Stuart Sumida: The Interview

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Professor Stuart Sumida is widely acknowledged as the world’s leading expert on human, animal and creature anatomy for animation and digital special effects.  Soon after completing his Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, Sumida was invited to give a lecture at Disney for the animators working on Beauty and the Beast. That marked the beginning of a prolific relationship, seeing him go on to lecture, consult and advise directors, animators, character designers and riggers on more than 50 feature-length film projects, including How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Tarzan, The Lion King and Guardians of the Galaxy working with major studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar and Sony Pictures.

Professor Sumida will visit China for the first time in September for a series of lectures and workshops. iacc’s Chris Colman caught up with Sumida via Skype to talk dragons, Chihuahuas and Angelina Jolie.


“I got two words of instruction from Brad Bird. He stormed past a meeting we were in and just said ‘more ratty!’


What have been up to recently?

I was in London working with MPC on Guardians of the Galaxy and a couple of other films recently. One was Maleficent, the Disney live action version of Sleeping Beauty, working with all human characters. We didn’t actually work on any of the creatures in either movie. I didn’t do any work on Rocket Raccoon at all. That character had already been designed and I just got to look at a bit of the animation. We spent a lot of time doing the work on male and female differences, so we’re emphasising those differences and trying to understand how they move differently from one another, especially in an action film.  It was more or less standard anatomical descriptions, but verging on the comic book-type differences. You have a female character like Zoe Saldana’s, where we went a little bit more extreme on her features, as opposed to the men. On the other hand, look at someone like Angelina Jolie (Maleficent). She’s very differently shaped from someone like Zoe Saldana. Maleficent is not so much an action film but Angelina Jolie can be a very physical actress, so there’s a lot of extreme motion, like Olympic athlete-level study, looking at both males and females who do extreme sports. The way a male will create a spin in his body, whether he’s a skateboarder or a superhero, will come from different masses in the body than it will from a woman. At the same time, I was also working with Double Negative on the second Hercules, which is coming out here (USA) this month. They actually already had most of the effects work they needed to do on humans, so that was strictly an animal film. There was this giant boar like beast, there were lions, there were serpents. It was like a candy store for someone that does animal anatomy. I’m also working on a couple of projects with Disney right now – Zootopia and King of the Elves.   Then there’s the long-languishing project at Pixar, the Good Dinosaur. They haven’t abandoned it yet, so we will see if it sees the light of day. It was lot of fun anyway.


“There was this giant boar-like beast, there were lions, there were serpents. It was like a candy store for someone that does animal anatomy”


 You’ve worked on over 50 movies. Why do studios keep coming back to you?

There’s a lot of turnover and people move around a lot, and you get a really diverse group of people with diverse levels of experience. There’ll be really good, hot young people who don’t have a lot of training and you’ll have a lot of older hands who have that feel already. I get to come in and bring everyone up to the same page. A lot of the relevant information is out there, but you would be surprised – a lot of the artists know more than they realize, but they publish less than the scientists. It’s great putting everything together for them. It’s also surprising how much misinformation there is out there. There are some extremely common, extremely expensive tools, like little maquettes that we use for teaching proportion sculpture, that are completely inappropriately proportioned. It’s like a man in a woman’s suit. I gave a series of lectures in Amsterdam for a game studio a few months ago and they brought out all their character designs and I said, ‘gosh, all your women look like guys.  They had just scanned in these models, which were quite expensive, and quite wrong (laughs). No-ones perfect, don’t get me wrong. I make mistakes myself, but when you teach in a medical school or at a university, you have to really keep your chops, because you’re teaching medical students how to not make mistakes. That really helps me a lot and it keeps me humble. There’s so much more to learn. Then when it comes to animals, there’s so much diversity, even within certain familiar species, like domestic dogs. Think about the variation in shape from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane.


When DreamWorks and I got together on How to Train Your Dragon, we literally built a curriculum called Flight School, and everyone who animated on that film had to attend.”


Over your career, what has been the creature, animal or human that has been the biggest challenge to try to understand?

That’s a great question.  Doing photorealistic things is difficult but straightforward – you can tell if you’ve done it wrong or right. But doing a creature – it’s almost like you have to test drive it with audiences and figure out how you want to sew the pieces together. Dragons are tough because they are made-up creatures plus doing things that fly well is really tough.  You have to have those feelings of weight and mass. The ground is very useful – you can have ground reaction force, you can show weight hitting the ground. But when something has to move through the air and still be believable, that is very tough.   I have done half-day workshops for animators on flight alone. In fact, when DreamWorks and I got together on How to Train Your Dragon, we literally built a curriculum called Flight School, and everyone who animated on that film had to attend. I would say that the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon were amongst the most gratifying. I think we built some really compelling creatures, which actually looked like they were flying.

How do you determine the anatomy of a made-up creature?

(laughs) That’s one of people’s favorite questions. People ask me ‘what is the anatomy of a dragon? or a centaur?’   There are two answers. The first is, I have no idea – absolutely no idea – because I’ve never been able to dissect one.  The second answer is, of course we know, because they’re made up of parts that we already know. The trick is – how do we put those parts together? Usually the first thing we do is strip them down to their skeletons and see where we can join motions together logically.  We usually start with joint function. Then you have to spend time with designers and directors asking ‘what do you want this thing to do?’  Then once you have some internal joint constraint in place, and you’ve got some direction for what it has to do, then you can start to build both shape and controls. That’s the ideal way. Sometimes you’re brought in and they say, ‘here’s a shape, make it work’, and you’re retrofitting and that’s difficult. That’s the hard way. The reason I love coming to academic institutions like DeTao is, you get to influence people by teaching them the ideal way to start.  As for dragons, mostly they are built on things we know. You look at things that fly like birds, pterodactyls, bats – bats are a big, big model for dragons, especially their wing constructions. But dragons have to be able to walk too, so we also look at crocodiles and dinosaurs. We bring those all together and cherry-pick the bits that work best.

