James Baxter reveals the secrets of enchanting character animation

We speak to the character animator behind Disney’s Ariel, Belle and Quasimodo, Dreamworks’ The Croods – and who has an entire episode of Adventure Time named after him.

Bristol-born animator James Baxter has had an impressive career so far. He's the character animator behind many iconic characters, including Disney's Belle, Ariel and Quasimodo. He's also worked on films including Shrek 2 and Madagascar, as well as Monsters vs Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon.

If that's not cool enough, James even has an entire episode of Adventure Time named after him.

Currently supervising animator at Dreamworks Animation, James' most recently released project is The Croods, an animated comedy about a family of cavemen. James served as head of character animation for the film, and we caught up with him to find out more about how the film was animated, the artistic decisions behind the style of animation and the characters, the negatives of motion capture and the key to success in the animation industry.

Use the slideshow controls above and right for an inside perspective on animated movies and character design, as well as James' advice for fellow animators.

Right: Animator James Baxter

AA: There are many elements in The Croods that have been animated to look realistic, such as the hair, fur and skin. Why does realism count in a non-photorealistic environment?

JB: "It's a strange mix. You want to create a style where people can forget to a large extent that these are animated characters. You want to create a style that people can sit through for 90 minutes and lose themselves in the story. And sometimes putting in a little bit more realism helps with that.

"When you're making a short film, sometimes you can be more abstract with the design, but if you're trying to tell a story for an hour and a half you want the audience to get lost in the world so that they can just totally enjoy the characters and the story and not worry about the style so much. That's really why we push in that direction."

AA: What about the artistic purpose of realism in animation?

JB: "The type of acting that's required tends to dictate how much realism there is in the characters. If you're doing something that's really cartoony in the story that just requires wacky action and no real emotional moments, you don't need to be so realistic.

"But if you know there are going to be some moments in the story that really require some depth of acting, you need to create characters that can handle that, and that convey that kind of subtleties as well as the craziness of the animated world.

"So that's where they sit. Between that line that you can do something emotional and subtle, but you can still do something crazy and funny."

Right: The characters from The Croods: Gran, Eep, Grug, Thunk, Sandy and Ugga.

AA: There's no motion-capture in The Croods. Why did you decide to animate without using motion capture tech?

JB: "It's all animated by animators. We have a motion capture stage at Dreamworks, and our layout department uses it to block out the camera positions and sequences before we get to animate it. But we feel that, if you're just motion capturing it, all you're going to get is what a real person can do. And that's really not enough for an animated film, so we still like to animate with animators.

"I think motion capture is splendid for things that have to look incredibly real, especially things that have to look real next to a live action performer in a visual effects scenario. But I just want people to take a step back and think about the sort of movie they want to make, and then decide what tools they want to use to make it, because there's so many options now.

"You could do motion capture if you wanted to, you could animate it in clay if you wanted to. It's all just an artistic choice. I just want to see people make conscious artistic choices about the films they want to make rather than just go to default of what's new."

Right: Emma Stone is Eep in The Croods

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AA: Can you tell us a bit about the character design process?

JB: "We have a lot of character designers at Dreamworks that spend a lot of time doing the sketches. They throw up a hundred different versions of the characters - tall, fat, thin - really broad strokes to try and find something that everyone can agree on.

"That beginning process is just drawings usually, and then as everyone hones in on their favourite, then those designers start doing more subtle variations on a theme.

"Then we get onto modelling where we create that in three dimensions in a computer, and we're exploring those shapes. Over the weeks we show the directors, and we're getting closer and closer, and eventually we create the final mode, which is used to animate. Which is a very highly detailed digital puppet basically."

Right: The central character, Eep, gets a taste of life outside the cave in The Croods.

AA: Are there any characters that changed significantly from their original version in the finished movie?

JB: "Belt – Guy's little sloth companion - wasn't really much of a force in the movie at the beginning. In fact, Guy had a different pet for a fair amount of the film - a little prehistoric pony. But as the story progressed, we decided Belt was stealing all the scenes. So Belt got a promotion.

"I suppose, in really early times, Guy's design changed quite a bit. He was a lot goofier but then we needed a real foil for Grug and someone that could potentially be attractive for Eep, so all those demands on Guy in the story dictated his look.

"It's always the story that ends up driving how people look and behave."

Right: Belt (the little sloth dude) got a promotion during the animation process of The Croods, becoming the sole pet rather than one of two.

AA: Were there any unexpected challenges when making The Croods, or anything you found more difficult than expected?

JB: "There are these crazy, imaginative, bizarre creatures in the movie, and some of that was a little challenging. I mean, how does a turkey fish move? You've really got to sit down and think about that for a while. Exactly how do you do a Crocodog?

"And I guess the cavemen were challenging in that we wanted to make them look and behave in a ridiculous cavemen way sometimes, but also be very athletic at the same time so that they could run really fast or jump really high or be really strong.

"That's a challenge for animators because real people can't do that, so you've got to push yourself to figure out how that would really work and how to make it feel really right, and look like it's believable, like they could really do these things."

AA: How long does it take to animate the characters?

JB: "Animators do a little over a second a day. So between one and two seconds every day. We had about 35 animators for most of the movie."

Right: The Croods family.

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AA: What part of your role as head of character animation do you enjoy most?

JB: "I enjoy doing the animation. Going through all the hard work of creating the character and designing the character and building the model is fun, but I just enjoy doing the piece of acting or performance or something and showing that to an audience. It's like doing a magic trick or something."

AA: What advice would you give to animators, or aspiring animators, who strive to become a top animator like yourself?

JB: "Really get to work on learning how to animate rather than concentrating on the technology. Because the skill of animating is about performance and understanding how movement works. And how weight and balance and all of those things that are the same as they were since the 1930s. Those skills are the same. Those skills are harder to master than knowing the ins and outs of a particular programme.

"Switching between programs is actually very easy compared to knowing how to animate. So that would be my advice.

"My other bit of advice is to try and get to know people inside the industry!"