Allison Rutland is a bass player, illustrator, and animator at Pixar. She has animated characters for films such as Brave, Toy Story III, and Monster’s University, and recently illustrated the children’s book Sammy the Snail. On a blustery day in February, I met with her over lunch at Pixar Studios to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes. Here she discusses the unique perspective female animators can offer to the traditionally male-dominated field, the value of constantly striving to improve your work (and looking to role models’ early work for inspiration), and the magic of translating emotion into image.
Like many kids, Allison Rutland grew up watching cartoons. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a particular favorite – when the film came out, she watched all the behind-the-scenes making-of footage she could get her hands on. In college, however, she studied fine arts. Nearing graduation and thinking it would be difficult to make a living painting (her focus), she returned to her first love and applied to Sheridan College– a major school for animation in Canada. The work immediately clicked. “I’d always done flipbooks, but I’d never done acting. I did a short film called Finding Chia, and when I first made my little guy do eye darts and thinking, it was so much fun. I fell in love right away.”
After working on commercials and TV shows in Toronto, she collaborated on the film Everyone’s Hero, which helped her land jobs in London at MPC and Framestore, where she worked on films such as Narnia and Where the Wild Things Are. At Pixar since 2009, she has animated for Toy Story III, Brave, Monster’s University, and Inside Out, and is currently working on Finding Dory. Her favorite character to animate thus far has been Sulley.
On average, Allison works on one shot per week. “I come in to work at 9. Usually in the morning there are dailies where the animators will come and sit with the director. You don’t have to show everyday, but a group of people will be showing their work in different stages. We review the work and people can give feedback if they want. That’s also when you get your say and you can ask questions of the director. If there are camera changes to the shot, that will happen in dailies as well.
Then it’s pretty self-managing. You do have people that come around and say, ‘can you get this done by this date?’ But otherwise you very much set your own schedule.
In the afternoon, there are walkthroughs, where the director will come to your desk. And then there are drive bys, which is when animation leads come and take a look at your work.
You end up showing a lot of people your work because when you’re looking at the same thing – looping and looping all day – you can get really blind to it. So usually when I come in first thing in the morning, I’ll watch my shot and then I’ll write down things that bug me about it. Because it doesn’t take very long; by watching it a few times, I’m already blind to what bugs me about it. I can’t see it anymore.”
Her favorite aspect of her job? Figuring out how to translate dialog into action. “You get a shot briefing from the director, telling you what you need to do with the shot. The audio track is already in there, but beyond that, you can figure out the specifics. Maybe a head is going to accent a line. You can play with the timing of that and do it in creative ways, so not everything is happening on the accent of the dialog. You can throw it off. And you can put subtext into the character, where they are saying something, but obviously their face is doing something else. Not every shot has that depth to it. Some of it is pretty straightforward, just having the character look here and then look there. But it’s the acting shots I enjoy the most.”
Figuring out how to transform dialog into action involves a two-step process. Ultimately, Allison will control her character digitally, like a puppet. But often, first she will film herself acting out the dialog for inspiration. “When I’m starting a dialog shot, I’ll write down the line of dialog, and kind of think about it for a day. I usually record my first version of it, just my own acting. And then, sometimes I’ll research other actors or other characters to help influence that acting. I’m taking into account what the director has told me as well. We have a video room here with a camera that you can use to record your own acting, and I’ll do lots of different takes. I’ll read the line a bunch of times, and I’ll try it a few different ways. And just see how it feels. That works for human-like natural acting. But for cartoony stuff, it doesn’t work as well, because it’s kind of more of an abstract way of looking at motion.”
Allison says that because many animators act out their characters before animating them, one can often see animators’ quirks or expressions reflected in their characters. Likewise, she explains that animation has encouraged her to become finely attuned to movement in real life. “You start noticing different things.. people’s tics and quirks – the way they hold their head or their hands… When people watching, I’ll say to my husband ‘that guy has a strange walk cycle.’ Or when talking to other animators, sometimes they’ll say things like ‘that bird’s head turn was like 2 frames!’ At Pixar we have our own software with specific names for each control. For example, to make the head nod up and down its called HeadFB. So people will talk about real people, but describe them using the language of the controls.”
Like any animator, Allison says that she experiences uncertainty about her work. But, she takes this as a good sign. “I think most animators go through this, and actually never fully get out of it. If you’re constantly struggling to make your work better, it means that you’re actually a better animator than the guys who think they nail it every time. Chances are, those guys are relying on formulas and their ‘bag of tricks’ to get them through, rather than trying something new for whatever assignment is at hand.”
She also finds it helpful to review early stages of some of her favorite work by other animators. “I think the biggest thing that helped me get through some of the harder times was to try and stay inspired about animation. Just looking at really great work and going through it frame by frame. I still do that now at Pixar. We have access to all the old films on the network. So I can see early, rough animation of the Incredibles and Ratatouille, and I find that really inspiring.”
One unique aspect of Allison’s career is that at her job, she is in the minority. She estimates that out of approximately 120-130 animators at Pixar, she is one of roughly 22 women. Although Alison feels that this gender imbalance hasn’t dramatically colored her experience (she likes working as one of the guys, even if means that she occasionally finds it challenging to get a word in edgewise), she–and Pixar–would like to see more women in leadership roles in the field. According to Allison, in the old Disney studio, women were not even allowed to be animators. And, although that rule has long been discarded, the legacy somewhat remains–Pixar has never had a female director, and Allison has only ever once worked under a female lead animator.
Allison is not sure why so few women have pursued the career, but she has three pieces of advice for those who do:
1. Value your contributions. “Realize that you have a unique perspective to offer. Chances are, you grew up watching different types of movies and TV than the male animators. So you have a whole different set of experiences to reference, which can bring fresh ideas.”
2. Stand up for yourself. “Don’t be intimidated by the different working style of a room of guys, which tends to be more aggressive and competitive. You need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself.”
3. Follow what you love. “I’m not sure exactly why it’s such a male field. I’m not sure if it’s just a lack of interest, an association with nerdy things or video games, or if it’s something that women aren’t encouraged to do. I was never really encouraged to go into the field, but was also never told I couldn’t. I did it because I liked it.”
Thank you, Allison, for your tour of Pixar and insight into the daily life of an animator! Your example is inspiring – I hope we can encourage more women to become leaders in the field! I will be thinking of you the next time I see Nemo on screen in the theaters…
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