Keith Lango

Please Note: The below interview with Keith Lango is from our old site over at Blogger, and was originally conducted on 08/07/2007.

What do you get when you come to Bleeding Pixels?

Well frankly, you don’t get much, besides an occasional sarcastic comment and any decent story I can strip from actual credible sites. However from time to time I do manage to piece together something worthwhile, as is the case with the ongoing (though never on schedule) “10 Quick” interviews.

This week is no exception, as we have one of the most respected folks in animation answering my silly questions.

Keith Lango is known around the animation industry as being someone who continues to champion the principals of traditional animation, in an attempt to keep the CG industry from falling (further?) into a rut. His online tutorials and sage-advice-filled blog are excellent resources for both aspiring animators and seasoned industry vets alike.

Take it away, Keith!

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you break into the business and get where you are now?

I started into Cg art and animation in 1994 mainly by accident. I had been doing graphic design and page layout for a while and was working at the local newspaper in Rochester NY when I got my first exposure to 3d via a co-worker who had StrataStudio Pro. I was hooked when I saw it. Shortly after that I bought my own copy of the software and I was off and running. I did mostly 3d illustration at first, then virtual environments, lots of corporate type stuff. Then I got into doing some advertising and then visualization work for an airport security training firm (that was an interesting job). All along I was developing my animation skills and I slowly transitioned into freelance character animation. I made my first short film in 1996 (it was 45 seconds long). That got me some more attention. By the time I finished my third short film “Daycare for Junior” I had developed a bit of a reputation. This was maybe 1998. In 1999 I left the world of freelance and went to work at Big Idea Production in Chicago. I worked there in all manner of roles and responsibilities in the studio for a little over 4 years. By the time I had left I’d done everything from write screenplays, animate, direct, storyboard, rig, helped architect a direct-to-video production pipeline and then remake a feature film pipeline as a CG supervisor. After the studio shut down internal production in exchange for outsourcing I moved on to Blur Studio in Los Angeles to work as an Animation Supervisor and Director. I was there for about a year and participated in a number of projects, including being a director over pre-production for their Oscar nominated short film Gopher Broke. I left there in 2004 to go to ReelFX Creative Studios in Dallas TX, where I was the animation director, as well as a director. I directed a DVD movie for Hasbro and led development on a number of other properties and projects. After a year I was getting pretty burnt out on management so I took the opportunity to step back down to be “just an animator” again and worked for a year at DNA Productions in Irving TX on their feature film project The Ant Bully. After that show wrapped the crew was laid off. Rather than head back out to the west coast to latch onto another project my wife and I decided that this would be a great opportunity to do something radically different. I had been running my Video Tutorial Service business on the side for about a year at the time so I was able to pay the bills. We decided to move down to Cuiaba’ Brazil, out in the more remote central west region of the country. Down here we are actively engaged in developing a ministry project that brings clean drinking water to remote people living along the river banks in the Pantanal region, as well as providing some medical relief and spiritual hope. We’ve been here for a little over a year and we have plans to be here a while longer. The work is very demanding, requiring a lot of trial and error and patience, but it is also very rewarding when it goes well (I almost said ‘when it goes as planned’, but it never goes as planned. God has his own plans and we just stumble into them. ;o).

Meanwhile I am still doing my monthly VTS videos for subscribers around the world as well as teaching animators directly via my Animation Personal Trainer program. Teaching is my second great joy after animating, so I am really having a blast being able to combine both into one job. It pays the bills and allows my wife and I to be here doing what we’re doing for those less fortunate.

2. Which of your work are you most proud of?

Hrmm. That’s a tough one. I can spot problems in everything I’ve done. I like to think that my best work is yet to come. While the film is loaded with technical issues I’ve always felt like my short film Evelyn was successful in communicating a story with weight. I have a lot of accomplishments that never saw the light of day at Big Idea because the studio went bankrupt. We were working on a film that I was the CG Supervisor for and it was turning out to be pretty cool. I am proud of my contributions to Gopher Broke. I took the original story treatment and turned it into a functioning film narrative. I developed the beat outline, boarded quite a lot of the show and edited the first two passes of the animatic, as well as directed the early production design to settle on the look, etc. While I didn’t get to enjoy being the director through to the end, I am proud that I was able to leave Jeff Fowler and the team at Blur in a position to succeed as well as they did.

3. What are the main tools and/or programs you use to create your work?

I have been suing Maya since version 1.0 and it’s what I still prefer to use. I’ve built up quite a library of scripts and tools that help me do things the way I like in Maya. Having said that I’ve animated professionally for various different projects or jobs in XSi, Softimage Classic, 3DS Max, Messiah, etc. If the client or studio needs me to work in a specific tool I can do that. But when it’s my choice I come back to Maya simply because I’ve invested so much into it that it’s second nature to me.

4. What’s a typical day in your life like?

Heh, I have no typical days anymore. I am a bit of a night owl so I tend to sleep in a bit. I’m usually up by 9:30, maybe some days as late as 10. I check my email, read my blogs, follow up on various communications and such. When I’m teaching an APT session I look over my students’ work that may have been submitted over night and develop a critique and instruction response for them. I then usually take time out for a home cooked Brazilian lunch with my family, drive my 5 year old boy to afternoon school and run errands with my wife. We do a lot of running around for our ministry project during the day so that takes up some time. Late afternoon I’ll hang out with my older kids (I have two teenage daughters) and see how they’re doing. Then in the evening I’ll start either working on my own projects or I’ll start recording feedback and assignment videos for my APT students. I’ll take a break for dinner or to go meet friends or head to a meeting about our ministry project sometimes. I’ll tuck my son into bed when it’s time for that, too. Then I’m usually working late into the night- about 3 or 4am usually. It’s quiet then so I can get a lot done. Weekend days are interesting because we’re often travelling into the forest along the remote rivers to either scout out people who need our water filters, or install them. We’ve driven some really rough “roads” and have gone into some pretty remote areas and seen some cool things. Life’s an adventure.

