Engineering Inside:

2014 Issue 4
Animation

Meet Sean Burns!

December 2014

seanburnsSean Burns is a 25 year veteran in the animation industry being involved in various high-profile projects, including: MTV promo spots, stop-motion animator on Disney’s “James and the Giant Peach”, Character Animator and Previsualization artist on Walt Disney’s “The Wild”, Director/Animator on the “M&M’s Guys” for Will Vinton Studios, and episode director on a primetime animated TV show called “The PJ’s” starring Eddie Murphy.  His work utilizes different animation and special effect techniques including stop-motion, Claymation, traditional drawn, Flash and Maya 3D computer animation graphics.

Burns has worked freelance running his own home based animation production company “Magnetic Ted Animation” creating animation for video games, PBS programs, TV commercials and educational video productions, as well as teaching adjunct college-level computer animation, portfolio design and industry business practices.

Burns has also worked in higher education as faculty and Department Chair for Animation and Game Art at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, in Denver, CO.  The program he taught covered disciplines in 3D computer animation, stop-motion animation, film production techniques, traditional drawn animation, and professional business practices pertaining to the animation industry.

Burns’ education background is in Mass Communication and Film Production, having graduated from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, with a BFA.  He also has a Masters degree in Business Administration from University of Phoenix, as a supplement to his art background.

Burns is currently back working in feature film animation production for Laika Entertainment in Hillsboro, Oregon.  He has just completed production on the film “The Boxtrolls”, which has just been released in theaters and preparing for the next production.

How are you involved in animation? 

I have been involved in many aspects of the animation process throughout my career, primarily in stop-motion, claymation and 3D computer.  I starting with the most basic functions, such as production assistant (getting coffee for the boss)  and working my way through the entire range of processes, such as design, prop, set, character fabricator, animator… and all the way up to being a director.  By far my favorite role in the animation processes is the actual animating – making the characters and scenes come to life with acting and performance.  I have worked an many various projects, including, commercials, music videos, short films, TV shows, video games and feature films. I also teach college level animation classes in all mediums, including stop-motion, computer, and traditional drawn animation.

Currently, I work at Laika Entertainment, where we just finished the film “The Boxtrolls”. The film was mostly stop-motion animation, with some computer elements to enhance the look and style.  My particular role on the film was “Facial Animator”, where as my department was responsible for creating the facial expressions, eyes, mouth and dialogue lip-sync for the characters in the film.  Each line of dialogue was broken down and given a range of customized faces that were created in the computer, and 3D rapid prototype printed (using the new 3D printing technology) and used for the facial elements in the stop-motion animation.  Thousands of individual facial expressions were printed for the film, the facial animator creates the face performances according to the dialogue and expression changes in the scenes.

What is your educational background and how did this prepare you for your animation work?Sean Burns

I went to Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts.  I graduated with a BFA in Mass Communications, concentration in Film Production.  My original intention was to do live action films and cinematography, but during my time at Emerson I discovered animation (somewhat accidentally… long story), and special effects as another aspect of making movies, which I discovered I was good at and liked very much. When I started working in the industry at a small studio in Boston, my film making background contributed to my animation focus, which benefited me as a potential director later on.    I also received a strong liberal art foundation along with my film classes, that was beneficial in strengthening conceptual talents and communication skills.

Later in my career, I went back to school and received a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), which was necessary for my role as a college Animation Department faculty and Chair at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

What do you love about working in animation?

The animation industry is continually growing, not only in physical size, but also culturally and conceptually, animation will never run out of ideas.  I am always learning new skills and techniques, and coming up with new crazy ideas. Along with this, there are various tools the animators of today have at their disposal, I find it fun and exciting exploring all these tools and techniques, and looking for different ways to tell animated stories.  Every new project brings a fresh outlook and new style that keeps the work exciting, and in turn keeps me on my toes, so I’m rarely bored.

The art of animation is about bringing life to the screen, what I love most about this is when the project is finished and shown, either on TV, movie theater, or video game console, and it makes the audience happy. Animation is about Storytelling

Is there anything you don’t like about working in animation?Burns animation

That is a difficult question because I truly think the good aspects  of working in animation far outweigh the negative.  But if I had to answer, I  sometimes feel animation is under-appreciated.  For the most part I think people really love to watch animation in movies and TV cartoons, and more recently in games and on the internet, but animation, like many other forms of art can be taken for granted by the audiences we are trying to entertain and it can appear to them to  “look so easy and fun to do”. Audiences watch TV shows and feature films and not even see some of the animation that goes on, like special effects in superhero films, if the artist  does  their jobs right, you won’t even recognize that there is animation or visual effect, the hard work put in to achieve realism is invisible.  I suppose then I don’t like it when people get up and leave a movie before the credits end.

How have the development of computers and software impacted the animation you have done over the years?  

Computers have profoundly impacted the animation industry, and for me personally knowing computer animation has offered more opportunity artistically than I could have expected if I had stayed with traditional animation exclusively. Before we had all this availability to digital software on personal computers, many elements, such as visual effects, editing and animation itself, was more cumbersome and less available to individual artists, one tended to specialize in one aspect of film production, and required the infrastructure of a studio for space, equipment, and human resources to complete an entire project.  Digital technology has consolidated many of these aspects literally into a single box, where an individual animation artist can realistically produce every aspect of an animated film, from script, storyboards, layout, modeling, animation, rendering, compositing and editing, from a single computer, for a fraction of the cost it used to take 30 years ago. Nowadays, hardware and software was become readily available to all artists and students, and resources to learn the skills is abundant.  It is not uncommon for a person to make independent projects from their home, and distribute the films on venues like Youtube.  I find it to be quite extraordinary actually.

