August 5, 2009

Interview: Hans Dastrup, Lead Animator, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

I recently teamed up with Surfer Jay to interview his brother, Hans Dastrup, a lead animator at Blue Sky Studios for such films as Robots, Horton Hears a Who!, and the Ice Age series. His latest project, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, opened in theaters last month.

Surfer Jay: How did you get hired by Blue Sky? Is it true you animated a large singing and dancing sperm to get the job?

Hans:, that is not true. There was no singing or dancing involved. Just a talking sperm quoting a line from Better Off Dead. That little sperm was my pride and joy at the time. Now it's just embarrassing.

I was hired at Blue Sky right after college. I got lucky! I first heard of Blue Sky when I saw the first Ice Age during my senior year at Cal State Fullerton. Before then, I was focusing mostly on traditional hand-drawn animation; but once I saw Ice Age, it was very clear to me what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at Blue Sky.

I spent the next few months getting my demo reel ready. An animator's demo reel consists of two to three minutes of their best work, and usually submitted on a DVD. That summer, with over 20 demo reels in hand, I went to a huge convention in Texas where all the animation studios were represented, including Blue Sky.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought at best I would get a handful of callbacks from small start-up companies. But to my surprise, my work caught the interest of Blue Sky. They called me back, I interviewed the next day, and it went great! I had one semester left before I graduated, so I spent that time animating day and night, finishing the last two animations that I submitted to Blue Sky, which sealed the deal.

FilmFather: As a lead animator, what are your roles and responsibilities?

Hans: My responsibilities are split between helping supervise other animators and animating my own shots. We have two supervisors and two leads. The supervisors often need assistance overseeing the 40-70 animators in our department (the number changes depending on the stage of production).

As a lead, people can come to me for creative advice. I'll also assist in hiring new talent, representing animation on interdepartmental issues, supervising animation and imagery for marketing, etc. I recently directed the animation on a McDonald's commercial featuring Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs characters.

It's nice being a lead. I get experience in different areas, and I still have time to do my own work as an animator.

Surfer Jay: You use to be a tan California lifeguard who spent all his time on the beach checking out chicks with your binoculars, saving lives, sporting a yearlong tan, and surfing all the time. Now, you’ve turned in your surfboard to become a desk jockey. The last time I saw you, you were whiter than my 12-month-old baby’s powdered butt, sporting a farmer tan, wearing skinny jeans, and flabby as the marshmallow man. But of course, now you are making awesome animated movies. So was turning in your lifeguard trunks and surfboard worth it?

Hans: The California beach lifestyle sucked. I hated waking up in the morning on a beautiful sunny winter day, just to ride my beach cruiser a few short blocks to the beach, hop out on my board and surf a nice NW swell with offshore wind. And as far checking out chicks on the beach, I'm married and have been for the last ten years. What hot chicks on the beach? I never noticed any. Also, I prefer to be fat and butt-white. I like the soft ivory skin look. Chicks dig it.

Even though I have missed many things that I loved back in California, it has been worth it for these last 6 1/2 years that I've been here. But I'm excited to say that we are finally coming back! I just got a job at DreamWorks and I start this November. Woohoo!!

FilmFather: Blue Sky Studios is based in Greenwich, CT (just outside New York City). What are the advantages of working on the east coast versus California (the land of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks)? Any disadvantages?

Hans: The east coast is quite different from where I grew up in southern California. The only potential advantage about working on the west coast is as an animator, you have more options in terms of employment. There are tons of studios to choose from in California. It's not quite the same on the east coast. There are not many animation jobs in feature film animation over here. Actually, there's only one: Blue Sky. But there are plenty of jobs if you want to work in commercials or kids’ television shows.

FilmFather: In your films like the new Ice Age movie, are you part of the recording sessions when the actors create their voices?

Hans: We aren't usually a part of the recording sessions, but I did have the chance to sit in on a few with Simon Pegg via satellite, as he was recording from Britain. That was very cool to see. He is a great actor! He has so much range in his voice and he's quite creative in the choices that he makes. He voiced Buck in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. I had a chance to meet Simon when he came to our studio. He sat down with me as I showed him all the work we were doing with Buck. That was a cool experience!

Surfer Jay: Your previous animation work on Ice Age: The Meltdown, Robots, and Horton Hears A Who! was spectacular. So given your talent and expertise, do you ever think about creating your own cartoon?

Hans: I've thought about that a lot. I think one day I will want to create something of my own, but as for now I am very happy doing what I'm doing. I love being involved on big feature film projects.

Surfer Jay: It’s apparent that in the Ice Age movies, you gave Crash the opossum blue eyes because you wanted him to look like you. How much creative control do you have over the characters, such as their movements and stunts, their facial expressions, and the camera angles?

