On Thursday Nov. 8, Darrin Butters, a character animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, gave a presentation on the process of 3D animation, breaking down a few specific scenes from the upcoming film “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Butters has worked in the film industry for 18 years; his first credit on a feature film was “Dinosaur” (2000), and he has gone on to work on such films as “Tangled” (2010), “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), and “Big Hero 6” (2014). In 2014, Butters received the academy award for Best Animated Feature following his work on “Frozen” (2013). He now remains hard at work with Disney, preparing for the upcoming release of “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”
Butters’ presentation began with a brief biography, detailing how he first became interested in animation. He spoke about growing up in Nebraska, and how, as a kid, he was most interested in performance, puppetry, magic, and illustration. “Computer animation,” said Butters, "was the perfect cross section of all that. Its performance-illustration and digital puppetry all coming together to create a perfect, singular illusion.” Butters spoke a bit about how, at a young age, he came across a toy cartoon player one would hold up to their eye, and by turning a crank, flip through a short animation. By stopping it one frame at a time, Butters was able to deconstruct the cartoon into its base form, inspiring him to work on his own animations. One of these earlier projects, a flipbook, he shared as part of his presentation.
Once the audience knew who he was, Butters jumped straight into what he did. “A 3D cartoon,” Butters explained, “always begins with a storyboard. That’s like a comic-book drawn from the script.” He showed us an example, presenting a few images illustrating a scene from the original “Wreck-It Ralph,” drawn in its simplest terms. The voice actors’ audio recording is then laid over the storyboard, so that all of the timing can be calculated as early as possible. This bare-bones animation is called an “animatic.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that that we animate after the audio has been recorded,” noted Butters. After they have their animatic to work off of, the character animators have one final preparatory step before they can begin the actual animation. Butters showed us a video he took of himself emoting the dialogue from the scene. Using the animatic as a guideline, he films different takes on the scene with a real-world subject, from which the director picks his favorite to be forever immortalized in the cartoon.
For the next 20 minutes, Butters showed some clips from “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” offering production anecdotes and catching us up with the story between each video. He showed us some of the concept sketches, explained the design process behind how the characters both look and move, and spoke about the most difficult and exciting challenges in creating a world within the internet. At one point he showed us a character who wore cartoonishly large glasses and explained how they decided to animate his eyes using traditional 2D methods.
At the end of his presentation Butters took questions from the audience. Mostly regarding animation, students asked him questions such as: “How many people work on one of these movies?” (about 70), “What is the process for animating background scenery?” (creating simple 3D animations that are converted into 2D, and layered like screens behind the main set), and “Has the transition from 2D to 3D made resulted in more or less work for animators?” (both).
Darrin Butters’ work can be seen in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” coming out Nov. 21, 2018.