David Couchariere has been a 3D character animator for Dreamworks Animation for over five years now, where he worked on ‘How To Train Your Dragon’, ‘Madagascar 2’, ‘Kung-Fu Panda 1’, Kung Fu Panda 2', ‘Flushed Away’ and lately 'Puss in Boots'. Prior to that, he worked for Blue Sky Studios in New York on ‘Ice Age 2’ and ‘Robots’.
David grew up in Belgium, where a fairly solid comic strip tradition is established in the country. The Smurfs and Tin tin had their origins in this part of Europe. After a childhood of saturated entertainment from these, US-based animations as well as the Japanese product, Couchariere went on to work on three European animated features when he finally began his career as a rookie animator in the early 90s.
He took an internship as a trainee animator at Oniria Pictures in Luxembourg. This is at a particularly lucky time for David as there was a big expansion of the staff at the studio, just when his training was complete. He put up his hand and was taken on, just as the staff went from 20 to more than 200. “It was a great start for me because I was able to begin animating feature films right out of school,” he says with a smile. “I would be handed ownership of large chunks of animation to do on my own. I would never have been given this chance on a larger American production.”
At an early point in his career, David really wanted to try the US market, and he knew he wanted to work at Blue Sky Studio, fast becoming the east coast US 'best place to work'. He'd been to Catskill High School in New York as a 19 year old and really wanted to break into the US animation circles. “I put together a reel, included some production work, as well as some other animations I produced on my own on weekends, and sent it directly to Blue Sky Studios in New York,” says Couchariere. “They answered back after a brief wait, and they wanted me to do an animation test. I set about animating some characters using some dialogue I'd selected from the TV show ‘Friends’. A couple weeks later I had an interview and they were flying me out to New York.” This is the stuff of dreams. David was hired immediately, and within a few months, he and his wife moved to New York, USA.
Couchariere went straight on to work at Blue Sky in the team on the ‘Robots’ animated feature and then into production on the second ‘Ice Age 2’ film. Moving across to the West Coast was easier. His wife is an environmentalist and there were a lot more opportunities for her over in California. Seeing he’d moved her from Europe for his career it was decided to move across to the West for hers.
Couchariere went straight on to work at Blue Sky in the team on the ‘Robots’ animated feature and then into production on the second ‘Ice Age 2’ film. Moving across to the West Coast was for his wife's career, but it soon became a good thing for both of them. His wife worked in environmental sciences and there were a lot more opportunities for her over in California. Seeing he’d moved her from Europe for his career it was decided to move across to the West for hers.
Couchariere gives advice on developing characters. “Before I start on a new shot, and especially on a new movie altogether, I usually spend a substantial amount of time doing some research, from life whenever possible. If the characters are animals for example, I will watch a lot of live footage frame-by-frame, or go to the zoo.
“If it is a human, I will either act in front of a mirror, film myself, or someone else depending on the age, body type or specific requirements of the character. By studying all that, I want to gain an understanding of how things move. And by filming myself, I can progressively get into the ‘moment’ of the shot and get a ‘plan’.” Sometimes Couchariere invests up to two days into this, but on the long run, it saves him a lot of time because he doesn’t have to redo things.
He’d seen an Internet press release, with a concept drawing of Po, the panda lead on 'Kung Fu Panda'. “I immediately fell in love with this character and went for jobs at the DreamWorks studio as soon as I could,” says Couchariere. “I really felt like this 'Kung Fu Panda' movie was going to be something special.”
This main character in ‘Kung Fu Panda’ was a favorite with many animators. David loved Po mostly because of his design. “A lot of the artists had a real soft spot for Po. You don’t have to struggle much to find appealing angles and directions. It just comes naturally with the design,” says Couchariere. “His shapes are very elegant, flow very pleasingly from one to the other. The graphic quality of that character alone makes him both appealing and empathetic from the start, so making him move is just a delight. Plus, he's very fleshy, which opens possibilities for squashing and stretching him, going to interesting extremes to make him look very organic. Hiccup is different.“
Hiccup is the lead in ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and Couchariere talks about the ease with which the team seemed to be able to animate him.
“He's a human, first of all, and humans are always harder than the rest, because anyone in the audience is an expert at watching humans move. We do it all the time, and detect naturally anything that's even slightly off. But also, to me, Hiccup strikes an interesting balance of realistic motion and graphic design, ‘semi-realistic’ animation. The overall motion has to feel rooted in reality, but I still have the freedom to push the poses, the expressions and the timing a little stronger than in real life. At the other end of the spectrum, there are characters like Scrat in ‘Ice Age’, or the ‘Madagascar’ characters. They can be very fun to animate in a completely different way, knowing you can go to town with the posing and stretch the character every way you want, to a yet stronger degree than Po.“
I can’t predict the future, but currently it looks like the animation business is holding itself pretty well, so I wouldn’t expect any decline of animation production any time soon, be it family animation or hybrid movies mixing animation and live-action.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if the style of family animation overall was headed to an increasingly realistic look both in terms of design (or at least textures) and motion style. Even though I currently like animating semi realistic stuff, my personal preference would lie in seeing an increasing balance between realistic-looking projects and other styles drawing older and younger audiences into a certain degree of graphic abstraction, but I understand this second type of project raises specific needs and problems that can be very difficult to address.