By Hannah Shapiro
“Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Mulan,” “Pocahontas.” These are classic Disney movies everyone knows and loves. DePaul University’s Animator in Residence Brian Ferguson worked on those movies and more during his 23-year tenure as an animator at Disney Feature Animation. These days he shares his animation experience and expertise with DePaul students in the College of Computing and Digital Media. This spring, Chicagoans can learn the art, philosophy and craft of character animation performance from Ferguson in his public character animation master classes.
NATSOUND MUSIC FROM BRIAN’S SAMPLE CLIP OF RAY’S SONG, “The Princess and the Frog,” “YOU’RE MY QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, SO STILL, SO BRIGHT, THERE’S SOMEONE… (FADES OUT)
BRIAN FERGUSON STARTED DRAWING AS A CHILD AS A CHILD.
FERGUSON: My first exposure to animation, I’d say, would be my mom teaching me to do flip decks in the margins of books. I did it in all the margins of my books, both sides of the pages, all around the margins. I went into zoology in university — all my notebooks had animation on the edges all around.
THAT PASSION TURNED INTO A SUCCESSFUL CAREER IN THE ANIMATION INDUSTRY.
FERGUSON: It’s always been a huge priority with me that I would come up with something that’s unexpected. And I think that I kind of built a reputation on doing that kind of work, you know, something that people wouldn’t have thought up.
FERGUSON: I started to understand some of the processes behind behaviors. And so all that came together whenever I’d animate animals. With something like “Lion King,” they were doing everything they could to make the animals move in a way that would seem like that particular kind of animal while still giving a performance that would register in a way that we as humans could relate.
THAT ABILITY TO RELATE WITH AN ANIMATED CHARACTER, JUST LIKE A REAL PERSON, COMES THROUGH NOT JUST IN THE WORDS THEY SAY BUT IN HOW THEY SAY THEM.
FERGUSON: You don’t just animate straight to what they’re saying. Instead, you know, you try and work out what they’re really saying when they’re doing that, whatever it is that’s coming out of their mouth. You look at how they’re saying it, what the subtext is. And then we would map out the subtext, and then we would animate to the subtext, then sync the mouth to match whatever the audio was saying. So you’d end up with this more deep performance.
NOW FERGUSON SHARES HIS EXPERTISE AND PASSION WITH STUDENTS AS DEPAUL UNIVERSITY’S ANIMATOR IN RESIDENCE.
NATPOP FERGUSON: JUST FOR ITSELF, IT WAS A REALLY GREAT EXPERIENCE
FERGUSON: I love teaching the performance thing. But there are aspects of the performance that are better, you know, different aspects of things that go into it: the drawing, which I enjoy teaching, the timing is huge, looking at subtext.
CHARLIE FLOCKE: As animators, we are more in tune with the finer little details and what those can then express. Brian is very good about, you know, telling us where we can push stuff, where we can maybe, you know, add a little more emphasis somewhere, where we can add a little motion that, like, will make the entire scene that much stronger.
FERGUSON: With a lot of students, I see them going right for the finished product right away drawing animation, which is very much the way I used to work myself. It’s bad for time management, and it doesn’t give you as good a result. So one of the big things I do is try to direct their habits for developing a good workflow.
ALESSANDRO VILLA: He knows the best way to approach something and like not get lost in the details. His process helps you avoid that problem, and it helps you create the work that you really want to make and is more cohesive than the thing you thought you wanted.
THIS SPRING, FERGUSON IS ALSO TEACHING THREE MASTER CLASSES IN CHARACTER ANIMATION THAT ARE OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.
FERGUSON: When they hired me, Scott Roberts, who runs the program, thought of it right away. And he laid it out for me in a way that made me think, OK, you know, I could get up and talk about what I know. As it’s something that interests people while I’m talking about it, then it’ll work. It just strikes me as weird to call it a master class, because then it’s like calling myself a master or something like that.BUT FOR A GUY WITH 25 YEARS OF ANIMATING PROFESSIONALLY, WITH CREDITS ON 15 DISNEY FEATURE FILMS, AND A LIFETIME OF DOODLING AND STUDY OF MOVEMENT, BEHAVIOR AND PERFORMANCE, MASTER MIGHT NOT BE SUCH A STRETCH.
IN CHICAGO, HANNAH SHAPIRO, MEDILL REPORTS
Hannah Shapiro is a Video and Broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @_hannah_shapiro.