead animator for VFX studio Framestore, talks about working on Where the Wild Things Are, Guardians of the Galaxy and other films

Brad Silby is a lead animator at London VFX studio Framestore. He has worked on TV shows and feature films including Edge of Tomorrow, Where the Wild Things Are, the Golden Compass and Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy.

What’s your background, and how did you come to be working at Framestore?

I graduated with an animation degree in 2002 but initially struggled to find work. After applying for jobs and receiving a stack of rejection letters, I did an internship to gain some more experience and went back to university for a year, to study for a post grad in character animation [at Central Saint Martins]. My first job was at a studio called Blue-Zoo, and I joined Framestore as an animator around nine years ago.

What sparked your interest in animation?

I’d always had an interest in it, but when I was in my teens, we went on a family holiday to Disneyland. There was a room backstage where some animators were working – you could see them sketching at their desks – and I just thought it looked like an amazing job. For me, it was the perfect mix of art and computers.

What scenes did you work on in Guardians of the Galaxy?

I was lead animator on a sequence that involved Rocket [a genetically engineered raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper] and Groot [a tree-like creature, voiced by Vin Diesel] in a bit of a bar fight with Drax [Marvel superhero Drax the Destroyer, played by actor and wrestler Dave Bautista]. Groot and Drax get into an argument and Rocket intervenes, stepping in to help his friend.

There are around 30 shots in the sequence, and there were four animators working on it. I was working mainly on close ups of Rocket when he is talking about his life and starts to get upset. We really wanted to get across the character’s internal struggles and his sense of being alone in the world. He has this group of friends, but gets upset when he feels like they are picking on him.

What other projects have you enjoyed working on as an animator at Framestore? 

Before Guardians of the Galaxy, I worked on Edge of Tomorrow [a science fiction film starring Tom Cruise, who fights to save Earth from an alien race known as Mimics]. It was an interesting project to work on as the way the Mimics move had to be very abstract. They have four limbs, but the director was keen to avoid movements looking like an animal’s, so we developed something that felt more unique.

I also worked on Where the Wild Things are [the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book, directed by Spike Jonze], animating the faces of different characters [including Carol, above]. That was very different again, as it was filmed using actors in costumes [with static faces, which were animated in post production]. Usually we’re creating whole performances but with that film, we had to work on top of an existing one.

What’s the usual process like working on feature films?

The timescale varies depending on the project, but we start with the blocking stage, creating a rough version of a scene. That goes for review and if it’s approved, you refine it and keep adding details until you end up with the final animation. If it’s not approved, you’ll get some feedback and work on another block version. Generally, we’ll have daily review sessions where an animation supervisor will go through your work and say what is and isn’t working. It’s a long process; a 30 or 40-second scene might take up to six months.

What are the core skills needed for your job?

Aside from the technical knowledge, you need a great eye for detail: knowing what ingredients will make a good performance, knowing about body language and how a character’s face or eyes should move in certain scenes.

For the Guardians of the Galaxy sequence, Rocket was drunk, so we had to think how his body would move differently. We acted out a lot of scenes ourselves [at Framestore]…sometimes, we’ll watch actors or other people for inspiration. With Rocket, the director [James Gunn] wanted some of his expressions to be a bit like [actor] Joe Pesci.

What’s the best thing about the job?

When you’re working on a shot and a character starts to come to life, or when you come up with an idea for a brief that works really well, and it then makes it into the film.

And the most frustrating?

The creative process itself is frustrating – ideas can get thrown away, you work hard on something and it’s not exactly what the director wants, so you end up making various iterations of the same shot. At the beginning, you take it quite personally but after a while, you realise that it’s just the process. It’s important to step back and distance yourself from the work a little.

And what advice do you have for other graduates who’d like to follow a similar career path?

If you’re just getting into animation, don’t spend all your time learning one small thing, such as rigging characters – download the right software and just get animating. Also, don’t judge your work by other people on your course. The standard in TV and cinema is what you should be aiming for, and what you should be trying to achieve.

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