5. Who or what are some of your artistic influences?

Wow, I have a lot of various influences. My biggest influences as far as a filmmaker go are Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. I’m a huge fan of Nick Park and Aardman’s work, especially the work of Stefan Marjoram. I think Marc Craste at StudioAKA is doing amazing work, as well. Hitchcock is probably my favorite director. Earlier on in my animation career I was influenced a lot by Pixar- as was everybody, but lately I’ve been looking into new territory for inspiration. I’m falling in love with Freddy Moore’s flow, Milt Kahl’s control and Ward Kimball’s imagination, Rob Scribner’s bravery, Tim Tyer’s insanity. Personally I owe a ton of thanks to some great animators that I’ve worked with or under. Tom Bancroft, Tim Hodge, Andres Dejas, Eric Leighton, Ken Duncan to name a few. I learned a ton about animation from those guys either directly, indirectly or even by their written notes on my submitted scenes. Then there are my peers, guys who grew up as animators at the same time I did. Mark Behm comes immediately to mind, we’ve worked together a few times in various studios and we still stay in touch and share ideas.

6. Would you say that you’re a 3D artist who dabbles in 2D from time to time, or a 2D artist who happens to work in 3D?

I’m a 3d artist who is desperately trying to express a 2d aesthetic in his 3d work. I am not a gifted draughtsman or painter. Anything I do with a pencil or a brush is a major battle. I persists in it because there is great reward, but I persist so that I can make my 3d work better. I want my CG work to have a very strong foundation in the hand drawn and classical aesthetic.

7. What are 3 of the best things about your job, and what are 3 of the worst?

Best? Freedom. Flexibility. Exploration. Worst? Hmm. The computer. The computer and the computer. Heheh. It really is an infernal beast, but it’s one I know how to use. So I have a love-hate relationship with CG in general.

8. You have so much great advice on your website, but if you had to pick one key piece of advice for aspiring animators to follow, what would it be?

Open up your mind to the possibilities of what animation can be. So much of animation today- especially in CG- is stuck in a literlalist rut. As a generation of animators we’re losing our imagination and we’re content to mimic or slightly stylize the real world in a pretty literal way. We have a lot of proficient technicians in the industry today, but I am afraid we’re desperately short of animators who grasp the full power of what animation can do.

9. What do you see as the biggest hurdle for the animation industry to overcome in the next 5-10 years?

I think the steamroller of literalism has been set in motion and it will continue to crowd out other style voices. The mo-cap films are going to continue to grow in influence and keyframe animation is going to continue its march toward trying to look like mo-cap. The good news is that for a while there will be plenty of work for people willing to do that. But if you’re a cartoon animator who loves doing something that only cartoon animation can do I’m afraid there won’t be much to choose from. I think we need to recapture a sense of fun in our work. If we can get some kind of movement away from the current motion and rigging paradigms I think we have a shot at breaking free. So if I had to be concise (which I haven’t been) I’d say that the biggest challenge to the animation industry in the next 5-10 years will be the risk of suffering from a kind of creative incestuousness like Disney suffered from in the late 90’s. You can only let your creative gene pool so shallow before the offspring start to look like monsters. 😉

10. There is always a debate that rages about motion capture, in that some say, given certain deadlines and budgets it’s the only way to go, while others feel you should NEVER use it. How do you feel about motion capture?

Well, I kinda tipped my hand in earlier questions, but I think I need to further define my previous thoughts and put them into proper context. Like any medium or style the use of mo-cap is primarily dependent upon a variety of variables. It is a valid technique with definite commercial and artistic value. As a CG Supervisor I have used and recommended mo-cap. For certain projects and certain stylistic goals it is absolutely the best tool to use, no question. If a director wants to bring a specific actor into an unreal world then mo-cap is going to be used. This trend will only increase. Where I think keyframe animators sell themselves short is in the styles of motion they’re trying to animate. Much of that is dictated by their bosses, so I can’t lay it all at the animator’s feet. Still, it’s hard to deny that a lot of keyframe animators are being used to re-create a very literal style of motion in many CG film studios. It seems that instead of marking out a distinct style of motion and performance that plays into the unique strengths and abilities of hand keyed animation, many studios are employing animators in an effort to achieve a mo-cap style of motion on puppets that would work just fine for mo-cap. In my opinion you’re going to see more and more films go the way of Happy Feet or Monster House simply because that’s the style of motion that executives can understand, and apparently that audiences will accept. If you’re investing tens of millions of dollars and you want not just big name actor’s voice but big name actor’s gestures, manners and motions in your ‘cartoon’ then it only makes sense to get the real big name actors to give you that performance via a mo-cap suit than to hire an animator of questionable acting pedigree to rotoscope themselves acting out a scene with a miniDV camera. It only makes economic AND artistic sense to use mo-cap if that’s what the producers want. The problem for hand keyed animators is that there are fewer projects being made that really *need* hand keyed animation to achieve a particular style of motion in the design.

Thank you to Mr. Lango for taking the time to answer these 10 Quick questions, and for providing such a great resource for animators everywhere! For more on Keith, visit his fine website below.

Keith Lango’s Official Site

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  1. January 30, 2011 at 11:11 am

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