Hans: I get quite a bit of creative influence over the characters’ look and performance. But the truth is, there are many people involved in creating the final product. The character's personality begins taking shape when the script and story are being developed. At that point, a character designer comes in and begins to develop what the character will look like. The character gets sculpted in clay and then built digitally in the computer.

During this design process, my input is very important. I have to make sure the design of the character is going to allow me, as animator, to achieve the performance and personality the director is looking for. If I feel something isn't going to work well, the design will need adjusting. As an animator, we concern ourselves mostly with things relating to how the character moves, how they walk, talk, run, and interact with other characters.

FilmFather: Does your work require you to be away from your wife and kids for extended lengths of time? How do you balance your work with family life?

Hans: I don't usually travel for work; once in a while, they fly us somewhere to recruit new animators. But balancing work and family life can still be difficult. For the last few years, we've been working 60+ hours a week for six months a year. During the last few months of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, it got even worse; we were working around 80 hours a week. It was insane. I definitely didn't get to spend a lot of quality time with my wife and kids. But even when I work a lot of hours, I make sure I see my kids every day. The best part of my day is playing with my two kids, Annika and Eli. They are a ton of fun!

Surfer Jay: For every movie you’ve made, you give your brothers the company shirts, which were made by and for the animators only, and not sold to the public. But I can’t help and wonder: Why don’t you send your favorite brother more free movie loot? I mean, you have access to all the character toys and posters and clothes and bobbleheads, and you don’t even send me anything. What’s up with that?

Hans: I hoard it all. I have a HUGE stockpile in my basement. One day when it's worth millions of dollars, I will sell it for an early retirement. Maybe I'll give you first dibs.

FilmFather: What's your next project?

Hans: Our next project is called Rio, which centers on a nerdy parrot who leaves the comforts of his cage in a small Minnesota town and heads to Rio de Janeiro. I'm not allowed to say much more than that.

Surfer Jay: Do you think it’s okay to mislead our kids into believing that dinosaurs are real, that llamas can talk, and wooly mammoths sound like Kermit the Frog? Okay, scratch that: How are you going to convince fathers to spend ten bucks a pop, not including popcorn and a soda, to go see your new movie?

Hans: You should take your kids to see our movie because they will learn that sloths can talk, not “llamas." And you don't buy movie popcorn and soda at the movie theater. Buy it for half the price at the nearby convenient store and smuggle into the theater. That tip just saved you ten bucks.

FilmFather: If you had to animate your brother Jay in one of your projects, what direction would you give your team?

Hans: Animating Jay would be easy. Now that he's Mr. Mom, he plays all day with his cute chubby baby, and also plays video games while his wife goes out and earns the dough. So I'd tell my animators he's good with a joystick. Not a bad gig, if you ask me.

Somehow he stays fairly muscular, even though he never exercises. He has a talent for breaking surfboards. He has a shoulder that dislocates on command. He has a really great artistic eye, and he has used that talent to become an accomplished, award-winning photographer. He's a creative writer and I'm sure will take advantage of that skill someday. And growing up, he learned how to defend himself from his four older brothers. He has a really hard left kneecap and will use it as a shield if you try to punch him in the stomach. Beware, if your fist makes contact with his knee, your knuckles will shatter into pieces. And it friggin’ hurts! Well, that's what I heard.

Surfer Jay: I’ve asked you several times to send me your rough, unfinished, top-secret animations during the making of your movies so I can post them on the net. Why don’t you ever hook a brother up?

Hans: I'll hook you up, if you promise to provide my family with free room and board while I search for a new job.

Surfer Jay: One of the really cool things about being a part of these films is that you get to have your name in the credits. Your kids’ names are also in the credits, which is also really cool. Being immortalized like that must be exciting for them. How did that happen?

Hans: All they had to do was be born during the production of one of our movies. Every film we make, we save a section at the end of the credits for the all the "production babies." It's really special. I love that our studio does that.

Surfer Jay: I remember you as a kid always acting like a cartoon character. You would sing, dance, and make goofy faces, making noises and mimicking movie characters and voices. Even now, you talk in funny character voices as if you were one. So when will you realize that you were destined to do character voices, and animating is merely a gateway to get into that? Jim Carrey’s got nothing on you. When will you start being in the movies you animate?

Hans: I'm glad you enjoyed my singing, dancing, and silly voices. I thought I was just an annoying kid. I would love to do voiceover work one day. I did have a few opportunities to do voiceover for some of our movies "in progress," but nothing I did ever made it into the final films. They hire only SAG members for that. Although, one time on Robots, my voice made it into a movie trailer. That was exciting! Honestly, it's very tough to make it as a voice actor, especially in animated films. You have to be a famous celebrity to make into feature film animation.


Anonymous said...

Way too cool!!
Be sure to remember the little people!!

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Keith said...

Great interview. That was cool to read. Hope you've had a good weekend. Cheers!

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