Have you ever come across a creature that the studio wants to use but the anatomy just doesn’t make sense?

Yes, there have been some tough ones that didn’t work out so well, like the Chimera in Clash of the Titans. When you have multi-headed creatures like Hydras, how do you balance those things? That’s really tough. I usually try to keep things balanced so I like putting one head on top of another, but I’m often vetoed (laughs).  There’s a laundry list of things that I could give you that I think we could have done better on. The good thing is, we have improved over the years. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons and I try to take them on board.

Who’s the boss when you come in to a project? Can you sometimes simply say ‘this doesn’t work’, or do you have to work around what they want?

I’m not the boss but I’ll always be honest, because I’d lose my credibility if I don’t tell them the best that I have to offer.  It is my job to give them as many useful tools as I can.  To be fair, the artists are usually extremely keen to get it ‘right’, to get the creature to move in a convincing fashion, to make it look like their bodies fit with the physics of their universe. So I rarely have to argue with anybody. On the rare occasions when I have, it’s actually been more that I’ve been arguing on behalf of the people I’ve been working with, with their clients and producers. On Clash of the Titans we had to fight, fight, fight with Warner Brothers and I was actually brought in as, sort of, someone who could not be fired, to point out their errors. You want to fire me from my low paying State of California job? (laughs).

At what stage do you normally come in on a project? 

I can come in at all stages but it’s best to come in at the beginning and in the middle.  Ideally, we do a construction phase and then an animation and movement phase. The construction phase is with lead animators, animation supervisors, riggers and other character designers, and then I come back later when they’re in the full-on animation and movement phase so we can see how the characters are moving. I have occasionally been brought in when something just looks like it’s not moving right and they can’t figure out why. That’s harder because you have many more constraints. On the other hand, we did that on Ratatouille and the film came out brilliantly.   I came in on that mid-stream and we changed everything. I got two words of instruction from Brad Bird. He stormed past a meeting we were in and he just said ‘more ratty!’  So I said ‘alright, you got it. Drop ‘em down and show me how they walk on four legs’.   They all looked at me and said ‘uh, but he doesn’t walk on four legs’. So I said ‘well, if he’s a rat he’s going to have to’. It was hard work but they wound up doing a great job.


“As a paleontologist you just find the parts and you have to figure out the whole thing based on parts. That’s really a lot of what animators are doing.”


How did you first start working with animation studios?

It was by chance. If you had told me when I was in grad school studying paleontology that I would be doing this as part of my career, I would have laughed. One of my good friends when I was at university was a fellow named Charles Solomon. Charles is a well-known writer and historian of animation. He must have written 20 or 30 books by now. And he was a master student and I was a PHD student and we used to have lunch together all the time. We were fast friends, he was best man at my wedding. We were both at UCLA in California and then I went off to Chicago for my post-doctoral work, and he started on his career. Then one day I got a call and he said, ‘remember the guys we used to have lunch with?  They were wondering if you would be willing to talk to them.’  When someone from California invites you out to give a talk, and you’re in Chicago in February, the answer is easy (laughs). That wound up being lectures for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast way back in the day. We started work on that in the earliest 90s, and then their next project was Lion King, which was all animals. Then the snowball started rolling. Fast-forward to now and I’ve worked on something like 50 or 60 projects. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve adapted nicely to the pendulum swinging towards CG. When that change first started occurring, I thought that I would be working in this area less.   I couldn’t have been more incorrect. The work probably doubled or tripled. The way I do it now is different from when I started. I have the good fortune of having co-evolved with the industry over the last 20-odd years.

What is your job title?

I say I’m a university professor because it’s a big, broad umbrella. I teach a lot of things, but I’m a scientist who likes and studies anatomy and that actually sets me up perfectly for working with animators. As a paleontologist you just find the parts and you have to figure out the whole thing based on parts. That’s really a lot of what animators are doing. They don’t have the whole thing but they are giving the illusion of life with something that is projected on a flat screen. My day job is primarily teaching animal and human anatomy at a university. In the summer I teach human anatomy at a medical school.   What I do with studios makes me better at that. It gives me tools which no one else gets to use. And having my foot in the research end at the university makes me a better resource for the studios.

How did you come to be a part of iacc-DeTao? Have you been to China before?

Ed (Hooks) recommended me to DeTao, but I also have some other colleagues who are DeTao masters, like Jack Lew. I’ve known Jack since the Lion King days when he was Artistic Training Director at Disney, Florida.  Ed had introduced me to Robin (King, iacc Director), and we’d spoken.  At that time I happened to bump into Jack and mentioned to him the conversation. Jack got very excited and said ‘you must, you must get together with these people, you will be very happy if you do’. I’m an academic, and when I see an opportunity to spread my wings, it’s very exciting. I’ve not been to China before. I’ve just been to Hong Kong where I was working at Imagi Studios on Astro Boy and a couple of other projects that never got off the ground. I flew in, lectured for 2 and a half days, and I was gone before the end of the third.