Moving digital puppets on a computer – that’s how Capilano University graduate, animator Benson Shum describes how he brings characters to life in Walt Disney movies like Big Hero 6, Frozen and the just released Ralph Wrecks the Internet.
Shum visited a group of animation students at the 2D & Visual Development program at the North Shore university on Monday afternoon, showing clips of the latest adventure with Ralph and Vanellope, and talking about his journey from Capilano University to Burbank, Calif.
The East Vancouver native spends a lot of time in front of a computer screen, manipulating these digital puppets but he said a career as an animator also involves a lot of creative work with his fellow animators, of which there were about 70 making the latest Ralph movie.
“If you love to draw and you love to create characters, you will work and find your way into the industry because a lot of people in the industry are passionate about the art side of things and telling stories,” he said.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph, where Ralph and Vanellope enter the cyber world to find a missing piece of a game console.
They encounter Netizens and Net Users, an algorithm named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) and a search engine “Knowsmore” who tries to help Ralph and Vanellope find what they’re looking for. The “internet” is a giant city made up of digital paraphernalia, from Amazon and e-Bay to Snapchat and IMDB.
The film even pokes fun at Disney itself with a scene that has Vanellope convincing a group of Disney princesses including Snow White, Cinderella, Jasmine, Ariel and Moana, that she, too, is a princess because everyone assumes a “big strong man” fixed all her problems.
Research for making this Ralph movie started at One Wilshire, Shum explained, a building eight miles from the Disney studios that houses massive internet communication infrastructure, to help the creators imagine what the internet would physically look like to create the set where the characters play out the story.
The day-to-day work of an animator is all about breathing life into characters – whether that’s 2D animation on paper or 3D animation on the computer.
Shum said working in 3D animation is like moving a marionette with strings.
“It’s exactly the same thing in the computer but instead of strings, you have joints you put on the character, and then you manipulate every joint to make them move,” Shum said. “Like stop motion, but on a computer.”
Animators start with the voice track – in Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch, among others – and they make the visual effects to match the voices.
As they listen to the voices, the animators have to fill out the imagery – “how does that voice match the character and what is that voice doing,” Shum explained.
Shum was in his primary years at school when he knew he wanted to be an animator, that is, after he figured out that it could be a career. He said he has always drawn characters and created stories (he recently published a children’s book, Holly’s Day at the Pool, and has two more coming out soon).
“I didn’t know (animation) was a career until I saw it on TV,” Shum said. This came after watching a behind-the-scene program that showed how cartoons were animated.
“Sometimes I think a lot of people now, when they see animated films, they don’t know how it’s done, it’s just there,” Shum said.
In high school, he saved up and spent $65 on the Illusion of Life, one of the first books on animation, written by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who worked at Walt Disney.
“They created what animation is today,” Shum explained. “When they retired, they put all their knowledge into that book.”
It was a heavy tome to carry around, but Shum said it was “invaluable” and he read it whenever he had the chance, during silent reading at school and any spare time he had.
After high school, Shum applied to Capilano University’s 2D program, but didn’t get in on his first try. “My portfolio wasn’t up to par yet,” he explained.
The next year, he applied again and got in, and when he was in the program, he found out many of his classmates had also been rejected on the first round.
“I think we had that bond where we had to work extra hard to get into that course – I think we did really push each other to get better,” he said. “That stuck with me where you don’t take anything for granted - I think it gets me motivated to always push harder.”
He remembers the camaraderie and friendships he made during that time, and he is still in contact with his CapU classmates, many of whom either work at the school or in the animation industry.
Shum graduated from the 2D program in the year 2000, and then he went on to complete a one-year post-diploma program in 3D at Sheridan College in Ontario.
After Sheridan, Shum hopped the pond to London and worked at Pinewood Studios on a video game War Devil, that never was released. Shum then applied to Disney where he has been working ever since.
He has worked on many animated films and different types of scenes, but he tends to gravitate to more emotional shots.
When he was working on Frozen, he was working on a “very quiet moment.”
“There was something they liked in that – and then when it came to Big Hero 6, they gave me a lot of Hiro’s emotional shots,” he said
Shum said he puts a lot of himself and his emotions into his work. At some point, when he was working in L.A., he learned that his mother had had a stroke.
“I was animating a shot where Hiro was talking to Tadashi, and essentially, he was saying that he loved him and he should do what he’s good at,” Shum explained. “When I got that shot, I was in L.A. and my mom was here, I started to record myself, me talking to my mom and I put what I did on screen into the character.”
While it was a hard time for him, he said that’s a good example of how animators bring their characters to life, with emotions that people will relate to.
While he works on lots of emotional scenes, Shum also gets some comedic ones as well, for example, he worked in the scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet, where Ralph and Vanellope don’t know what a ‘cr-cr-credit card” is and have to pay a bill of $27,001.
Sometimes, creating the emotions for their characters can be a more challenging for 3D animators than 2D artists.
“When you’re drawing on paper, it’s you and the paper and there’s no in-between,” Shum said. “But with the computer, you’re moving (something), whether it’s the mouse or something else, it feels like there’s a wall there. But we kind of have to work extra hard to infuse our emotions into what we do on a computer.”
For video samples of Shum's work visit vimeo.com/user9795129.