We might not all know his name, but we certainly know his work. Ken Duncan is the creative animator behind some of the most iconic films of our time. Duncan is responsible for developing Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Jane in Tarzan. Ken is the President and Chief Creative Officer of his own studio, Duncan Studio in Pasadena, which specializes in character animation and story development for CG and 2D animation. The studio is also in the business of creating original content.
Most recently, Duncan was hired to work on and create the critically-acclaimed homage to the 2D sequence in the 1964 Poppins original. He hired a team of 130 animators to marry the world of the characters and the animation in Mary Poppins Returns, working for over a year and a half on the sequences.
Read our chat below.
What was your process in approaching the animated sequence in Mary Poppins Returns?
Jim Capobianco the animation sequence supervisor and Jeff Turley approached our studio. They had already designed the characters and the environment. They had some 2D artwork and storyboards. We came aboard and had the challenge of bringing that illustration to fruition and the challenge of adding human characters into that world.
As far as the environment and that world, we wanted to make sure that it felt illustrated much like the artwork that they gave us. We used a lot of modern technology to combine with artists.
The motivating aspect was the art, it wasn’t the technology. It was the art and how we bring the art to reality and allow humans to live in that world.
In the past, you could do flat artwork and that was it, but because the live action had dimension to it, we needed to build a multi-plane world. We started off with a lot of the artwork and we projected masked it on to computers and we built that world.
As far as the characters go, I went to the live-action shoot in London with Jim. Part of our job was to make sure the actors were communicating with a character that wasn’t actually there yet. We explained the sequences to them and made sure the timing was there for them to have eye contact and moments for them to perform.
For instance, when the hummingbird lands on Mary’s finger, we needed the bird to tip its hat, have Mary react to it, and then it moves on. It was the one thing that Rob wanted, to make sure that the humans and the animation characters connected as if they were in the same universe so that was really important.
Technically, the process for the hand-drawn animation was that we drew it on paper much like it had been done since 1905. It wasn’t done by 90-year-olds, but rather we mixed experienced people from Disney and Dreamworks. We also hired younger folks who had come out of Cal Arts and Laguna College of Art and Design where they teach traditional animation. Traditionally, that’s how we learned, we’d work as apprentices with experienced animators.
It was nice to bring in younger people to learn this process and I’m finding more and more young people are curious about the process of hand-drawn animation.
There’s something primal about it, it’s just you and that piece of paper without a lot of technology in between.
For the penguins, what we did differently from the original film was that each of them had their own little personalities. There were four of them, one was the captain, one was a Cary Grant type, good looking penguin. One was the hammy character who wanted to steal the show, and the last one was trying to keep up with the rest of them.
That was the aspect that Jim wanted in the sequence to add a personality to each of them.
For us, when you have animation and you’re dealing with personalities and characters, we want to cast the animation to animators that can handle certain things. Some animators can do dialogue really well, some can do drama, others comedy. We built the team from scratch with a total of 130 people working on it at our studios.
It took some time to put the crew together. It’s a mix of technicians, artists, and programs. Animation has always had technology involved with it, but the objective is always the visual result.
You’ve got A Cover Is Not The Book. You have an entire music hall layered with characters and personalities.
James Woods, our lead character designer, did a great job of making unique personalities for the crowd. Some of the younger folks did some of the crowd animation giving them personality in that group.
Animators who see the film are aghast at the number of characters in that shot because it’s so much. You being English, the idea was to capture that old school music hall. We built it digitally and make it look like the artwork.
Jim made a layout of where all the characters sat, where they came into the theater and where they moved to go to sit in their seats. We had to make sure we had a map of where they were sitting.
From a camera point of view, we had to make sure they weren’t overshadowing Mary. She turns to the crowd and they react. That was a fun thing to do.
When he comes down the staircase, there’s a ton of characters and it took four animators just to do those scenes. Rob wanted to make sure that they were matching the live action characters and hitting the beats.
We had to make sure that the characters stepped and hit on the beat exactly how the actors were doing it and how Rob was looking at it.
Rob had the choreographer come in and work with us. That penguin stuff, some of it was done a few times because we just weren’t getting it right, so we had to go over it over and over again.
An animator will come up with a different idea and go off the track, Rob really wanted to make sure we were disciplined about it. So, it was a process to get into that
Talk about the chase sequence and how that came together.
When we started in England, everything was green screen and the actors were in green screen carriages, but they didn’t move too much in space. It was hard for people to envision how active this was going to be.
We worked with the cinematographer about how some of the camera motion might work so that our storyboards would come to fruition when we animated them.
It really didn’t come to life until we started to put some of the animations in. The scenes with the horses had more dynamic than how it was shot. What’s great about that sequence is it’s about the characters. It’s the chase, the reaction of the wolf. It’s about the wolf getting angry as they catch up to him.
Another studio helped with the bowl in that sequence. They wanted to capture that old Snow White appeal of her running through the trees and the darkness. That was something we wanted to design properly and create the fear factor as the chase got intense. Rob had wanted all of those things. It was amazing how versed he was in the animation process in general and his desire to make it feel classic. When there was a tendency to get more digital, he didn’t want that. That sequence was great to have the build-up to the intensity. That’s what’s great is that each sequence is different.
When they enter the bowl, it’s colorful and lyrical. In the music hall, it’s fun and intense. The chase is nightmarish. It was fun for us to work with those rhythms and the changes in the art direction.
The wolf was a fun character because of his dialogue and his fake friendliness in the beginning. From an animation standpoint, he’s a fun character to create and work with.
You talk about technology. How have advances in tech helped the process with animation. Walk us through that?
It’s really creating the universe that the characters fit within. So, in this, it gives it a little more depth. We have true parallax. In the 1940s, Walt Disney created the multiplane camera and it could create multiplying layers. It was so expensive. You needed a whole crew and a huge room to fit the camera, and now, we can do it digitally.
We can put many layers of artwork into the computer and build these scenes in a rich way. Again, you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the characters are really the main focus of those scenes.
We got the cameras from the live action shoot, we got the data and we could insert those into the environment and the animators had that as a guide when they were working on paper.
Even on Roger Rabbit, they didn’t have this type of technology. When the camera moved, you’d have to draw your character moving in space, frame by frame. Now, we can draw the character in place and digitize the character and fit him into the 3D world and have him move.
We had the benefit of technology today. It involves artistry and technology.
Live action is shot with a color-graded laser. When we paint, we paint with RGB which is basic color. Rob wanted to see his live action and our animation when it was in color, mixed in dailies in a way that would work. So, we’d have to involve a color scientist from Disney and come up with a color technique that would work for Rob in dailies. No one has really ever done that before.
There are some advances with technology for this project.
We take the storyboard, an animator does rough animation and we show it to a director. He gives notes and we finish it. It goes to clean up where they do another drawing to make the characters completely clean and they’re drawn with a thin or thick line – a specific line quality. That’s a crew of about 60 people just doing the final drawings. Those are scanned and painted digitally.
The last traditionally painted film was The Little Mermaid, painted on celluloid. Rescuers Down Under was the first digitally painted feature film.
It saves time and room, you don’t have a room full of celluloid. But, we do have traditional painters who had worked on celluloid who transferred to digital. We had a crew of about 14.
We had a crew who drew the environment and then they paint the background digitally. The computer modelers take the artwork and project it on to the models. Then you have the compositors who take all the artwork – the scanned paintings, the animation, the environment and they put it all together with the effects. All these little teams around the studio have their function, and it just all comes together with the compositing team.
The animation part takes a long time and doesn’t come together until late in the game and it’s just really magical to see it all come to fruition.