CGSociety Artist Profile - 25 June 2007
By Barbara Robertson
Early in the film Surf’s Up, the legendary surfer Z pats young Cody Maverick on his head and counsels, “Never give up. Find a way. Because that’s what surfers do.”
It is, in fact, exactly what the film’s senior animation supervisor David Schaub has done. Schaub maneuvered himself into a career as an animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks by doing what he most loves to do: animate.
“I’m always looking for opportunities to animate,” he says.
In fact, Schaub began tinkering with animation when he was 10 years old. At the time, he was living in Belgium where his father worked for NATO. Other kids played with chemistry sets. He borrowed a neighbor’s 8mm camera, and created stop motion movies with clay and paper cutouts.
“This was in the late sixties, early seventies,” he says. “Disney’s ‘Aristocats’ was in the theaters, and I was totally inspired by these drawings coming to life. But what really got me going were the 8mm shorts. Disney distributed these three-and-a-half minute black and white reels to the home market. I had a little hand-cranked projector so I projected them on the back of the door, cranked forward and backward, and traced over the drawings. I was completely fascinated.”
|His father, though, convinced him that it was safer to become an engineer than an artist, and, engineering degree in hand, he started his career at Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo, California. He stayed there for nearly 10 years. But he never stopped animating. “I was always dabbling,” he says. “That’s where my heart was.” |
But, when 3D Studio became available, Schaub brought his love of animation to work. “I started doing technical animations to explain the optical mechanisms and components for satellites that we were designing to our customers,” he says. “I’d animate orbital maneuvers of the satellites and visualizations of tricky satellite antenna deployments. Once I started doing that, I simply couldn’t stop. I started looking for a way to do more animation.”
He found it through a night class at a UCLA extension, and that changed his life. The instructor, who worked at Imageworks, recruited him right out of the class. At the time, Schaub was newly married and had a daughter on the way. “I was 35,” he says. “It was a big moment, but I realized that if I was going to make a career change, I didn’t want to wait too many more years. So, I plunged.”
He landed in Imageworks’ multimedia department. This was 1995, and the entire Imageworks organization could fit around a large conference table in the TriStar building. There, he worked on previs for several films, effects for television, music videos and ride films, supported Centropolis’s work on ‘Godzilla’, and created butterflies for ‘The Craft’ and for ‘Patch Adams’.
When Imageworks formed the Digital Character Group to do ‘Stuart Little’, Schaub signed on. “It was our first real character show,” he says. “This was the first time that the animation work would be organized and executed in a single, dedicated department” In the multimedia department, Schaub had done a little of everything from modeling to rendering. With ‘Stuart Little’, he would specialize only in animation for the first time.
|“It can be a hard decision for some people,” he says. “When you specialize, you limit your options. If you choose to focus on animation, then you will certainly get much better as an animator. However, it might be difficult to go back to a smaller studio unless you’ve somehow managed to keep up your modeling, texturing, and rigging chops – as well as keeping up with the latest changes in software and processes. But, I’d wanted to be in animation since I was a kid. It was a no-brainer for me.|
In fact, when animation for ‘Stuart Little’ ended, Schaub kept animating. “Sometimes, one of the frustrations animators have on a big show is that you animate the shots you’ve been cast, and those shots might not be the meaty shots,” he says. “I was hungry to do more.”
So, he got the source material from the dialog recording sessions of the actors still talking when the microphones were on. Using that dialog, and working during the down time after the show and at night, he animated several gag shots of Stuart and the Stout family in the style of Aardman’s “Creature Comforts.” “It was a surprise to the production, because they had no idea that I was doing this on my own. The studio ended up rendering one of the more “appropriate” gags and included it as one of the extras on the DVD.” Schaub says.
|That was in 1999. He moved up to lead animator for ‘Stuart Little 2’, and won a VES award for best character animation in an animated film. And then he became animation supervisor for ‘The Polar Express’ for which he received a VES nomination. The nomination, for outstanding performance by an animated character in an animated film, was for Steamer, one of two human characters that the crew animated entirely by hand. |
“It’s not any animators’ dream to be handed performances that are done for cleanup, but I learned a lot about human motion and mobility,” he says of his experience on ‘The Polar Express’. As a result of that experience, he believes motion capture is at its best for one-to-one performances. For example: “If you capture a human and apply that motion to a monkey, it will always look like a guy in a monkey suit,” he says.
In addition to the motion-captured characters in ‘Polar Express’, animators keyframed the animals and the two characters that drive the train. It was the animals in ‘Polar Express’ that led to his work on ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ for which he led teams of animators who created believable, talking beavers, a fox and the wolves, as well as the white deer and the effects work for Mr. Tumnus.
But it was the gag animations that he did for ‘Stuart Little’ way back in 1999 that convinced ‘Surf’s Up’ directors to hire him for that film. They found the animations in Imageworks’ archives and the sensibility and style was a perfect match for ‘Surf’s Up’. Schaub became senior animation supervisor for a crew that eventually grew to 60 animators.