Please describe a favorite animation project you have worked on?Insecticide_2

I worked on a Video Game called “Insecticide: The Game”, an action and crime solving game taking place in a world ruled by insect characters.  I was the Animation Director and animator doing most of the in-game animation as well as the cinematics for the game.  My responsibilities included developing the distinctive movements and animating the actions for all the characters.  I was able to be involved with all of the production processes of the game as well as have significant creative input about the performances and personalities for the characters, and how they were integrated into the world we created for them.  But my favorite part in particular was the fact I was able to work on the entire project from home on my desktop computer.  The other artists working with me were located in different regions of the country, and some of the programmers and technical artists were working from as far away as St. Petersburg, Russia.  I found  being involved in this “virtual studio” to be an amazing experience.

Whom do you admire and why?

Believe it or not I am old-school, and I really admire Walt Disney.  While he was not an “animator” as such, he did define the industry as we know it today and despite the many changes Disney studio has gone through since we lost Walt, the Disney studios continue to be a leader and produce excellent movies.  Walt Disney himself was a visionary, and natural story teller, not only was he creative in his own right, he inspired everyone around him to be the best they can be, and I admire that trait.

How has the potential of animation changed since you began your career? How has software or computer advances impacted your work?insecticide-truckcrash_425px

Back when I started in animation there really wasn’t any computers to speak of, at least the way we have come to know and use them today. Computer animation was very experimental and exclusive to big companies like ILM, or high-tech universities such as MIT or Cal Tech. So the computer animation that was coming out and we were seeing was mysterious and fascinating. In the early 1990’s, when computer animation was coming of age with studios like Pixar, and movies like “Jurassic Park”, I was motivated enough to purchase my own computer and 3D animation software, an Amiga 2000 ‘Video Toaster’ with Lightwave 3D, and began to teach myself computer animation.  It took a few years but along with my traditional experience in stop-motion and drawn animation, I was able to work professionally on computer animation jobs, most notably the M&M’s Guys for Will Vinton Studios.  I have found that computers are primarily a tool for creating animation essentially the same way as in any other medium, but with a different look.  Over the years I have been able to stay active in both traditional and computer mediums, and combine these skill sets successfully.  Computers have impacted the quality of the animation work we see today, allowing to solve technical issues we struggled with previously, such as keeping smooth motion, and the ability to digitally composite elements seamlessly to achieve realism and atmosphere that was extremely difficult before computers.

How do you think the art of animation will change in the next 10 years?

I believe animation is going to go in two directions. One where technology is headed toward hyper-realism, and we will see movies that are totally digital but indistinguishable from real elements. Tools and techniques will continue to grow and invent amazing capabilities and movies are headed for hyper-realistic qualities.  On the other hand, I think animation is also going to be more local and accessible to the smaller, independent studios, and individual artists. As technology progresses and becomes available to more artists, we will see a rise in independent productions and more diversity in entertainment.  While big studios will continue to provide big, elaborate movies, ordinary folks in their home studios will fill the gaps with more down-to-earth, but equally interesting forms of entertainment.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned through your work?

Throughout  the years of working in the industry I think I have learned most about  patience and teamwork,  not just with the process of animation, (which is certainly tedious, labor intensive and time consuming), but more with the desired results that one has to wait for many weeks, sometimes years to see, and requires the diverse talents of various artists to achieve.  Working in a crew of professionals over an extended amount of time, sharing the burdens and rewards, is extremely fun and satisfying. Learning how to works with others is essential, and when done right can often lead to leadership roles.

What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in animation as a career?SethJethro

Draw,  draw, and keep drawing some more.  It doesn’t matter if you work on paper, clay, or on the computer, or you are even a producer or director, animation is a visual art-form, and drawing is a great way to communicate.  I have found most, if not all animation studios when hiring new artists, look for drawing ability and skill, not that drawing is required or essential, but it certainly helps.  Many students, especially computer focused students might not like to draw, or think they can’t draw, and I say draw anyway.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw like Rembrandt, or think your drawing ability is embarrassing, keep a sketchbook, draw 30 minutes, or an hour or so a day, and you will get better, guaranteed. Take some life drawing classes, or do some online tutorials in your free time, but nurture your drawing ability.   If you like only drawing stick figures, that is okay, and sometimes very effective. Even if you love drawing in Photoshop, don’t stop drawing with pencil and paper.   Drawing consistently will improve your storytelling, sculpting, modeling and computer animation, etc… and will better communicate your artistic intentions.

If you are stubborn and REALLY don’t like to draw, then writing is a very good alternative.  Like the drawing, do it every day and don’t stop.

Animation requires effective communication, so finding your “voice”, to communicate your art, either in drawing or writing, goes a long way.

If you weren’t working in animation, what would you be doing?

I think I would like to either be a Chef, or an Organic Farmer.

Check out the video below for samples of Burns’ animation work:

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