Interview: “Finding Dory” Character Art Director Jason Deamer

Posted on November 13, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Finding Dory, one of the most purely delightful films of the year, is out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, and I got a chance to interview character art director Jason Deamer about making the movie.

What is a character art director? How do you work with the character designers, the writers and the directors?

Character Designer Jason Deamer is photographed on February 3, 2016 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)
Character Designer Jason Deamer is photographed on February 3, 2016 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

A character art director is still a character designer. Basically there is a small team of artists. And what we do is, we work with the directors and writers and we pre-visualize what the characters are going to look like. It’s a small team of maybe five of us. We’re looking at the script and getting pictures from the directors and we are drawing hundreds and hundreds of the versions of what the character could potentially look like and then showing them to the director and he is saying, “No no no no no, maybe this one a little bit.” And we go literally back to the drawing board and we do it all again. The art director’s job is to just make sure that is moving along and checking with all those artists. Ultimately, once we define stuff on paper that looks like what the director is after, those artists move on to other things and the art directors stay on the movie and work with the modeling team, the rigging team, the shading team and the animation leads as the characters’ becoming realized on the computer. And so the art directors’ gig is sort of about ushering the whole process long from beginning to end.

What technological changes since “Finding Nemo” made a difference in making this film?

One of the biggest, most noticeable, things about this film is that our lighting software and shading software has gotten so much more advanced. We’ve got something called ray tracing that bounces off the light in a way that’s much more close to reality and I think it’s noticeable. The tangible qualities of the film are much more significant than the first one although the first one is really beautiful. It’s gotten so much more advanced that it was really an exercise in trying to limit ourselves a little bit to make sure that it was done in a way that felt like the first movie.

I’ll just give you an example. The first time that we used the software there was a glass of water in the table in the background and the way light bends through water, this software is so mesmerizing that instead of looking at the characters we are all looking at the glass of water in the background. This is a problem, right? You need audience to be looking at the characters. So we had to go in and figure of ways to tamp that down a little bit, made the water a little blurrier or put more particulate matter in there to be a fireworks display of lights bending through water that was not that distracting.

Would the Hank character have been possible in 2003?

Absolutely not. We barely pulled it off this time. Let me take that back, it would have been possible if we had 10 years because one of the things that we are we better at is rigging which is the controls with which the animators use to animate characters, the digital puppets. We probably could have done it 13 years ago except for the rigging control would have been so complex, someone would have have to be going in hand by hand of been like 1000 controls per each tentacle so it could have been done with just sheer effort and muscle and taken forever but it would not look as good even with all that effort. So the short answer is no.

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

What special concerns arise from creating characters who live and move under water?

There is no water in the computer so the concerns are trying to figure out how to send signals to the audience that makes it look like water. The animators spend a lot of time learning how fish locomote through water and having the little paddling and the drift done in such a way that it looks like they’re suspended in the medium. Then we work on shading and lighting things. We’re trying to send enough visual cues to the audience to make it feel like water. Another example would be particulate matter which is the dust that is suspended in water, so we put a bunch of that into the film, just enough so that when the fish are swimming around we’re also simulating that particulate matter so when the fish moves its tail you see those little bits of sand that are catching the light that kind of get disturbed by the movement of the fin. It is a collection of a bunch of little signals like that that tells you that the fish is in water.

Do you have a favorite animated classic Disney character?

I do, it’s Maleficent. I love the design of Maleficent. I just think it’s really beautiful, on the character design level.

What characters did you like to draw when you were growing up?

It was an ever-changing, ever-evolving thing. When I was really, really little for some reason I was obsessed with drawing ninjas like in kindergarten. And then comic books and it just went on and on and on. I’m still constantly change my mind about what I like to draw.

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